Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Offending the Audience

On the sidebar on the right side of this blog you will find five principles, one of which includes "mutuality." This admittedly awkward word is an attempt to boil down the idea that there needs to be a more dialogic relationship between artists and audience. If you click on the link provided, you find yourself at a "Welcome, New Readers" post that elaborates:

If the theatre is decentralized, and if the aesthetic reflects a local aesthetic, then it follows that the relationship of the artist to the community must be a close one. Artists must be a part of the community in which they live, and fully participate in the life of the community. Arts ghettos, where artists huddle together and only speak to each other, but be opened up to let the voices of individual people into the conversation. The Romantic idea of the artist as outsider, as mysterious stranger, must be replaced by the much older idea of the artist as community voice and leader.
In a post on March 28th entitled "Mick Montgomery on Mike Daisy," I wrote something similar, quoting poet, novelist, essayist, and farmer Wendell Berry's belief that the artist not as "an isolated, preeminent genius who materializes ideas from thin air, but ... a person who has been in a community a long time, has been attentive to its voices...and who is prepared to pass on what has been heard."

An interesting exchange then occurred between Matt Freeman and Mick Montgomery in the comments for this post:
  • Matt: "How does this jive with the idea that many communities are hostile to artists? The assumption here is that artists are embraced members of a community who somehow cherish and reflect on that community. The fact is, artists are often outcasts or critics of their communities. They're not always welcome voices. Nor should they be."
  • Mick Montgomery: "The idea that the artist in a community must be critical to the community in an abrasive way may be the reason why the ARTS and ARTISTS are struggling to gain traction in certain communities. Why can't artists learn to deliver their message in a way that challenges their audience, but at the same time allows for the message to be heard. I'm not saying the Artist can't go out on a limb from time to time, but doesn't the artist want their message heard? Can ART be relative to the community when the Artist is operating in a vacuum?"
  • Matt: "I think characterizing confrontational theater or a critical posture or even a hostile posture as abrasive is reductive. We shouldn't want for toothless messages or ones that, like medicine, are delivered with a spoonful of sugar. Where would that have gotten Ionesco? Arthur Miller? Henrik Ibsen? David Mamet? Tony Kushner? I also don't necessarily believe that being unwelcome in your community means that you're delivering an unwelcome message. It may mean that a majority of your community doesn't identify with you, or understand your work, or find you palatable. It's possible for an artist to aesthetically stand outside his or her community. All of this is a good thing. We should want artists to make us question, think, and see things we're not used to. That is necessarily uncomfortable. An artist isn't operating in a vacuum when they're in opposition to their communities values."
A few days later, in a post entitled "Hostility," in which Matt objected to the attempts to justify the arts' place in the economic stimulus package from an instrumental viewpoint, Matt wrote, "Artists, though, exist to agitate, provoke, shock (yes, shock), and question. It's for this very reason that communities, national to local, will always view them as troublemakers, try to marginalize them, or assimilate them."

The role and responsibility of the artist in a society, and the relationship between artist and audience, has been an ongoing and rather heated argument in the theatrosphere, and on this blog especially. It has a tendency to arise particularly in relation to discussions of localism and the idea that an artist ought to be a part of his or her community. It connects to my posts on "The Wal-Marting of American Theatre" (Parts 1, 2, and 3), and provides a necessary foundation to the <100K Project.

The answer to Matt's first question is that a community is not a single, unified thing; some parts of a community, any community, will embrace an artist, and some parts will not. No matter how small the community, there will be people who value you, and people who don't. To expect, as a precondition to joining a community, a big sloppy kiss from everyone within it is unrealistic. What Matt is actually asking, however, is whether being part of a community requires you to sing from the same hymnal as everybody else, whether you lose your ability to criticise values with which you disagree.

The easy answer is simply to say "of course not." If you've ever lived in a small community, you know that there isn't full agreement about whether the sky is blue, so an artist ought to fit right in. Where there are people, there will be different opinions. The key, however, is how you are heard as an artist if you function within a community, versus how you are heard if you are an outsider. Not surprisingly, Wendell Berry discusses this topic beautifully.

In the title essay of his book Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, Berry discusses the 1989 Actors Theatre of Louisville world premiere of Arthur Kopit's play Bone-the-Fish, and specifically a newspaper article that appeared prior to the play's opening in which Kopit is quoted as saying "I am immodestly proud that [the play] is written in consistently bad taste. It's about vile people who do vile things. They are totally loathsome, and I love them all... I'm almost positive that it has something to offend everyone." The writer of the article goes on to explain that "Kopit write 'Bone-the-Fish' out of a counterculture impulse, as a reaction against the complacency that he finds corrupting American life."

Neither Berry nor I am interested in discussing the "quality or point of Kopit's play," but rather in the article itself "as an example of the conventionality of the artistic intention to offend -- and of the complacency of the public willingness not to be offended but to passively accept offense." In other words, there are two focuses: the artist's intention, and the audience's reaction, and these are both tied to Kopit's outsider status. Let's start with the audience reaction.

Artists don't actually want to offend people. Artists like Kopit say that's what they want, but in reality actual offense by an audience provokes outrage. Look at the reaction from artists when audiences are actually offended and express their offense, say the people who walked out of Mike Daisey's performance, pouring water on his notes on the way out, or the conservative Christians who were offended by Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi and had the temerity to picket the theatre, or when right wing politicians tee off on NEA grants for art work that is explictly designed to offend. Artists want polite offense, or, as Berry writes about Kopit, the "preferred audience is therefore one that will applaud his audacity and pay no attention at all to his avowed didactic purpose..."

Berry adamantly defends any artist's right to offend as protected speech. "A community, as a part of a public, has no right to silence publicly protected speech, but it certainly has a right not to listen and to refuse its patronage to speech it finds offensive, It is remarkable, however, that many writers and artists appear to be unable to accept this obvious and necessary imitation on their public freedom; they seem to think that freedom entitles them not only to be offensive but also tobe approved and subsidized by the people whom they have offended."

Berry then makes an important distinction, one that is central to the issue of the artist as delivering an "unwelcome message." He writes: "Does my objection to the intention to offend and the idea of improvement by offense mean that I believe it is invariably wrong to offend or that I think community and public life do not need improving? Obviously not. I do not mean at all to slight the issues of honesty and of artistic integrity that are involved. But I would distinguish between the intention to offend and the willingness to risk offending. Honesty and artistic integrity do not require anyone to intend to give offense, though they certainly may cause offense. The intention to offend, it seems to me, identifies the would-be offender as a public person. I cannot imagine anyone who is a member of a community who would purposely or gladly or proudly offend it, thought I know very well that honesty might require one to do so." [all italics mine]

This seems to me to be an important distinction between offense as an end in itself, an intention; and offense as a result of painful but necessary honesty. This point was brought home to me recently when I caught a portion of This American Life during the recent fund drive for my local public radion station, WCQS. The episode included a reprise of a story they did during the election about racism in the Presidential primary, and the union's attempt to persuade its members to vote for Obama despite the fact that he is African-American. The reporter recorded a phone bank caller who was trained to counter anti-Obama misconceptions, and also interviewed someone who had talked to a friend of his who was struggling with voting for a black man. The phone bank person, when confronted with racist beliefs, quickly switched to talking points about how Obama's views about labor coincided with the union's, choosing to persuade them on the issues without directly confronting the racism; the individual argued against the racism, using examples from his friend's friendship with blacks at work, and telling him in no uncertain terms that he really needs to root out this racism from his whole life. This is the difference between knowing who you are talking to, and not knowing. It is the difference between being in relationship, and being a paid phone caller. For my money, the guy talking to his racist buddy has a much better chance of changing, even slightly, his friend's opinion, because he can make his argument more personal, and because he has an emotional bank account that allows him to speak his "unwlecome truth" more directly. In fact, far from being less effective because part of a community, I would argue being in community would be more effective.

That conversation cost the guy something -- he was putting himself on the line. It wasn't an anonymous talking point from someone who could hang up and roll their eyes afterwards, this guy was going to go to work with this guy the next day. And he cares about his friend, it isn't just some guy. And his friend is more likely to listen, because he is hearing it from his friend and not just some guy. The conversation reflects the willingness to risk offense, not the intention to offend. That's how community works, that's how people work, that's how artists function within a community. Their roots and relationships allow them to speak "unwelcome truths," because they've earned that right, but they will do so in a way that will be specific, effective, powerful, tailored. And if they give offense, they do so knowing they will have to face those they offended in the grocery line the next day, or at church, or at the little league baseball game. They can't just blend into the mass. They have to take responsibility for their actions, and to have the true courage of their convictions.


Alison Croggon said...

Uh...since when have artists "blended into the mass"? Or not paid - sometimes with their lives - for the "courage of their convictions"? I can think of more than a few who have, and they were attacked in terms very similar to these. Where do you draw the line between "willingness" and "intention"? What about when an artist has earned the right to speak, but is in a society which is manifestly repressive? Russia under Putin, for instance? Should he or she just shut up and be friendly? Is that really having the courage of one's convictions?

Scott Walters said...

Artists blend into the mass when they refuse to interact with their audience, when they run away following a performance, when they cluster together in artist ghettos (if they are poor) and gated communities (when they are rich) and interact only with each other. This is more the norm today than not. The Artist as Outsider is the dominant artistic archetype and has been since the birth of Romanticism.

Indeed you are right that artists have sometimes been persecuted for what they say, as have non-artists. A repressive society represses most of its members outside of the ruling cadre. I'm not certain how you have arrived at the idea that in such circumstances artists (or anyone else) should "just shut up and be friendly." However, to speak one's mind without possessing an understanding of the local situation is to raise one's chance of being persecuted, not to lower it. The point my post is trying to make is that the effectiveness and impact of one's message is rooted in the specificity of one's understanding of a specific community, and the strength of your relationships within it.

Thus, your example of Russia under Putin is national, mine is local. My concern is with artistic involvement in the life of a specific community, not with mass, national issues. Unlike the mass art forms, theatre is a local art form, and my focus is on enhancing that aspect, not denying it.

Cole Matson said...


Paul Rekk said...

I had a whoooole bunch I was all working up to write here, but then I read your comment.

"Unlike the mass art forms, theatre is a local art form, and my focus is on enhancing that aspect, not denying it."

Everything I have to say is going to eventually boil down to this point, with which I just can't agree. So I'll simply state that and let it go from there, I guess.

Scott Walters said...

Hmmm. At least explain how an art form that takes place in one place at one time is a mass medium. I have a hard time getting my head around that idea.

Paul Rekk said...

It's not the locality of theatre that bothers me. You're right -- theatre is among the hardest of art forms to mass produce. You won't find me arguing that point.

It's the 'unlike the mass art forms' assumption. The leap that ease of mass production equals inability to be a 'local art form' is an insult to practitioners of those other art forms. Which leads to the greater reason I am unable to jive with the whole regional small community emphasis -- the best art speaks to us not as members of a nation or as member of a more individualized community. It speaks to us through a universality of emotion. Art that sparks a purely emotional response as opposed to a political response should be able to do so in any community, no matter the size or makeup.

It's one thing to focus on bringing art to communities that are currently lacking it. That's fantastic, really. Saying that only people from those communities can understand how to speak to people from those communities is a big stretch for me, as someone who has thrived in a wide spectrum of community types.

We're all humans. Even the Artists as Outsiders. We're speaking the same language. Even our outrage has the same root emotion. That was where your argument really went off the rails for me.

"Artists don't actually want to offend people." -- this paragraph, while true of many artists I have dealt with, is a complete whitewash of many others who don't want polite anything. Who are fine with walkouts and pickets and confrontation because at least it's bringing attention to a topic (you pick it) which the artist obviously feels important. Artist as Outsider isn't always about ego. Most of the time, sure, but stop playing that cliche as a rule and things'll go down a lot easier, because any real artist, outsider or no, actually does want to start a discussion with his global-scale community.

Discussion is a word with a lot of wiggle room and I think what we're actually talking about here is the most effective way to discuss. I believe in searching for a language that any audience could understand (not agree with, mind you, but understand), rather than finding an audience and limiting limiting jargon for this particular slice.

Dammit, Scott, you got it out of me anyway...

Paul Rekk said...

Pardon typos... it's late and I'm rambling.

Scott Walters said...

Don't worry about the typos.

Berry makes a distinction between "public" and "community." "Public" means "all the people, apart from any personal responsibility or belonging;" "Community," on the other hand "has to do with belonging; it is a group of people who belong to one another and to their place." I think this is a helpful distinction when it comes to differentiating between mass media and theatre. The mass media addresses our public selves, our selves as Americans; theatre addresses our community selves, our selves as belonging to a place and each other. Over time, we have tried to turn theatre into a public art, instead of a community art.

I think historically Aeschylus or Shakespeare or Moliere would be amazed by the idea that they were writing for all humanity -- they were writing for the Athenian citizens, the London populace, the court of Louis XIV. It isn't that others can't understand them, but that what we call their universality comes out of their specificity.

As far as those artists who want to offend people, what I take that to mean is that they don't actually want to change them, they just want to posture as morally superior. I'm interested in artists who want to change people, and those artists need to know to whom they are speaking.

Thanks for overcoming your reluctance. Your ideas are welcome and intriguing.

Freeman said...

I wrote a great deal and then deleted it. It all boils down to this for me, Scott: you don't seem to like or trust artists very much.

Scott Walters said...

*LOL* Yes, Matt, that's it. That's all it is. If I could have boiled it down that effectively, I could have saved myself a whole lot of time.

Sheesh. You gotta be kidding. Did you read the post?

Freeman said...

I certainly did. The section about artists wanting "polite" offensive. Wendell Berry's conservative bluster about what sort of offense is acceptable to him. How artists who offend shouldn't surprised when society doesn't subsidize them.

You believe an artist has a responsibility to the Holy Community (defined narrowly as "not the public" but instead entirely locally) to offend only with an eye on helping, to evangelize for social change, and to be a humble member in good standing.

This is a post for the anti-social jokesters and rabble-rousers about how to be a good citizen. This is about how to behave, not how to make good work. In the end, good art is a secondary concern of this post. Good behavior is the first concern.

I'm deeply suspicious of that impulse.

Cole Matson said...

Not that Scott needs any help from me, but I applaud the impulse you're deeply suspicious of. Artists are subject to the same moral code that all human beings are subject to. Art does not provide a license to be cruel, contemptuous, or unjust. Artists' first responsibility is to others - to their audiences, to their communities, to their fellow human beings - not to themselves.

This does not mean pandering to the audience, or only doing work you think people will like or have an easy time with. Sometimes the best way an artist can serve his community is by unapologetically pointing out its failures. In the same way, the best service political activists like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. could provide their country was to loudly and doggedly point out its injustices, even when members of their community wanted them to sit down and shut up. But we remember and honor Dr. King, not only because he was effective, but because he was kind and compassionate, and wanted to heal the community, not destroy it. He risked offense, and was martyred for it, but he did not make offense his goal.

Like those activists, sometimes the best art an artist can and should make is art that risks offending the audience. But the purpose for which the artist risks that offense must be a good one; it must be in service to the community, to make it better, not just to shock and anger it. And especially it must not come out of the artist's own sense of moral superiority.

I, for one, would rather have mediocre art that serves the community than good art that serves only the artist. Although, of course, I'd rather the art that serves the community be excellent, not mediocre.

Paul Rekk said...

Argh! Now I'm swept up!

I, on the other hand, will never take mediocre art over good art, no matter how ideologically opposed I might be to the good art.

I'm sorry Cole, but no one, not artists, not Dr. King, not nobody's first responsibility is to anyone other than themselves. And I don't see a problem in that. People do what they want and feel is important for themselves to do. Themselves being the operative word.

This is where the argument falls to bits -- artists who are simply trying to shock and anger an audience are doing so not only because they want to but because they feel it is important for themselves to do so to whatever community they may be a part of. If the community disagrees, that's fine, but where's the deciding line between when the community is wrong and in the long run they will be made better and when the artist is wrong and are just playing the moral superiority game? They look the exact same to me.

Hindsight is great, but how do I judge who the art is serving or how things are going to play out during intermission? I don't pretend to be able to have that ability, but I can sure as hell say, "Wow, this is mediocre work." I'll take outrage over blase any day of the week.

Scott Walters said...

That's really funny -- Wendell Berry as a conservative.

But you did read the post, Matt. But it is not about how to behave, Matt, it is about how to make effective work, work that does something for the audience. To me, "good" work is not something that is independent of its effect.

Cole makes an interesting parallel to MLK, once I'd like to elaborate on. Let's remember that MLK started leading a bus protest in his own town, and it isn't until much later that he becomes the face of a much larger movement. He knew local conditions, and created a movement that worked within the specific context. He didn't say "Let's offend the racist Birmingham power structure," he said "Let's create a movement that will lead to social change." He told the truth, but he did so by speaking truth within a framework that was central to the group he was trying to influence -- most of his speeches put the civil rights movement within the context of the Bible and the Constitution. If MLK was an "anti-social jokester and rabble rouser," he'd have figured he had succeeded simply because he got jailed in Birmingham. "Look, everybody, I got a reaction!" Instead, he reached out with "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."

For me, good = effective.

Scott Walters said...

"I'm sorry Cole, but no one, not artists, not Dr. King, not nobody's first responsibility is to anyone other than themselves."

Ah, welcome to individualist capitalism, red in tooth and claw. Every man for himself. Margaret Thatcher was famous for saying "there is no society." Just a collection of individuals. It's not true -- everybody relies on everybody every day -- but it is a fun fantasy.

But it IS a conversation stopper: if you see no responsibility between people, then this conversation has nowhere to go.

Cole Matson said...


As Scott points out, I think we're at an impasse. If you think that everybody's first responsibility is to themselves, then we not only have a fundamental disagreement about art, we have a fundamental disagreement about morality. We'd have to have the same view on human responsibility in order to come to any agreement on artistic responsibility. (This actually is going to be the fundamental question of my doctoral dissertation: The artist's moral responsibility. Though I'll be looking at it from a Christian point-of-view.)

"If the community disagrees, that's fine, but where's the deciding line between when the community is wrong and in the long run they will be made better and when the artist is wrong and are just playing the moral superiority game? They look the exact same to me."

The deciding line is truth. And that's where we as artists and as community members need to work together to discover what's true, what's just, and what's good. If there is no truth, or if all truth is subjective, then there's no point in working together to find the truth, because doing so would be pointless. But if some things are true, and others are not, it behooves us to work together to determine what is true, and what is false. That means the artist should be open to correction from the community if he is wrong, and should be dauntless in proclaiming the truth if he is right. Both should be done in a spirit of humility and care for the audience, who are his fellow members of humanity.

Paul Rekk said...

"If you see no responsibility between people, then this conversation has nowhere to go."

Ah, welcome to interpretive semantics, in which 'first responsibility' = 'only responsibility'.

"If there is no truth, or if all truth is subjective, then there's no point in working together to find the truth, because doing so would be pointless."

Tell me then, in all seriousness, Cole, what you feel the purpose of art would be in this situation. If finding the truth is no longer a possibility, why does art exist? Because that's the world I see. It's interesting to see that you are approaching things from a Christian perspective (I'm not being snarky, honest) -- we are definitely working from some very basic philosophical differences, and that makes a degree of sense out of them.

It seems as though you (and Scott) see "myself, then others" approach to humanity as inherently immoral, or inhuman, or something negative -- you can come up with the word if you like -- but I guarantee that, through that perspective, I find the world to be as good and hopeful of a place as you. And that you could connect to at least some of my art despite not agreeing on those fundamental issues. And vice versa me for you.

And I know I initiated it, but impasses are so unsatisfying -- my question here is, if you want to work together to find truth and I don't believe there is absolute truth, how can we work together to acheive the hopeful goals that we do share?

Freeman said...

You're comparing apples to oranges with MLK. This is precisely the problem: you're judging the arts by the same standard that you judge social or political activists. Even though their purpose in the society is often entirely different.

You're advocating against art, here; worshiping "use" above "beauty." Where's the room for beauty or outlandishness or randomness in your vision of the arts as community service? As an audience member myself, I think the work you're vaguely describing seems deadly dull, devoid of passion. I can't imagine what "effect" you imagine it having. Well, I can imagine one effect: it would numb creativity and stifle the best impulses of writers, poets and painters.

This is why I'm stating you don't trust or like artists. There is an undercurrent here that artists either are naturally irresponsible, selfish or arrogant. It's the glass-half-empty version of free-willed, pugnacious and individualistic. Hostility between the community and the artist is healthy. That tension is where many artists come from.

To advocate for "mediocre" art that does more "good" is absurd. What good is mediocre art? To advocate for anything except the most beautiful, offensive, surprising, stunning, and strange art that we can produce is, essentially, anti-art.

Cole Matson said...


If there is no truth, I don't see much good in art, or any other human behavior. Art becomes a way for us to feel good, or influence others in a way that controls them. Or, it becomes a desperate search for something we'll never find, a scream in the dark. The world falls apart if there is no truth. Of course, I believe there is such a thing as objective, absolute truth, which is there for us to find. This assumption is the basis for all science, for example. So I believe that art does have a point.

No snark taken.:-) Yes, I think the differences between our world views, and thus our views about art, are becoming clearer.

I do see "myself, then others" as immoral - against the natural moral law that governs all human behavior (which goes back to my belief in an absolute truth, what C.S. Lewis calls the Tao in his excellent book The Abolition of Man). I don't believe that thinking of yourself first creates a better world, or even a good one, through some kind of Adam Smith Invisible Hand. And I don't see how a world in which "myself, then others" held true could be either good or hopeful. Maybe you could help me understand? And I absolutely agree, I'm sure we could connect to at least some aspects of each other's art. We do share a common human experience, after all.

As to your last question, I'll counter with another question. (Sorry!) But I hope my question can lead to an answer for yours. What goals do you have for your art?

A few of my goals include:

-Give people hope
-Inspire them to a morally higher level of behavior (more compassionate, more truthful, etc.)
-Increase a sense of empathy for others
-Celebrate the beauty and goodness in the world

I hope all these things will affect me as much as the audience. For example, I'm in a production of A Man for All Seasons right now, and I would hope that the example of St. Thomas More is as much an influence on my behavior as on the audience's.

Do any of your goals overlap?

Cole Matson said...


It looks like you're primarily addressing Scott, but I'll put my penny ha'penny in here as well.

With my MLK example, my point was that successful activists, artists who want to change society must do so out of concern for their fellow members in society. Scott brought up effectiveness; compassion increases it, contempt, anger, and "shock value" decrease it.

Now, artists don't need to have as their goal changing society, though many do, and those are the artists I was talking about with MLK. Simply exploring beauty or the world is another good reason for art. Artists don't need to be purposely didactic in order to provide value to the community. And didactisim doesn't automatically create "deadly dull" art. I don't think anyone could accuse Brecht of being "devoid of passion," though he was explicitly didactic. Would you argue that Mozart's Requiem, The Lord of the Rings, or the Sistine Chapel are "deadly dull" because they provide value to humanity, and were explicitly created to do so?

There's a false dichotomy here between forced, didactic art that's meant to teach a moral lesson and free, purposeless creative expression. Creativity and service should live together in the artist, and does when the artist offers his creativity as a gift for others, instead of making his art all about himself.

I can't speak to Scott's experience, but as an undergraduate theatre student in New York City, I admit I met (and studied) too many artists whose art was selfish, and who thought the best barometer of art was how many social and personal taboos one could break. As long as they were "expressing themselves freely," their art deserved a place, and was better than those artists who were stuck in "traditional" forms.

Again, I don't believe that "hostility between the community and artist" is healthy. It can be healthy, when the hostility is a symptom of growing pains in the society, when they are growing into something better than they were before. But in general, hostility between people is not healthy.

Again, I'd rather have a piece of mediocre art that stems from a person of mediocre talents using their talents to the fullest, in celebration of beauty, and in solidarity with their community, than have a piece of art by an exceptional artist at the height of his powers, that was created with the sole purpose of providing as much offense as possible.

All this is to say that quality of art is secondary to the intent of the artist, because I believe a human being is more valuable than any piece of art. And to me, it is more serious when a human purposely shows disrespect to his fellow humans, than when he fails to use his full talents when creating a piece of art.

Though again, as an artist myself, obviously I'd rather art be good than mediocre.

Scott Walters said...

Paul -- I see "myself, then others" as unsustainable, socially and ecologically. I see it at the root of what has gone awry in our society, and an irresponsible philosophy in our current situation. I believe in "myself as part of others."

Matt -- I do not create separate categories to separate activity into "art" and "politics." I believe that art and politics exist to do the same thing: create a better, more just, more beautiful, more meaningful, more peaceable world for everyone. I believe that all human activity should be committed to that purpose. To state the obvious, I am not a Kantian.

Artists have been taught, ever since the Romantic Movement, that they are above society, above morality, that they have no responsibility to anyone except themselves and their so-called vision, and that despite their anti-social stance society ought to support them because they're Special People. So if you mean by disliking artists that I dislike this orientation, then I agree. I happen to think that there are many, many artists who do not subscribe to this philosophy, and who are often unjustly ignored precisely because they put their service ahead of their personal vision. For instance, most community-based artists are routinely neglected.

I would also say that your inability to imagine the kind of art we are describing as anything but "deadly dull, devoid of passion" is a failure of your imagination. In class today, for instance, we were discussing Lope de Vega's "Fuente Ovejuna," a 17th-century play about a peasant uprising in the face of oppression. It is probably one of the most exciting, dramatic, funny, and dynamic plays of the 17th century -- a definitely Spanish, and definitely political.

Moliere wrote plays for the court of Louis XIV -- they were hilarious, juicy, theatrical, and effective. And they talked directly to his audience.

And obviously I would reject this sentence: "To advocate for anything except the most beautiful, offensive, surprising, stunning, and strange art that we can produce is, essentially, anti-art." Beautiful, surprising, stunning, inspiring, truthful -- very much so. Offensive -- nope, not as a goal. As Berry said, you may risk offense in order to speak truth, but offense as a goal is adolescent. And I don't think hostility is healthy.

Paul Rekk said...

"Paul -- I see "myself, then others" as unsustainable, socially and ecologically."

And I don't, Scott. It's obvious that I'm not changing your mind and you're not changing mine. There, stating the facts was easy. Now how do we reconcile those facts as fellow artists?


Thanks for the response, I'll be back when I've got more time (the 9 to 5 is calling), but I think the key is in the last goal you listed. That would be one of the first out of my mouth.

Freeman said...

You don't think hostility is healthy? That, Scott, is ironic.

In short: I reject any worldview that, under the guise of an artistic philosophy, advocates for artists to be humble servants of the greater good. That is the opposite of arts advocacy, and I have no use for it.

Scott Walters said...

Paul -- Well, since it isn't necessary that we both do exactly the same thing, I don't know that we need to reconcile beyond wishing each other good luck with our endeavors. We could still have a beer together, we could still see each other's shows, we could still be friends, we could still respect each other as thinkers and artists. Now, if I am giving out grant money, I'm not going to give you any, but there are others who will give you money and not me, so that works out. And your audience and my audience, and your community and my community, may not overlap. Or they might! Robert Putnam talked about "bridging social capital," which involves different groups connecting to each other and broadening their worldview. We had a conversation, and as a result we had to describe our ideas more clearly than we would have described them if we hadn't. In that, it's been valuable.

Matt -- Har har. It's always good to get in a little personal snark. Given the nature of our past conversations, it is equally ironic that you are promoting the value of hostility.

But you do have a clear idea of what I'm saying: that artists are "humble servants of the greater good," so at least I have expressed myself clearly. It is a worldview which informs an artistic philosophy which, in turn, describes a role and function for the artist. In other words, it is unified and integrated. I don't know what you mean by "arts advocacy," but it is a healthy, vibrant, and useful model that many do and will find exciting and inspiring. So as I said to Paul, there is no requirement for you to subscribe, obviously, as there is no requirement that I subscribe to your philosophy. And all the same outcomes apply: beer, friendship, respect. Of course, the latter two rely on overlooking the personal shots...

Cole Matson said...

As usual, Scott has said what I've tried to say, but much better. Especially your third paragraph. Thank you.

Paul, I look forward to it. I admit, I've spent all afternoon at my 9-to-5 checking this thread and replying between tasks. But, my 9-to-5 is a theater job, so it's OK.:-) I've also been tweeting about this conversation on my organization's channel (@balttheatre); one of our local theatres retweeted the link and wrote back to say, "It's a really interested conversation!"

Freeman: I reject any philosophy that places anyone above being a humble servant of Good.

Christopher Ashworth said...


"This is where the argument falls to bits -- artists who are simply trying to shock and anger an audience are doing so not only because they want to but because they feel it is important for themselves to do so to whatever community they may be a part of. If the community disagrees, that's fine, but where's the deciding line between when the community is wrong and in the long run they will be made better and when the artist is wrong and are just playing the moral superiority game? They look the exact same to me."

They look exactly the same only at the point of osculation. They approach that point from two directions. So saying that they look the same at the limit doesn't mean they look the same the rest of the time. And what happens the rest of the time matters. Because we are not islands.

That's the whole point of making a distinction between "risking offense" and "intending offense": to slice down through the thin space that separates two very similar-from-the-outside ideas.

You're proposing that a self-centered philosophy of art somehow gives you the freedom to do better art. That idea is missing the entire point of the distinction Scott draws. The point is that the quality of the art is orthogonal to the spirit in which it is made. An artist who feels a love for his community may push it just as hard, aesthetically, as an artist who is a self-centered douche. Aesthetics are not the issue. The issue is everything beyond aesthetics.


"You're advocating against art, here; worshiping 'use' above 'beauty.' [...] To advocate for 'mediocre' art that does more 'good' is absurd. What good is mediocre art? "

Cole said this, but Scott didn't.

If I am reading correctly, Scott is saying that we have more to talk about than the single dimension of "quality vs. crap". I don't see him saying "forget about good and bad". I see him saying "remember the other dimensions too". Otherwise we end up flat and brittle.

There's no need to be hostile to a community to make beautiful, offensive, surprising, stunning, and strange art. You may well need to be hostile to ideas held by the community, but that's a very different thing.

Paul Rekk said...


I'm not proposing anything of the sort; I'm just trying to level the playing field. The idea presented from the beginning has been the opposite: that a community first philosophy of art somehow allows one to create better art. I don't question the ability to create great art through that approach. I question the necessity of using that approach to create great art. The polarity in the argument (the polarity which you are trying to hoist onto me as well) is what I am opposed to. As long as the opposite of 'community first' is 'self-centered douche', this ain't a discussion, it's a soapbox.


Perhaps, but what I see having just happened doesn't seem particularly broadening. Me stating my views, you stating yours, and us calling it a day hasn't accomplished much in my mind -- I already knew my views and that yours were different. We've acknowledged a gap, sure, but to say we've bridged anything is being generous. Not that I think that we need or should go further. You're right about the beer, art, and friends. Not every gap needs crossing, but I don't like straining my voice in some insistent need to shout across it, either.

Paul Rekk said...


As someone who does not believe in absolute truth and continues to see the world as a hopeful and beautiful place, you may have to just go with me on some of this.

I do think that I would put 'celebrate the beauty and goodness of the world' as one of my top goals, although I find that beauty and goodness can be found in very unlikely places.

Another important factor for me would be finding passion and honesty (which I find most often go hand in hand) through art and especially performance. Honesty's a potentially contentious word in this context, I know, but what I mean is that the creator/performer really, truly means what they say -- it's not a message or a symbol or a greater good. Or maybe it is one or all of those things, but on top of that fact, it is a straightforward face to face soul-bearing reveal to the audience and whoever else is involved.

I also like to focus on the idea of finding approaches and ideas about the medium I'm working within that myself or the audience may have not considered before, but that's more a personal than philosophical taste. The first two, on the other hand are what have the power to create a truly moving, unhindered emotional response, both in artist and audience. That's what I want to experience, and maybe that's something close to what you consider truth. But seeing as how my truth is best represented in the apex of art, a term near impossible to define, I am bound to accept the concept that each individual has their own truth, their own set of ideals for that purity of response (and I have accepted the concept, cheerfully).

Yes, I make art for myself first and foremost. I don't know why the statement makes people bristle so much -- it's not nearly as narcissistic as everyone implies. I want others to enjoy the art I make every bit as much as me, but I won't know if they do or not until after my part of the process is over, so I may as well make something I love to make and hope for the best rather than make something I'm alright with, but I think others will love and still be only hoping for the best. I can't judge what others are going to respond to and I won't pretend to be able to. I can judge my own response and I know that there are bound to be at the very minimum a few people who have the same response as me. So I go with what I know. Unfortunately for conversations such as this one, what I know has a good amount of stock in stirring the waters.

The one other thing I wanted to be sure to touch on is the idea of moral responsibility, because I've never been able to fully grasp the idea that an artist would have any different moral responsibility than anyone else. Granted, I'm in the no absolutes crowd, so I believe myself to be playing by my own specific moral code (a concept that also riles people up but is much less chaotic than the conclusions everyone wants to jump to), but morality is no more on my mind when I create than when I walk out my front door in the morning. I mostly don't do things I don't think I should. When I do, I feel remorseful. Sometimes I act on that remorse. That's really it. How is that any different than anyone else, artist or no?

And thanks for putting up with the rambling. I say these things knowing full well I'm in the minority, but my eyes are the only ones I got.

Chris Ashworth said...


Regarding how I characterized your argument: fair enough--I don't want to go shoving words in your mouth.

If the crux of your argument is questioning the necessity of the "community first" approach for making aesthetically great art, then to that extent I agree. I think what I said above fits just fine with that idea; your aesthetic results can be exceptional, and are independent of your personal philosophy.

For me it's really important to think of these issues (aesthetics vs. cultural or philosophic context) as orthogonal. They get muddy otherwise.

So to me it seems like we violently agree about the first vector (aesthetics) and don't see eye-to-eye about the second (cultural or philosophic context). I happen to think that the second vector fills out the full meaning of "good art", but if we're limiting ourselves to talking just about the first, then, eh, whatevs, I gots no beef.

Chris Ashworth said...

(And I do think Scott has a point about "effectiveness", which is something that necessarily includes the full cultural and philosophic context. So it's probably not fair to say that aesthetics and philosophy are purely orthogonal. But it's a handy starting point.)

Cole Matson said...


Based on this last post of yours, I think we might be a lot closer than previously suspected.

I would point out that I think you can "really, truly mean what you say" and *also* have what you say be a "message," "symbol," or for the "greater good." As a matter of fact, I think that sincerity - or honesty, as you say - makes for a stronger and more trustworthy message/symbol. I won't believe or trust an artist who uses a symbol because he thinks I'll like it, even though he doesn't believe in it himself. Part of the joy in art for me is sharing an experience with the artist.

Let me share a brief example. The fall of my freshman year at college, I saw an off-Broadway world premiere at Playwrights Horizons: The World Over, by Keith Bunin. All my classmates and I, as students at Playwrights Horizons Theater School, were required to see all that year's Mainstage shows. The play received mediocre reviews, and the vast majority of my classmates didn't enjoy it. However, when I saw it, the final moment of the play made me weep uncontrollably, and I didn't stop for half an hour. I waited, sobbing, at the stage door, and wept all over the lead actor's shirt. The actor pointed out the playwright, and I then hugged him tight and wept all over his shirt, too. As a matter of fact, I have tears starting down my face right now, remembering that show from six years ago.

That show seemed to tap into all the dreams and symbols of my childhood imagination, and my deepest yearnings and spiritual experiences. It's a fantasy, and the reviews derided it for its hodge-podge of influences from Arthurian legend, Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, Homeric epic, and others. However, that's actually why it touched me. Bunin seemed to have taken everything that moved me about these stories, and put them into one character, who was very much like the man I had always wanted myself to be. He seemed to have seen and loved everything I saw and loved, and created a story that celebrated these stories, symbols, and themes with an innocent delight tinged with sadness, that the critics couldn't seem to grasp or accept. Even though it was the story, and especially the central character, that I still love and adore, and that moved me so much, part of the joy was the unexpected gift of hearing the playwright say to me, through the play, "I see these things, too, and I too find them worth keeping tight in our hearts."

OK, so that wasn't a brief example. I just love that play, and I tend to ramble when it comes up. My point is, if the playwright had used these stories as tools, just to prove a point, especially if he didn't believe in them, I would have felt betrayed or mocked, or at the least manipulated. But since the playwright loved these stories as much as I did, I trusted him to use them - and we could both celebrate them together.

I would agree that artists make art because they themselves find joy in it. The life of an artist is difficult enough - why would you do it if it didn't please you? I mentioned Tolkien earlier, who is one of my favorite authors. Middle-Earth came out of his love for languages, and was then shared with his family and close friends, and only later shared with the world. There was not a didactic purpose that spurred its original creation. But at the same time, he loved sharing it with people who also appreciated the world, and once it was published and became internationally popular, he did defend his work against incorrect readings (e.g. that the Ring = the atomic bomb). The world he created, and the values and beauty in it, were worth sharing and defending.

Tolkien wasn't out to teach moral lessons or do Christian apologetics, but at the same time his moral worldview and Catholic beliefs are inseparable from the world he created (which, incidentally, is a pre-Christian world). So I agree with you that there's no need to create art with the express purpose of, for example, teaching morality. Creating is a good thing and a joy in itself. I don't see a problem when an artist doesn't think about the audience because he's thinking about and enjoying the act of creating. However, I do see a problem when an artist thinks of the audience, and thinks of them as less "enlightened" than himself, or purposely shows disrespect or contempt for them.

But there's nothing wrong in creating art because it gives you pleasure.

Freeman said...

The few here that seemingly have an issue with artists putting themselves "above" the community are, themselves, putting themselves about artists.

Cole (even though you are talking to Paul) what I find in your example of The World Over is you liked the play, so you ascribe to the artist a sense that he is moral, good and respected the work. If he had offended you, perhaps you would assume he did so because he didn't respect you or the things you love. Either way, that's entirely subjective. Your assessment of the play is not coming from the writer; it's coming from your own taste. You are ascribing moral correctness to artists who speak to you. Does that mean that artists that offend your sensibilities are moral failures?

What I object to here isn't that you might truly love artists that you feel respect the audience. It's that there are voices here that not only question the morality of those who would choose to offend the audiences, but are in fact advocating only for art they find fulfills their own personal definition of morality. We should embrace all types of artists, even those that offend us. Those artists serve just as important, if not a more important purpose, than those artists that make us feel good, or live in careful negotiation with their communities.

(And, as a complete side note, my cousin Nancy Smith was the Indexer of the Lord of the Rings books, and maintained a correspondence with Chris Tolkien.)

Scott Walters said...

Cole, don't fall for Matt's moral subjectivist argument -- it is the oldest trick in the book, as is eliding "hostility" with "having a clear moral code that one thinks important."

As is often the case on this blog, readers comment less on what is being said in a post than some implications that they ascribe to the post that usually are far afield. The post said nothing about "didactic purposes," it was focused on being part of a community, and knowing how to speak to a specific audience effectively. More specifically, it was about NOT knowing your audience, and setting out to intentionally offend it, neither of which I find particularly effective or admirable. Also, this has nothing to do with "politeness," which is not a synonym for "civility," nor is it a synonym for "belonging."

It is a disappointing point in history we've reached when the suggestion that one's purpose might be to work for the greater good is seen as a heinous suggestion that freedom is being trod upon. When one reads the philosophers and most artists of much of our history, this is a given. To be so committed does not mean that one writes plays that are the equivalent of an After School Special, which demonstrate moral lessons through unearned and superficial experiences, and the idea that it does also says something about where we are in history.

Chris Ashworth said...

For the record, and speaking for myself only (natch), I also think we should embrace artists that offend us. And I don't question the morality of artists who choose to offend audiences for offense's sake. (I question their maturity and their relevance, but I don't question their morality.)

I personally don't find the morality side of this conversation to be especially pertinent.

Abrasion can be effective, and yes, artists often have a responsibility to be abrasive. The "effectiveness" question comes in as a checkpoint on pragmatism. Sure, I can go randomly scream obscenities at some random guy on the street. But I probably won't effect his day nearly as much as if I go scream obscenities at my mom. From a purely pragmatic viewpoint, I get more leverage from engagement with my community. But to achieve that position of leverage takes time and investment.

It's about empowering art, not limiting it. And that includes the offensive art and the abrasive art.

Chris Ashworth said...

(Previous comment simulposted with Scott's.)

Chris Ashworth said...

In re-reading this thread today, I am reminded of two things:

1. Boy, it's hard to have a coherent conversation in a comments thread. Multiple viewpoints + multiple pairings between participants = lots of branches to the discussion.

2. I broke my own rule about being especially cautious about jumping into an online conversation where I don't know the participants and I'm not familiar with their tone or the context of their other writing on the topic.

So, FWIW: Hi all. Nice to meet you. Really enjoying the conversation. Am finding the objections raised above interesting.

Chris Ashworth said...

> ...won't effect his day nearly as much...

Jesus Christ. That's twice I did that in two days.

"won't *affect* his day"

I'm not a complete moron, I swear.

And now I also swear I will stop posting to this comment thread.


Scott Walters said...

Don't feel you have to go, Chris. You're contributing good stuff.

However, I don't agree with the post four up that starts "For the record..."

I'm now going to write something that will be horrifying to many, and even horrifies me somewhat: I really don't care about "empowering art," or limiting it. I think we need to shift our gaze from the needs of art and artists to the needs of our community. This is the service orientation that I propose, and that many strongly reject. The artist is a conduit, not a celebrity or a salesperson. In other words: it's not about you.

Chris Ashworth said...

(Shall I break my pledge so quickly? Ah, hell, why not.)


I guess what I'm trying to do is constrain my argument in a way that (hopefully) doesn't need to refer to my moral beliefs in order to encourage a community-first attitude.

I personally do believe that art without morality is lame. For example, I am led to believe by Clive James that there were some damn fine Nazi musicians, and apparently they wrote and performed some stunning music, but as James notes: "[their] services to an ideal world of art had been co-opted in advance by a force dedicated to its ruin." [Cultural Amnesia, p. 620]

What interests me about your original post is that one can make an argument from effectiveness, rather than an argument from morality. Even if one believes that the artist's first obligation is to his art, there's a pragmatic reason to avoid disengagement and hostility for hostility's sake.

I make no claims about present company, but my personal theatre world has been so dang full of self-centeredness, and I find it so obnoxious, that I'm happy to see a pragmatic reason to discourage it, rather than a moral one. I will admit that at the end of the day I do find the moral argument more important, but I also find genuine (though more limited) importance in the pragmatic one, and at this point I'll take whatever I can get. :/

Scott Walters said...

Beautifully said, Chris. By the way, I love "Cultural Amnesia," and hadn't made the connection between Clive James' focus on the actions of various artists in relation to dictatorial regimes and this discussion, but it is a good one to make.

Chris Ashworth said...

BWT, in case that last comment seems to contradict what I said before, I wanted to say: I don't think it does.

I really *don't* question the morality of an artist who seems to be offending me for offense's sake. And as general rule I think we *should* embrace artists that offend us, with the good-faith operational belief that they're doing so for a reason.

But I've also got no problem saying: "Hi artist. If you're going to ask something of me, then I get to ask something of you. It doesn't mean I want to control you, or put myself above you, it means I want you to take responsibility. We may not always agree what that means. That's life. And as long as either one of us can always choose to walk away from the other, then there's no problem. But when we *do* encounter each other, this is a two-way street between you and me, and I call bullshit if you deny that."

Scott Walters said...

We are in agreement, then. Berry defends the right of every person, artist or otherwise, to engage in protected free speech. But he doesn't see that as being free speech without a reaction. If, he says, an artist's intention is to offend, don't we, as thinking audience members, have a responsibility to BE OFFENDED? As opposed to just sitting there and taking it with the mental shrug that has become, to my mind, worse than active rejection.

Now, that said, if such an artist were part of my community, I would react however I reacted, but I would stay in relationship with the artist. I might confront him in the grocery line, for instance, in the hope of starting a dialogue. But a playwright like Kopit, in Berry's example, skips out of the community in no time flat, leaving the audience no opportunity to engage. To me, that truncates the process of growth, which is dialogic.

Freeman said...

I should have stuck with my first response:

"I wrote a great deal and then deleted it. It all boils down to this for me, Scott: you don't seem to like or trust artists very much."

All I'd edit out are the words "seem to."

This blog treats artists like a problem to be solved. It's troubling, to say the least.

Unknown said...

After all the dialogue, I think I have found a toehold of complete agreement.

I reject outright the belief that art exists to provide hope as I strongly believe that the very nature of Truth is painful. Hope is a choice, not an artistic imperative. You may find the work of, say, Neil LaBute to morally depraved and devoid of Hope - I find it to be unflinchingly honest about the base nature of humans and celebrate the work.

This, however, is where we come together:

If, he says, an artist's intention is to offend, don't we, as thinking audience members, have a responsibility to BE OFFENDED? As opposed to just sitting there and taking it with the mental shrug that has become, to my mind, worse than active rejection.

Now, that said, if such an artist were part of my community, I would react however I reacted, but I would stay in relationship with the artist. I might confront him in the grocery line, for instance, in the hope of starting a dialogue.
As a purposefully confrontational artist, I crave that sort of "out of the building" punch in the nose reaction (even if the punch is just a strong non-violent reaction.)

Any artist who flames a community and then hides is a pussy.

Scott Walters said...

Well, Matt, I guess you can read it that way. I don't think that the relationship between the artist and the audience/community as it has developed over the past 150 years has been particularly healthy, so if that means I regard artists as problems to be solved, well, guilty as charged. If you have to subscribe to the status quo in order to be regarded as liking or trusting artists, then I am also guilty.

Don -- I'm not certain where you are getting the thing about hope. Re; Neil LaBute -- LaBute writes theatrical versions of slasher flicks, and I don't consider slasher flicks artistic or enriching, nor do I consider LaBute's plays that either. And I have no interest in letting this conversation degenerate into a discussion of Neil LaBute.

By the way, artists who flame a community and then hide are the norm -- how much community interaction does Neil Labute have?

However, if you are objecting to the idea of artists, like the rest of humanity, having a responsibility to the Greater Good, then we're in disagreement.

Unknown said...

Not trying to drag LaBute in. Think of any playwright who writes intentionally dark material, devoid of what some call Hope.

By the way, artists who flame a community and then hide are the normNot in Chicago, brother.

I reject that art is a social tool. If an artist wants to serve the Greater Good, open a soup kitchen or teach kids to fingerpaint. Limiting something as vast as Theater to your ideal of what constitutes the Greater Good is like saying all who sail the ocean should be limited to catching fish for the village.

Like I stated, the only thing I found agreement on is the idea that artists should welcome their audience in dialogue about the work - especially if the dialogue is in confrontation.

Scott Walters said...

Right. Got it, Don. Basic disagreement over the purpose of theatre. As far as your analogy is concerned, committing to only sailing the ocean blue without catching fish for the village leads to a very hungry village. But hey, the sailors are having a good time, right?

Unknown said...

And here is where your hyperbole leaves the road, brother.

You are suggesting that all sailors catch fish as a community and moral imperative. The ocean is a big place and I'd hardly call sailors in the Navy or on vast explorations or on scientific expeditions or as a part of the Coast Guard or even just having a good time of less value than a sailor who fishes.

Your artist class (the one you envision) has a commitment to the community first, the art second. That's a social worker, not an artist.

But, to the point, there are already artists who create their art and make their daily bread serving the community. The difficulty is by placing the service to the Greater Good first, the work is, on the whole, mediocre.

Chris Ashworth said...

> I reject that art is a social tool.

I agree with this. The human race has achieved the strange state of not requiring its individual members to participate in the full breadth of activity that sustains us. We've got fishermen that fish for us, and asking the artists to do the fishing is as awkward as asking the fishermen to do the hostage negotiating, or the family counseling for single mothers, or the whatever. That's not their skill set.

On the other hand, you don't have to think art is a social tool to think it has a social responsibility. A storyteller can have an obligation to her community without changing her title from "storyteller" to "social worker".

And art sure as hell need not provide hope. If all art tried to do that I think I'd avoid it entirely. (Hope is overrated anyway.)

Scott Walters said...

Poor Chris! You are trying to walk a razor-thin edge between Don and me, trying to create a bridge that isn't really there. Every time you say something to connect to Don (or Matt), I'll probably be there to bash you! *L*

First of all, hope is essential. Without hope, no action will ever take place. Let me give an example. I teach at a prison once a week, and one of the assignments I've given as a final is straight out of "Seven Habits" by Steven Covey: I ask them to imagine they've lived a long and successful life and passed away at the age of 80 -- what would they like to be said about them at the funeral. What I found is that most of the inmates simply couldn't imagine such a thing. Many wrote eulogies for themselves having died at the age of 29; others wrote eulogies that emphasized the frustration and failure of their lives. The couldn't imagine a better future -- i.e., they had no hope -- so how can they create one? Even a tragedy like, say, "Oedipus" has hope in it, because Oedipus stands tall and sacrifices himself for the good of Thebes -- he does what he said he'd do: found the murderer and punished him.

I also disagree with the specialization that permeates our society that is reflected in your and Don's comment about fishing. I have come to believe that this is unhealthy for individuals and for society. What is the effect of being a prison guard 40 hours a week year after year on the heart of the guard? What is the effect of 40 hrs a week of slaughtering animals on the heart of the meat packing plant employee? I admire Wendell Berry because he is an artist AND a farmer, and I think it adds depth and complexity to his writing.

The use of the phrase "social tool" is interesting -- a tool is something that is used to do something, to construct something. So I'm down with that. I'd go even further: art is ALWAYS a social tool, whether that fact is recognized or not. Mainstream theatre ala Broadway in Chicago, for instance, is a tool that reinforces the social status quo and its values by not only failing to question them, but for burying them within its story structure -- the spoonful of sugar. A theatre committed to improving the community would not do such a thing, but would rather bring into the light certain assumptions and discuss whether they are things we still agree with.

Unknown said...

No doubt, hope is essential. It is, however, not an artistic choice or an aesthetic imperative. Hope is a choice that each individual makes on his or her own.

You may find the musical "Annie" filled with hope but I find it a dismal reminder of how sugar coated most of the crap on Broadway is.

I find the Rocky movies filled with hope; I have friends who find it to be populist horseshit.

Thus, it is not the responsibility of the artist to attempt to objectively supply hope to his audience as hope is as subjective as laughter or tears.
Again, Scott - for you it's either one or the other.

A sailor who eschews fishing for the village may be in the Navy, allow charters for scientific exploration AND sail for the fun of it.

I agree that specialization is crap - it's why I so strongly advocate that day job thing.
Art is always social but to level it as a pragmatic tool is dangerous manipulation. Propaganda is art used as a tool (look at the anti-Jap and Hun posters of WWII for an excellent series of examples or the comic books of Mao in Communist China).

I'd argue that by confronting my community's hypocrisy and complacency and stupidity, my art is, indeed, committed to improving that community and as P. Rekk states, to do so is not limited to a States Rights version of the Truth. Truth that has the power to improve likewise has the power to destroy and is thus more universal than your segregated, limited effectiveness model.

Paul Rekk said...

Just as a button to my own part in this conversation:

"If, he says, an artist's intention is to offend, don't we, as thinking audience members, have a responsibility to BE OFFENDED? As opposed to just sitting there and taking it with the mental shrug that has become, to my mind, worse than active rejection."

Maybe it's the not in Chicago aspect that Don mentioned, but I have never seen this as the status quo, which may be where my disagreement lies. My assumption has always been that any artist who chooses to offend also chooses to take the reaction. Not out of a sense of obligation, but because why else would you choose to offend if you don't want to be around for the aftershock?

Scott Walters said...

This analogy thing is threatening to go off the rails, but let me soldier on. By choosing the word sailor to encompass Navy, fisherman, experimental oceanographers, cruise ship operators, and tug boat captains, you are casting an awfully wide net (pardon the pun). However, I would argue that each serves the community: the Navy by protecting it, the fisherman by feeding it, the oceanographer by informing it, the cruise ship operator by relaxing it, and the tug boat captain by keeping the port open. It would only be the yacht owner sailing around for his own benefit that serves no one. And I do think that those who serve others are more important than those who serve themselves.

On hope: yes, on the level of the individual person, hope is a choice. And while we may not agree on what makes us make that choice, we could probably agree about things that undermine it, and we could probably agree on what is intending to promote hope. For instance, the movie "Serpico" ends by destroying hope as the corrupt police destroy the hero. Neil LaBute is a hopelss playwright. "Annie" may be filled with unearned optimism, but the intention is hope-filled. The first Rocky film intends a hopefilled message that the little man can still achieve respectability.

However, my original post has nothing at all to say about "hope," but rather about effectiveness. The leap to propaganda, which is the artistic equivalent of jumping to talking about Nazis, is not worth rebutting. However, it is indicative of where we have come as a society -- when working for the Greater Good is equated with manipulation and propaganda.

Confronting hypocrisy, complacency, and stupidity is indeed committed to improving the community. Confronting it effectively is what this post was about. Revisit the This American Life analogy in the original post.

"Truth that has the power to improve likewise has the power to destroy" -- explain this more fully, because this sounds more like a slogan than an actual argument.

Scott Walters said...

Paul and Don -- Describe "being around for the aftershock" that is so prevalent in Chicago. Do you and all Chicago artists actually have a personal, ongoing relationship with your audience? Have you ever actually have anyone be truly, deeply offended by anything you've done? What percentage? And the rest -- how did they react?

RLewis said...

"Have you ever actually have anyone be truly, deeply offended by anything you've done?"

Believe that Don has already lovingly answered that:

Still one of my favorites!

Unknown said...

Your boil down of the sailing metaphor underscores two points:

A) that as I stated, Art is too vast an area for you to effectively discuss what makes a commitment to the Greater Good or not so your limited version of community becomes overwhelmed by comparison (Ocean = Art)

B) Freeman really has you on your general disdain of artists if you genuinely see most of us as Yacht captains.
Here's the thing I know - if you INTEND to make people laugh, you'll most often fail except for the simplest of minds. Telling a joke is the lowest form of humor as sentimentality is the lowest form of manipulation in art.

Thus, a work that intends to promote Hope becomes lame and ineffective.

As for deciding to opt out of the propaganda assertion, I'd call that a cop out rather than a high-minded "I'm not lowering the discussion to that" move. Art that is designed to have a purpose other than the existence of said art is a pragmatic tool. Propaganda and advertising are the most obvious pragmatic uses of art. Your assertion that art is a social tool can only be restricted to those two areas and education.
The only road to creation is destruction, Scott. That's nature, not a slogan.

Further, Truth - real, capital T Truth - hurts first and heals second.

PS: If you don't want to bring LaBute into the discussion, leave him out of it. I happen to love his work and think your reasons for disliking his work has little to do with the artistic merit and everything to do with your prudish taste.

....don't...I know you want to but you said LaBute wasn't the issue so let it go...

You can't, can you?

Paul Rekk said...

""Truth that has the power to improve likewise has the power to destroy" -- explain this more fully, because this sounds more like a slogan than an actual argument."

Your black and white world is my spectrum, Scott. Improve any one thing and you destroy something else. Action and reaction.

"Have you ever actually have anyone be truly, deeply offended by anything you've done? What percentage? And the rest -- how did they react?"

Don, you can take these if you want, I'm not turning this into statistical argument about whether or not I'm a true community player. Suffice to say that the artists that I work with on a day to day basis, that being Storefront Chicago, have enough of a relationship with their audience that the idea of an artist hiding from public reaction seems uncommon to me.

Chris Ashworth said...

Knowing full well that by the time I post this there will be half a dozen more comments....


"Poor Chris! You are trying to walk a razor-thin edge between Don and me, trying to create a bridge that isn't really there. Every time you say something to connect to Don (or Matt), I'll probably be there to bash you!"

As the popular online abbreviation goes, "LOL".

But that's what makes this whole thing interesting!

"First of all, hope is essential."

Eh, I don't want to drag us off into a discussion about hope, especially since I don't feel real solid on my relationship to the concept. Was it Lao Tzu who who said something like "hope is as hollow as fear"? Whoever it was, that's a startling idea I'm still trying to grapple with. But I won't begrudge you hope. I'm just suspicious of making it a check-box.

"I also disagree with the specialization that permeates our society..."

Hey, you're talking to a guy who left theater so he could go get a masters degree so he could go start a software company so he could go get health insurance and a stable salary so he could come back to theater. Which isn't really being fair to the fact that I love the programming and the entrepreneurship and everything else about the non-theater stuff, but the point is: I'm totally with you on fighting the pigeonholes! If I have nothing else to show for my life, I at least have that.

But flip your imagination around on this one for a second. Instead of the prison guards and the meat packing plants and the other hyper-pigeonholed souls suffering under a system that specializes too much, instead of focusing on how verifiably shitty it is that we've industrialized and specialized food to the point that it's barely recognizable as food anymore... flip it over and consider the sheer, mind-numbing multi-manifold domain of human endeavor. Somewhere between humans-as-cogs-in-a-machine and humans-as-self-sufficient-creatures there is a balance that keeps us human but still lets us become specialized enough to come up with math and music and biology and carpentry and surgery.

We may, in theory, be able to simplify ourselves back down the complexity scale, but even then, man, we're still gonna be specialized. :)

If we allow for the idea that not every person will be good at every worthwhile human endeavor, there's a reasonable argument to be made that we're better off pairing talent to endeavors. It may be a fallacious argument, but it's an argument you'll have to deal with one way or another. :)

Unknown said...

"Have you ever actually have anyone be truly, deeply offended by anything you've done? What percentage? And the rest -- how did they react?"I think RLewis dealt with this but to further illustrate:

For Metaluna there is a moment when the DADAists, employed to perform vaudeville without any knowledge of WHY vaudeville works, come out in blackface. Following different productions of that show, I've had a number of conversations about the implications of that - some pretty heated, others not.

When I directed McNally's Sweet Eros, instead of haviung the kidnapped and abused girl almost get away and get pulled back by her tormentor, I chose to have her escape and CHOOSE to stay. This choice caused a huge outcry and I had heated discussions with a number of patrons about the direction.

So yeah, Scott. And percentages are horseshit and you know it, but if it makes you happy, I'll say 60%.

Scott Walters said...

Actually, Don, yes I can... let Labute go, I mean. Despite your "prudish" crack.

(deep breath) No, really. I can.

"A) that as I stated, Art is too vast an area for you to effectively discuss what makes a commitment to the Greater Good or not so your limited version of community becomes overwhelmed by comparison (Ocean = Art)"

Ummm. This makes absolutely no sense. I mean, it SOUNDS like a syllogism, but...not so much.

"Here's the thing I know - if you INTEND to make people laugh, you'll most often fail except for the simplest of minds."

Really? So comedy occurs by accident? Sweet -- no need to train, right?

"The only road to creation is destruction, Scott. That's nature, not a slogan."

yeah. Except for that whole birth thing.

"Art that is designed to have a purpose other than the existence of said art is a pragmatic tool."

yes, I've read Kant, too, and I think he's full of it. He marginalized art with his argument that art is useless. For the 2200 year history of theatre and literature, its usefulness was always understood and embraced. Cf Aristotle and Horace, a traditiona that dominated until the 1700s. Art is not an end in itself. Read Ellen Dissanayake for a full discussion of the biological purpose of art.

Chris -- Not every person is going to be good at every human endeavor, or as good as someone else, but when a society forgets how to sing, forgets how to tell a story, forgets how to dance, forgets how to draw, and instead hires "the best" to do it for them, something deeply important to human society has been lost, and it enters the economy as a transaction.

Unknown said...

The prudish crack was just a temptation. Well done.

Our biggest difference in this discussion is pretty simple. It's inked on my right bicep.

"Ars Gratia Artis"

Good stuff to dwell upon.

Scott Walters said...

Oh, and about propaganda. According to Kant, there is no such thing as propaganda, there is only art. If Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will or Cecil B. DeMille's Birth of a Nation is artistically beautiful, it doesn't matter what it is saying, what effect it is having. I can't go there.

Yes, propaganda uses artistic forms instrumentally, but that doesn't mean that all art that has a message, all art that speaks to the community, all art that seeks to make the world a better place, is propoganda any more that all people who go into a garage are cars. You are using an extreme example to negate the entire continuum, which I'm sure is a fallacy that has a name in logic.

Scott Walters said...

"Ars Gratia Artis" also appeared in the oval surrounding the head of Leo the Lion at the start of all MGM motion pictures.

I don't have any tattoos on my ars, but if I did, it would read "Utile et Dulce."

Chris Ashworth said...

"When a society forgets how to sing, forgets how to tell a story, forgets how to dance, forgets how to draw, and instead hires "the best" to do it for them, something deeply important to human society has been lost, and it enters the economy as a transaction."

A beautifully phrased sentiment, worth remembering, that you will not find me contradicting. :)

Scott Walters said...

Oooooo. We're SO educated. This is a new high for Theatre Ideas: Kant and Latin all in the same thread!

Chris Ashworth said...

> A beautifully phrased sentiment, worth remembering, that you will not find me contradicting.

(Although it kinda looked like I did. But I was just saying artists need not be obligated to function as social workers to benefit from social workers. The inverse formulation, that social workers don't need to function as artists to benefit from the arts, doesn't work. 'Cause to achieve the full benefit of the arts is inherently tied up in the process of participating in them. Basically, the arts aren't "work" the way anything else is work. They're something else. They are, as Don (and Clive James) said, they're own thing for their own sake.)

Chris Ashworth said...

First one who gets a reference in to three different philosophers in one post wins. Bonus points for quoting ancient greek.

Freeman said...

Well at least everyone finally got around to talking about the Nazis. It's not a legitimately long comment section without such references.

Chris Ashworth said...

Right. 'Cause Nazi Germany has no bearing whatsoever on a discussion about the intersection between culture and morality.

The corollary to Godwin's law: every legitimate online reference to Nazi Germany will be mocked from now until the end of the Internet.

C'mon, man.

Paul Rekk said...

The end of the Internet? Isn't that in Jersey somewhere?

I'm sorry, was this thing still on? Once we hit 69 comments, I just get adolescent.

Cole Matson said...

Sorry I've been absent for a couple days. As of last Saturday, I'm in tech for A Man for All Seasons, opening this Friday in Baltimore.

I think the "hope" thread came from my list of some of my goals as an artist:

"-Give people hope
-Inspire them to a morally higher level of behavior (more compassionate, more truthful, etc.)
-Increase a sense of empathy for others
-Celebrate the beauty and goodness in the world"

I don't see this list as a checklist, for a piece of art to satisfy. "Inspires hope?" "Check." "Promotes a particular moral stance?" "Check." "You know, maybe we should add more 'celebration of beauty and goodness.'" "OK."

The above goals are several purposes which a piece of art can serve, or if you'd rather, effects it can have. And I am by no means advocating sitting down before work and saying to oneself, "I want to convince people that honesty is the best policy," and then figuring out how to write a play with that message (though good art can be made through that process). I think, however, such goals are more often accomplished through artistic choices of form and content. And any artist's artistic choices are going to come out of his worldview, by which I mean nothing more than that an artist's artistic choices are related to the choices he makes in other areas of his life, and what he believes to be true about the world.

For example, if you're a DADAist who finds little to no value in reason, you are not going to choose to mount an Aristotelian tragedy in which a tight sequence of cause-and-effect is indispensable to the art. Or, if you do choose to use the content of a Greek tragedy, you are going to present it in such a way as to debunk Aristotelian notions of the necessity of cause-and-effect.

If I believe that hope is one of the three greatest virtues, and if I further believe that hope exists for each one of us, and for the world, and that in the end good will conquer evil, and virtue, even unseen virtue, will be rewarded and wickedness, even unseen wickedness, will be punished--If, as I say, I believe in hope, I will not choose to mount a play in which the playwright makes it clear that he believes the state of the world to be such that there is no hope, and all is irredeemably depraved. Not because I believe that playwright is a bad person, or a bad playwright, but because I believe he is saying something that isn't true. And as both an artist and a human being, why would I want to promote an idea that isn't true?

We're running into this kind of worldview issue with the production of A Man for All Seasons I'm in. The way you present the play, and the way you play St. Thomas More, differs depending on whether you believe More was a hero, or a fool. Does it become a story about a man who was destroyed by his own inability to compromise and see the signs of progress, or is it a story about a man who demonstrated the virtues of loyalty, truth, and integrity better than almost any of us have? What you want the audience to go away thinking about - and which arguments you want them to remember most strongly - influences how you present the play, or what choices you make about your character. How many artists are neutral when they create art? How many would want to be, or could be?

I think what we seem to be divided about is whether art, like all other human endeavours, is subject to morality (or even whether all human endeavours are subject to that law). Is art of a piece with all human acts, or is it something categorically different from everything else, a Very Special Thing, done by Very Special People, as Scott so aptly put it?

I myself am of Scott's belief that the setting of Art and Artists upon a pedestal is a mistake that needs to be rectified by reminding the artist of his identity as a member of a community, and his responsibility to that community. The humblest fisherman pulling guts out of a tuna is just as sacred as the downtown artist experimenting with new dramatic ways of speaking Truth to power.

Re: Matt's comment (a long time ago, it now seems) that I only love playwrights who do work I find morally acceptable. First of all, in my example of The World Over, I was in the unusual situation of knowing the playwright's opinions of the stories I loved, because the program included a writer's note in which Mr. Bunin wrote that the play was partially a tribute to these same stories, which his mother told to him growing up. So it wasn't just by subjective experience, though the note only confirms my experience. Second of all, I am bound as a human being to love all playwrights, as my fellow human beings. That doesn't mean, however, that I must love their work, or view all plays as equally valuable, or equally deserving of existence. I would have them free to create their work, but that doesn't mean I have to support it. I don't believe that we should support artists who offend just because they are artists. Artists have no claim for special treatment any more than practitioners of any other legitimate and valuable human behavior. However, I believe we should support artists who offend if they offend as a side effect of saying true things that need to be said to people who don't want to hear them - not if they offend for the express purpose of offending. And if you can find a way to make your point just as strongly but without offending, so much the better.

Scott, you're now on my blogroll at (or at least will be in a few minutes). Please forgive me, all, if I don't respond quickly - tech calls!

Paul Rekk said...

"Is art of a piece with all human acts, or is it something categorically different from everything else, a Very Special Thing, done by Very Special People, as Scott so aptly put it?"

How about a Very Special Thing, done by whoever up and does it? That'd be my response.

Freeman said...

Sorry, Chris. But there must be other things to talk about besides Nazis.

For example: farms.

Scott Walters said...

Actually, we weren't talking about Nazis, we were talking about a work of art made as propaganda, one that everybody would recognize as such. So the kneejerk Nazi comment is less applicable.

Chris Ashworth said...

Nazi farms?

"Mine F├╝hrer! Ze first asparagus of spring haz arrived! Ja! Izt ze pasty pale kind! Your favorite!"

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