Where our performing arts get it wrong
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
As I am falling asleep, I like to play little games with my memory. One of my favourites is trying to remember the time and place I learned certain words. For instance, I learned the word "assassination" the afternoon JFK was killed. I got home from school to discover my stricken mother in front of the TV (which would stay on for three days solid) and asked her what that word - used over and over again on the tube - meant. Another word, "tautology", was shared with me by a young coworker - one of those admirable people who don't just devour books but keeps a dictionary nearby to look up every word they don't understand.
I always knew "transgression" (I was raised Catholic, after all) but "transgressive" and its application to art was during an interview I was doing with an art critic at Village Voice, C. Carr, who was explaining the burgeoning phenomenon of performance art. Our wondrous talk was a little all over the place - as there was (and never would be) a true definition of performance art. But she did suggest that one of its hallmarks was that it was transgressive. I guessed the meaning of the word but added, "Like Andres Serrano's Piss Christ?" She explained, yes, that's what she meant. (But she also explained - and this few knew - that Serrano was a devout believer and that Piss Christ was simply a thematic which rose from Christ the Redeemer - His blood and ostensibly all other bodily fluids were forms of salvation.)
I was a Transgressive Art junkie.
Transgressive Art. What a concept!
I was already setting myself up as a champion of alternative theatre, rejecting utterly the old values of comfortable art, museum art or mainstream art. Those values are still with me and inhabit almost everything I write. I realized that even a brand new play can be comfortable and was trying to figure why I despised the notion. Ms Carr gave it a name. I was a Transgressive Art junkie.
But with age, and a lot of experience, I have actually become a little more hard-headed about art. There really is no such thing as comfortable art. Comfort is to art what skittles are to cuisine. Any performance which merely comforts should be called, merely, entertainment. Now as much as I am okay with entertainment, and would furthermore suggest that entertainment can contain elements of art - but the brilliance of a dancer, the voice of a singer, the commitment of an actor are simply technical elements. The sum total of the thing before us - the performance, the work - must challenge and question everything we believe; not about the art itself necessarily, but about our very selves. It must be transgressive.
Now here is our problem - art that is transgressive mostly goes unfunded, and - worse from my vantage point - is misunderstood or downright despised by reviewers. I know of two top newspaper critics, during my own career, who were so clueless that if they were not actually avoiding this kind of theatre, reviewed it with either disdain or a benign stupidity which screams, "I don't get it!" Moreover, the policy of some newspapers not to review non-Equity shows clearly puts burgeoning companies at a disadvantage not just for coverage but - by extension - for funding. Our major theatres are, in an odd set of circumstances, forced to produce safe and comfortable theatre. More often than not transgressive art gets consigned to small venues, Fringe festivals or mini-festivals where well-subsidized artistic directors show off their cool side. (Yes, that's not fair.)
This is why I admire most of our dance companies because since I was a boy you almost always found, on a bill with Giselle, something new and challenging and which sent the purists into a tailspin. This is why I like Against the Grain in Toronto, and even COC because they seem to be presenting opera in ways that are not only feats of technique but also somewhat discomfiting. (Have a look at the reviews of COC's Ballo in maschera, this season, if you want to see what I mean.) Indeed, I tend to admire any company which, at least from time to time, sends reviewers up the walls (even if I am one of them). I love how Canadian Stage drives some critics mental.
You can do cozy art and bring a new life force to it. You can challenge spectators/audiences without alienating them. But the way a lot of government-subsidized art goes is on a tidy course to oblivion.
We need no more proof of this than the death of network TV and the rise of - if you'll permit - transgressive shows. How about so-called Family Newspapers, ceding to newspapers and websites and blogs which speak plainly. When an American politician says "fuck" you won't read that as anything but "expletive" in a paper outside of The Guardian. (And if the powers think we can't handle transgressive reality, how the fuck are we to deal with it in art?)
Finally, I think, as we survive our messy world we must see reflections of it in our art. If you want comfort...well, there's always your La-Z-Boy...or your bed.