"And, if what the Prof says is true - that I have a responsibility to the community in which I live - is my responsibility to provide art that is "in the public's interest" or to provide art that "the public is interested in?"
I'm going to try to rephrase this sentence as I understand it. If I get it wrong, I hope Don will correct me and then I'll try again. Let's start with the premise that an artist has a responsibility to the community. While phrased in terms of the artist, I think all people, artist or not, have a responsibility to improve their community (even if that is just one other person), and thus through the ripple effect the world. However, there are many ways to improve a community (not simply through addressing socio-economic issues, for instance, which is how this idea is all-too-often interpreted), and truth be told there aren't many plays that don't do this to some degree or other, whether in the avant garde or the mainstream. When the Communist leaders of East Germany tried to get Brecht to change the ending of Mother Courage to provide a positive message, Brecht argued persuasively that people could learn as much from a negative image as a positive one, which of course is the tragic vision. When we see Oedipus' fall, we are reminded through his negative example of how small is our understanding and power as human beings, and the result may be greater humility. So this "responsibility" that I have argued for is not an argument solely for upbeat, optimistic art. So what, then, is this responsibility?
I agree with Viktor Shklovsky's idea that "art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony." Or as anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake writes in Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why, the core of art is "making special." Again, there are many ways to do this, positive and negative. I am reminded of the opening sequence of the film Blue Velvet, which moves from the image of a bright, happy suburban scene down into the grass where we see a severed ear, an image which says in a few short moments what the rest of the film reiterates: that we can't become complacent about the Good Life because beneath it lies a world of violence and sickness. On the other hand, making the stone stony may involve drawing our attention to details of life unnoticed, as in the Gerald Manly Hopkins poem: "Glory be to God for dappled things -- / For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow, / For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim, / Fresh firecoal chestnut-falls, finches' wings." Or what Virginia Woolf called the "little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark."
To make the stone stony, then. one must work with the idea of figure and ground -- that in order to be seen, an object must stand out from its background. A match glows most in the dark, and a picture of a polar bear in a blizzard is, after all, simply a blank piece of paper. This is where an understanding of community comes into play, for the community provides the background from which the artist must draw a contrast through his or her work of art. To simply reproduce the values and perceptions of the community is to disappear, and thus to make no contribution at all. This is the problem, for instance, with some mainstream art: it blends into widely-accepted values without adding anything.
Which may be the answer to Don's question about art that "the public is interested in," if what he means by that is art that the public is so comfortable with that it fails to stand out from the background. Many people will seek out such art because they believe it will make them happy. But truth be told they often come away feeling as if they have wasted their time and money, sort of like how one feels after eating a whole lot of cotton candy. It seemed like a good idea at the time... I happen to believe that we live in a culture that emphasizes violence, conflict, materialism, and cynicism, and so in order to make the stone stony I must create art that stands out from that ground in some way.
But if the art "the public is interested in" (as defined above) isn't the answer, neither is its negation: art the public ISN'T interested in. Because unless there is someone compelling attendance, no matter how profound the work of art it will have no effect whatsoever if nobody sees it. Which is the problem of some avant garde art, which stands out from the background through sheer negation in a way that results in lack of harmony and thus in ugliness. The spectator recoils, and thus is not changed in any way because the image has been refused, rejected, blacked out. In that situation, the spectator emerges from the event unchanged, no better than if they had chosen the cotton candy event. So art may exist at a midpoint between these two extremes.
Which, strangely, brings me to Richard Schechner, who rather famously talked about performance artists as being "not not themselves" onstage. Not his actual self, nor a character, but a hybrid. In other words, a double-negative is not a positive. (I think my head just exploded.) Let me try it this way: if asked if I am religious or not religious, I might say I am not not religious, which is not saying that I am religious -- it is more ambiguous. And perhaps this is what art "in the public's interest" is: art that the public is not uninterested in, that offers some initial attractor that gets the spectator in the door, and that proceeds to move the spectator by making the stone stony.
I am a firm believer that art exists to move the spectator. That word "move" has several connotations. One is emotional: to be moved to tears, moved to laughter, moved to anger; another is spatial: to be moved from Point A to Point B. The best art does both. The emotional is a technique, the spatial is a goal. We move people emotionally in order to move them from Point A to Point B, in other words in order to change their interior geography even just a little. And that change may be simply a deepening of values and beliefs, a few more shovels full in a hole that has already been dug ("I always thought roses were beautiful, but now I see even more ways they are beautiful"), or it may be making those values and beliefs more complex through the introduction of another perspective ("I always thought roses were beautiful, but when rose breeders created hybrid teas they created beautiful freaks.")
All of which is probably more than Don bargained for. I suspect what he was asking was whether he had a responsibility to "give the public more of what it thinks it wants": my answer is no. There is a difference between "wants" and "needs," as any nutritionist will tell you. Artists need to tap into a community's needs, which still involves listening very, very carefully for the hopes, dreams, and pain of one's fellow man.
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