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Arts Awards – Really About Excellence?

Sunday, 19. June 2011 23:59

In a conversation about the Tony Awards this week, someone said, “I expected you would blog about it.” It had never occurred to me to write about the Tonys. It’s not that I don’t care about Broadway, it’s just that I don’t have much to say about them. I do not see much New York theatre, so I can’t really comment on the comparative quality of the shows. I didn’t watch the awards live, so I can’t comment on the show itself, except those portions I watched on You Tube.

What I can comment on is the idea of awards in the arts. How can you be against recognition of excellence—if that’s what the awards are? And there are some: the Pulitzer Prize comes to mind. As does the Booker Prize, and, of course, the Nobel Prize. But then there are those awards that come with nationally televised presentations and lots of advertising: the Tonys and certainly the Academy Awards.

Unfortunately these sorts of awards are subject to heavy campaigning in the media. This, of course, has to do with the privilege of being able to put “Winner of x number of some kind of award” in the advertising for the play or the movie in question. So the awards become something other than recognition of excellence.

Now I am not naïve enough to presume that no politics enter into deciding the awards in other arts, but it seems to me that they are less subject to advertising and activism. At least the jockeying for prizes, if there is such, is much better concealed from the public.

What I object to about such awards is not that they are used for financial gain. Film and theatre are, after all, produced in order to make money. Hopefully there is some art along the way, but the ultimate goal is financial, and awards help producers reach that goal. What I do object to is that heavily publicized awards seem to turn their respective arts into contests; that is what art is not.

The result of the most recent contest is that The Book of the Mormon and War Horse have become more marketable commodities. However winning multiple Tony Awards did not cause them to become suddenly more accessible as works of art. The upside is that more people now know about the productions, and potentially more people will see them. The downside is that the publicity will attract detractors and uninformed criticism, some of which will be the result of attendance by those who are not ready for the art of these two shows.

The role of the audience in any theatrical production (or any art) is not completely passive. You have to bring something to it, if you are to fully enjoy it. And often the more you can bring, the richer will be your experience.

Art is not easy. It seems that the better the art is, the more that is required from the viewer, and the less appeal to a mass audience it has. Many artists work very hard to make their meanings clear. Some artists, on the other hand, work very hard at making meanings obscure and allusions oblique. Neither approach guarantees the intended audience will appreciate that meaning or its expression. Neither does the winning of awards.

It may be elitist, but it is true that to be able to access to the very best art, one must have some education and background. This is hardly the case with mass-marketable commodities, which is what the highly publicized awards attempt to create.

Unfortunately for those trying to commoditize it, art is difficult. And worth it.

Category:Quality, Theatre | Comments (2) | Autor:

The Most Beautiful Part of the Picture is the Frame

Monday, 13. June 2011 0:00

G. K. Chesterton said, “Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.” Frame has a number of meanings, but they all carry with them the idea of limitation.

First, of course, is the literal meaning of frame. Look at frameless images of paintings on the internet or in books and then examine the same paintings framed and hanging in a museum.  Aside from the difference of being in the presence of the real thing, you will find that the framed image actually looks different from the unframed one.

The impact of framing can be seen in something as simple as deciding what mat board and frame to put around a print. The mat and the frame so modify the image that many fine art photographers and print-makers demand only white mats and the simplest frames surround their images. For the same reason, many contemporary painters show their work sans frame.

The second meaning has to do with what is included within the boundaries of an image. Photographer Gary Winogrand said, “Photography is about finding out what can happen in the frame. When you put 4 edges around some facts, you change those facts.John Sexton also talked about edges: “And then as I frequently do, some times I’ll peek out from underneath the focusing cloth and just look around the edges of the frame that I’m not seeing, see if there’s something that should be adjusted in terms of changing the camera position.

This notion applies not only to still photography. Martin Scorsese has said, “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” And that is the essence of the matter for all arts. What is incorporated and what is left out determine what the art work is and what the art work is about. So framing is really editing: deciding what is to be included and what is to be excluded. It is a problem with which every artist is familiar, and perhaps one of the more difficult things to do in any art.

And third there is the idea of frame meaning the framework or the structure of the piece. Organizing the information of the artwork into a structure alters the facts of the art work. Again, as Winogrand commented, “putting four edges around a collection of information or facts transforms it.”

We can see this in nearly every art. The “wrapping,” the form of the piece transforms and controls the content of the piece. The ideas contained in some of Shakespeare’s sonnets is also are also found in some of his plays, but how different the experiences of reading a sonnet and watching a play are.

This is true even within a genre; one can find many different poets who tackle the same subjects, yet organize their poetry into different formats, which, in turn, modifies the meaning, creating unique experiences for their readers. Compare any of the first-person novels of Kazuo Ishiguro and the first-person novel The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen. Yes, there is a difference in material, but, more importantly, there is a great difference in the framing of the novels in question. Consequently, the novels impact the reader in very different ways.

Even a thing as simple as deciding where to put the act breaks in a play can significantly change the experience, if not the meaning of the play. Ask any producer who has tried to squeeze a three-act play into two acts with a single intermission.

So the issue of frames becomes not only how a piece of art is framed and the nature of that frame, but what the artist puts in and what he/she leaves out of the piece. And it also includes how that material is arranged and formatted. It’s an area of art that is discussed very little, but one that should be.


Category:Creativity, Photography, Theatre | Comments (2) | Autor:

All Art is Censored Art

Sunday, 13. February 2011 23:14

Censorship has been a big topic lately in the art world. First there was the situation at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery involving a 4 minute portion of a film by David Wojnarowicz and the disapproval of the religious right.  Martin E. Sullivan, the museum’s director said that the offending film was removed in order to protect the rest of the exhibit. Then in Los Angeles, there was the whitewashing of the wall art of the Italian street artist Blu instigated not by any political body, but by the curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art who said that the art in question was insensitive, given its proximity to a VA hospital and war memorial.

In both instances the reasons given were not accepted by bloggers and pundits. Cries of “No censorship!” were heard throughout the land. Instead of being swayed by the opinions of the internet writers, I tried instead to gather the facts and decide if the logic put forward by curators was valid.  Would the wall in Los Angeles really have offended veterans and their families? Would that have been a bad thing, or does that matter? Did removing Wojnarowicz’s piece from Hide/Seek in Washington really save the rest of the exhibit from further censorship?  Was it worth it? There is really no way to know.

Theatrical producers have always made these sorts of judgments: if they exceed the audience’s expectation by too much or fall short of audience expectation by too much, ticket sales dwindle, so producers bring to the stage plays that fall into that “acceptable” range of audience appeal.

The American film industry followed suit over a century ago, and chose self-censorship as the best option available. The MPPC, through its National Board of Censorship decided that if the movie industry could successfully censor itself, the government would not. They were right.

There are other examples.  Galleries and museums hire curators to decide what to collect and display and what not. That’s what curators do, and unless there is public controversy, they do it quietly and efficiently, and sometimes artfully. This is nothing more than institutional censorship in the person of the curator.

Sometimes, however, outside influences intervene; Cynthia Freeland in her book, Is it Art? notes, “But if a corporation is funding an exhibit, museum directors and curators may feel restricted in what kinds or art can and cannot be shown.”  We all know this, but it’s the way art is exhibited, so we say nothing.

Editing is used to shape the final version of the story, novel, poem, collection of images. This, you say, is not censorship; this is editing; it’s different. But is it? Editing, by definition, includes “selection…correction…and other modification,” deciding what to leave in, what to leave out. It’s just curation on a smaller scale.

Even before our work gets to an editor, we self-edit, that is we self-censor. We decide which images to show and which to throw away. We censor ourselves for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes those reasons can be less than artistic: “That won’t sell.” “This is not representative of the niche I am trying to establish.” “This will confuse potential collectors.” Sometimes there are other issues; consider Charles Darwin: “It took him a long time to publish his ideas, mainly because he was afraid of being attacked as an atheist.”

Some would argue that we should be afraid of nothing, that we should eschew self-censorship as much as outside censorship. I have to disagree. Not all of our product is of the highest quality. We must edit our output in order to exhibit only what we deem worthy of show. Self-censorship is part of the artistic process; it helps define who we are as artists. Indeed, self-censorship is the only valid censorship.

Category:Creativity, Photography, Theatre | Comments (1) | Autor:

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