Experiment and thorns ~ theatre notes

Friday, July 25, 2008

Experiment and thorns

The blogs are running hot with a debate on the issue of experiment. It begins with US music critic Joe Queenan, who launched a broadside in the Guardian that guns down all contemporary art music as pretentious and boring. He's answered by Tom Service, who rightly claims that new music is far too diverse to be put all under one hat, and that - contrary to Queenan's claims - it actually does attract enthusiastic audiences. Meanwhile, avant rocker David Byrne swings by claiming that new music is an elitist wank that around the mid-20th century deliberately set out to alienate and baffle audiences. Kyle Gann at Arts Journal takes on both thesis and antithesis, with pianist Marilyn Nonken on one corner and David Byrne in the other. Fence sitter that I am, I think Kyle, a composer himself, elucidates the debate very well. Not all "difficult" art is a waste of time. Nor does "difficulty" automatically make art interesting.

This reminds me of nothing so much as the on-going arguments about modernism and post-modernism in poetry (which basically runs: poetry was read by the unwashed masses in millions until Pound and Eliot came along and made it all obscure and elitist and academic, and then it got even worse in the 1970s) * ; but George Hunka makes the link to experimental theatre. Experiment almost always - and I would suggest, mostly unintentionally - attracts a very predictable kind of hostility. This is neither a badge of virtue nor of its lack; it merely demonstrates the old truism that, on the whole, people prefer the familiar to the strange. Witness the debate on Manna over at Sydney Arts Journalist, or this review on Australian Stage Online, in which the reviewer claims that the artists deliberately and self-indulgently set out to repel audiences. It's all eerily familiar. ** Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose...

Just belatedly noticed Jay Parini's piece in last week's Australian, which adumbrates that argument perfectly...

** Having linked to a critical mauling of this show, it's only fair to also link to an unambiguous rave. ***

*** I rather like putting footnotes in blog posts.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I agree that all experimentation is necessarily harshly and unfairly criticised. I remember seeing a couple of extraordinary productions at Wharf2Loud, both German, I believe, and directed by Benedict Andrews (Mr Kolpert comes to mind) that attracted large audiences and, though disturbing, were so well done that one couldn't help but be swept up in the sheer theatrical energy and daring. The same can be said of a lot of Barrie Kosky's early work. As far as "Manna" is concerned, like you I didn't see it, but the comment I've heard most often from the smattering who did was: "what's the point?" Experimentation is great if it is taking us somewhere.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi TE: you should have been in Melbourne during festival time over the past couple of years ...! The chorus of those claiming that contemporary art (or even 50-year-old) was merely self-indulgent elitist wank was all but deafening. Though they seem (no doubt temporarily) to have gone a bit quiet after last year. The calm before the storm, perhaps. My understanding was too that Andrews came in for a lot of flak over his early years in Sydney?

Of course experiment finds its defenders. But by its nature it is experiment, which means (a) it is not product oriented and (b) that it inevitably courts failure - however one defines that - much more closely than a work which is ploughing tried-but-true furrows. And also that it is likely that it will attract small audiences. I noticed that Tom Queenan, like some in Melbourne, also thought they were the wrong sort of audiences, ie, not wealthy. Which makes the elitism charge all a bit volatile -

What I worry about is the argument that says that experiment is all a waste of time. (Unless it "succeeds", eg Kosky, in which case it's all right... but if something is truly an experiment, how does one guarantee "success"? And what if something is promising but doesn't deliver? Do you drop them like a hotcake? Perhaps the best thing Robyn Nevin did at the STC was to stand by Andrews, helping him to grow as a director...) As Jerome Bel said in one of his shows, if you're trying to do something new, most of the time it won't work. Quiz any scientist on that one. It seems totally perverse to say on the one hand that experiment (wow am I getting sick of that word) should be supported, but on the other hand, to beat up a company for irresponsibly supporting it if it doesn't "work".

There are usually people willing to go along for the ride, and that seems to me to be a good thing. Human curiosity is one of our more attractive (if perhaps fatal) traits. Moreover, without experiment fizzing some air through the dough, any culture is going to be dead and flat: and it seems to me that any institution which cares about the culture it inhabits will support experiment, out of sheer self interest. What that means is of course up for grabs, though the overseas R&D model is probably one that capitalism, if not Australian capitalism, can live with. There's also the problem of "experiment" becoming in itself an orthodoxy, which is the subtext of some of those music discussions, I suspect.

Anonymous said...

ObBook: Alan Ross: The Rest is Noise

which sums up the 20th century in contemporary music.

PS I think it is Alan, not Alec, very muzzy this time in the morning. But this is THE book.

Anonymous said...

Alison's quite right in this, I think, TE; nobody has been defending experiment (a word with which I'm getting sick myself) for the sake of experiment, though, and those who engage in such practices are fully aware that many experiments fail, sometimes horribly. And that some efforts are empty and devoid of content. As we can say, too, of artistic efforts that take no formal risks at all.

Which makes Gann's comment that suggestions that "every thorny, complex, difficult-to-understand piece that's been written is a masterpiece, worth listening to over and over again" peculiar, because nobody has argued that point, either to raise this particular idea or to defend it. Kyle and others can offer some anecdotal evidence perhaps that some composer or critic has said something like it, but there's enough anecdotal evidence too that others have said nothing of the kind -- in fact, quite the opposite. We're back (as we often are in these blogosphere debates) where we started.

Which leaves the question of why Byrne, Queenan et al. have felt the need to put these words in the mouths of people who create, or produce, or attend this kind of art, and to castigate them once they've done so. And this may be the more pressing issue here. Because I don't want to repeat myself, I'll just say that I have more about this here, which somewhat completes the argument I made in my first post.

It's Alex Ross who's the author of "The Rest Is Noise," Douglas -- but I've been muzzy most mornings myself. I haven't read that book, but that aside, Paul Griffiths wrote some fine introductions to 20th century music for the Thames & Hudson "World of Art" series some time ago, too, and these are worth checking out. His 1978 "A Concise History of Modern Music" and 1995 "Modern Music and After" are good entry points for the general reader.

Geoffrey said...

Isn't every act of creativity an experiment in some form or another?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Geoffrey - I think it is, which is partly why the term "experimental" is fairly useless. But We Know What We Mean. There are degrees of adventure.

And George, I agree, the assumption that artists don't want to communicate is a weird one. Perhaps understandable, if the artist is using a language that seems to be bewildering; perhaps also the hostility some of this work generates comes from an artist refusing to fulfil certain expectations, or not providing a clear moral/aesthetic guide on how to process it (such guides are a standard staple of most middle of the road fare). But I don't know of a single artist who doesn't seek to communicate something... that something might be complex, it might be obscure, but on the whole my experience of "difficult" work is that it is called difficult because it attempts some kind of reconsideration of either a formal problem or of a relationship to reality (preferably both, those these things are hard to separate), ie taking reality out of familiar frames in order to consider it afresh. This is why young children tend to be open to experimental work: they don't have expectations that have to be knocked down, and tend to respond to vitality rather than measuring something against a template of taste.

I remember years ago, an Australian poetry critic said of John Ashbery's book Flow Chart that it was "poetry not meant to be read". Whatever that means. A friend of mine collared Ashbery and asked him about this. He was quite taken aback. "Well," he said. "One always hopes to be read..."

TimT said...

Pedantic moment: it's Joe Queenan, not Tom. (Sorry)

Less pedantic moment: I found myself in a great deal of sympathy with Queenan said in his piece. It's certainly true that, due to a number of causes, people at large don't really speak, think, or understand the classical music language anymore. This leads to severe difficulties with the reception and understanding of modern and postmodern classical music, since it often references or parodies this language in quite complex ways. Wilful obscurity, shock value, or revulsion have all become more prevalent in modern classical music, either as cheap attempts by the composer to seem modern or to connect with the audience.

Still, having studied music at uni and encountered a great deal of talented and imaginative and vigorously creative musicians, I suspect that things aren't all as bad as Joe says. Classical traditions have a strange ability to be reborn at periodic intervals through history - I'm thinking, for instance, of the way that classical drama was reborn as opera, and the way that opera itself unexpectedly set the scene for stage and screen musicals.

Classical music is dead, long live classical music!

TimT said...

What is David Byrne on about though? He seems to confuse atonal music with 12 tone music.

Alison Croggon said...

Eek, thanks Tim. That is a weird Freudian slip (who's Tom?), but now amended.

Cultural literacy is a question with poetry too - much modernist poetry references a classical education, for example, which once could be assumed but now is arcane knowledge. And with theatre, come to think of it...but I don't feel pessimistic either.