The mildew of ignorance

I am the Walrus

In a recent post Theatre artist Linda Essig noted that on her recent trip to NYC a significant portion of the audience for the 4 plays she saw on and off Broadway were fellow Theatre professionals. I left a long and tiresome comment asking if she thought this betrayed a difficulty in how non arts professionals were being engaged, and she somewhat confirmed this by responding that “Theatre is a way of knowing”. In other words, if you stand on the outside of the profession you will be handicapped by a lack of experience, a dearth of common values, and an absence of the insider understanding one develops with life on the planet Jargon.

If it often takes being a professional to think like a professional it is sometimes tragically humorous when the outsiders give their considered opinions. My friend Brandon Phillips just posted on faceb00k that a customer came to his booth with the certainty that his “‘style’ of pottery mildews because it doesn’t have a glaze on it.” That person was fabulously misinformed. But the question is, with such profound ignorance and the closed minded assurance of its own convictions in the majority, just how do we educate the public better?

Brandon’s customer opined that she knew more about the issue than the professional who has a degree, years of experience, and also teaches for a living. Doesn’t this show that the failing isn’t just bits of missing information but in the person’s lack of curiosity that she might just not have the whole of the picture? Isn’t that just what the world looks like when we stop being curious?

And I’m not saying that all nonprofessionals fail miserably when it comes to ‘getting’ what an art object/performance is all about. But a lack of experience doesn’t help us. A dearth of common values is not a boon. An absence of understanding materials, processes, and motivations is not in our favor. And a shortage of curiosity to make up the deficits is perhaps worst of all. Are outsiders always in the best position to SEE these things, necessarily? Do beginners have ‘killer taste’? Really? It doesn’t stop folks from sharing their mildewed proclamations…..

And its not that Linda’s suggestion that art is “a way of knowing” means art is always arcane, esoteric, or opaque to outsiders. Its just a question of how to make sense of it…..

[i am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together!
see how they run like pigs from a gun, see how they fly …
i’m cryin’

sittin on a corn flake, waitin on the van to come.
corporation tee-shirt,stupid bloody tuesday man you been a naughty boy you let your face grow long!
i am the eggman woooo…, They are the eggman woooo…, i am the walrus …
coo coo ca choo!

mister city p’liceman sitting –
pretty little policemen in a row!
see how they fly like Lucy in the Sky, see how they run! …
i’m crying …
i’m crrrrrryyyyyyyy-in’ i’m cryin’ … i’m crrrrrrrryyyyyyyyyy …

yellow matter custard, drippin’ from a dead dog’s eye!
crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess –
boy, you been a naughty girl, you let’cha knickers down!
i am the eggman woooo… … they are the eggmen woooo… … i am the walrus …
coo coo ca choo!

sitting in an english garden, waiting for the sun …
if the sun don’t come,
you get your tan from standin’ in the english rain!
i am the eggman (how do you do, sir?) …
they are the eggman (a good man maintains his fortune) …
i am the walrus … coo coo ca choo! … ca coo coo ca choo!

expert texpert choking smokers –
don’t you think the joker laughs at you? (hohoho hehehe hahaha)
see how they smile like pigs in a sty, see how they snied …
i’m cryin’

semolina pilchard … climbin’ up the eiffel tower!
elementary penguin, singin’ hare krishna –
man, you should’ve seen them kickin’ edgar allan poe!
i am the eggman woooo… … They are the eggman woooo… … i am the walrus!
coo coo ca choo, ca coo coo ca choo –
coo coo ca cho, ca coo coo ca choo ca choo!
Oompa,Oompa,Stick it in your jumper,Everybodys got one,Everybodys got one.(15x)villion take my purse,if thou will’t ever thrive bury my body,And give the letters you find on me to earl of gloster,seek him out on the English party,O untimely death!(everybodys got one,everybodys got one.)I no thee well,A servicible villion,as duteous to thy vices of thy mistress as badness would desire.(Oompa Oompa stick it in your jumper,everybodys got one everybodys got one)what is he dead? sit you down father,rest you]


In the end, are we content to make do with the support of only the handful of fellow professionals and the narrow public who appreciate it for their own outsider reasons? And when we attempt to expand our audience, aren’t we putting enormous faith in the hope that inquisitiveness is still alive in these people? That there is still potential for these people to care about what we do? That some of our reasons might be transparent to them, that some of our materials will strike a chord, and that some of our processes will fascinate them? Just what would happen if all our potential audience had to come from the people whose mildewed opinions were already closed minded about what we are doing?

What do YOU think?

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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3 Responses to The mildew of ignorance

  1. lindaessig says:

    In writing “theatre is a way of knowing,” I meant quite the opposite of your interpretation of that notion. Theatre incites empathy in a visceral, immediate, heartfelt manner that requires no “common values,” and no “insider understanding.” If you don’t believe me, go down to your nearest theatre for youth and watch the young people enraptured by story and character enacted by real live people. There is even some brain imaging research that indicates that when people watch live theatrical performance, they engage “mirror neurons” that cause the viewer to feel what the performer-as-character feels. Theatre is a way of knowing what it is is to be human in the world and while the making of that meaning requires professional knowledge, the reception of it does not. It only requires being human.
    Thanks, as always, for your engagement,

    • lindaessig says:

      PS> If I had wanted to use jargon, I would have written “theatre is an epistemology.” 😉

    • Oops! Trust me to get the wrong interpretation of a mere six little words! Heaven knows what I do when I’ve got more than a handful to deal with…..

      Interesting background info! I absolutely can see that when folks DO get the Theatre they do so viscerally and empathically. Makes sense to me. But how does this make sense of people that don’t like the Theatre, that would prefer something else? Does all Theatre really appeal to all people equally? If art forms had universal mojo then our universal humanity would surely explain it. So how is it possible that despite our common humanity people don’t always like or ‘get‘ some art forms?

      I guess what I was remarking on was that you noticed a preponderance of Insider Theatre people in the audience. That seems to point out something terribly important. If all that was required for caring about the arts was being human then the audience would always reflect a more diverse composition. But it wasn’t, and it probably never is. So I guess I was asking why some people don’t seem to care. Or, why Theatre insiders care more….

      And isn’t that the point of studying demographics? Our humanity moves us in common ways, but people are still amazingly different. Our humanity unites us, but also seems to point us in different, opposite, contrary, and contradictory directions. Isn’t that part of the joy and mystery of being alive? If art didn’t have new things to teach us would we still find it so endlessly fascinating? Would art be compelling if it was always the lowest hanging fruit?

      If Theatre goers all care about the Theatre, what makes them different from people who don’t care? (Surely we have to admit that not everyone cares…) What do we say about the folks that would rather be 50 other places? That they only seem to care less? Or that, for whatever reason, they value the Theatre less than the people who are truly invested in the success of the Theatre? Isn’t this difference, in fact, telling? Don’t these people understand the Theatre to be different things? Don’t insiders know the Theatre differently? Isn’t knowing what the Theatre is and is about different than not knowing? Isn’t the Theatre a way of knowing also just the way I meant it?

      Doesn’t it require more than simple humanity for someone to plunk down in a Theatre seat? Or do anything interesting, for that matter? Doesn’t it require something special for a person to also value the Theatre? In terms of demographics, are these people even remotely the same as folks who could care less? Isn’t the Theatre (and any arts form) a cultural pathway? If art adds to a person’s life, enriches it, then the people who experience different art forms have different things added to their lives. Hip hop music and hip hop culture. Pottery and pottery culture? Theatre and Theatre culture?….

      If art changes us, then aren’t we different from who we just were? Transformed? Can’t art be transformative? And doesn’t that distinguish us even further from folks that don’t have a handle on art? That haven’t experienced it or haven’t experienced it as thoroughly? Isn’t experience something that refines and compliments our humanity? Doesn’t experience help to define us?

      Its obviously a complicated question, and six little words apparently leave a lot of room for interpretation. The irony being that something relatively simple can be known in a variety of different and contradictory interpretations. How much more tenuous is a style of knowing that hinges on hour long performances, different playwrights and authors, different performers interpreting the words, different companies interpreting the set, and different audiences interpreting the confluence of all these variable ingredients?

      As far as ‘understanding’ goes, there are clearly different levels, and an inarticulate visceral or empathic understanding is surely one thing. But for every phalanx of Theatre goers who have a great time, very few will have enjoyed the same things about it for the same reasons. Despite whatever mute appeals went on, people will still disagree. Doesn’t THAT say something interesting too?

      And what about the critic writing reviews for the paper? Is there a difference between a sophisticated grasp of the nuances, and a perspective so oblivious as to find it incomprehensible? Does it help to have seen several plays, or the same one several times? Are we all truly on equal footing? Do some plays use symbolism or humor, allegory and allusion, and are these universally coherent? Does visceral empathy carry us through, or does even that sometimes even depend on our own background? Can every viewer tell the difference between ‘good’ Theatre and ‘bad’? And (for the truly defining quality of our humanity), are people’s tastes all that similar? Don’t we just like different things?

      Maybe I’m just imagining that art forms like pottery and the Theatre are sometimes sophisticated endeavors. Maybe I’m only imagining that an education about these things makes a difference. Maybe I’m imagining that the less educated we are the less we get from the richness and nuance on offer. I have nothing against mute visceral empathy, but is that truly all the arts have to offer? Is that enough? Is that the most we can hope for with a divorced audience strapped to their padded cushions, utterly lacking in their own creative ambitions? Is this the audience we hope to cultivate? Inarticulate trawlers of low hanging fruit? Is art just another form of entertainment? Like Nascar? Like nude jello wrestling?

      If art can also elevate us, if it can also UP-lift us, transport us, it is an ability to reach higher than simple low hanging entertainment. And I would like to think that it is also an invitation to rise above our mere humanity to search the mysteries, and ponder the imponderables…. I’d like to think that art asks us to be more than just what we already are. It is through art that we become more than merely human.

      Well THAT was probably a bunch of hog wash! See what happens when I get excited, when I get all engaged by a thing? Transported, straining against the mortal bonds?. Art becomes life when life becomes art…..

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