The Tyranny of Me and You

04.22.15 | 2 Comments

CATEGORIES advocacy, talk about what's good, theatrical ecosystem

I’m fascinated by observing chefs interacting with food. Unlike most folks who create they can’t avoid their work outside their “studio”, they need to eat after all. They are cursed to combine all the creativity of a visual artist with the what-about-me demands of an IT person visiting their family… “you’re going to cook aren’t you?”

So it’s instructive to eat with them, to spy out the sorts of things a pro chooses. Speaking generally? They choose comfort food and simple food made well. They also find the seams in the menu, the places where another chef has obviously added something fresh or something they love mixed amongst the regular offerings, the “kitchen item”.

I don’t find culinary folks to be particularly evangelical. They may go on a prolonged brussels sprout kick or extol the joys of farm to table or tongue to tail but mostly they’re not going to deride your jalapeno bacon mac and cheese for not being authentic enough.

Why are so few theatre makers as accommodating? Recently Polly Carl posted a line of thinking on Facebook that tickled my brain:

An inquiry that has determined the trajectory of my entire career surrounds the question of taste. How do we know what we like and how do we use the power of our aesthetic sensibilities to define ourselves as artists and curators and tastemakers? I’m obsessed with why we think in the theater that our personal reaction to something should be definitive, and how that confidence in our individual sense of beauty and our individual sense of what stories matter should determine who is included and who is excluded from the opportunity to make art. What defines excellence and can we be so sure that our personal definition is always the most important one to consider? This is what I’ll be talking about tomorrow in Diane Ragsdale‘s beauty course.

In my experience, modern American theatre artists tend towards believing the capitalist drone of “theatre is dying.” They conflate the business of art and the making of art to such a degree that every discussion is essentially a defense of their art and their place in the field. Wade around in the on-line discussions about theatre and you’ll find a variety of slurs about others’ art. Broadsides about musicals (stupid!) or performance art (pointless!), the dangers of polished aesthetics (empty!), Shakespeare (overdone!), canon (irrelevant!) or new work (underbaked!). The loudest will essentially aver that there is no good work save the work the speaker or their friends are doing.

It is deadly.

The arts work best when the work and the workers each point to the next piece and the next artist. If the artists are continually griping to anyone who’ll listen that no art (save theirs) is good and how stupid the people who like such things are – why should audiences give a damn? Why should other artists give a damn? Why should communities give a damn?

I understand. We all have that midnight voice (for me it’s a 3am voice but it’s the same fella) telling us that we’re impostors – that we’re not good enough and never will be. To fight that, a lot of us spend daylight hours explaining to anyone who will listen why the one thing that we love or that we’re good at is the only one true way. But we do a lot of damage to the field, our communities, and each other. This isn’t a zero sum field and never has been either in terms of resources or attention. We have to stop treating it that way.

We have to stop telling people that the things they like are frivolous.

Folks looking for creme brulee ain’t gonna like the kale smoothie.

We have to stop telling people that old plays are dead.
Sometimes you want Mom’s baked ham.
We have to stop telling people that raw new work is pretentious and unapproachable.
Some folks are going to want to try the Versatile Chicken in Aspic

Your dislike for something is personal. Your experience isn’t universal.

I really like ox tongue sliders from Contigo.
And Korean barbecue rabbit from Luke’s Inside Out and performance art and Barr Hill Gin and subversive punk puppets and Shakespeare and negronis and triple ginger cookies and smart new work from pissed off women and smart new work aching to be a comic book and dumb musicals that make me cry – which is all of them.

And you don’t.

But why does it matter that you don’t?
Why as artists is it so common to find the internet littered with what are essentially diatribes about the existence of bacon mac and cheese and how it’s a threat to local artisan ramen or posts screaming bloody murder that McDonald’s is crowding out the grilled cheese truck down the street.

You don’t need to abdicate your taste you need to advocate for it.

Instead of raging against everyone and everything else.

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Travis Bedard

Travis Bedard

A long time theatre blogger, Travis is the Artistic Director of Cambiare Productions and a contributing writer to 2amTheatre.com. Travis holds a degree in Theatre (Secondary Education) from the University of New Hampshire and is currently posted in scenic St. Paul Minnesota..
Travis Bedard

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  • Ian Thal

    There is room for diverse tastes and aesthetics certainly, but the thrust of this argument borders on claiming that judgement is completely arbitrary and subjective as if we are all Leibnizian monads.

    But we are not monads. We have societies, cultures, languages, and histories that we share with some people and differentiate us from others. Diversity and acknowledging diversity is, of course, a virtue (at least it is from my liberal perspective) but to pretend that “it’s all good” is to also eliminate the idea that there is any good to which to aspire.

    To use the analogy of chefs: chefs have technique, and a knowledge base that informs their recipes and how it comes together on the table; Some kitchens are more consistent than others, or have differing standards than others in terms of presentation, flavor, nutritional value, et cetera. Yes we mustn’t judge pizza by the same standards by which we judge sushi (both have their virtues) but to suggest that Pizza Hut is to pizza as Jiro Ono is to sushi is something that only a culinary philistine would do.

    • Ian Thal

      Certainly, it’s good to recognize the value of different theatrical forms, but to not recognize that epic theater, Greek tragedy, commedia dell’arte, kathak, bharatanatyam, kabuki, bunraku, improv comedy, corporeal mime et cetera have particular dramaturgies, cultural contexts, and yes, standards of excellence, is both philistinism and anti-intellectualism.