ESSAY: What Role Does Art Play?
”We all create our own narratives, our own paths. Professional artists have access to valuable and powerful tools, and also the freedom to choose how to use them, and to what purpose. Do we further embrace dystopia because it offers the more accessible path? Or do we have the courage to accept the challenge of trying to change the destiny of this floundering ship?”
The contemporary Western arts scene appears full of works intended to engage our emotions and make us feel shock, disgust, fear, or deep anxiety. Galleries, museums, and performance spaces are filled with raw sexuality, sadistic violence and nihilistic worldviews. Hito Steyerl describes today’s arts scene correctly, in my view, in her essay: “If You Don’t Have Bread, Eat Art!: Contemporary Art and Derivative Fascisms”, wherein she exposes the current mechanisms that determine the field of contemporary art.1
Rates of depression and anxiety in Western society are at record levels and more and more people rely on drugs and artificial chemicals to stay sane. Children are born to, and raised in, an existence that obliges them either to rectify the mistakes of previous generations and attempt to save the planet, or capitulate to the same ignorance, for lack of the necessary emotional and social skills to tackle the crisis.
People appear to be hiding in their virtual worlds, through their mobile phones, iPads, podcasts, digital games, social media and other distractions, rather than spending time with their families and friends. We are becoming progressively unsocial at the very time we need each other more than ever before. Dystopias, armed conflicts, biological warfare, climate change, escapism: are these issues best dealt with through individual isolation or collective effort?
Does art have any role to play, and if so what might that be? Do we, as artists, merely serve up our own personal anxieties and leave our audiences/spectators/receivers to deal with them as best they can? Or do we instead embrace our responsibilities? And if so, what exactly are those responsibilities?
The son of a friend of mine was recently excluded from daycare after he brought a hammer with him because, he said, the other children were “mean to him”. His family, of course, was very upset, but when I pointed out that this exact narrative was played out daily in the cartoons he watched, their response was, “Oh, but that’s just television!”
Fiction is fiction, and reality is…?
In a society that is becoming more and more rootless, theatre’s response is to mirror that development by moving away from conventional narrative structures in preference for visual and aural experiences and installations.2 The current desire seems to be to engage people in the story through interactive and immersive experiences.3
In other creative industries – such as gaming, design and business start-ups – a trending concept right now is “the story”. Successful entrepreneurs all have their own story and branded narrative which creates a subconscious understanding for, and identification with, the initiatives and aims of the company, leading to a personalized encounter with the organization.
Originally, theatre was the art of telling a story to an audience, but during the past fifty years or so there has been a development towards a more postmodern/ post-dramatic performance aesthetic.4 This is indeed simply a mirroring of society, which is the very cornerstone of the theatre’s operation. Scattered and fragmented dramaturgies, high levels of abstraction and hyper-specific frames of reference have gradually become the norm. Theatre is now engaged in a constant competition with the vast, economically superior film and media industry, and must consider the way in which members of a modern society absorb information. Technology is replacing traditional stagecraft and virtual reality is posed as the new savior of the performing arts.5
But what are we actually competing for? The audience’s goodwill and support? The survival of an art form? And are we really achieving this by making it into a hybrid of something else, a smaller sister of the big technology industry?
When theatre-makers abandon the idea of creating a bonded stage fiction the concept of objectivity is often superseded by the subjective and the art works become individualistic and self-centered. Increasingly, personal traumas and unfinished personal business are presented on stage in a way that may have a therapeutic value for the artist but often leaves the audience in a vulnerable position, exposed to another’s emotional agony for no apparent reason and without recourse to a meaningful solution. In many cases this creates a powerful sense of discomfort in the spectator and a consequent disinclination to return to the theatre in future. Is the stage the appropriate place for artists to express their own personal traumas and pain? Does this really serve any higher purpose for society and its members?
As I am more interested in artworks as cultural expressions and the contexts surrounding them, I have chosen not to give examples of specific performances or artists at this point, as might be the norm in an essay of this type. Instead, I will mention a few subjective observations I have registered in recent years regarding tendencies and geo-cultural trends.
For example, I have noticed that in eastern Europe many works deal with themes of personal pain and suffering, restrictions of freedom and political issues, whilst in the western part the focus seems to be concentrated on the human body, i.e. issues of sexuality, gender and bodily abuse. Russian theatre, meanwhile, often deals with great heroes and authors, and/or the revolt against these figures. Mexican art is drawn to the subject of death; the tendency in Asia is often to explore different forms of violence directed against the body.
The art works of the post-dramatic era have, in some cases, become elitist and obscure or nebulous. Do we really wish to present our works predominantly for colleagues and critics, those so-called “insiders” who are sufficiently “sophisticated” to understand what we are trying to express? Is that the purpose of art, as a form and expression of life?
Where do we go from here?
Here, in this textual exploration, I allow myself the agency to create a short moment of “pause”, wherein I may express the utopian desire for hope and beauty to again flourish in the arts.
What if the performing arts would be the explorative frontier for creating new and innovative ways of thinking, opportunities to lead our audiences boldly beyond prescribed norms, in order to demonstrate that this is not a dangerous activity, but an exciting and necessary one?6
What if performing artists would take their spectators on a flight high above this harsh reality, allowing them to see the narrow paths, to which we are so attached that we cannot act for the general good but for ourselves, only?
What if we artists could lead the way, inspiring others to find their purpose, their role in life, thus breaking down barriers and creating new, shared playgrounds?
Why is this so difficult and what is needed for it to occur?7 To force a change we must first look inside ourselves. If our aim as artists is to express ourselves, how best can that be done? As a competitive fight for personal attention, or as a means to move beyond, towards a more collective awareness of what is needed for our society to recover from the wounds we have inflicted upon it? To focus only on our personal dilemmas, or to attempt to see the whole picture, and accept responsibility for it?
Is this moralizing? Am I promoting art that merely “teaches people to be good citizens”? Such is not my intention. Art is neither a school, nor a prison, still less a brothel. Perhaps it can be the space wherein a person, or a culture, may experience the only sense of freedom that is left? A place where something that is otherwise not let into the open, that feels important yet cannot be captured by words, may be expressed? We, the artists, can try to nail art down to a sequence of signals and signs. Or we can recognize the source of our true intentions and let that inform our journey.
We all create our own narratives, our own paths. Professional artists have access to valuable and powerful tools, and also the freedom to choose how to use them, and to what purpose. Do we further embrace dystopia because it offers the more accessible path? Or do we have the courage to accept the challenge of trying to change the destiny of this floundering ship?
1 Steyerl, H. (2016) “If You Don’t Have Bread, Eat Art!: Contemporary Art and Derivative Fascisms” , e-flux journal #76 – October 2016.
2 Gobsquad.com. (2020). Gob Squad – Gob Squad Arts Collective. [online] Available at: http://www.gobsquad.com/home [Accessed 9 December 2020].
3 Rimini-protokoll.de. (2020). Rimini Protokoll. [online] Available at: https://www.rimini-protokoll.de/website/de/ [Accessed 9 Dec. 2020]. and Poste-restante.se. (2020). POSTE RESTANTE. [online] Available at: http://www.poste-restante.se/index.php?view=prod [Accessed 9 Dec. 2020].
4 Lehmann, H., (2006). Postdramatic Theatre. London: Routledge.
5 Buck-Morss, Susan (2008) Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered. The MIT press, October, Vol. 62 pp 3–41.
6 Utopedia.fi (2020), RAKKAUDESTA – sanasto tuleville vuosikymmenille (online) Available at: http://utopedia.fi/ (Accessed 9 December 2020).
7 Tanskanen, K. (2017). Yleisö kohtaa toisen : Etiikan dramaturgioita 2010-luvun suomalaisissa näytelmissä. Helsinki University. Available at: http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-951-51-3085-3.