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Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Death Of High Culture - How 'Accessibility' Is Killing Great Art

It has been obvious for a long time that attendance at classical symphonies and ballet performances is getting greyer. Older audiences, schooled with proper respect for Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert, and perhaps with some academic or studio training, still appreciate the classics.  It doesn’t matter that they have heard each piece many times – orchestras tend to have similar, familiar repertoires – and they find pleasure in noting the subtle differences between one conductor’s interpretation and another.  They are the old guard, and the staunch defenders of tradition and proven greatness.

Image result for images symphony halls

Younger people flock to rock concerts in Golden Gate Park, fill Madison Square Garden to hear Romeo Santos, stand in line for BeyoncĂ©, Lady Gaga, or Justin Bieber.  The more cerebral and classically-minded turn to Indie bands and alternative folk-rock.  None of them are buying $100 tickets to the Met.

Theater is different, although bold new plays which appeal to both younger and older audiences are produced in New York – if not on Broadway, then off- or off-off. There are more reruns and remakes than a serious theatre-goer would like, but the offerings are still worth a look.  Theater attendance, of course, is nothing compared to movies which along with rock music are America’s indigenous pop culture.  Theater is not dying like classical music and ballet, but producers still have to pay attention to demographics and film.

In a sorry and ultimately failing attempt to make Shakespeare more ‘accessible’, producers are adding pyrotechnics, modernizing sets, costumes, and delivery to create a more modern experience.  The words of the Bard are not enough for younger audiences who are used to spending money for a show. New productions by reputable Shakespeare companies totally distort Shakespeare’s meaning. Shylock, in one, had none of the tragedy, anger, and pathos of the original; and was reduced to a laughing Jew.  Othello in the hands of a Washington director had plenty of bombast and pain, but the first scene – not in the original – shows Othello and Desdemona in bed.  Critics have felt all along that Othello never consummated his marriage with Desdemona, and placing them under a flowing canopied bed at the beginning of the play does a disservice to the playwright.  Yet, it is modern, and producers can take plenty of liberties.

Image result for images othello desdemona

We come now to art, and in an interesting article in the New York Times (8.11.13) Judith Dobrzynski has described how museums, faced with declining revenues and poor demographics, are becoming more ‘hands on’, interactive, and participatory.  It is no accident that many museums of contemporary art are filled with interactive installations – a room filled with balloons, for example; or electronic walls that react to hand gestures. Artists know that such glitzy works sell and are told as much by museum curators who in turn are read the new mission statement by management.

Not only are museums favoring installations which visitors can touch, walk through, hear, and smell, they are transforming the experience of viewing traditional paintings, i.e., embedding interactive displays in their painting galleries. “They are gamifying them”.

They are even inviting the public to participate in curating – a kind of PR outsourcing:
I’ve seen museums offer people the opportunity to participate in curating exhibitions, choosing which artworks from their collections should be sold to raise money, deciding whether an altered painting should be restored to its original condition, advising on the design of gallery installations and more. Shouldn’t those decisions be left to the experts? If not, what do they do? Why study art history? 
Visitors to classical art museums like the National Gallery or the Metropolitan visit the most famous paintings on exhibition. Not enough, say curators and management:
As Alexander Bortolot, an art historian and the “curatorial content strategist” at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, told me last year, younger people want museums to connect them to the creative economy. They don’t want to listen to some art historian flown in from New York; they’d rather network with members of the local arts community and take part in a conversation.
In History of Art courses today overly-academic art lectures that dissect, deconstruct, and reduce paintings to neutral expressions of political culture ignoring more comprehensive and meaningful discussion of trends, influences, and genius.  Interactive displays of classical artists will certainly focus more on what paintings are worth, where they have been exhibited, the number of visitors seeing the works.  They might touch on the artist’s life, but will focus on gender and class; but they will never demand  an intense, intimate look at the paintings themselves.

Not all curators are rushing to interaction:
After the terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon in April, Thomas P. Campbell, the Metropolitan Museum’s director, reached out to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston with the offer to lend three paintings, all dealing obliquely with contemplation, for a special free exhibition there. At the time, he said, “Great museums are places of solace and inspiration, particularly when tragedy strikes a community.” When so many people go instead for an experience, that aspect of art museums — a key part of their identity — is at risk
Perhaps, but solace, tranquility, and refuge aside, what about the art itself? The critical tide seems to have turned away from a consideration of light, color, form, intensity, and ambience to social, economic, cultural, and historical relevance alone.  Such criticism is temporal, limited, and narrow.  It will certainly pass as the principle mode of art appreciation, and none too soon.  Anyone who looks at the portraits of Sargent - honest, direct, inescapable - or the apocalyptic landscapes of Kiefer, or the physical distortions of Bacon does not deconstruct them and look for signifiers of race, gender, and ethnicity but sees the visionary genius of the artist and the transforming nature of his work. 

Image result for images anselm kiefer

The works of Shakespeare can survive without help.  There is no need to make them more 'relevant' or accessible, for the words speak for themselves.  While some modern interpretations are indeed powerful - Ian McKellen's Richard III, for example (he is portrayed as neurotic, Nazi-like dictator) - most simply add personal interpretation.  Al Pacino's Shylock is brilliant because it does not stray from Shakespeare's original characterization but because the actor gives the character new intensity and through it deeper understanding.

Paul Scofield's King Lear (Peter Brook production) is remarkable because of its troubling portrayal of Lear as a very hurt father.   Brook sets the play - as it should be - in pre-historic England - and the cold, implacable landscape (Jutland) adds drama to Lear's tragedy - but it is Scofield who moves beyond the King's madness to something very sane and painful. 

Image result for images scofield king lear

High art in theatre can remain so if producers, directors, and actors do not feel obliged to pander to a dwindling audience.   High art on exhibition can be enhanced through better lighting, gallery space, order, and presentation, allowing the viewer a more congenial environment to look, think, and appreciate; but there is no need to 'theme' it - 'Picasso and His Women', 'Leonardo's Secrets', or 'Motherwell and the Street Smarts of New York'.

The producers of a Tennessee Williams festival felt the need to Elvis theme it.  Photos of the two men are more prominent than the actors, or the stage.  Williams, perhaps America's greatest playwright, needs no help whatsoever, for his works - more than Miller, Odets, O'Neill, or Albee - have not lost one bit of relevance over the decades.  His lyricism, poetry, and delicate sensitivity are unmatched. 

Image result for images tennessee williams

Fortunately there is no way to modernize Mozart or Bach.  Modern music directors may add their own interpretation to the score, but never change it.  There are no sets to elaborate, no characters to modernize, no costumes to distract.  For those reasons classical music is certainly doomed.  Younger audiences who have never grown up with the genre find it hard to make the transition from pop, hip-hop, and salsa.

There is a good reason why the art of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Sargent, Manet, Bacon, and Giotto remain popular both to critics and to a significant, although declining popular audience.  They, like Tennessee Williams have depicted meaning, impression, and insight that go beyond the work of lesser artists restricted in their vision to the immediate and the contextual.

It only remains to be seen whether these artists will continue to exert some hold and influence in a culture bound and determined to forget, expunge, and eliminate the past.

1 comment:

  1. Wow that is 100% successful article regrade in death of high culture.


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