‘The Arts’ are not about the Artists:
Today (Tuesday 1st November 2016) ‘The Stage’ printed an article about Conservative MP and former Culture Minister Ed Vaizey’s assertion that ‘The Arts world suffers from left-wing groupthink’. (https://www.thestage.co.uk/news/2016/ed-vaizey-arts-world-suffers-from-left-wing-groupthink/).
It occurred to me having read the article that I agreed with much of the sentiment but I don’t feel labels help move the conversation on very much. You get the opposition to your argument you deserve, and labelling whole swathes of individuals ‘left-wing group think’ is unlikely to persuade those people to change their view, no matter how true the assertion may be. So in the great political tradition of saying something you know others may not like, here is my addition to a ‘frank and robust exchange of views’.
Diversifying in business when bums on seats is hard is the natural and preferred course of action. Why does theatre seem to refuse to diversify? And when I say diversify I mean speak to and for people who hold different perspectives. Assimilating people from different backgrounds who just happen to conform to the status quo too, isn’t my definition of diversifying.
Why is the arts world making itself into a niche? In post recession Britain every business is the competition of another (even in previously unrelated areas, theatre, catering, fashion, retail, hospitality, music, it all takes money out of our pocket that we can’t spend elsewhere. A self inflicted niche where a larger market share exists is in no business’s interest. Yet the arts continually seem to struggle, despite positive sentiment and rhetoric, to dilute their output to the point where this the mainstream becomes the target market. I don’t believe Art is a niche market. I think we have made it so. People said children didn’t read books, until Harry Potter came along. And what J.K.Rowling do? She didn’t patronise her audience. Some of those stories you might think were too scary for little kids, but they loved it. I think that is a lesson for the Arts world as a whole. In the interest of balance I will say that I could write a while essay on the sort of work out there that is being really well received and pushing new boundaries. Mark Rylance in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem; Jonathan Sothcott’s revival of British working class on film; Jack O’connell and his grounded performances that have made an asset out of his non-conformity to the arts’ traditional model of the modern day actor; and of course many more. Support of the arts however is well documented. In fact the arts world isn’t very shy in providing narratives that support its own interests and so I needn’t explore this area too much. Art benefits our collective and holistic lives immeasurably. Which is why I feel its such a shame that many people are missing out of great music and poetry and theatre and film, until its packaged in a way that speaks to them, or appears on a car advert as apiece of rousing music to a cinematic backdrop. The point is why do we accept a limitation on our ability to present art in a modern way that has the uninitiated at the heart of what we do? Do those involved in the arts know just how many people are out there waiting to have that need created in them but who we have really given up on as not ‘arty’ people? Or perhaps more fairly, we have let them give up on themselves too easily in this regard. Creating a need. This is basic sales. We could do much better if we tried.
Outside the Tribe:
In our evolution we learnt that being expelled from the tribe for shame or non-conformity could cost us the safety, security and life giving resources available to those within the tribe. Being expelled would have meant certain death in our hunter/gatherer days. We are still that same animal. Art fulfils many needs in the artist and many who view it, a common denominator being social validation of who we are, of what we think and of our shared human doubts and strengths. It makes perfect sense when working in this arena that we might without realising group together with like minded people who back us up in an uncertain world and in a precarious career. But art is so dull if you have to join a club to enjoy it. And the safety on the inclusion of the group may look just as uninviting to the outside as it may feel comforting on the inside. Put it this way, if you never step outside the tribe who do you know different cultures exist? If you want to fall in love but you never step outside the local village, how do you know who you’re missing? How can you see who isn’t there?
It’s an odd question to ask ourselves what’s missing? What we can’t see? But the lack of object constancy of the toddler with his eyes shut, who thinks we can’t see them is something we must aim to outgrow. Even if we technically can’t know how we haven’t met in our lives yet, we all know there are people out there yet to befriend. And we as artists, should know there are actors, poets, writers and directors, choreographers etc who we may never meet because the echo-chambers of our social interactions are too comfortable. Social media hasn’t helped the arts. Instead of being able to meet people form all over the world with differing views, personal social media profiles are largely represent many semi-cultural-apartheids, based on lists and lists people who think the same way to each other. The arts world is failing itself and its potential if it becomes too satisfied with a similar isolationist back slapping. For me I am constantly aware of the working class labourer, or the bloke being dragged to the show by his girlfriend, when I’m acting. Thats who I perform for. It is why I hate there being anyone in the audience I know. I have nothing against the small minority of the population who regard themselves as art lovers on any regular basis. I just think the gauge of any artistic endeavour is best judged by the person in the audience who owes you nothing but who your win over anyway. Hubris, narcissism and complacency stalk the backstage of any theatre who never challenges it’s collective view and I don’t see this as an equation that is likely to maximise our collective strengths as a society of artists. Many people out there in wider society don’t think the arts is for them? This is a truth thats hard to dismiss. And the truth can be challenging. And yes, tied up in every artistic choice or message, is a political slant. How can it be any different. But as artists we must remind ourselves we are human first, just the same as the audience, and safe consensus politics never broke any new ground. Too much mutual appreciation amongst artists in search of the consensus of audience approval means that the Punk Rock Mavericks of the art-world are more likely to be Tory’s or Ukip supporters these days, if only by the default position of being in the minority. If Brexit didn’t teach us anything, the American Presidential election surely must, we are on the cusp of a challenging yet extremely unprecedented time in Human political history. Is very play going to have the same politically correct message in it? Is no one going to try holding a mirror up to the society o the day by engaging with not dismissing dissenting voices. ‘It is as much our right to freedom of speech to have our voice heard as it is to hear a dissenting view’ ~ Christopher Hitchens. I believe Ed Vaizey has a point, but might you only recognise his point if you came to the arts world later in life as an outsider? Who’s fault is it that Art has become a niche market? Is it the fault of the masses for not being educated enough or not liking the ‘right’ things? Or ours for not catering to them? My opinion you might not be surprised to hear favours the latter interpretation.
This idea is perhaps best encapsulated by the argument about whether artists should ‘dumb down’ a play or artwork if its likely modern audiences won’t get the literary references. Purists may say it is the job of the artist to inform, and thats very noble. But we should market it in the poster that some understanding of the text is preferred for the optimum enjoyment of the work. Nevertheless, art should work for everyone who buys a ticket. Actors don’t favour those sat in the front row over this sat at the back. Everybody deserves to see and hear the performance. So why should the education of schooling of the audience alter anything? The arts isn’t school. Who are we to judge the suitability of the audience to view our work? What irks me is we successfully win new generations around to the arts every year with children’s books, films, pantomime, only to lose them as adolescents and never see many of them again.
There is great work being done all over the arts world but, if dissenting voices are not invited in, the arts will keep failing to address the fact that vast swathes of the population outdo the artistic tribe are not being persuaded that we have anything to offer them. When it comes to the power of persuasion, one thing is true. Whether in the Arts, business or politics. Conflict = Attention and Attention = Influence. If we want to influence a wider customer base, we need to create conflict in our own artistic community first. “Groupthink’ is mathematically opposed to the whole artistic reason d’être, namely to search for, explore and provoke conversation about our shared human condition, life, truth, power etc. How does a homogenised political opinion within the artistic community, let alone the specific creative team of any given project think it will hold a mirror up to the society of the day, if they’re all in agreement at the start? If you think I, or Ed Vaisey are exaggerating, watch just one episode of BBC’s Question Time and see where the Political leanings of the token artist lies. Now, I should say, I don’t care about anybody’s politics but my own. I would deb equally disappointed with groupthink in the arts if it were all conservative, or liberal. It’s not the opinions that matter to me its the approach and the thinking behind the options that are shaping the art that matter. If we want more young, ethnically diverse, working class people to enjoy Art and make it, we have to it their voices in. Some of these people won’t vote the same way as you or me. And our collective artist’s pallet will be richer for it.
Outside the Box Office:
I think we need to try harder. Personally I couldn’t pay my non-theatre friends to come and see a play (especially not one I’m in), or go to an art gallery. Nearly every girlfriend I’ve ever had has seethed with unconvincing tolerance of my creative aspirations. There is a whole world out there whose anti-theatre, anti-elite, anti-middle aged conformation bias we the artists have to try and break through if we are to remind them that artistic enrichment is the right of every flourishing human being since time began. To do this I believe artists should work on the same assumption that businesses work on, and that is that the audience don’t care about what we’re doing. Our job is to persuade them to care enough about the project to buy a ticket in the first place. And we do that by serving the needs of the audience, not the artists. Too much of the disconnect between the Arts world and the mainstream public is it is seen to be self serving, self congratulatory. Where is the persuasive reason for anyone to pay their hard earned money just to instantly forget about it, wishing they’d stayed home and watched tv for free, and felt the need to applaud out of politeness two hours later? Most audiences will applaud. Its no guarantee of heartfelt reciprocity. It would be pretty awkward to do a curtain call to total silence. And so the co-dependent charade has no end. our job changes.
Yes of course it’s an extremely difficult balancing act, wishing to express that create desire we have, and for it to be well received for all sorts of personal validation and gratification, and self-doubt reassuring the power of an appreciative audience can summon up. But that doesn’t mean the performance is about us. We almost give up our claim to the art once we reveal it to an audience. It becomes theirs, in that moment, the experience belongs to them. This brings us to the conflict at the heart of the Arts worlds deepest cognitive dissonance.
Performance Art, ‘The Arts’ in general are a business of self expression. Hi sis both the beauty of and the hindrance to its ongoing appeal. The opportunity to express oneself it is a potential gateway to that narcissism within all of us that enjoys being heard. The limelight, having taken to the stage, all eyes and ears on you or your work, is very enticing for that element within us that blinds us to our artistic duties. I firmly believe art isn’t about the artist. Of course we should enjoy it; the making and the giving of it; but that’s our business. I don’t expect the audience to care about me the actor and whether I had a good performance that night or not. This isn’t why they paid their money. As soon as we sell a ticket and exchange money, we have a contract and the art belongs to the watcher. Being selfless in the arts, is the job. Having a captive audience and NOT talking about yourself is the challenge. There are some areas o the arts world more predisposed to this selfless form of performance. Comedy either gets a laugh on the night or the joke falls flat, there’s no arguing around it. Magicians and Illusionists operate on a stage where they may calm on the surface but paddling furiously underneath, but as long as the audience is met with bewilderment or amazement its objectively worth it.
The trouble we in the arts have who operate in less well defined areas, like theatre, is we can be guilty of rationalising a bad performance as being down to a bad audience. I think somewhere in this soul searching is the reason theatres particularly struggle to invite in untried and tested communities from the general public. Theatre particularly has something of the polite society dinner party etiquette about it. People who talk, or eat, or take photos, or don’t behave ‘correctly’, threaten the safety of the environment the art is ‘meant’ to be delivered in. But as the performance belongs to those who’ve paid to see it what behaviour is correct? Street performers don’t have the luxury of blaming the audience for a bad days work. They either keep the crowds attention or they don’t.
I should point out that for me, this dynamic is the most desirable for an artist. There is no better compliment as far as I’m concerned than a partner of someone in the audience, stating afterwards that they don’t usually like thus sort of thing, they were dragged along but really enjoyed it. Thats the most sincere compliment there is. Someone with no loyalties to the art, no care for what we do, but who you won over and who may come again based purely on the experience we created in that moment. I believe all artists have this element in them, but I think the arts world, distracts form it very easily. We’re human, we favour consistency, safety and reassurance, but art offers none of that. Therefore a regular audience you recognise, abiding by polite rules of engagement and offering validation at the end becomes a warm bath its hard to pull the plug on ourselves. But we should do it. For the sake of the arts world we all belong to, we should remind ourselves daily that the challenge of the artist is in detaching from our ‘baby’ and giving it away. When it comes to narcissism, the audience are narcissistic too. They want to be able to see themselves in the work. Without that, its like having a first date with someone who never stops talking about themselves. The Arts world needs to date more, become more polyamorous, and listen to newer perspectives. Theatre before cinema thrived. Now we are in the age of the tablet. Carrying on what worked before is only going to work of so long. Once a theatre has closed, its closed for good. I would rather see theatre return to the raucous party of the middle ages and thrive than stay middle aged and eventually die out. Theatre used to be the nightclubs of the village. W. H. Auden said, ‘The theater has never been any good since the actors became gentlemen’. I think he was right.