Traditionalists will hate me but I am less and less convinced that artforms are a particularly useful way to slice up the way that cultures are talked about or resourced in the world.
The qualities that interest me are far more about the resonance of cultures, how they circulate and are shared and transmitted, and the potential audiences that they might appeal to. In the festivals and programs I’ve been involved with I’ve observed something that is rarely commented upon. The content, themes and concerns of a work rather than its form is the strongest indicator of who it is that is most likely to appreciate it.
Without thinking we treat artforms as though they are the significant factor by which cultures and their potential audiences can be categorised. We fund, build infrastructure and appoint critics to artforms. We create career structures around them that depend up them for their validity. Our structures for Theatre or Dance or Music or Film or Television or Literature or Visual Arts rarely cross. Review pages of our newspapers and publications for the “the Arts” are almost always sliced by the form and not the content of the work.
Almost without exception, it is reviewers and commentators who are artform specialists (or obliged to act like them) that interpret, select, review and comment upon our culture for us. Given their beat is often based on a form it comes as no surprise that their expectations are set against the canonical works of that tradition and not the expectations of the full diversity of potential audiences.
It creates strange distortions. We tend to treat acts of cross pollination as exceptions and as innovative rather than inevitable and obvious. We create novelty where there is none. At times the most obvious connections: a hip-hop opera, a book derived from a blog, a hybrid media performances are discussed often as oddities. Whether they are good or terrible, nuanced or merely novelties, nothing about these cross pollinations is particularly exceptional in the world which we actually live in. It is quite natural that cultural communities will experiment with different forms.
It should be obvious from the examples around us. How many millions have been made by employing the simple marketing trick of cross pollinating old forms in ways that appeal to new audiences? Simon fucking Cowell and whoever the evil genius behind Human Nature knows it. They’ve gotten away with inflicting light classics (think “Il Divo” and the like) on audiences who would never be seen dead at the Opera and managed to revive countiless dead pop trends on people who would never touch the originals.
Much of this can easily be dismissed as shonky sex appeal and heavy marketing, It is. But it points to an underlying shift that takes place when you change the axis upon which discuss and attempt to propagate culture and connect it with cultural communities based on characteristics other than form. It deserves to be though about more seriously than as a marketing trick. In almost all artforms how often are the artists who reinvent and combine forms in ways that appeal to those outside the form tradition the successful one?
Such a way of thinking makes sense only when you think outside the form and connect with the potential of different cultural communities. Confidence in your cultural context is becoming a far better marker of cultural success, potential resonance and likely significance than simple technical expertise in a form. Yet it profoundly counter intuitive to artists schooled to appeal to those at the centre of the form. The temptation is always to point new work towards your artform peers, experts and whoever the relevant gatekeepers in the form you have trained in are.
All the evidence i see around me seems to points towards the cultural communities becoming increasingly fragmented. Artform is less and less a relevant distinction except for those whose career depends upon it. A far more important distinction is cultural experience – of which experiences of artform traditions is only a small subset. The audience for a Peter Allen musical would inevitably be very different to a The Nick Cave musical or The Cold Chisel musical or - and I would pay just to see the audience reaction - The Nasenbluten musical. None on those potential audiences need identify as a musical audience any more than the teenage boys who go see Spamalot do or as fans of “Australian music” any more than a someone in Turkey who might happened to own a Savage Garden album does.
The prevalence of celebrity collaborations in Arts Festivals is probably a sign that a few leading companies and festival programmers have twigged to this at least at a superficial level. But I’m still not convinved however that the ramifications of this – beyond the babling marketing bollocks about “branding,” “leverage” and “marketing” – has fully begun to sink in.
Something fundamental changes about everyone’s role. It changes the role of the critic. It changes how we might think in a larger sense about culture and whatever we choose to call “the arts”. The critic as expert in an artform or even in “the arts” is only one of the potential roles a critic might play. It is not an invalid one but it is an overemphasised one. A far more vital and relevant one is as an envoy for a cultural community or as translator to a variety of cultural communities.
Similarly as we resource and support the arts, is the most appropriate framework to resource it via artform or by audience? Without meaning to, the artform based approach tends to reinforce the sense that the audience for “the arts” is an elite subset of the wider community and not reflection of the wider community. That it is inward looking and self referential.
Away from the heavily marketed collaborations I struggle more fundamentaly with why we constrain new work, new theatre, new dance or new visual arts by almost exclusively measuring them against the traditions of their forms. We lose the potential audiences whose interests are in the content of the world(s) that they draw upon. The arbitrary classification by form does nothing to tell a wider audience what if anything they would appreciate of it. The danger is that we have made it confusing and contradictory for the people trying to navigate our culture according to their own reference points and by default, much of the potential audience for a work by its content are alienated by its form before they arrive.
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