Thursday, April 12, 2007

Ricky Nelson

Remember the Ricky Nelson song Garden Party? How many artists have made the same logical error as he does in his chorus: "you can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself"? From the standpoint of logic, this is a non sequitur. This says: if you can't please everyone else, then don't please anyone else except yourself. In its pure form, this is the motto of the navel-gazing artist who believes the arts are totally and completely about self-expression, and that to consider pleasing anyone else is to "sell out." There are few who wholly subscribe to this idea, but they do exist, and have existed. But there are other logical: "you can't please everyone, so please as many as you can," "you can't please everyone, so be happy with the ones you DO please," "you can't please everyone, so don't get so bent out of shape about bad reviews..." Well, the list is endless. The point, however, is to avoid Nelson's genial yet deadly extreme.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

On Class

The conversation over at Parabasis about class has been quite interesting. Be sure to read the comments, which are insightful and passionate. Other bloggers, such as Laura Axelrod, have added additional thoughts.

It is interesting the direction that conversation has taken. The focus has been almost entirely on the class of the artists, many of whom come from working-class and middle-class families, and whose lack of financial wherewithal negatively affects their ability to regularly practice their craft and develop their aesethetic. Can it be done? Certainly -- but it can be done easier if, like, say, Richard Foreman, you have a trsut fund to draw upon.

But another interesting common thread that I noticed is that almost everyone whose comments I read talked about the burden of student loans for their undergraduate and graduate educations. As someone still paying off my student loans at the age of 48, I can certainly relate. But perhaps more to the point, what these student loans also indicate is that all of these artists have had the benefit of a college education -- a college education which inculcates them (or at least attempts to) with certain accepted middle-class and upper-class artistic values about what makes a work of art "good," and what audience is worth addressing. For instance, as Laura Axelrod notes, "In poorer countries, theater is done without costumes. It's done without a stage or grants or anything. It only requires people. That's it. People. Actors and audiences." But for the most part, at the university level there is an emphasis on the "stuff" of theatre -- plays take place in nice facilities or, perhaps, a "black box" which is where the "low end" productions take place. But it is still a theatre, and there is usually still a light board and lights, and maybe sound, and certainly seats... There is very little discussion of (much less experience in) other models -- of El Teatro Campesino performing on the back of a pickup truck, of Los Angeles Poverty Company performing in soupkitchen lines, of Pavel Kahout performing in living rooms. As a result, when college students graduate and try to create their own productions, they think along the tracks that have already been laid for them.

This is also true about the aesthetic values that shape their idea of what comprises a good play, or good acting, or good design. Certainly working class aesthetics, the English version of which was brilliantly described by John McGrath in A Good Night Out, are viewed a being "crude" and "uneducated" -- certainly nothing to aspire to.

As Laura Axelrod notes: "I've also noticed that the theatrical blogosphere is preoccupied with a certain kind of theater - urban, smart, directed to a certain audience. The fact is that other audiences for theater exist. There's community theater, theaters in churches, smaller professional theater, regional theater, colleges, among other places. These places attract a variety of people. I've even heard that writers can make significant money in those venues. There are hotbeds of community theater throughout the country. These people take their theater very seriously. And they're good at what they do." We've had this discussion before, and many bloggers have shown their disdain and disgust for this audience, which at least a few characterized as just short of brutes. Of course, that is their personal right. But my impression is that this attitude is shared by a majority of artists who have largely been educated beyond their class and have no interest in "going back." Again, the result is a narrowing of class representation in the theatre.

As Dudley Cocke wrote (and I quoted several weeks ago): "With most (80 percent) of its audience drawn from the top 15 percent of the income scale, the assembled spectators for the typical not-for-profit professional theater production don’t look like any community in the U.S., except, perhaps, a gated one. From such a narrow social base, great democratic art will never rise."

If we want to talk about an uncomfortable, but crucial, conversation about class, this is Big Lebowski.