I first encountered Kandinski’s Concerning The Spiritual In Art while in college. While I did not necessarily experience his sense of the mystical nature of line and color, I did share, in my way, his passionate hope that art could be a vehicle for spirituality and social change. Over the years those ideas have informed my visual and performance work.
Although I no longer perform often, I continue to think about issues of theatre and performance. At the center of my theorizing, aesthetics meets concerns about ethnicity, race, class, gender and disability. In all my years of university training (BFA, two MA’s, and a Ph.D.) discussions of the power relationships inherent in aesthetic standards rarely arose. I venture to say that they never arose in my arts courses. Even those anthropology and psychology courses devoted to consideration of race, class, or gender largely ignored aesthetics as culturally mediated. Now I routinely explore the cultural construction of aesthetics with students in my courses, although they are not always comfortable with the material.
Recently I have been engaged in discussions about the societal and political dimensions of aesthetics with a variety of performance practitioners. These folks tend to land in one of three groups: teacher/artists, performance venue administrators, or performer/directors. Clearly, these categories frequently overlap, yet they remain useful. When in conversations with performer/directors I find we can usually comfortably discuss integrating persons of diverse races/ethnicities and genders into troupes, as long as the performers share an aesthetic. Perhaps not surprisingly in our present economic climate, they seem more concerned with audience than inclusion. Often, this means that performers are excluded based on disability or class. (Interestingly, some performance space administrators seem more interested in the narrative and performative power of pieces, and book innovative, inclusive companies, seek out audiences.)
Disability becomes an issue when performers bring physical or cognitive challenges to theatre. Performance making requires the creation of narrative structure if the piece is to convey meaning. The director shapes the narrative, and in so doing privileges some aesthetic choices over others. (The performance space can also shape the narrative; many stages are inaccessible!) The result is either more, or less, inclusive of both performers and audience members. (One may argue that the history of the Avante Guard, in which I was trained and participate, is one of theorizing inclusion while establishing ever more restrictive cultural elites.) Generally, directors seem to feel more comfortable making accommodations for performers who contribute to the director’s formal choices, rather than building performance around the considerable skills of the disabled, or other performers who demonstrate difference. This is understandable, yet problematic. After all, performance is about storytelling, and aesthetic choices inevitably convey the subtext for the director’s (and often the culture’s/society’s) preferred narrative. Exclusion is inevitable and it matters.
An example of the exclusionary capacities of aesthetics took place in New Orleans a couple of years ago when a famous director from the Northeast brought his version of Waiting for Godot to town, ostensibly to make a statement about the plight of local people immediately following Katrina. Godot is a centerpiece of the Western theatre cannon, and the play in question was greeted with much critical applause. Yet the commentary about the play largely ignored the conditions of the performances. One of my acquaintances, a theatre person from the Big Easy, critiqued the play thus (my paraphrase) : “The piece sold out the Dome, but there were almost no people of color inside. Many people of color and local theater and performance artists were in the lobby trying to purchase tickets. It was embarrassing. On top of that, the play is about doing nothing, about futility. Here in New Orleans people were active after the storm, trying to help one another. We still are. Neither the media nor the play showed that. Local theatre people here have made a lot of performances showing the bravery and generosity of the people here during and after the storm, but those performances get little attention in the national media. Yet the production of Godot was in all the national media.”
Clearly the Avante Guard’s use of social engagement can be highly problematic, especially when performance is done for (some say “to”) culturally specific audiences, for instance, the New Orleans experience of Godot. Or consider a group of non-disabled actors creating and performing a show with disability themes to an audience of disabled persons. Let’s say many of the stories utilized to create the performance had been gleaned from persons who were now in the audience. When asked why there are no disabled performers, the director responds, “We could find no disabled performers who could this physically demanding piece.” The performance may have been visually stunning and spiritually uplifting, but also conveyed a strong message of inaccessibility. The medium is, ultimately, the message. (Interestingly, in the Eighties, Bill T. Jones was harshly criticized for including persons with life threatening illnesses in his performances of Still Here, even thought those participants publicly praised Bill and spoke about the work as life changing.)
I’ve been exploring spirituality in the arts, and issues of inclusion and aesthetics since the 1960’s. There are now many people of color, disabled artists, and folks across a diversity of classes, ethnicities, and genders thinking, speaking, and writing about cultural coding in performance. That’s good; we need those voices. Many of those folks are making art that arises out of their thoughtful exploration of these issues. Often, these works are filled with spirit. I like to think we are, like the good folks of New Orleans, no longer waiting for Monsieur Godot.
Next time you attend a theatre or other performance event, consider paying attention to the cultural codes being enacted. What are the values implicit and explicit in the piece? Whose on stage and who isn’t? What description of reality is given preference? Are you invited to drink deeply from the well of Spirit? I hope you’ll let me know what you discover.
– Michael Watson, Ph.D.
© 2013, essay and photographs (includes the one below), Michael Watson, All rights reserved
MICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.