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The Right to be Unpopular

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I think there are a lot of interesting issues raised by the Forsythe Leaving Frankfurt Ballet issue, and one of them is this statement: "It is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to objectively translate or reduce intrinsic, multiple values as are typically embedded in art, into interest-maximizing numbers that explicate it?s relevance in political models of cultural well-being."

This sentence is being read, I think, as a choreographer wanting to make the work he wants without worrying about popularity (if that's a fair reading of "interest-maximizing numbers").

What do you think about this? We'd probably all defend the right of an artist to be true to his personal artistic vision, and we'd picket if a board said, "You know, Martha, all these flashbacks and triple personalities is confusing people. Couldn't you just do a nice Nutcracker, like George is doing?" Or if ABT did a research survey and found that 85% of subscribers ONLY wanted to see "Swan Lake," would we say, "Well, can't argue with that." Or would we say, "perhaps the company could put a few bucks into audience education."

Where is the line in the sand? I cannot paint or draw. Absolutely not, by any standard or stretch of the imagination. But if I decide I'd like to be an artist, and go out and buy an easel, some paints, and a beret, do I have the right to produce (ghastly, wretched, incompetent) unpopular art? If the public rejects my paintings but I can convince some kindly old soul to support me, is that okay?

How popular or unpopular can an artist be?

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What an interesting issue. Or should I say issues? The quotation paired with your question, Alexandra, raises a number of thought provoking issues. Most immediately and directly, doesn't an artist have the right to be as unpopular as she chooses? In fact some artists intentionally create to offend or be obscure. I suppose where one draws the line in the sand depends on whether or not you care about who is standing on your side of the line and which beach you stand on. Didn't Nietsche give us all the right to make our own path? But that's the most obvious answer.

Other questions are raised. Does an artist have any responsibility to her audience? Is that responsibility then simply to create product or does it go beyond that into communicating, clarifying, relating, enlightening, enraging, or somehow engaging others? If not, then popularity looses relevance.

Perhaps a very unpopular visual artist who has found some poor old soul to sponsor her simply has one person on this planet who likes her work and chooses with open eyes to support her. Or perhaps she has connived to get her sponsorship. Very different stories to me.

The whole thing begs the question, "What is the artists role in society?" I don't think you meant to go that deep, but there appears to me (in my truly humble opinion) to be a direct link. I am interested in what others have to say more than my own ramblings on.


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Deborah, I think the artist's responsibility to society is very much the issue here, and the line is between the artist's right to make his own work, popular or unpopular (flip the coin; does an artist have the right to be popular, or does that automatically exclude him from artistland?), and the artist's responsibility to his audience. Is it simply a question of letting the market decide?

Where is the line for you, generally? Or where should it be in the Forsythe case? Take your pick.

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Deborah, you weren't rambling. It's a big topic. :)

An artist can be popular or unpopular, depending on his field, his style, his audience, and, in the case of a ballet master, the position he holds. If you're working in New York City, say, where there is a plethora of companies and choreographers, then it's perfectly fine to form your own company and insist on your Vision to the exclusion of all else. On the other hand, if you are running a company that has to be many things to many people, you don't have that privilege. Graham didn't have a Nutcracker, but Graham didn't have to draw an audience of opera house proportions, either. That does not, of necessity, mean audience pandering and All Swan Lake, All the Time programming. I think of newspapers. The Washington Post has advice columns, horoscopes, etc.; the New York Times does not. This is not because the Post is whoring to the lowest common denominator and the Times isn't; it's because the Post has a de facto monopoly over its readership the Times doesn't have and with monopoly comes special responsibilities, but it doesn't mean running "Headless Body in Topless Bar"-style headlines. Likewise, if you're running a company that is basically the only game in town for dancegoers, it's your responsibility to take that into account in your programming (which is different from letting it control your programming).

Parenthetically, I actually don't think many artists go out of their way to be offensive or obscure – not the best ones, anyway. Joyce, for example, didn't intend to write in such a way as to get Ulysses banned for obscenity, nor was he sitting at his desk cackling, "This'll confuse them." And although he didn't write to get on the best seller list, he would have been very pleased had he done so. (Even had he set out to write audience pleasing potboilers, it's unlikely he could have. There's a Henry James story, called, I think, "The Next Time," in which a starving writer tries his best to write books with popular appeal, and in spite of himself keeps producing one unsaleable masterpiece after another.)

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Originally posted by Alexandra

Where is the line in the sand...If the public rejects my paintings but I can convince some kindly old soul to support me, is that okay?

How popular or unpopular can an artist be? [/

But of course. You're always free to make your hypothetical bad art, and I hope you find your hypothetical patron....BUT there is a difference between "bad" and" unpopular." In fact, "bad" and "popular" are often in unwholesome alliance.I doubt William Forsythe is stating a desire to make bad art....However, these things do get tangled up, don't they ....?

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My own personal line in the sand is the "gracious host" rule. I need to create what I need to make to grow as an artist, and what I want to see created. At the same time, I also feel that if someone has traveled and paid money to see my work, the least I can do is act graciously and gratefully and send them home happy. Challenging an audience is not at all a bad thing, baffling them is riskier, alienating them, riskier still. Still, I believe anyone can sit through any sort of experiment if it's 10-15 minutes long, so there's every reason to try something risky if you can keep it succinct.

I've always thought Balanchine balanced these demands awfully well, and feel very influenced by his example on this.

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I think it depends on who you're creating the work for. If you're doing it for yourself, not for public consumption, then you have no obligations to anyone but yourself.

Ballet creates a bit of a challenge, you have to keep in mind the dancers you're using and their limitations (if you so choose). And of course, if you are expecting people to come and keep coming, it in a sense needs to be "marketable" having said that, I think people create for a "certain" audience nowadays. It's as if little niches have been formed in the audiences. Some go for a dancer, some the choreographer, some the music, and some to just say they went and saw.

There seems to be a great divide with everything now. There's the "mass produced" things (books, perfumes, The Nutcracker) and then there are "specialized". It's like going to law/medical school, you learn the basics and then you choose a specialty.

I think art is the same way, you need an educated audience to appreciate the challengs you may throw at them. And I think that's something that's lacking in ballet now. That's why I think ABT has done such a smart move in creating in NY it's City Center "season" during the Met, they educate the masses, and CC they allow those who "know" a bit, to enjoy a different side of them.

I hope this makes sense!

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Thinking about this more, maybe this is just my own personal mindset, but it's hard for me to imagine an artist deliberately trying to create "unpopular" work. That doesn't mean every ballet ought to be the Nutcracker or Riverdance, but doesn't an artist create what s/he wants to see? Maybe it's because I've spent a lot of time in the audience as well (but what choreographer doesn't?) but it follows that one would create the repertory one wants to watch. Maybe that will only be what a portion of the audience at large wants to see, but is that creating something "unpopular" or serving a niche market?

If the art has an audience other than the artist (which means anyone who doesn't leave his/her stories in a drawer or the paintings under the bed) then the goal of the art is to communicate. No artist is going to be (or should attempt to be) universal, but if the goal is to say something, then doesn't that imply that there is someone out there you are saying that something to?

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...and that today's Artistic Directors are less Artistic and more Director (as in Board of Directors).

The fund-raising alone is enough to crush the creative spirit of many.

Is it me or is there a slowly seeping mediocrity of vision amongst these artists turned administrators?

It's as if some wierd formula were at work:

AE- (f/r)


(f/s) x (c/s)nth = MV

Where AE is

artistic excellence diminished by a factor of fundraising events divided by exposure to financial statements times the size of the company to the nth power, n being the number of pointe shoes used in a month which all equals Mediocre Vison.

Or a simpler version: art + compromise = real life

Although, now that I think of it, some of them weren't the most artistic to begin with.

Haven't seen Forsythe's work, but I applaud his amusingly over-written statement.

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IMO, Forsythe's work is much like his statement: lots of words (steps) but no sense. And a scorn for communication. Really really cool, hip, intellectual avant garde artists don't have to communicate. It says so in a book somewhere.

I like your formula, Watermill. I think the biggest harmful trend of the last twenty years is the replacement of artistic vision in ballet companies by nonartists, or minor artists, or, in some cases, pathetically meagre artists with huge egos and huge mouths. They were an outrage, talked about in whispers as unfortunate stopgaps until something better came along, and now they're here. Like weeds, we'll never get rid of them. (I don't put Forsythe in this category; he is a choreographer. But there are a lot who can't teach, can't stage, can't do much of anything except make deathless pronouncements about how "We are not a museum company!" or "Ballet must cope with the realities of modern life!"

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However, the Unreconstructed Voltairean in me still says these distracting voices must be permitted and shown, if only to provide contrast to what is cogent and true. The marketplace of ideas will determine what will last. I recall a line in one of my favorite plays, Inherit the Wind, in which the Clarence Darrow character, Henry Drummond says, "This man has the right to be wrong!"

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Guest CyberDancer

at a simplistic level -- the artist's only responsilibility is to themself

their art is their means to express feelings, political views, protests, anger, love -- first for themself and then for others

the audience's only responsibility is to themself -- they partake only of the art that provokes a response within that they are willing to explore (positive or negative)

it is not the responsibility of either to cater or pander to the other -- it is demeaning

society's responsibility is to foster an environment in which art exists -- not to ensure the existence of any particular artist.

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I don't believe in entropy in the arts.

Eventually, bad speech/thought is countered by good speech/thought and is defeated in argument, or by forming a synthesis (ah, there, Hegel) which comprehends both, and improves upon them.

Discourse is not like the matter of having a barrel of wine and a barrel of sewage. Take a barrel of sewage, and add a teaspoon of wine, and you have sewage. Take a barrel of wine, add a teaspoon of sewage, and you have sewage.

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Let me reply to the idea that artists and audiences have responsibilities only to themselves: that course creates a world of navel-gazers.

I have just conjured a marvelous mental image of the curtain rising on a work by Forsythe, and the entire audience curling over to speculate upon their own umbilici.;)

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I actually thought CyberDancer had a good point about the artist and the audience being ultimately responsible to themselves, and I also liked the comment about neither party catering to the other.

This would only result in navel-gazing if taken too far -- if an artist were to say in essence, this work represents how I feel, it doesn't matter if I haven't taken the trouble to transmute it into art, these are my feelings and thoughts and you have to respect them for their own sake -- or if the audience were to respond with, You're not reflecting my feelings or experience, or You didn't make that immediately understandable to me, and since that's the only thing that matters, I'm going to throw tomatoes at the stage.

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I thought CyberDancer made a good point, too, and I think dirac has just pointed out another "where's the line?" problem. I'd say that, in theory, if the artist recognizes the audience's existence instead of ignoring it, or treating it as a target, I won't be upset if he miscommunicates (which is different than not communicating). And I'm not a fan of the "I want to see my own life up there on the stage" school of viewing. I want to see something ELSE up there, so going to the theater is not All About Me. But I don't want to be lectured, ignored, or spat at either.

I think there is often a period of adjustment between audience and artist, too. The artist may make something that he thinks everyone will understand and love (and let's say, for the sake of argument, that he really is brilliant and the work really is great) and be shocked, hurt and disappointed when the audience, with the best will in the world, doesn't get it, or hates it. The artist may realize that s/he's not presented the idea clearly, or that the work looks so much like something else that the audience was confused and put off. And the audience will, in time, become accustomed to his/her style. In the best of all possible worlds, of course.

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I think that probably the best example of a choreographer following a via media of serving an audience without hopeless introversion or infra dig was probably Sir Frederick Ashton. His work was unabashedly personal, yet also unabashedly theatrical. Balanchine was also getting to be like that, but after the failure of his mega-turkey Don Quixote, began recasting all the crazy old coots (Drosselmeyer in Nutcracker, Dr. Coppélius, and the father in "Harlequinade") as Ancient Knights, much to the detriment of the works concerned. His "crazy old men need love too" approach kept his latest works from the brilliance of his next-to-latest creative era and made them somewhat embarrassing to watch, if you knew the older versions.

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Not to derail this thread from the original topic but isn't reducing Balanchine's casting to his working out the issue of having the hots for Farrell (or any other sweet young thing) as simplistic as saying that Ashton's great ballets derived from crushes? Both have been said, and I think both are more than unjust, they overlook each man's mastery of craft.

I think opinion on Don Q was very mixed, but with some positive reviews as well as negative. I was also reading a review of Harlequinade from the late 70's, when Baryshnikov was cast, and Andrei Kramarevsky was cast as Cassandre. Did he really play the part as noble and misunderstood? I've never gotten to see him, but from my viewing of him in other roles, I'd see him as playing the role much more gruffly.

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Kramarevsky did indeed play the Old Man as Noble! He even looked like Don Q, down to the van Dyke! And while he didn't wear armor, his costume was a silver-grey. A far different interpretation from Michael Arshansky's original burgundy-coated Bartolo-like buffo. And isn't Cassandre the name of the Elderly Suitor?

For my money, Balanchine even resorted toward the end to name-calling against younger men in "Vienna Waltzes", with the men in Explosions Polka being portrayed as fops.

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To follow your train of thought, Mel, then at the end of Vienna, the absent partner is Balanchine....I buy it. Also, in Davidsbundtlertanze, the man is Balanchine, and the women "the wives." And what I call "meta-wives." I actually once wrote a piece in which I suggested that Balanchine's attraction to Zorina (who was actually named Brigitte) and later Von Aroldingen herarlded back to the German nanny of his childhood. This is now the wrong thread, but if someone moved Mel's last couple of posts and mine, we could have a Freud and the Ballet chat....LAW, I don't think this kind of analysis detracts from the artistic merit of the pieces, or minimizes the work.It's just interesting. I can see where you wouldn't care for it, though. Chreographers generally don't. It was anathema to "new criticism," and I avoided it for years, but in the end, it was too tempting. You can always work back to the personal, in almost anything, actually. But the fastest route to truth is fiction.

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