Saturday, October 1, 2011

Theatre For Thought, October 1, 2011

Art and the Public Life
Valuable question! Subsequent discussion...
joel fishbane

This past Tuesday the Institute for Public Life of Arts and Ideas held a roundtable discussion on the “public life of art in the 21st century”.  I didn't know the city had an  Institute for Public Life of Arts and Ideas, a teaching and research centre that works out of McGill, so I took myself down to Moyse Hall to watch the event and maybe grab some free wine.  Moderated by Professor Paul Yachnin, the event assembled a grab-bag of scholars and artists and had them discuss the question of how art contributes to the public good.

...the conversation felt like a group of intellects reaffirming their own existence. 

Although I recognize the value of the question, I can’t say it was the most even-handed discussion. No one on the panel came forward to suggest that art didn’t contribute to the public good, which meant that instead of a spirited debate, the conversation felt like a group of intellects reaffirming their own existence. Nor did I get the feeling that anyone in the audience was on the fence. This was not a debate, but a church meeting: the preachers were in every way speaking to the converted.

It’s easy for a group of artistically minded folks to get together and confirm the validity of each other’s viewpoints; it’s harder for them to defend themselves against their critics. This is a persistent mistake made in these sorts of discussions, as if we hope that by ignoring the opposition, we can make them go away. The idea, I suppose, is to imply your critics have such weak arguments that they aren’t worth addressing. It’s an arrogant stance: how can we get our opponents to respect our position if we don’t respect theirs?

...if you want to confront those hostile to the arts, you have to confront the issue of public funding.

The place of art in society is a question of philosophy and can easily descend into esoteric discussions that lack practicality. Battles of moral philosophy have to be fought on common ground. If you want to confront the NRA, you can’t ignore the Second Amendment; and if you want to confront those hostile to the arts, you have to confront the issue of public funding. There is a significant difference between hostility to the arts and hostility towards the belief the government should pay for them. This is what the Harper government generally questions and it’s the issue that needs to be addressed. 

Our real challenge is to prove that public funding of the arts leads to a recognizable public good. The idea that art benefits society is a lovely ideal, but it's far more practical to discuss the way publicly funded art has led to a quantifiable benefit. How have cultural events attracted tourist dollars? How have government-sponsored events created jobs?  Does a festival like SummerWorks, which came under attack last summer, actually help fuel our economy? Once we have these discussions, we will create a platform that the politicians cannot dismiss.

Can this be done? I’m not entirely sure. I suppose I’d need a roundtable discussion involving a mixture of scholars and artists to decide.

...all agreed that the discussion had a Western bias...

I’d be remiss if I didn’t remark on the numerous intriguing things that did go on at Moyse Hall on Tuesday night. For one, all agreed that the discussion had a Western bias and there was a consensus that in other cultures, art is integrated more completely into public life. Director of IPLA Desmond Manderson focused his remarks on the surprising influence of art, such as the fact that blind Lady Justice, now a universal symbol of law, was originally created by an artist as a piece of political satire. Renowned choreographer Margie Gillis didn’t get to speak nearly enough about something called “neuromuscular sympathy”, in which an audience’s brain essentially goes through the same thing as a performer’s during a performance. And Professor Darin Barney had a beautiful remark about why someone like Margie Gillis can be so threatening to the status quo. I won’t try to butcher the remark, but it was something along the lines of Ms. Gillis expanding one's perceptions by revealing the many ways a body can  move. 

All of which is to say that, agree or disagree, IPLA seems like an interesting place for those who like a little scholarship with their art. Starting in 2012, they’ll be partnering with the Segal to deliver an intriguing series of lectures on theatre and danger. For more information, visit here. And, for the record, the free wine and food was a lot more impressive than some of the food we usually get on opening nights. 

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