Jean-Louis FABIANI, Popular education and theatre. Avignon's audience in action, Presse Universitaire de Grenoble, 2008

This book begins with the expression of disappointment. Jean-Louis Fabiani, who started his research in cultural sociology thirty years ago, is convinced that the way pieces of work are received is vital.

And yet, this field has barely been studied in sociology so far. For a long time, sociology has disregarded a core issue : the nature of esthetical experience. In order to try to answer this question, sociologists must conduct ethnographic surveys.

Fabiani relates the result of the survey in this work. He and his colleagues dedicated themselves to systematic observations of the debates that were organized by the CEMEA (Centres d'Entrainement aux Méthodes d'Education Active) during Festival d'Avignon in 2005. This year was particularly troubled by a smear compagne towards the programming. This was emphasized by Jan Favre, guest of honnor ,who strongly opposed to it. The whole turmoil was covered and accentuated by some newspapers.

The survey dealt with eight debates that were organized by people at the head of the CEMEA (« Centre d'entraînement aux méthodes d'éducation active », i.e. Training centers for active education methods.)

Some artists that belonged to the programming attended. This was completed with the debates analysis that were lead by the newspaper Le Monde and La Maison Jean Vilar.


As an introduction, Fabiani mentions the particular links that exist between popular education and the Festival d'Avignon. Since the « Front Populaire », theatre has been a vital element of a policy that sought to democratize culture and contribute to educate autonomous and witted citizens.

This ideal was defended by popular education organizations such as the CEMEA which was created in 1937. The latter advocates an active method for education and aims to transform institutions and its environment, through people's actions.

CEMEAs developed their actions after WWII. However, after 1969, this movement suffered from a crises because social work expanded and leisure diversified. Nevertheless, it managed to adjust to this new context and organized internships that improved thanks to researches and meetings. Nowadays, the movement includes 4000 members -teachers and social workers are the two main professional groups that are involved.

According to Jean Vilar, Le Festival d'Avignon's guiding line has been in harmony with the ideal that CEMEAs defended from the very beginning.


For the 20 first years, the festival meant to be esthetically cautious in order to gather a diverse audience. It aimed to enable the audience to participate, make judgements on ethics and aesthetics by making a parallel between citizens and audience.

The debates that were organizez by the CEMEAs with the artists are deeply fit into this perspective. Nevertheless, many causes contributed to depreciative this kind of collective action.


First, the idea that theatre could gather people of the civil community was challenged by the reality of facts. « One of this century's the biggest cultural misunderstandings is due to the myth of the « popular audience ». According to Fabiani, this myth constitues a methodological fiction that aims to guarantee a new autonomy to the artists. Fabiani also suggests that the history of culture corresponds to the increase of artists'empowerment and self-assertion. (P;156).

Arguments about a « popular audience » mostly took part in the artistic field's disagreements. In reality, the aim of audience increase wasthe most efficient machine that could discipline bodies, by channelling and homogenizing aesthetic pleasure. Public theatre did not merely fail to attract popular classes, it was also the most remarkable failure among other cultural fields. Jean-Louis Fabiani underlines the fact that « among the diverse established cultural forms, theatre is probably the one who selects the most its audience according to its social profile. In France, the members of the audience are richer, more educated, older and more parisian at the theatre than at other kinds of shows ». (p.24)

Second, popular education was penalized because of the Ministers of Culture presuppositions. The 1st one, André Malraux, assumed that everyone could enjoy a direct and close access to masterpieces (the theme of communion with the masterpiece). This increased the official gap that existed between artistic creations and cultural actions. That is the reason why non profit orhanizations that dealt with popular education were put in the care of National Education. During the 80's, Jack Lang substituted the masterpiece ideology to an « ideology of creation which did not leave more room to mediation or popular education as the latter was impossible during the individualistic 80's. » (p.48)

The last cause that is worth mentionning is the fact that journalists and university professors « have progressively monopolize the debates that were intergral parts in Avignon. » Fabiani reckons that « professional points of view and their logic fundamentally oppose to the fundating ideology of new education (9). In fact the latter gives prioriy to an active relationship between what is taught and the audience (according to the « member of audience citizen ideal »)

These remarks enable to estimate both the importance and the limits of the debates that were organized in 2005 by the CEMEAs during the Festival d'Avignon.

The legacy of the past is remarkable in Avignon because informal debates and talks are almost as important as performances. The CEMEA's members belong to middle classes of public sector. There is alos a majority of women among the audience (70% in total). These talks analysis show that only a minority of the audience speaks in the microphone, although many of them react. The audience attemps to limit the power of the leader's debate, while expressing a strong loyalty towards the artists.

The survey underlines the fact that « understanding constitutes the talks' driving force, even if it is not claimed » (p. 111). The audience insist on what they feel, which is a way of affirming the independence of their aesthetical pleasure from the artist's intentions. Nevertheless, they want to understand the artist's intentions. On the contrary, the latter emphasizes the idea that lack of undertanding is a part of their work, rejects all kind of political interpretations and ask to be evaluated on aesthetical terms. However, by asserting that the audience are the masters of their own judgements, the way the artists react show they seek to keep some control over interpretation. « The piece of art rarely gives room for multiple interpretations »(P;125). This issue reveals the limits of participatory democracy, which gives importance to the « creators »' symblic authorities. 

Another important part of this book is the approach it advocates. While maintaing the necessary distance of scholar research, Jean Luis Fabiani advocates « the conceptual and methodological empowerment of critical sociology for the latter to be seized by cultural actors. He also adds : « I have never quit objectification and I intend to put appart my statuses of citizen and activist. However, when I am on the field, I do not want to hide that I believe that developping democratic forms in public debate is vital. Moreover, culture must remain an essential and public matter. (p,17). These statements are fully approved by our Collective.