Monday, April 30, 2007

What does an audience owe an artist?

What does an audience owe an artist?

I’ve been thinking about this question since a public high school group walked out of Brooklyn performer Mike Daisey’s monologue “Invincible Summer” at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater on April 19 (which I blogged about here). Daisey has called the group cowards and fools and idiots. He’s furious that one guy – a chaperone, it turns out – emptied a water bottle over his hand-written notes. But his complaint ultimately is that the group of some 80 high students and 20 chaperones from Norco, California, walked out without explaining itself.

“I just want it to be known that no one on that side has behaved at all like an adult,” Daisey said in the April 26 Globe. “If I had not hunted these people down, and called them directly and compelled them to speak to me, they never clearly would have spoken to me. And if I hadn't had this video and posted it [to YouTube], they never would have responded at all. I think that says something about their actions and their character.”

Since when does an audience have any duty to explain itself to an artist?

Pissing off audiences is perhaps the most prominent and proud tradition of avant-garde artists. Back around 1910, the Futurists famously insulted their audiences, spouted nonsense and splashed hot tea on the front row. We gleefully remember the premiere of composer Igor Stravinsky’s dissonant “The Rite of Spring” accompanied by a jarringly “primitive” ballet in Paris in 1913 because the audience erupted in catcalls, whistles and fistfights, so much so that police arrived. A photo in Harvard’s “Multiple Strategies” exhibit, on view through June 10, shows Fluxus artists picketing outside a 1964 performance with placards reading “Social Climbers” and “The Rich Man’s Snob Art.” A number of the people involved were jokers who joined the protest after performing inside.

It was and remains a badge of honor to freak out the squares. And as the Modernists knew, an upset audience is one of the best things that can happen to performers, often boosting their careers. That’s why many aimed to create a ruckus. It was often partly a put on. Video of the ART walkout that Daisey posted to YouTube has gotten more than 120,000 hits as of this morning and the, uh, unpleasantness has gotten television and national newspaper coverage.

The yelling and insults that Daisey unleashed upon the Norco students and school – and by his actions encouraged others to unleash (the liberal blog Daily Kos bizarrely called the students “Choir of Thugs”) – reveals a thin-skinned, square artist and a thin-skinned, square art world. The ART is billed as a radical theater, so you’d expect Daisey and the theater to be a bit more good, giving and game about this sort of shenanigans.

When I go to poetry slams, with all their fun cheering and hooting and hissing, I wonder: why are art audiences usually so dreadfully quiet and polite. The art experience creates a situation somewhat akin to carnival – in which the world briefly goes a bit topsy-turvy and behavior usually considered inappropriate in society is tolerated, even encouraged. But is this relaxing of society’s norms only for artists – or for the audience too?

What if theaters handed out tomatoes to everyone before shows? What if audiences heckled and walked out? What if audiences began challenging artists the way artists play at challenging audiences?

In the Providence Phoenix, Brian Jones recently wrote about attending a play that tried to get its anti-torture message across by acting out a bunch of torture. He says “the acting is so real, the hurt is so deep,” that he felt he should jump on the stage and say: “How can we just sit here and watch? Are we are no better than this bastard? Ladies and Gentlemen, maybe we can’t stop what’s going on at Gitmo. But we don’t have to watch it in Pawtucket. Stop the play!”

Jones is not intending a protest of the play – which he appreciated – but thinking that maybe a disruption in a theater could encourage others in the audience to take action outside the theater to stop the very problems the show was addressing. He says, “I think a lot of unpleasant human behavior in entertainment is vicarious violence disguised as a morality exercise” and that sometimes this calls for walkouts and turning off the television. But he struggles with the difference between denouncing something you disagree with and censorship, between protest and hooliganism.

I struggle with the same question. Part of the way free speech is meant to work is that it allows us to criticize – even shout down – what we disagree with and we sorta sort it all out in this raucous democratic exchange of noise. But when do complaint and protest go too far?

It seems as an audience our responses should begin from respect and generosity and a sense of humor. Ideally we would give artists a chance to win us over. But it’s a two-way street. We aren’t obligated to quietly endure insult or offense or boredom. And we aren’t obligated to explain to artists why their work doesn’t – or does – float our boat.

I don’t believe artists have to explain themselves either, but if anyone has explaining to do perhaps it’s the artists – especially after a century of intentional aestheticized antagonism. If artists want a dialogue with their audiences, they have to meet them halfway, they need to begin with respect and generosity and a sense of humor, they must work to understand their audiences and help their audiences understand the art.


Post a Comment

<< Home