Friday, October 27, 2006

On Ideas

Recently, many theatre bloggers have been pondering how they should use their blogs in reference to productions their friends (and often fellow bloggers) are involved in. Should a blogger discuss in public the artistic creations of a fellow blogger? If so, should said blogger express only positive thoughts, and save negative ones for one-on-one conversations at the bar after the show? Of course, each blogger must come to their own policy. Mine encompasses not only blogging but also any conversations I have in Real Life: I will not discuss with the artists any show that is still running; once a show closes, it is fair game.

But I confess that many of the responses in this discussion have puzzled me. I left this comment in Isaac's comments box at Parabasis: "I think the theatre blogsphere has been relentlessly critical of the ideas of other people. We don't back away from saying that somebody's post is dumb as hell, and doing it in graphic and bloody detail. So my question: why does the theatre blogosphere tiptoe around theatre itself? Isn't there something contradictory about that? Do we feel that plays are just too delicate to handle criticism? Do we feel that ideas as somehow fair game and stronger, but productions are sacrosanct? Do we give more respect to the egos of artists than of thinkers? If so, why?"

I elaborated on this on Matt Freeman's blog: "There is something really weird about the lines we draw between people's ideas and their work -- as if the two were separable. We may not be professional critics, but most of us are not professional aestheticians and that doesn't stop us from having opinions about aesthetics. A community requires honesty."

In direct response to my comment, Isaac wrote: "ideas are a dime a dozen. Criticizing someone's ideas is like criticizing someone's socks-- they can always go out and get some new ones (or defend their choice off socks, I suppose). Ideas aren't really work the same way that artistic creation is, which is the space where you have to take those ideas and make something out of them. That for me is why arguing against someone's ideas is totally different from publicly discussing what you didn't like about their show."

This response stunned me. Ideas are a dime a dozen? You can just go out and get new ideas? Was Peter Brook's Empty Space a theatrical sock? Were Grotowski's ideas of a Poor Theatre something he could have easily dumped in favor of some other idea? Were Stanislavski's ideas less important than his productions? Granted, there have been no blog posts that have approached the profundity of Brook, Grotowski, and Stanislavski (although George's collected posts have potential), but nevertheless I would argue that that power of ideas to inform new artistic work and to inspire other artists makes them the equal of production, and worthy of being treated as seriously and as carefully as artistic work.

Boths idea and artistic creations benefit from rigorous analysis and discussion. And the blogosphere allows such a discussion to benefit more than the artists involved. Blogging has the potential to spread ideas beyond a small circle of friends and acquaintances to the theatre world as a whole. A playwright reading a serious discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of In Public might be able to strengthen the play he or she is working on right now. The same is true of a discussion of directing, or designing. As theatre bloggers, we have the opportunity to have a positive impact on the development of other theatre artists, and I think one of the things we need to model is a rigorous form of critical thinking and self-assessment. I'm not talking the spilling of blood, I am talking the granting of the ultimate artistic compliment: taking something seriously.

Ideas are where we rehearse the revolution. Analysis is where we tone our creative muscles. We plan the future by learning from the past and conjecturing about what might be. We combine the subjunctive and the indicative. Ideas are not intellectual socks, they are the skeleton that supports our frame. Ideas are the lifeblood of creation. We must not undermine the immense possibilities of the blogosphere to improve future works of art. Lucas, I believe, said he had had three years of public criticism in grad school, and he'd had enough thank you very much. I know what he means! But, truth be told, those are public floggings, not public discussions. It is the MFA version of hazing. But if we treat works of art AND ideas with the respect they deserve, and respect them enough to look at them with care and rigor, then something immensely valuable will result.