Art is for Everyone Part 2: on whimsy – a review of lowbrow live performance

As my second of two blog posts reviewing two very different sold out performances, I explore “lowbrow” art.  It might seem to some that the easily accessible shows that have few intellectual demands are poor proof for determining that the performing arts are alive and well. This might boil down to an argument about the purpose of art in general and is really another discussion altogether.

What I would like to pose here is that it’s a wonderful thing to have so many different kinds of live performance, and that the enjoyment of one isn’t in opposition to another. In fact, one form of art may be a gateway for someone to become the regular audience member of another. For whatever “lowbrow” art lacks in intellectual engagement, it makes up for by engaging us to participate via our innate attraction to spectacle, novelty, and delight. They don’t have lofty goals here, just the hope that you have some fun for its own sake. This is a very good and complimentary thing for audiences and other kinds of artists and in my mind, is yet another example that art is for everyone.

Part 2: on whimsy – a review of lowbrow live performance.

Moisture Festival 2014 at Hale’s Palladium

moisture festivalMoisture festival is an annual tradition in Seattle showcasing a range of  international performers in a variety/revue style celebrating whimsy, humor, circus acts, the saucy, and the outlandish. It has comedians, acrobats, burlesque dancers, niche bands, magicians, and lots of audience participation. I’ve gone for the last two years and prefer to sit in the “splash zone” where I might get called up for a demonstration or be teased directly by a performer.

(The next picture is proof of my participation. I am holding a card for the audience to see for a magic trick. Yes, I am wearing a chicken necklace given to me by an equally weird audience member.)

moisture fest 2013 cropped

photo by John Cornicello

These shows are what I would consider exceedingly accessible and “lowbrow” art. The audience is filled with a large cross-section of people some of which may only see live performance here at the festival every year and perhaps occasionally in a local bar. There’s not a whole lot of subtext to these performances. In fact, I think it’s fair to say they steer pretty clear of sophistication. Many of the performances are what we might call “human tricks” that last less than a few minutes. People know that when they go to these variety shows, they will encounter the silly, the amazing, and be entertained with no further purpose than to delight their senses, smile until their cheeks hurt, and go home a little more childlike than when they arrived. However, the performers involved are all none-the-less artists of one stripe or another. Regardless of whether they call themselves artists or entertainers, I think the discipline and goals of each are usually pretty similar. The variety show artist is no less a professional, nor do their offerings take any less skill than others.

I think that it’s important to remember that whimsy and fun are as important as any other themes the artist might want to present. Although I felt much less challenged amongst this audience, it was a great relief that there was no reason to struggle. For some reason, when we laugh and feel comfortable, our anxieties about assigning meaning diminish. The meaning feels implicit. Though we all like to feel, for some of us, these kinds of shows give us a chance to work some core feelings of joy, anticipation, curiosity, and empathy without being exposed to unoriginal lackluster work that can demean an audience. On the contrary, it challenges us to let the performers be daring and silly with their talents as we cheer them on, sing with them, and yes, pick a card. We are definitely getting the fruits of their passion and not some half-hearted attempt to boost ticket sales once a year.

Appreciating cultivated artistic talent opens a person up. In both of these kinds of performances mentioned in the last two blog posts, one can learn how to be an audience member. For some, a festival may open them up to types of performance they may never have experienced before in an entirely accessible and positive way. In both, the body will respond. Perhaps from each of these an audience member may feel motivated to experience other types of work that have a different kind of mood but a similar level of craftsmanship.

I take great joy in knowing that artists of all kinds who love what they do are successfully getting butts in seats while producing their best most heartfelt work. I can’t help but think that if it weren’t for all of those joyful musicals I had seen as a child, I would never have grown into the artist I am today. I am grateful for the fun and whimsical shows that made me realize how electric the genre could be, so that when I came looking for other kinds of shared experiences on a stage, I knew enough of the language of art to move me along to whatever I was looking for.

Art is for Everyone.


Moisture Festival is still playing in Seattle through April 13th. Info here.

One response to “Art is for Everyone Part 2: on whimsy – a review of lowbrow live performance

  1. You spoke of the challenge of “getting it” in the context of highbrow and lowbrow art. We do seek patterns; our heads seek out patterns because they don’t want to be without them, our instincts seek out patterns because they must. And in this process we can learn to master what we grow to feel comfortable with be it highbrow or lowbrow performance. I suppose the comfort includes finding support among those who share a similar experience and interests.

    But receiving the artist’s message is just one dimension (and perhaps a somewhat narrow and passive one) of the artistic experience. While some art by necessity means the artist is not present, live performance has the artist directly present with the viewer and there exists the opportunity for a complete communications loop and perhaps engagement in the performance itself (witnessing a magician’s card, bringing authentic fear to a sword juggling act as an impromptu assistant, and so on).

    I found myself wondering whether the high vs. low comparison (as used by some who seek to quantify a superiority) is fair. It is a somewhat constructed and singular scale that considers mainly the interests, training, and interpretive skills of the viewer. What if we consider the skills of the viewer in actively engaging in the performance, to be visible to the audience, to take on the role of the unprepared participant surrendering into the hands of a skilled performer, to risk being silly (such a subjective word…)? Performance is interactive and I like the idea of audience participation and the mutual social experience as an essential part of live performance. It is, after all, a legitimate condition of the live artist to ask for participation as part of the work. I think the degree to which you participate is a worthy measure of whether you “get it”, and perhaps most importantly, whether we are willing to move out of the safe individual space of intellectual and emotional comprehension and move to what may be the more daring space of visible engagement.

    I can easily imagine a sophisticate, who is normally confident and comfortable experiencing highbrow performance art and later discussing it with mastery, being utterly terrified and incapable of fully experiencing lowbrow performance art in the way it’s meant to be experienced: by singing, being on stage, donning a crazy hat, or whatever. Lowbrow art may be just as challenging in its own way.

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