Monday, September 27, 2010

Radical Art

Having recently made the acquaintance of a man who is influential in the world of contemporary theater, I am now getting exposed, often times vicariously, to performances which normally would fly below my radar. My friend is always out scouting for new theater which advances and stretches the art, and he gets as wildly enthusiastic about new performances as I do about discovering a visual artist previously unknown to me. Not all of M's recommendations are for hits; he and I will probably laugh for as long as we know each other about the performance with thrown and smashed tomatoes we both saw in Edinburgh. But with eyes wide open, I find myself considering the possibilities of new theater as I had not before he came into my life.

This past weekend, while my friend was watching a performance of GATZ in NY, a radical 8-hour reading of every word in "The Great Gatsby" by actors, I was viewing a different version of radical theater and considering the performance which I had been ready to dismiss. My performance of Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" by the San Francisco Opera was, at first blush, a straightforward, traditional night at the opera. Originally I found myself rebelling against the idea of a performance which cost $250 to attend (What? Art only for the wealthy?), and then I was dismissive of the plot, content that the plot was simply an excuse for great music. But then I learned more; that this opera was radical in its time for mocking the noble class; that, in fact, its performance was banned in Vienna in the 18th century for its satire; that what seemed tame and perhaps silly to me was radical in its own time.

My not knowing the background of what I was viewing colored my opinion, possibly limited my appreciation, allowed me to focus fully on the music, and forced me to return to the age-old debate about how well informed does one have to be prior to observing art to fully appreciate it. How much does preknowledge color one's observation? Should work have to resonate with the viewer/listener whether or not he/she has been educated about it before experiencing it?

I really don't have a firm answer to these questions, and (sorry) think it's a 50/50 thing. Education certainly influences the experience, often heightens it and gives the viewer/listener a way in, an understanding of what the artist was intending that might make the work more accessible. On the other hand, viewing/listening with no preconceived notions allows the viewer/listener a kind of clarity that can make the work intensely and personally meaningful. I support both approaches, as long as they make room for the new and radical without automatically dismissing it.

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