Democracy, Art & Critics, or, What Happens to Important Stuff If There’s No One to Call It Important?

By Flickr user jontintinjordan

Today a correspondent of mine in London pointed out that my response to Michael Kaiser’s lament for the dying critic-cum-lambaste of the Web was linked to in the Guardian theater blog’s Noises Off column. For that, as always, the entire staff of Culturebot heartily thanks you (even as we note that virtually no one clicked through the link to our site). But since this story has taken on legs of it own, percolated through the theater interwebs, and is no doubt about done generating interest, I decided to take a moment to address something I thought about while re-reading what both Andy and I wrote.

When I responded to Kaiser, I argued that the mindset he represents is, essentially, an elitist one. He’s upset that there are no critics of unassailable credibility anymore who can define work that’s worthwhile. I certainly think what I said was spot on, that really what he’s lamenting is that the cultural leveraging associated with the rise of the broad middle class in the 20th Century is ending. As a broad segment of society moved into a higher socio-economic class, they clamored for a higher level of sophistication, which was enabled by a broad array of cultural institutions–museums, regional theaters, book prizes, so on and so forth–that together curated the experience of what they defined as “culture” for the masses.

But now we’re an entertainment-oriented and highly atomized consumer society. We no longer aspire to broad shared tastes, and the institutions that supported those efforts have been suffering accordingly.

In other words, something very democratic happened: instead of the broad classes internalizing a sense of inferiority to an elite, the broad classes simply developed their own tastes and interests. Rock music, pop, film, television all became the bedrock of the shared American experience. And generally, we all agree that democratization is a good thing. The problem is that it devalues the arts. Once the middle class consumed culture–including things like theater–in emulation of the upper class; now the middle class’s tastes define culture.

This presents a problem for people like theater makers. Where does the stage actor, designer, the playwright, fit in? This is one of the problems that, in the broader theater blogosphere, I see getting hashed out all the time. How can theater be relevant? Is it an elitist art form? Who are the audiences and how do artists speak to them? (Well, I’m usually the one asking that one.) But if you’re following me at this point, you probably see where I’m going. That’s the broader theater blogosphere, populated mainly by playwrights and directors who make work they could and would like to see on a regional theater stage, or maybe a quality Off-Broadway house. Those people are worried about being elitist.

So what about us? What about the stuff we talk about at Culturebot?

We don’t even use the term “theater” that often; we talk about “multi-disciplinary performance.” As I write this, our homepage includes features on Pan Pan’s deconstruction of Hamlet, a lengthy interview about “Lecoqian performance methods,” and a defense of a show in which an old man walks around incontinent for an hour-and-some in front of a large painting of Jesus Christ. We endorse “anti-acting” while criticizing “psychological realism.” And if that wasn’t elitist, obscure, and high-arty enough, we cover contemporary dance. An often non-representational, non-narrative art form that virtually no one pretends to understand. Look, in the last year, we’ve reviewed several dance performances, featuring amazing dancers, that purported to be about nothing more than the joy of movement. And somehow we found some bad and others great. How can you have good dancers dancing for its own sake and yet somehow one is good and one is not?

I’m amazed that no one reading Andy and me calling Michael Kaiser an elitist didn’t snarkily try to complete the introduction between the pot and his good friend, the kettle. The work we support is work that is not necessarily made for broad consumption. Or at least, it’s seldom made with a mind to being accessible in the same way that mainstream work is. Now, leaving aside a few exceptions, I don’t want to suggest that the artists we cover seek to be purposefully obscure. Almost all of them believe that their work can provide a meaningful experience to even novice audiences. But it’s undeniable that at some level, they’ve chosen not to compromise their work by actively seeking to make it as broadly accessible as possible. At its best, this work wants to talk about something for which other forms, other aesthetics, simply do not work.

So the question I suppose I’m putting to myself is, how can I not share Kaiser’s outrage with the democratization of discourse when the very art forms with which this site is so concerned seem to require just that sort of authority? I don’t harbor a lot of faith that if Yelp somehow compelled Yelpers to flood shows at PS 122 or Danspace Project in order to play critic, like they do at restaurants, that the results would be pretty. You’d get dozens of people complaining about the facilities, and how incomprehensible the work was, with a few mixed-in comments about how some part of something was cool and hey, at least you got to see boobs. The percentage of people who stumbled upon something they knew nothing about and who left transformed and deeply excited about this sort of work would be small.

I honestly don’t have a good answer. Partially I’m certainly just responding to reality–the democratization of cultural discourse has already happened, so what can we do about it? Or I could point out that part of what we do here at Culturebot is attempt to de-mystify the art we cover. But I know that de-mystifying work is not enough. Adventurous people willing to subject themselves to work like this all run the risk of eventually seeing that one piece that really moves them and sucks them in, the one that despite a lack of extensive engagement with the form they “get,” that speaks to them on a deep level. But realistically, I know that the biggest barrier to work like this is a lack of literacy in its forms. The shows people instinctively “get” are few and far between; most shows wouldn’t have that affect on audiences, which means that the richnesses they do have can be completely lost. In other words, this work can be harder to digest than other fare, which means that the more engaged the audience member–the more of this sort of work they see–the more they wind up enjoying it. But you have to get them into the theaters.

So on one level, I do appreciate Kaiser’s point. Authoritative critics and a sense among the public that they needed to be familiar with this or that to be in-the-know always makes things easier. I just don’t think it’s relevant to our current moment. The real problem is, how do you engage and encourage new audiences today? Don’t you need a critic to help parse things, to point out that no matter how weird it sounds it you, you’ll probably enjoy the Rude Mech’s Method Gun or Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Romeo and Juliet or ERS’s GATZ (even though it’s seven hours long)? And if you like that, well, let’s check out Radiohole, or Forced Entertainment! And to say, yeah, I know you don’t like dance, but you should totally check out Miguel Gutierrez’s Last Meadow, it’s not what you think.

My only hope is that somehow, someway, our work helps, through the enthusiasm we show for the work that deserves it, and the various efforts we employ to get people interested, either through reading the artists explaining their processes so that the work doesn’t seem so impenetrable, or just getting to see video and images of the often breathtaking results. But I admit, it’s very tricky. Democracy is majority rule, intolerant of difference, and in a critical capacity will try to impose the broader culture’s tastes on everything it touches. That’s problematic when it gets applied to work that is inherently trying to challenge or oppose the assumptions of that broad culture.

At the very least, those of us trying to navigate these treacherous waters don’t need an overpaid arts administrator slagging us down because the process that begat us made his job harder.

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