Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Friday, December 01, 2006

Why people think art is elitist

So a couple of months ago on MySpace (where I also have this blog . . .) I wrote this:

My Theatre History seminar this semester is focused on political modernity and there's a lot of talk about attitudes toward "modern" life and aesthetics, which I want to talk about with you, along with my thoughts on some Fringe Festival pieces I saw this summer and also my experiences at the ATHE conference in Chicago (Association for Theatre in Higher Education).

I now actually don't remember as much about political modernity and modern life that I meant to talk about it. I think it might have been about the alienated life of urban areas vs. the anonymity it offers to reinvent yourself. I might after the semester is over go over my notes, because I know that I really DO want to revisit some of these ideas.

But for now, while I'm avoid writing my paper--and I really don't know why, because I'm writing on Djuna Barnes & the refusal of sentimentality in a feminist/liberatory theatre in contrast to the political uses of melodrama (ha!)--so it's an interesting topic--but yet, here I am dinking on MySpace, and on several of My spaces no less, rather than writing the paper, and since I'm doing that, it seems an opportune moment to revisit the topic on why people think art is elitist and of course I can justify this by saying that I'm "warming up" to write and warming up my brain to think and maybe that's not entirely wrong because maybe I try too much to jump in and not enough to warm up like an athlete who always runs marathons without stretching and then wondering why they get charley horses and here I am all the time with these brain freeze mental charley horses so hmmmmm maybe it's not a rationalization at all or maybe I'm just rationalizing my rationalizations.

It's hard to unravel your motiviations sometimes.

But I digress.

But aren't digressions ocassionally fun? Isn't the climax often anti-climactic?

So over the summer two events within a week of each other. At the Minnesota Fringe Festival, a very popular local performer revived his impression of a blue collar worker who likes to do modern dance. Of course, the guy had on plaid and one of those hats with the flaps on it and stood all slouchy with a stupid look on his face and that dumb guy voice and his "hobbies" were wildcat strikes and marrying his sister and then something ultra conservative too, which was interesting because really, most union folks, people apt to go on strike, are very liberally-oriented. I come from Illinois which is, or rather was, a huge working class state with a lot of factories and is also one of the most liberal states out there, except for maybe New York. It went way more liberal than Minnesota in the last election. And I watched these people get screwed in the 1980s with the farm crisis, which threw International Harvester completely out of business and made places like Caterpillar tractor have to turn to more and more defense contracts to survive and watched people pack up and move across the country for jobs and break up communities and lose their medical benefits and struggle to support themselves. And even if I don't always agree with the life choices or the opinions or politics of everyone in these situations, they are certainly people who deserve a great deal more dignity than what this kind of portrayal offers. And then of course the big joke at the end is that this man likes to do modern dance -- and then does a ridiculous modern dance.

But how much more pathos AND humor could you get from the situation if he actually did have some dignity, was a decent honest person, perhaps a little afraid of what his friends would think if he admitted in the factory or the office or the garage that he liked modern dance and then gave them a demonstration that was not ridiculous, but possibly awkward, maybe with some good moves and some clumsiness.

When middle class, university educated artists get up and make fun of ordinary people, at the same time performing for a giant room full of other people who think exactly like they (the artists) think, and who share this kind of elitist attitude, is there any wonder that these folks (the ones being mocked) think that we are elitist and out of touch and don't care about them and is it any wonder that they are easily talked into not funding art and into believing that art is all degenerate and out to destroy them and their values, when in reality most of us PROFESS to wanting to have dialogues on society and culture and what should change and how to challenge normative values that constrain us, but the way we do it is by mocking individuals who work hard and do their best and who could and would benefit the most by access to art. I say that as an artist committed to the surrealist idea of the liberation of the imagination and who more needs their imaginations liberated than those stuck in jobs and situations that don't stimulate imaginations, that don't warm up their brains, that don't give them a chance to think outside of the everyday? I don't think it's because we do work they don't understand. I think it's because we either talk down to them or ignore them altogether as being unable to understand.

In that regard I applaud people like Mark Nowak who apparently does art and writing projects with and for people who work in factories. THAT is walking the walk in a way that most of us who like to perform for like-minded audiences who "get" what we do without having to explain it all to them, don't ever do. When Daniella Gioseffi, New York poet and editor of Women on War, complains that no one ever reads poetry, my response is that no one EVER read poetry, that it was always first and foremost an oral form that was transmitted through speech not through paper and that's only been in the past 100 or 200 years that it was more of a published written form and if you really want to "reach the masses" get your ass out of the bookstore and out of the coffee shop and into the park and into the street and go where people go and quit whining about how stupid they are.

The second experience . . . at long last . . . was at ATHE--the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. And once again, the boring old saw was presented about taking children to the theatre (for their own edification, but ostensibly for, as one of my friends pointed out, building an audience for the future of theatre, which really means for often deadly regional theatre and bourgeois theatre, let's face it) and how important it is to "educate" people--not just children, but all people--on how to be "good spectators" at the theatre. That is so classist I just want to throw up. Frankly, this is a culture built COMPLETELY on spectatorship and people in this society, if anything, need to be taught how NOT to be passive spectators--of media, of film, of drama. How much do we complain that our children are fat because they sit on their asses watching television? I will acknowledge that people talk too much at movies and maybe in general, and don't know how to stop listening to the sound of their own voices talking into cell phones and talking on the bus and whatever. But frankly, this argument has been around long long before the cell phone, for example, and people don't need to be educated any more on how to see theatre than they do on how to be considerate at the movies or sitting in class. The idea that somehow theatre itself is higher than all that and requires educating, or that someone going to theatre for the first time is too stupid and lowbrow to figure out how to be a spectator is absurd and ridiculous and insulting and it's time we put that phrase completely to rest.

I will acknowledge that if you are doing avant garde work that totally breaks convention and is confusing, you may want to bring your audience along with you and help them understand your method or expectations or how they should view this differently than everything else. But even then, I personally think there's something to be said for a healthy sense of confusion and befuddlement as well and allowing your audience to wrestle with your work. The story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, and even winning--taking on a semi-divine being, the gaining of consciousness through wrestling with something or someone alien, etc.--comes to mind, and while I believe in a sacredness to art to be sure, comparing the art piece to a semi-divine being itself even feels wrong to me, making it still too lofty and out of reach of the ordinary, so there's something subtle but important that I'm saying badly here. But I hope you all get the idea.




Lyle Daggett said...

Much here that has set me thinking and rethinking, as always when I read comments on this whole subject. A few things that float to the surface for me at the moment:

Muriel Rukeyser's remarks in her prose book The Life of Poetry, to the effect that the difference between art and entertainment (she said "arts of amusement" where we would probably say "entertainment" these days) is that art tries to get you to concentrate on what it's bringing to you, and entertainment tries to distract you from what it's not bringing to you.

The notion that people who aren't necessarily professional artists (maybe a more precise way to describe "ordinary people" in this context) need to be educated by theatre, or can't understand (without help) what's going on in a theatre performance, it ridiculous on the face of it. Everybody does theatre. Children playing house, pretending to be animals, pretending to be whatever, are doing theatre. Walking around in Halloween costumes is doing theatre. It's been with us all our lives.

Involving the audience is one of the easiest things in the world to do, if you create the slightest opening. Consider any good rock music concert, any good stand-up comedy act.

It could be argued that some types of creative work (or, rather, the fruits of that work) might require greater concentration than others on the part of the reader/viewer/listener in order to appreciate them fully. It's possible to sit in a bar or coffeehouse and listen casually to music, or to look around casually noticing the paintings or photographs on the walls or people dancing, maybe while talking with a friend, and nevertheless get something of the effect of the sounds and pictures and movements. It's harder to listen *casually* to someone reading a poem, or to a live theatre performance, or a movie -- and particularly hard to talk through them -- and still get much of what those works might be conveying.

To people who say (like Daniela Gioseffi in your example) that nobody reads poetry, I say "Publish different poetry. Publish poetry that gives any evidence that the poet actually intended (or even hoped) that it might in fact be read." If poetry (or any other creative work) exhibits mainly qualities that suggest that it's talking mostly to itself, probably a potential audience will be less likely to listen.

No neat conclusions here, just some stuff off the top of my head. Liked reading this.

Kingtut said...

what do you think of these poems?