Howard Stein, one of the great theatre teachers, used to begin an advanced seminar standing next to a large stack of plays. One by one, he would hold up a play and the class would have to vote whether each play was genuine dramatic art, just good theatre, or really bad art. Some thought his point was to trash work, or at least signal what should be trash. They were wrong. His main point was to get the students to think critically and be able to articulate what makes art work. His second point was to get the students off a merry-go-round of pretension — pretending to like something because it seemed the right, noble, and most intellectual thing to do.
I thought of Howard’s lessons during a recent international theatre conference. One of the panelists appeared to be making the argument that everything on television is bad; art institutions that receive a lot of funding produce good work; but, the best and truest art work is happening in those places that are attended only by the few.
Now, I love, and have spent years, working in the experimental and avant-garde scene. One of the greatest theatrical experiences of my life was in a tiny room on the Russian-Polish border with the smallest audience possible, one. Still, don’t you think the panelist is being just a bit, well, more than a bit, pretentious?
I mean, even Lou Reed said, “I like to watch things on TV.” (The panelist also made a point of trashing everything on television: “Whenever I watch it, it makes me want to cry.” Oh, please. This might have been a good point — if she was talking about the news.)
What the panelist is missing is that art does not connect to an audience when it is being pretentious: pretending to be something it isn’t. No one likes art that pretends to be deep, pretends to reveal the truth of humanity, pretends to be memorable. Artists can be extremely successful — in other words popular — and do just fine on all three of these counts. Think Charlie Chaplin.
One of the great experiences of festival going is to be able to catch the latest experimental work in an abandoned building, then laugh at a clown show, and then take in the coolest jazz. In other words, the best festivals know that audiences like variety: small works in the same context as large scale works. Most importantly, audiences like artistic expression that is direct, and honest.
I wonder if the panelist likes the music of John Lennon. Here’s a guy who churned out pop hit after pop hit in collaboration, and on his own. He did pretty well. One has the sense, though, that he never took himself too seriously. And yet, he created an anthem, still for our art and our times: Imagine.
- Bill Reichblum