Comment | Is Art for Artists?

Comment | Is Art for Artists?

Over the past few days a friend and I have been engaged in a debate over whether or not sharing our political views via social media is a good idea. Now, I’m not one to band about the term ‘keyboard warrior’, but I have definitely been referred to as one.

I believe in the power of social media. I believe it offers us the opportunity to share ideas that may only exist in online spaces due to our ever more bias press and media. I believe it allows us free thought, speech and expression. If utilised correctly it has the power to move the masses into action, and offer unity to fringe societies with big ideas; Anonymous for example. In fact, it’s probably the reason you’re reading this right now.

However, through these discussions I have heard a lot of well-posed arguments about keeping your thoughts to yourself in regards to spouting off online. Some pertain towards the idea that by it’s very nature, social media dictates that mostly everyone we interact with online is already of a similar political alignment, which means a lot of the time we’re preaching to the converted or simply screaming ‘BRICK!’ at the wall. My friend went further, and suggested that what is actually happening is the breeding of a culture that encourages the formation of a far right and far left, as we perpetually support and see support for only our own viewpoints and ideas. We close off discussion and debates in search of harmony with only those who share our ideals. We blinker ourselves, and this cannot be good. Not only this, but isn’t it true that our expressions have far less resonance if they’re only shared with those whom already agree? Are we truly making any change or difference? Or are we guilty of sharing content just to further preen our ideal-digital-selves, in a vein attempt to let the world know we’re awesome and righteous and hot… Because sometimes I think I’m guilty of that.

As I was exploring this idea and connecting dots, it suddenly occurred to me that this same thing is happening in art.

As a theatre maker, I believe that live performance has the ability to change people. Through its processes to its performances, it is the art form, that I think, cares most about it’s participants, as it is by nature a work of collaboration. It has the power to be entertaining, enlightening, reverential, social, and political, and must always take place in front of people.

I read an article not so long ago that suggested that all theatre should be political, and on the whole I agreed, but finished the article with the idea that all theatre is political. Yes we can focus this assertion with specificity, but I feel theatre has always been connected to exploring the conditions of our humanity, and that is an already politically loaded notion.

Viewing it as an exploration of our humanity is how it has affected me the most. I can’t quite remember all of the outer-body-like experiences and epiphanies I’ve had throughout my numerous years of watching stuff, but I know they have happened. I’m talking about those moments that are so beautifully and delicately constructed they make you completely question something you’d assumed you were settled on. Those moments of anarchy and chaos, changing night after night that remind you, we are animals and imperfection is a constant. Moments that teach you how to love differently, or respond more responsibly. How to speak more clearly, and how to listen more carefully. They’re all in there, somewhere, and they’re so valuable, so valuable in fact, that they should be shared everybody. But more and more do I feel that this isn’t happening.

As theatre makers and goers I fear we are guilty of creating an elite. The ideas that existed, most significantly in the late 20th Century, were about a classist elite formed by wealth, where the only consumers of theatre were rich folk. Now I feel we’re in danger of creating a different kind of elite; an intellectual elite, and more pertinently, a leftist intellectual elite. In terms of what I’m talking about, I think it can be more commonly surmised as: ‘Art for Artists’.

Now, understanding that no two rules are the same, I’m not suggesting that highly evolved and deftly smart performance work shouldn’t exist. I’m not saying that work with references to ingrained ideas, derived from intrinsic theatre analysis; niche art reference points, or conceptual explorations shouldn’t be made. I’m just think that space for work that can be more universally understood should be much larger. I’m suggesting that we should all, in some way, work extra hard to ensure our work is engaging and interesting to audiences without an established theatrical vocabulary. More so than that, the venues that showcase it, the people that fund it and the organisations who make it happen must find ways to make sure the work can be accessed by anyone. Because we have important things to say, significant revelations to be made, passionate pleas to be heard and frustrations to be communicated. We have ideas about compassion, justice, equality, kindness, freedom, thought and expression, that could be so powerful, if we weren’t just sharing them amongst ourselves.

Time after time I have been to see work, and have spotted the same old faces. They’re the faces of artists who are going for more than the experience it’s self. They go to gather insight, to research… and to maybe steal some ideas. They go to keep their toe in the water or show their face, because they have a mate in the show, or because the company they worked for a few years ago had some comps. The rest of the audience are the regulars. The more common-than-not lefties who love a bit of theatre with their wine. I know this, because I’m one of both, and it makes me worry. It makes me worry that unless we quickly find a way to open this whole thing up, all we’re doing is getting together to communally scream ‘brick’ at the wall.


Justin Cliffe is the Artistic Director of the Newport based theatre company Tin Shed Theatre.