Well, apparently I have drawn the ire of my fellow bloggers, who have taken arms against me en masse! Apparently I have epatered le blogeousie! For those of you who want to follow the whole controversy, here is the list (at least, those I know):
It begins with two posts on my own blog, here and here. Attached to these posts are several comments. Then other bloggers begin to brandish the cudgel:
George Hunka at Superfluities.
Isaac at Parabasis.
Mac Rogers at Slow Learner.
Matt Freeman at On Theatre and Politics.
If you like a lively debate over ideas, this is definitely the place to be. What is most impressive about all of this, in my opinion, is that the exchange is passionate, but not abusive. It is clear that everyone respects each other, even if we disagree. And that means a great deal to me personally, and I think speaks well for the theatrical blogosphere.
I have less time than usual to blog, because this week is registration advising, which takes up several hours in my day. Nevertheless, I don't want to disappear entirely while the debate continues.
Where to begin a response?
Perhaps with those who would like to argue over the artistic value of Serrano/Mapplethorpe/Vogel. First, let me state my pedigree: in my previous job, I was Assistant to the Dean of the College of Fine Arts and Illinois State University, where we had a very cutting-edge art gallery run by curator Barry Blinderman. So cutting edge, in fact, that during my tenure we were attacked on the floor of the Senate by Jesse Helms for displaying the works of David Wojnarowicz, who had suggested in the catalog of his NEA-sponsored display that we should shove TNT up Helms' ass and blow him up. A year or two later, we had an intense local controversy over an artist who painted pictures of his naked adolescent daughter. During both of these controversies, I was deeply involved in handling media and local relations. So I have earned my stripes.
To those who would argue about the quality and symbolism in the work of Serrano, Mapplethorpe, and Vogel, I would readily assent. It would be so much easier to attack these works if they were done by hacks. It is very true that Serrano picture is beautiful when viewed formally, and Mapplethorpe's photographs are absolutely gorgeous technically, and Vogel's work is extremely sensitive. Most of the masterpieces of the 20th century are absolutely brilliant -- say, Nabakov's Lolita. Despite their masterful use of the form, the content of the work is designed to provoke.
Now, Isaac says that most artists are not like Serrano, Mapplethorpe, and Vogel, but I am not certain I would agree. Perhaps I need to be clear, though: I am talking about serious artists, those who are attempting to do something that transcends mere commodity. If we include all those whose main goal is to tickle the audience, then I am in agreement with Isaac. But if we are talking about serious artists, I think most would share Matt Freeman's creed: "[Artists] are, in fact, supposed to break social contracts, attack their audience, embrace their audience and do whatever it is they feel is best to make their statement." I'm not certain how much clearer this can be stated: 1) artists have no responsibility except to their own selves, 2) their job is to break social contracts and attack the audience.
To me, this seems not quite grown up. In fact, it sounds downright adolescent. But I would be happy to entertain the notion if Matt or anyone would go beyond the level of assertion and actually lay out the case for this ethic.
Matt also makes what seems to me to be a very shaky argument: "For the record, "Piss Christ" is still being giving substantial discussion. Take this one, for example. We're not discussing "Our Town" or Winslow Homer are we?" We're still talking about the Holocaust today, but that doesn't mean that there is much to recommend about Auschwitz.
I also must admit to being very puzzled by what George Hunka calls Isaac's "key graf" (clearly, I still have to learn blog-speak): "Art isn't useful. It has no practical purpose. If you buy a chair, you have a chair. You can sit on it. You can commodify it. You can resell it. You buy a ticket to theater, and you have a couple of hours of an experience that may, indeed, change you. It will, with any luck, impact you in some way. But what can you do with that impact? It's all ephemeral. As artists we need to help our audiences enjoy and value that experience in a world where something uncommodifiable is another term for something worthless." I understand the idea, which has a little Kant in its background, I suspect. But I hope Isaac will elaborate: are you saying that only material things have a "practical purpose"? That because ideas have no substance, they are purposeless? Surely I am misinterpreting what is being said, because if this were so then only industry would have purpose.
Isaac also comes to the conclusion that I think "art is made for the middle class" -- I assume what he thinks I am saying is that "art is made solely for the middle class." Not so. But as I noted in my lecture, epater le bourgeousie has been a rallying cry for the arts for a century, and in that phrase the target is clearly named. Nobody says epater le lumpen-proletariat, for instance, or even epater le tres riche bastards. No, most artists come from the middle classes, and they tend to attack their roots.
That said, he mentions friends of his who run a "thriving artistic home" called BAAD! that addresses "queer people of color" as an example of artists not doing art for the middle class. Very true, and I also will point at the same group as being an excellent example of artists who have created a community around themselves, and address them. Now, I don't know the work of BAAD!, but I would be willing to bet that they do not take a hostile attitude toward that community that they have built. And so we can discuss artists being part of a community, or, alternately, artists being hostile to a community that they are not a part of.
Listen, I am not against art that provokes. I think we needed the provocative art of the 60s and 70s as a way of breaking us out of the complacency of the 1950s. But today's mass media is filled with hostility. We are constantly yelled at on TV, the internet, magazines, newspapers about environmental damage, the economic destruction of the global economy, the increasingly wide gap between rich and poor. We are constantly told, at least implicitly, that changing things is impossible, that idealism is stupid, that competition beats cooperation, that capitalism red in tooth and claw benefits everyone, that the spiritual is nonsense, that personal piece is impossible and undesirable. 2005 is not the Leave It to Beaver world of the 1950s, one that needed to be shaken up. Today, we are shaken up hourly, to the point where we no longer notice that we are shaking. Maybe if we want to attract attention, we need to stop shaking, noit shake harder.
I am not saying artists should not try to make a difference, however slight; nor am I saying that we shouldn't do what we can to get the attention of the audience. What I am saying is that our shock techniques, which were so right in the face of the 50s or the 20s, are wearing out in today's abrasive world. As Mac Rogers notes, shock playwrights like Neil LaBute are being embraced by the masses. We eat shock for an afternoon snack. If we really want to get attention, it seems to me we should change our tactics and focus on something we're not getting right now: significance, humanity, order, spirit, caring, community.
Is that so objectionable? Why are we so very much attached to attack?