Thursday, August 05, 2004

Oh Right, THOSE Guys

I've had a pretty great experience lately getting back into theater work. A new play. Some old friends to work with. Some new ones who are bright and funny. Talented, funny, and hardworking folks.

But as we drift closer to production time, and I'm drawn closer to the Fringe Festival crowd, I am unpleasantly reminded of a terribly debased view of "art" that is widely held by many within the theater community.

It smacked me in the face while browsing the Fringe Fest website. It suggested itself in the descriptions of a few of the plays. But then in this blog it jumped out and smacked me in the face (sorry, but for some reason the blog does not allow you to link to a specific post, so you may have to scroll down).

It started here:

"The Purpose of Theatre: There is a certain theatre for which I periodically work, that has a director who often tells us that our acting needs to be more didactic or less didactic. Now, by this term he means that it should be more presentational in nature. More clear to the audience. The thing is, that the word didactic doesn't mean that at all."

By this point warning lights were flashing, but no alarms sounding yet. At first I thought he was going to endorse that terrible description of didacticism as the true purpose of theater. But he wisely rejected it. Still, something told me I wasn't about to like where he was going.

"Theatre by its very nature is didactic, that is, it teaches a lesson. It gives a point of view and educates the audience about that point of view.

Notice something odd about those two statements? Like, perhaps, they don't say the same thing?

The first statement says that theater teaches a lesson. The next says that theater simply illustrates a point of view. Teaching a lesson and illustrating a point of view are not the same thing to most people. What sort of person might fail to see a difference? How about the sort of person who doesn't believe in truth. Someone whose artistic view is so saturated with moral relativism that the expression of any unfamiliar point of view must be as good as any other.

Think I'm over-reacting? Reading too much into this? Well he goes on:

"Now, why do I bring all that up? Because I want to talk about shows that fulfill the duty of theatre to be the word's real meaning. As artists we have a duty to make people think and feel and come away a better and improved human being. We shouldn't pretend that we'll accomplish that with every show we do, but if you are a theatre artist, and not just a theatre performer, then you have to be at least partially dedicated to producing art. Art needs a perspective and a point. It needs to evoke a reaction."

Now how did I know the word "truth" was not going to appear in there anywhere? The ultimate expression of art for this unfortunately representative fellow is any old perspective or point that evokes a reaction. The distinction between Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, and some performance artist smearing herself in chocolate and talking about her menstrual cycle is lost here. And that failure to be able to describe, let alone endorse, that difference is why so much art at the beginning of the 21st century is awful. Worse than awful it's corrupt. The equivalent of rotten, maggot-infested meat served on silver platters in 5 star restaurants. Worse than nothing at all, and more than a little insulting.

That being said, there is a lot of what this guy says I agree with. For example he says:

"But, when a festival promises to be on the "fringe," I look for performances that push the limits. And more importantly ones that really are art. Shows that are didactic. Show me an opinion. Stand behind it. Try to make an impact. Take a risk! Put on a show for a small budget that dares to say something important instead of just trying to cash in on a witty title."

That whole phrase could work for me, but for one minor difference. Instead of trying to simply "make an impact," why not try to be brave enough to tell an uncomfortable truth. That's a hell of a lot greater risk than simply "showing an opinion," and with that one minor change, I'm enthusiastically on board.

But I have engaged with too many folks to think that this is a simple misunderstanding. It's absolutely terrifying to them to imagine taking a position where one is forced to render judgement about truth and falsehood in art. That would make them.... judgemental!! It's a form of intolerance!! And how could they ever be certain they were right?!! They'd look foolish and maybe even bigoted if it turned out later they had chosen wrong!!

In other words, it would be a true risk. It would capture the essence of the moral dilema of Mankind in the crucible of their own performance.

Contrast that with the smug, cynical, nihilism and iconoclasm which predominates the artistic vision of the majority of the art world, and the Fringe Festival in particular. "Illustrating a point of view" is awfully safe when all points of view are equally irrelevant in your world view.

Now, all of that being said, there are real artists in the Fringe who are definitely attempting the "truth" kind of art, instead of the moral-relativism kind. Even some of those who mouth the pieties of moral relativism, secretly hold truth in high regard in their hearts. I believe it's built into human nature, so it can't be entirely extinguished.

I happen to believe to group I'm working with is one of the good ones. We may fall flat on our faces, but we're not going to do in the attempt to just make any old point of view. We're trying to say something both true and meaningful. And so it annoys me to see that real risk degraded to the level of the corrupt and artless because a cowardly and/or debased artistic view refuses to acknowledge the value of truth.

Interestingly, this little blog post was seemingly inspired by the blogger seeing Michael Moore's "Faranheit 911," a work which very neatly and unintentionally exemplifies the peril of the "illustrate a point of view" kind of art. That peril is that perhaps no one is as good at illustrating a point of view as the propagandist - one who uses art to manipulate and control. Take truth out of the equation, and silly things start to happen - like propagandists being lauded as great artists. The danger of such a thing was once so widely recognized it didn't even require defending. Yet these days it's so pervasive, one hardly knows how to begin addressing it.


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