marcus westbury

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forms v. audiences

August 4th, 2008 by marcus

From the Not Quite Book notes. Click here for an explanation

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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7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 LiteraryMinded Aug 7, 2008 at 4:55 pm

    A very interesting approach. I really enjoyed reading this, thanks :-)


  • 2 Nicholas Faiz Aug 8, 2008 at 1:21 pm

    Enjoyed this one (stop questioning it). :)

    But do you have examples of the newer forms which are constrained by the insistence upon artform over engagement with an audience? It’s generally the case that what is new questions form and is unrecognized in its time of creation, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that whatever an audience enjoys should be discussed under the confusing banner of ‘art’ or even compared to art at all.

    Anyway, just curious about concrete examples of what is being constrained by the tradition of form. Some work definitely is, but I think it’s a very generalized category. The audience vs form opposition (or imbalance) is a useful one, but it can go too far on either scale.


  • 3 marcus Aug 8, 2008 at 6:28 pm

    Nick, I’ll give you an example. Take the work of Uncle Semolina and Friends They’re possibly my favourite performance company. They developed a work (a version of Gilgamesh) for the Next Wave festival I directed in 2004 and was picked up by the Melbourne International Festival the following year.

    They are technically a theatre company. They do live performance for live audiences but i think by putting it in the context of theatre it provides a false sense of who their potential audiences are.

    Their work is high energy, draws in equal part on toys, pop culture, classical myths and child’s play. It references everything from WWE wrestiling to the Children Overboard saga and in my experience the potential audience is very different from say, the Melbourne Theatre Company subscriber set.

    The question is how does this potential audience connect with that work if they don’t read the theatre pages? More to the point, if the reviewers who are writing for the theatre pages compare the work to the work of main stage theatre companies then the set of comparisons is probably highly inappropriate because it is simply not much of a analogue to what they’re trying to do.

    Unless you’ve seen their work it is very hard to use the reference point, but i would say that their work is not necessarily well served by the structures it is obliged to fit into. Nor is the work of say PVI collective ( or virtially any of the groups who are making work that i find particularly interesting. The context that they can establish in direct contact with an audience is far better than the one that is established by the ways that they’re mediated by others.

  • 4 Nicholas Faiz Aug 8, 2008 at 7:12 pm

    I don’t really see the point in the larger view. I mean, avante garde theatre isn’t new. Yes, there’s probably a wider potential audience, who misjudge work because of their preconceived notion of theatre, and who would enjoy it on other terms. The problem of preconception is entrenched with most forms of judgement, and isn’t endemic to local art in particular.

    But on the point of letting art be vital and reach new audiences, it’s a useful problem to solve – how to widen the exposure of a particular production to audiences. I think your line of thinking is working very well when it raises issues about how to cultivate local work.

    But I don’t see how the tradition of theatre is imposing itself over the work. Marketing anything at that level to wider audiences is challenging. Similarly, a critic which compared that form of theatre with a form of interpretation suitable for Elizabethan drama would be easily shouted down.

    Anyway, thanks for the example. We’ll have to discuss it under better circumstances. I suspect that there are some assumptions about audiences in your argument – who they are and what their taste is. But I would, wouldn’t I? :) (Or perhaps it would help if you put forward the sort of audience demographic your argument is representing – for e.g. it doesn’t seem to be the baby boomers).

    Good luck on the ABC. I’ll be tuning in and cheering for you.

  • 5 marcus Aug 8, 2008 at 7:44 pm

    I think the fact that you put the work i (poorly) described in the context of “avante garde theatre” is indicative of the problem. If ever a phrase was designed to alienate a potential audience that one would be it and in the case of the groups i am describing it is almost certainly the wrong one. It implies that the work is experimental or even potentially indulgent within the context of the form (which it may or may not be).

    However, outside the context of the form the work is actually likely to be far more familiar and immediately understandable than what much “traditional” theatre would be – because its reference points are quite familiar in the wider world even if unfamiliar in the theatre world. It’s probably a case study in the danger of form based labelling and how it alienates potential audiences.

    Anyhow, it’s hard to explain this without actually discussing work in front of us.

  • 6 Nicholas Faiz Aug 8, 2008 at 8:05 pm

    Yes, avante garde is a bit of a dated term, though it is recyclable; Arthur Danto (my favourite philosopher of art) talks about an entrenched avante garde, for example, in ‘The Abuse of Beauty’. Still, it’s a valid point, art has known how to question art for a long time. I suppose when you say that the actual form itself damages its possible wider reception, there’s something to it, but it brings along its own set of assumptions about how the wider audience thinks.

    And, yeh, I’d have to see the this particular theatre too (which I’d like to now), or understand a bit more about it. Like I said, though, it seems to be as much about asking people to look past their preconceptions of an art form at the work itself, and I think that’s a useful exercise, but the form is there all the same.

    As someone who likes to go to the theatre, be it STC or wherever, I don’t think it’s such a narrow and unasking structure as you paint. But I agree that we need to make things relevant and engaging; so it’s useful questioning.

    Haha, yeh, discussion vis-a-vis sometime. Cheers.

  • 7 suse Feb 9, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    we constrain new work by the traditions of the old because the old forms have given us a language that we understand, and a voice with which to critique the work. however, you are right in your assertion that the arbitrary classification alienates audiences. but the only way to invite a broader audience in is to couch things in words that they will understand, and truthfully, many arts practitioners seem to be concerned with losing their credibility by gaining the ‘uninitiated’ audience.

    people respond to the familiar. the familiar is safe, and gives audiences a chance to explore new things without needing to step too far from their comfort zone. the way to bring broader audiences to the arts is by equipping them with a vocabulary for the act that they can both understand, and feel comfortable using. hence why nick cave the musical would draw an audience – because the vocab is centered around nick cave, and not around the musical. here, people feel safe, and so can step out and try something new.