Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Theater: John Cage; The Artist In Conversation

The word elitism is in the air again right now, in reference to Barack Obama and his comment about the perceived bitterness of Pennsylvanians, and their attitudes toward that bitterness. I'm not writing about that yet (I have to let that percolate in my brain a while before I throw my ideas out there), but I am planning on addressing the idea of elitism in a place more often accused of it than the Democratic Party: the avant-garde in America.

Before we begin, I'd like to briefly state that I am going to refer to the avant-garde in the third person, because as yet I'm not sure I know whether or not I fit into that category. The avant-garde does the sort of things I want to do, and they are plagued by the same problems I come across, but it is not for me to say where I land in this tradition, and certainly not at this tender early age.

Having said that, the avant-garde secretly enjoys the term 'elitist' because it does like to think of itself as an 'elite.' And that is not necessarily a bad thing. But the term 'elitist' when used by most of us is really the word 'arrogant.' So often we see theater-makers who alienate themselves from their audience. They talk down about them--even if they have good intentions--talking about how they don't want to 'sell out' or 'dumb down' to an audience.

There is a notion of integrity to be discussed. The give-and-take between integrity and adjusting for the sake of the audience is not my point here.

Below there is a video of John Cage from the year 1960 on the show I've Got A Secret. He performs his music piece (or perhaps more aptly, music-theater piece) "Water Walk" -- so titled, as Cage says, "Because it contains water, and because I walk." The piece itself is interesting, for the usual reasons that Cage's work is interesting, but I was most drawn to the content of the video before the piece begins.

You see, the show I've Got A Secret is a game show, and although the game isn't played for this episode, the audience is I've Got A Secret's usual audience, and its host is its usual host. The audience strikes me as not being a particularly 'avant-garde' audience; it doesn't even seem to be a particularly 'theater' audience. In fact, what we've got is the audience of a show along the lines of Who Wants To Be A Millionare.

The way that John Cage relates to the host and to the audience is very interesting, and it is very insightful. The audience is remarkably open-minded--my voice teacher Richard Armstrong described to me how when 4'33" reached England, there were cries of "This is boring!" and boo's. Certainly, with some of Cage's performances, there can be a sense of betrayal--audiences who came with certain expectations that they are unhappy that are broken.

So how do John Cage and the host cooperate to create an environment in which the audience enjoys the work (they do seem to enjoy it, even if they might not consider it music)? There are a few key points that contain volumes of lessons. Let's move through the important ones:

  1. Presence: The simplest one of the crucial points is the presence of the host and the presence of the artist. John Cage stands there as a "contestant" and, although he doesn't 'contest,' he is present to take accountability for his work. The host is the host as usual, a familiar figure, and he establishes himself (through his familiar style) as an ally of the audience. He also, early on, holds to the usual format of the game--asking John Cage to slate himself and interviewing him as any other guest.
  2. Suspending the game: The host does not tell the audience that the game has been cancelled--the host asks the producer, and then explains it to John Cage. What this does is establish an atmosphere of respect, of equality. The host, the artist, the producer, and the audience are on the same footing--we have all mutually agreed that we are going to see this interesting work without needing the perfunctory vehicle of the game.
  3. Humor is key: Humor is key. Humor is key. I can't stress that enough. When the instruments are listed, the host makes a few silly faces--which serve as an opening to the audience to laugh. Nothing feels worse for a theatrical audience than to feel as though something you are going to do is right or wrong. Discomfort might be used to good offense in some theater (the play Offending the Audience bases its production on that), but in terms of reaching a wider audience, there must be freedom provided to the audience. That is what gives them the freedom to enjoy the work in whatever way they feel fit. Cage also gives permission for humor when the host tells him, apologetically (which is key) that some in the audience may laugh. Cage responds that he "prefer[s] laughter to tears," which is both honest and a funny line.
    The avant-garde has an obsession with having the audience receive its art in a specific way, whereas the commercial merely asks that the audience like it. Cage releases the obligation from the audience to have a 'profound' relationship with the piece; all he asks is that they listen (which, considering how unlike their musical tradition "Water Walk" is, isn't nothing). By opening the door to whatever response people feel is necessary, the audience is unpressured; and thus there is yet again a feeling of respect. Respect between John Cage and the audience, between the host (who doesn't want to belittle Cage's work but is honest about the gap in their tastes and experiences) and Cage, and between the host and the audience (as the host makes sure to defend their interests and protect them from the possibility of hurtful elitism).
  4. Talk to the point: Cage's concise, clear way of speaking, and how he does not dodge the questions. It is tempting, as an artist, to attempt to couch your art in terms of mysticism and technical terms, just as an academic enjoys to stuff their papers full of literary terms. And that is perfectly fine from artist-to-artist or from academic-to-academic. But when Cage is asked "seriously" whether he considers "Water Walk" to be music, he says, "I consider music to be the production of sound, and since in the piece which you will hear I produce sound, I would call it music." This answer is straight to the point. (His response, quoted earlier, as to why he titled the piece 'Water Walk' is humorous because it is overly succinct; the expectation of a complex emotional-intellectual history to a title is blown out by his simple way of approaching the piece).
  5. Room for opinions: The host does not endorse or deny this claim about music ("He takes it seriously, I find it interesting, if you are amused you may laugh"), and Cage does not seem to take a highly emotional stance on the issue. It seems as though if you said to John Cage, "I think there's something more to music than the production of sound," he might respond, "Well, that's interesting," but he certainly wouldn't yell in your face that you're closeminded and that's the reason Broadway is slowly dying, or what have you. Room is given for debate to happen; this is in the same vein as the 'giving space to laugh' point.
  6. Union dispute: The charming problem with the radios is an accidental piece of goodwill; it places John Cage in the real world in a humorous way, giving him sympathy from the audience. He does not whine or declare that his piece is ruined; he simply adjusts his game plan. And bonus points because his solution is humorous.
  7. The stopwatch: the host does well to highlight the stopwatch, and how "each [sound] must fall mathematically at a precise point." Again, he does not say whether or not he thinks this is music, but he respects John Cage enough to communicate that there is something going on beyond a man walking around making random noises. It is up to the audience as to what to make of that, but it is another moment of respect between the host and the artist.
  8. Cage's response to the piece of criticism: the criticism the host reads contains both positive and negative aspects; this goes back to the host's role in the situation as a neutral arbiter, and the room for both positive and negative response. Cage does not respond angrily to the criticisms; in fact, he smiles as some of the worst bits are read. He does not seem too affected; this is important. Again, he is respecting the ability of the audience, the host, and the critics to come to whatever conclusions they will.
How can we tie these bits of advice together? Suffice it to say that John Cage's presence on I've Got A Secret is conversational.

The model of the relationship between the artist and the audience should be that of a conversation.

When you talk with friends or colleagues, even if you think their opinions are 'low brow' or 'misinformed,' it is considered rude to tell them so directly. It is far more constructive simply to help inform them, to talk to them, to feel out their positions. In America, sometimes the elite believes that because their opinions and feelings are backed by more information, they are more valid. In one sense, that is true. But in the emotional sense, that is incorrect, and in terms of a healthy speaking relationship, the emotional equality must be preserved.

Again, the content of the conversation does not need to be altered. The same happens in politics (and I'll return to this point later by discussing the Daily Show's interviews); it is possible to have a conversation where political opinions are expressed without it becoming ugly, partisan, and personal. Sure, shows like the ill-fated Crossfire or Hardball or Hannity and Colmes makes it seem as though when people talk about politics, they get angry, but if we want to go back to the legacy of William F. Buckley, or watch discussions on some of the better shows on the BBC, you can see that is possible to discuss your own opinions while still giving space for other's opinions.

This is not an easy task, and I want to emphasize that it is difficult. Art, politics, religion (see this again when I discuss Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins), etc. are all very emotional subjects, but they can still be discussed rationally without the emotional violence inflicted on one another. And too often the theatrical avant-garde lashes out at what it sees as conservative theatrical views; the "masses," the great unwashed.

If we want to bring the average person with us, we must remain in conversation. That conversation may be confrontational and still respectful (think of an intervention for a friend, perhaps). That conversation may be emotionally charged, and still respectful (although if emotions run wild, it may not remain respectful for long). But it must remain a conversation; what we mean when we talk about the 'ivory tower' is artists who have left the conversation. And when we talk about 'elitism' in the pejorative sense, we mean artists who dominate the conversation, and yell alot.

I wouldn't invite them to a discussion at dinner, and I certainly would feel irritated if that was the tone their art took.

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