Blood sport ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Blood sport

Over in his virtual Berlin, Daniel Schlusser thinks that artistic argument is all too polite. He wants blood. Says Daniel:

I suppose I am actually taking a different tack from the "why can't we have more sophisticated arts criticism" and going for the much more Australian excitement of, say, a kick in the head, or roo-boxing, or a game against Port Adelaide. "If you can't win the game win the fight," should be heard from the stands. Think of it as a kind of anti-nuance crusade.

Well, thinks I: let's have some nuance in the first place, before we start campaigning against it. But essentially, I agree with Daniel's main point: watching artists and critics be up-front about their aesthetic differences, ready to defend them with passion and wit, can be one of the great spectator sports. And - if it doesn't descend into brain-dead brawling, with polarised camps scowling at each other like chimpanzees and hurling excrement - it makes us all smarter.

There are two usual responses to challenge in this town: (a) pretend it didn't happen, or (b) smear one's opponent. (Or both). Daniel has a great example of the first strategy: he links to a letter he wrote to the Age after the first production under the new Malthouse team - Michael Kantor's repertory productions of Patrick White's A Ham Funeral and Tom Wright's Journal of a Plague Year - prompted reviews of hostile indifference from Helen Thompson. (My take on those productions, and Helen's responses, here ) Sadly, if predictably, Daniel's letter ended up being published in Real Time rather than the Age. And then no one took any notice, anyway.

In connection with the silence, and the silencings, I often think of Michael Dransfield's poem Like This for Years:

In the cold weather
the cold city the cold
heart of something as pitiless as apathy...

Or equally, of Pope's Dunciad, in which the goddess Dulness drowns everything in a giant yawn:

Nor public flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine!

When you think that Horace was complaining about the same things, I guess there's one consolation, poor as it is: it was ever thus.


Anonymous said...

Jesus. Have we really relegated ourselves to this? I had imagined that despite the "L'histoire se repete" adage that, zombie-like perpetually drones forth from our mouths in our collective, fitful sleep, that, at least waking, we might attempt to defend the concept of 'onward and upward'. I hold out hope that the sheer volume of under-carpet-swept letters to the editor (from pens substantial, no less) must inevitably make some significant dent in the fabric of 'mainstream' arts coverage.

Now, from recent experiences, I'm not sure whether we're all beyond the hurling of excrement, but I'm forced to wonder whether this schoolyard behaviour isn't in direct response to not actually knowing whether an alternative exists. Can we truthfully take exception to those mucking-in and slinging shit a la Fight Club, when no example of good, forthright, combat has been given the chance to exist within the ring? I'm not saying that noses can't be bloodied (nay, broken) in the process, but for pity's sake, at least let there be heavyweights on both sides. Otherwise, what? We're forced to suffer through a familiarly unentertaining evening of rather predictable shadow-boxing.

our man in berlin said...

By coincidence, I was finishing a conversation as I was opening this page, about "smearing"(shit) and what that means in early child psychology, simply, a plea for undivided attention. Although that was solo smearing (apposite?), doing it to "one's opponent" might mean something completely different

You do me a service with this lucidity. The distillation of Melbournian responses to a challenge is spot-on. Will blog further (maybe even with some nuance!)But back to your letter...

My dad taught me to ask "who benefits?" My conniption comes from a complete inability to untangle that question in this case. The "egregious misuse of (The Age's) authority." that you refer to, should make some sort of political sense... Am I being really thick? A few more bloggers are reading the Arts section more thoroughly...and what? Putting aside the desire for balance, for the moment, The Age is generally nice to its advertisers, why not now? Kristy has been re-appointed, I can't believe that a power play for the next appointment is beginning already....any clues?

Alison Croggon said...

I think it's fairly easy to read the subtext here (Supernaut put her finger on it - it's about what's considered "central" to our culture): Usher is speaking for institutions like the MSO, the Arts Centre and others which feel snubbed by the Melbourne Festival programming (all of them have been named as critics of Edmunds), and also those audience members who, like Bolt and Usher, dislike the feeling of bewilderment that assaults them when they encounter work that reflects, well, contemporary theatre practice and that makes them think. It's part of a larger push that has been happening since the Malthouse reformed - the whole argument about "fringe" and "mainstream", which feels alarm at the legitimisation of certain forms of theatre practice that happens when people like Castelluci or Marius von Mayenburg are put on main stages with lots of money. As Supernaut also points out, the ironic thing is that what's considered "fringe" in these arguments is actually "mainstream" elsewhere.

I don't know how conscious it is: ie, I dont know if there is a contender for MIAF director. Certainly, there were hopes that Edmunds might be sent home early (Bolt called for that). And certainly, the hope is that by making ths sort of fuss, the next director will be more tame, and program stuff that "everybody" knows and expects.

our man in berlin said...

so I was being thick! Thanks for spelling that out. You have also clarified a confusion. Since I returned Usher & Co have been running a line about a "renaissance in Melbourne Fringe" so obviously we are tussling over terms (again). All I can see is a lot more "mainstream fringe" ie: boulevard theatre with no money. What I didn't realise was that the opposite, provocative theatre on mainstages with money, had reached a threatening critical mass. So by championing "Fringe" companies who are actually making baby-food theatre, the paper can claim some discrimination in the eyes of its readers when it comes to slamming "bad" avant-garde work. Good trick that. Makes me smile.