Tuesday, December 02, 2008

arts audiences are too AFRAID

We’re all too afraid of appearing stupid. We go to arts events, but we’re tormented by the nagging fear that someone will scope out how ignorant we are.
Guy Dammann’s article in The Guardian focuses on the snobbery of the classical-music-and-opera crowd (and people's fear about clapping during the intervals between the movements of a symphony), but it applies to many other art forms as well.
(In fact, this is such a good and thought-provoking – if difficult – article that Bobo ended up more or less paraphrasing and excerpting from it as he went along.)

Can’t we just appreciate a painting, or do we have to go on and on about Neo-Post-Expressionist-Fauvism? Can’t we just enjoy a show without the damn critics telling us what we should or should not like? (Critics shouldn’t be perceived as telling, but it’s my own/their own damn fault if they are.)
People openly admit that they don’t know basic scientific facts or the name of the Secretary of the Interior – so why this fear of being thought ignorant about the arts? Because the arts are supposed to improve us, make us better — as Dammann notes:

"To be sure, art certainly does improve us, in ways more important than many suspect; but it is never less likely to achieve this effect than when self-improvement is mistaken for an improvement in the way we are seen by others."

A rising middle class will latch onto aesthetic appreciation as a marker of how refined one is; it’s a way of escaping the lower classes.
One more problem, though: aesthetic experience is completely subjective.
Of course we doubt ourselves: There’s no right or wrong. If we’re conscientious, we keep going back to the artwork, again and again, checking our perceptions, checking to see if our opinions have changed any. (Too bad that we let others’ opinions infiltrate and infect this process.)
And that’s why studying art has an ethical dimension. It forces us out of ourselves and into engaging someone else’s mind on his or her own terms; it breeds empathy. We have to keep checking back with the artwork. (*King Lear* is a very different work according to whether your age is closer to Cordelia’s, Kent’s or Lear’s.)

Dammann continues:
"But every time the self-doubt at the heart of this encounter turns to fear – every time we worry about mistaking a painting, not understanding a book, or clapping at the wrong moment during a musical performance – these responses too are included in the veneer, taking off the shine and replacing it with a harder, opaque lacquer. Slowly, revered without being respected, the works close up and darken. Audiences become consumers; critics become conservators; museums become mausoleums."

What a sad but accurate commentary on how most people and pop culture regard opera or Shakespeare or the golden era of musical comedy.

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At December 04, 2008 1:47 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I gather from your writings that you keep up with The Guardian rather religiously, but do not read The New York Times, Variety, nor even American Theatre Magazine with any regularity. Is this so, and if so, how does this effect your work as an observer, commentator and participant in our little corner of the American theatrical landscape? Would you please address these issues in a future blog posting?

-Bill Gaar

At December 04, 2008 2:16 PM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Thanks for the comment, Bill. You give me too much credit - I've never held a copy of The Guardian in my hands, ever. I'll divulge my "secret" -- since Feb. in L.A., I've been religiously reading the best arts news aggregator on the Net, artsjournal.com. I try to select what might be of use or interest to a Spokane/general theater audience, then try (not always successfully) to add some value in the way of additional comments, questions, or images. I haven't read Variety with any regularity since the '80s when my-then girlfriend was in the biz in Hollyweird. The NYT Website is great, but I'm also a so. Calif. boy who has always resented Broadway-or-nothing snobbery, so I don't get to it as much as I like. I have subscribed to Amer. Theatre mag for years; my sub may have just lapsed, because I've somehow missed a couple of issues. But artsjournal is a daily stop for me. My criterion for inclusion here is: Would it have interest or use for someone in Spokane who's committed to making more and better theater? (That's virtually all of the local theater community.) Has Bobo miscalculated? Items that don't appeal, of course, can simply be skipped over. A couple of issues back, Amer. Theatre had two good, short articles that I thought were relevant -- the critic's role and an innovative way of getting more twenty-somethings to attend theater. So I linked to those, with comments. By all means, make suggestions. Even with aggregators, none of us can read everything. Bobo would welcome your comments. Life and other writing assignments intrude too. Is the implication here: Oh, what a poorly informed theater critic? Or, he's too much of an Anglophile? Or that Bobo ought to link more systematically to the three publications you name, or what? He'd very much welcome links to other opinion pieces and your evaluations of them.
Some have voiced this opinion: Keep the blog to audition announcements and occasional reviews, nothing more, and don't do anything controversial. Others say, thanks for poring over other pubs that I don't have time for. Others say, oh, leave the high-falutin' newspapers to others; we don't have time for all that.
Is there a consensus?
Again, thanks, Bill.
P. S. My favorite Website is aldaily.com, which on rare occasions will be of use for this blog.

At December 04, 2008 2:55 PM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Funny, just now got my copy of the Dec. Amer. Theatre: articles that look esp. good include; use of media in theater; Simon McBurney and Complicite, with the Lithgow All My Sons on Broadway; the new Octavio Solis play, Lydia (he's theatricalizing Don Quixote for OSF next summer; this one's set in El Paso in the '70s, and may be the first of a trilogy); and then the p. 38 roundtable on the role of religious faith in theater, which a couple of local theater faculties ought to eat up and which Bobo's definitely interested in.
Bobo was able to talk over knishes at a deli in Westwood (just before we saw an AWFUL, awful Joan Rivers comedy at Westwood Playhouse; Bobo had forced it out of his memory, it was so execrable) with Judy Rousuck about the then-current playwriting class she was taking with Paula Vogel at Brown U. -- here's an esteemed Baltimore critic, near end of her career, re-starting and doing something she always wanted to do: namely, see if she was any good at doing the thing she had criticized in others for 30 years. So that's on p. 48.


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