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Sorry, but how important is art?

June 24, 2011

So, a dance company performs at Sadler’s Wells. There is a lot of nudity and some of the dancers crawl over the audience. The Daily Mail publishes an appalled article claiming that such things are ‘an assault on our values’. The writer claims that there is no need for nudity because it’s not attractive. He seems to think that the only possible point to nudity is that it is about sex. He proudly sniggers that when he reviewed Jerry Hall performing naked, he pointed out how disappointing her breasts were to him. Apparently ‘our values’ consist of the sneering objectification of human bodies by self-appointed arbiters of sexual attractiveness.

The arrogant blindness of the journalist in this case is precisely why it is a good idea for artists to suggest we look afresh at the diversity of the body. When they do so, the result is an angry article about ‘taxpayers money being spent on filth’. There may be questions in Parliament….

Ai Wei Wei asks that we look beyond ‘economic convenience’ to see the complexity of modern China and the price that Chinese people pay for the exporting of prosperity to the West. The authorities arrest him. The Belorussian Free Theatre suffer continual harassment. And on and on and on. “The Romans in Britain’ was prosecuted. The Open Theater was closed….

Art and artists must be pretty important huh?

But it’s all just show business isn’t it? We’re just here to entertain. We are not expected to take ourselves or our work too seriously because it’s not like it’s as important as schools, hospitals, armies. Money spent on ‘a play’ when there are hospital wards being closed….?

I mean art and artists are not very important are they? We are entertainers who occasionally make people think – but not too hard and not about nasty things….

How important is art? And who decides how important it is?

Of course the state decides what it funds and what it ignores, what it promotes as part of its ‘national culture’ and what it prosecutes and condemns. Educational authorities and ‘experts’ decide what is and is not worthy of attention. Newspapers decide what to review. Is it these things that make art important?

As an improvisor I perform all over the world. In every city I have been to, from Melbourne to Mexico to Mytlini, I find an audience. It’s not a big audience, but there is an audience. Is that work important? To them? To the ones who don’t come along but hear about it and wish they had? To anyone?

Is it important that I make ‘Echo Chamber’, pay for it from my own money, perform it to small audiences because I cannot afford to employ anyone to promote it and cannot afford to document it so that it will sell to wider audiences in future years? Does it matter if I give up?

If we want to know if our work is important it is to ourselves that we must turn. What we do is important if – and only if – we make it so. Playing Hamlet is an engagement with a profound piece of writing or it is pretending to be a dead Dane. It depends on the seriousness of intention of the artist (which is not the same as the seriousness of execution – I am suggesting we need to take our work deadly seriously but, simultaneously, treat it very lightly).

First I, the artist, must make my work important to me. Then I must hope that each member of an audience decides for him or herself whether my work is important to them. And the condemnation or praise of the media, the state, the ‘experts’ is not a part of that negotiation – it happens between artist and audience. (Of course there is knotty question of how to bring artist and audience together. I’m a good artist and a crap self-publicist, which is a shame, it’s much more profitable (if one can’t be both) to be a crap artist but a good self-publicist…)

In my last post I wrote of Peter Brook remembering seeing a clown making his performance absolutely ‘real’ in post-war Berlin by talking of imaginary food to a hungry audience. One of the truisms of politics is that Governments pacify their populations through the provision of ‘Bread and Circuses’ – deal with basic needs (bread) then distract the people (circuses). Brook talks about what happens when, in the circus, the artist asks us to consider the reality of bread…. That seems quite important to me, though not always what the authorities would like us to be doing….

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