Art is for Everyone Part 1: on “getting it” – a review of highbrow live performance

All of us have been exposed at some point to art we found so inaccessible, so abstract or symbolic or random that we couldn’t make heads or tails of what we were supposed to be getting from it. Honestly, it’s this impenetrability that often keeps some people from going out of their way to attend arts events. Some people even react strongly enough to avoid arts events all together and presume it is either above their pedigree or altogether a waste of time and energy. I disagree with these stances, although I can sympathize with the frustration of floundering in unknown waters.

This last weekend however, I attended two sold out performances which defied all the fear mongering that “theatre is dead.” One of these had all the trappings of a contemporary performance, including some edgy, nuanced renderings steeped in what I call “the language of art” and the other was a joyful romp into whimsy and delight.  Though very different, I think these experiences show that art truly is for everyone. In the next two blog posts, I invite you to explore your reaction to both “highbrow” and “lowbrow” art and the potential for both to be worth your time.

Part 1: on “getting it” – a review of highbrow live performance.

Zoe | Juniper BeginAgain at On the Boards

courtesy of On the Boards

courtesy of On the Boards

On the Boards is a contemporary and interdisciplinary performance space in Seattle, Washington that brings in a wide variety of acts. In the words of the current Artistic Director Lane Czaplinkki, “We put a lot of shit on stage that’s hard to define. Dance, theatre, music, visual art, video, etc. Some of it blurs. We’ve got much, much discipline.” BeginAgain is a dance and video/sound piece that explores in movement what it is to start over, and if we can ever really do that from scratch. How do you explore this in a wordless series of movements, images, and sounds? I guess you would have to see it to know. I couldn’t answer that for you, even if I described to you exactly what I saw and heard. What I can share is my reaction to my experience there.

I found this piece, like many contemporary dance pieces, heavy in symbol and making use of that aforementioned “language of art” that takes some time to learn, decode, and acclimate to until it becomes a second language.  As an example, the language of art might tell you that a repeated series of movements with one additional movement added to that series with each progressive repetition, is emphasizing a build up to something important. It might tell you that a wide open body is expressing something emotionally different from a closed tight body.  The great thing about this language is that it is built out of things we already know and see in everyday life. Perhaps these are exaggerated a bit or stylized, but they are still things that will have an instant though perhaps subtle effect on you via your eyes and ears.

I think in this time and place in culture, some of us get obsessed with “getting it.” We humans are itinerant meaning-makers and pattern-finders. It’s part of our human evolution. I think it’s normal to be frustrated or dismissive to things we don’t “get.” We often forget how to delay gratification. Our unwillingness to invest in things we don’t have easy mastery of can get in the way of us discovering something quite meaningful. This could be called laziness or ignorance and certainly smacks of impatience. However, I don’t think the problem is so much that we don’t “get it,” but that we often feel pressured (especially at such highbrow art events) by the idea that we have to.

Because this language of art is built from things we all encounter in our human experience, it speaks to our pattern-recognition capabilities whether we want it to or not. I’m of the opinion that though education and practiced watching may produce a more conscious experience of what the artist is trying to convey, the art piece is likely to work on the subconscious regardless. Why should we care about that? Well maybe because that’s where things start. It’s why people reach out for art, or are drawn to it in one way or another in the first place. They have a response.

As I sat in this show, I felt a little challenged (educated as I am) to understand it. Although more of a written artist’s statement might have helped push me along, since I was not provided one, I struggled with my conscious ignorance. While watching some truly skilled dancers perform amongst  the embellishments of videography and sound, I noticed my body responding to something my mind couldn’t yet grok. My body felt warm at times, then cold, then my stomach tight, my throat tight, then I cried a little, then I relaxed, then I squirmed in my chair, then I was more fidgety, then more still. I was at various points at the ends of my chair and then subsumed by it. Obviously, my body got it. My emotions followed suit as you might expect. What was left behind? My mind. About a third of the way into the performance I gave up “getting it” in favor of experiencing it.

Intellectualization is a academic process of making things digestible and able to be integrated and compartmentalized. It’s also a defense mechanism, a way of making overwhelming complex things simpler and more defined. It’s both useful and exceedingly limiting of the human experience, and I think it’s also what we most glorify when it comes to highbrow art. For some reason, the more we can fathom something obscure and laden in subtext, the more we feel “artistic.” One of the things I love the most about dance, especially contemporary dance, is that it so often works outside of our intellectual process. In its very creation, it gets away from the mind running the show, and into the body.  Perhaps disconnection and disregard for our bodies’ experiences contributes to the impulse many of us have when we experience art we don’t “get.” We often don’t feel content to just observe our reaction, so we discard the experience. Somehow dance and music have found the most loopholes around this. Most people are more or less content to hear even an experimental song without understanding its purpose. I once thought it was rare for other forms to have so much leeway.

This show was sold out for all of its performances before it opened and I was on the wait list two days in a row hoping to get in. I sat in a room full of 300 people willing to have an experience that I, as an artist, didn’t find instantly accessible. It almost doesn’t matter how much this speaks to my comprehension or lack thereof. What it does speak to, is how alive and well the theatrical audience is and how sometimes a willingness to merely be exposed is enough. I reckon that over time, just as in life, things filtered by the unconscious and by the body (which responds to all) are eventually translated to some meaningful experience, some assigned significance as the exposure is repeated.  Just as with all other languages, sometimes you can just “pick it up” by listening and watching with care.

I felt very hopeful looking at that audience. I felt some camaraderie though I spoke to no one else attending. These were all people (perhaps less anxious for understanding than I) who were willing to receive whatever the artist brought them in perfect love and trust that it mattered, with or without their understanding. I hope to find other audiences like this one out there, and to ease up on my goal of finding those who “get it” in favor of those who want it.

Part 2: on whimsy – a review of lowbrow live performance and my complete conclusion on another blog post….

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