Post from October, 2012

Artists Are Dangerous

Sunday, 28. October 2012 15:08

In her YouTube video “Why I Do Theatre,Patsy Rodenburg declares that actors are dangerous, and then goes on to remind us that some of the first people to be taken to the camps in Nazi Germany were actors. For example, cabaret performer Max Ehrlich was imprisoned, then tortured, and finally executed at Auschwitz.  She also says that all of the actors she worked with in South Africa after Apartheid had been tortured—because actors are dangerous. Tortured. All.

“This could not possibly apply to me,” you are probably thinking. “Surely all those actors were political” Not necessarily. There are and have been a number of artists who have been considered dangerous by their governments, and it does not seem that being politically active is the criterion by which such things are judged. Consider the diversity and politics of these artists who were either exiled or executed by their governments:  the Roman poet Ovid, the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, the Spanish poet/playwright Frederico García Lorca. You will note that the work of some of these is completely apolitical.  And currently, the Chinese government considers painter/sculptor/installation artist Ai Weiwei to be a threat.  

Sometimes the artists themselves are not targeted, but their works are. The list of books, poetry, music, plays, paintings, and sculptures that have been banned is long and varied. Usually there are specific reasons for banning works of art, but they all boil down to the same thing: the fear that audience members will somehow be contaminated by the offending work. The range of reasons is enormous and borders on the irrational. The works banned and the reasons are so extensive, there are even entire college courses on the subject. But regardless of the reasons, one must assume that the reason art works are banned is because someone with influence considers them dangerous to some segment of the population. By extension the creators of such work must also be dangerous. 

They’re just artists; why would anyone consider them dangerous?

Not long ago I was on a hiring committee for an art instructor.  One of my standard questions for potential hires in the arts is, “given the current political climate and constantly-looming budget cuts, why is it important that we teach art?” Never are two answers the same, and often they provide insight into the person interviewing. One of the applicants for this latest position gave an answer that I had never heard before. He said that art teaches a different way to think about the world. Then he went on to say that politicians sometimes prefer that we think the way we are told rather than approach the world with an artistic outlook. How did he arrive at such an opinion? Perhaps it was by growing up in a small South American country, where, it seems, art really matters.

His view is certainly not typical of the US. We have a different view of art here. As Stephen Colbert, an artist himself, says, “In America, we know to ignore artists if they’re serious in any way.” Colbert’s comment seems an accurate representation of the view of many Americans. Because of that, many of us, particularly those of us whose work is devoid of anything overtly political, have seldom thought of our work as having dangerous potential. Perhaps it would be well for us to take the time to acknowledge the power that we possess and to recognize that we too might be dangerous.

Category:Audience, Creativity, Criticism | Comment (0) | Author:

The Artist’s Ego

Monday, 15. October 2012 0:35

Scratch an artist and, in a great number of cases, you will find self-doubt and insecurity. This is far different from the image of the artist that circulates in the media, that of an arrogant, conceited, individual who is sure that his/her vision of the world is the only correct one. As Jon Pareles has said in the New York Times, “Artists are… stubborn egomaniacs who are mysteriously – and sometimes correctly – certain that the world needs to know all about the figments of their imaginations and who gear their lives to getting those figments into circulation.

In theatre we spend a good deal of time encouraging egotistical behavior. It is necessary to an actor’s survival.  First comes the audition, where actors have to adopt the attitude, “you can’t possibly do this show without me.” And then, once cast, their job is, in part, to say to the audience, “look at me; look at me.” This done correctly we call presence, and we applaud those who have it.

At the same time we try moderate overweening egotism on the part of any theatre artist. No actor or director or designer works alone. Theatre is a collaborative effort, and nothing is more off-putting than the performer who “believes his own press,” who is sure that he/she is superior to those with whom he/she works. This behavior is particularly repugnant in actors (or any other artists) who think they know more than they actually do and want to trumpet their superiority to the world.

What can be said of actors can be said equally of any artist, collaborative or not. Many less-secure artists have been advised by friends and colleagues to “put it out there” in order to make their work better-known and achieve sales. At the same time we all know artists who are certain that they are the most creative person to walk the planet and whose work is far superior to anything that has come before or will come in the future, and who will tell you so at any opportunity.

There is no doubt that to make art and show it to an audience requires ego. You have to have that “look at what I made” mentality. Unfortunately, this often leads to “what I made is the finest thing that was ever made and I am the finest maker who ever was.” Sometimes this is a case of self-confidence gone out of control. Other times it’s an attempt to conceal a deep-seated insecurity and anxiety. Regardless of the causes, such an attitude can diminish the audience’s respect not only for the artist but for his/her work.

The working artist needs need self-confidence tempered with a healthy dash of humility. This is not just about how we are perceived; it’s about an approach that keeps us focused on our work instead of on ourselves. We must overcome our insecurities in order to create and display our work with confidence and, at the same time, remember that too much pride can get in the way of creating the very work of which we are so proud. We must remember that both ends of the ego spectrum are about ourselves and not about our art, and take steps to avoid those extremes. As Ram Dass has said, “the Ego is an exquisite instrument. Enjoy it, use it – just don’t get lost in it.”

Category:Creativity, Theatre | Comments (2) | Author:

Truth: A Necessity for Good Art

Sunday, 7. October 2012 23:40

Not long ago, a friend sent me a link to a YouTube video entitled “Why I Do Theatre,” which is a brief talk by Patsy Rodenburg. It is a must-see for anyone involved in theatre. Actually, it is a must-see for anyone who makes any kind of art. Rodenburg has packed so many ideas into this six and three-quarter minute video that it will likely become a source for several other posts. But her main point is that she does theatre because theatre allows actors (and playwrights) to tell the truth, whether the audience likes it or not, and that is worth doing.

Not only do actors and playwrights get to tell the truth, but so do painters, and poets, and photographers, and dancers, and sculptors, and writers. So do we all in the arts, if we are brave enough to not care whether the audience likes us or not, and actually put the truth as we know it on the paper, into the sculpting medium, on the stage, on the dance floor, into the film, on the canvas, into the music.

This seems obvious for photojournalists— at least the good ones—as any display of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs will attest. This is also true of their counterparts who work with words. But what about the rest of us who deal in works of drama, or fiction, or non-realism? How do we present the truth? The answer, of course, is that we wrap it up inside our fiction or whatever it is that we create and present it to our audience and hope that they see it.

This is the case with the actress that Rodenburg discusses who “made a sound” that was bitterly truthful and impactful—in a production of a fictional 2400-year-old tragedy. It does not matter that a play (or any art work) is fictional; it matters that the emotions and feeling and ideas that it contains are truthful and portrayed in a way that communicates that truth.

This idea of presenting the truth inside a fiction has been put forward by all sorts of artists from Stephen King to Pablo Picasso. King said Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.” Picasso’s statement is a little more complex: “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.

Aside from the problem of developing the techniques to persuade others of the truthfulness of our work, there are two problems in putting truth into what we do as artists. One has already been mentioned; it is the knowledge that if we are truthful, some in our audience may not like us. Many artists equate being liked with sales and so will do nearly anything to make that happen. Perhaps they have forgotten why they got into art in the first place. Or, as I have said before, perhaps they just have not found their tribes yet. It seems to me that for the serious artist, being appreciated is far superior to being liked.

The second problem is that in order to put the truth into our work, we have to recognize the truth, and that can be very uncomfortable. Sometimes, we have to recognize the truth in ourselves, and to integrate that into our work we may have to expose ourselves. That can be even more uncomfortable. It can cause a disquiet that many of us would rather do without. But then again, I can’t think of anyone I know who became a serious artist because he/she thought it would be comfortable.

Art does not have to embody the truth, but probably all meaningful art does in one way or another. Some think that truth is one of the things that makes good art good. But incorporating truth in our work may not be the easiest thing we ever do. As Hazel Dooney points out, “Art is not truth. But it is more powerful when it is based on truth, especially the truths we find most discomforting.

Category:Audience, Communication, Creativity | Comments (1) | Author: