‘Fixing’ Art and saving culture: A Thanksgiving parable

Although your world it wonders me
with your majestic and superior cackling hen
Your people I do not understand
So to you I shall put an end
And then you’ll never hear surf music again

Its almost Thanksgiving, and this reminds me that not everyone always gets along. The holiday celebrates what is best about human community, but it seems more an exception than the rule. We come from different starting points and value different outcomes. Our cultures can seem incompatible, incomparable, and in a collision between differences the outcome isn’t always peaceful. We don’t always join together, make new friends, and rejoice in our immense good fortune. We don’t always share.

I always thought of Thanksgiving as sort of embodying a socialist/egalitarian sort of ideal. Harmony and empathy. A fair shake for all. Its not about the ‘winner take all’ mentality we often seem to have. Its not even about paying your way. Everyone is invited and brings what they can, if sometimes even only themselves. But that’s not how it usually plays out on other days. The status quo does odd things to us. Power and privilege do odd things to us. The ‘old’ and entrenched doesn’t always give it up to the ‘new’, the underrepresented, the outsiders. And the ‘new’ occasionally throws off its encumbering burden to take what it wants, engineering its own inheritance. Its often the clash between privilege and privation. Its often the clash between the exclusive and the excluded. Its often the clash between preservation and innovation. And its an age old story.

And this also reminds me of the disruption of traditional culture that the art world is currently (perpetually) experiencing. I almost don’t want to talk about art when there is so much sh-t going down that really should be talked about. But I started writing this post almost three weeks ago, and if its gonna get done by Thanksgiving I’d better crank out what and to where I had been going with it……. Maybe there’s a metaphor in there somewhere for the lack of tolerance and empathy in other events. Maybe we can see that the tempest surrounding traditional art forms is a microcosm of the disparity being fought over in wider cultural circumstances….

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So, art. If you are familiar with any traditional art forms you may have heard rumblings similar to the one below. You see, in certain contexts for interacting with art rules have been built up for not just how art is presented but how its received. There are power structures that enforce these customs. Only, the thing about customs is that they may seem like solid footing, and they may seem to have been around since time immemorial, but all things change. Tradition didn’t spring fully formed from people’s behavior but had to first be tested against failure, some practices kept and others let go. And what is left standing, the survivor, only seems to be unassailable. In the aftermath, that is. To the people who believe it. To the ones for whom it is a privilege. Its taken as the ‘Triumph of Culture’. The victory of ‘the right way of doing things’. And the behavior gets codified, institutions form, and the priests and hierophants dispense the gospels, reveal the cannons, and chastise the infidels.

But these immovable seeming objects are not sealed in a vacuum. They may appear to be irrefutable and sacred, but they too have to sink or swim, drop beneath the surface or rise above in the eddies and drift of human practice. Sometimes new practice heaps more support on these vulnerable shorelines, and other times the strong currents wash the sands away. Its a constant battle between erosion and accretion. And standing on the shoreline the response is often torn between a desperate attempt to keep things exactly as they were, or to salvage the best of what we can while making necessary concessions to the advance of different interests and new practices. Sometimes we think that no change is acceptable, and other times we think we can make it work with just a few minor changes. Or possibly its desperate enough that radical surgery is unavoidable if we stand any chance of saving the patient…… Some traditional arts forms do seem to be on life support these days, so its something many folks in the industry are wondering.

When our traditions come under threat, you get the feeling an entire way of life is being called into question. There are nonbelievers in those canoes paddling toward us. Heathens lurking in the underbrush. They must be devil worshipers or worse. And if we are not determined to hold our ground they will plunder our villages, take our lands, burn our temples, savage our women and children, and leave our traditions in a smoking ruin…… Witness the ‘vulgar rubes’ in the passage below:

 “The River, currently playing on Broadway and starring Hugh Jackman, is a hushed, intimate drama…and audience members have been acting like pigs. Masses of them are clearly there to see the hunky action star, not savor the ambiguities and delicate silences in Jez Butterworth’s unnerving mediation on nature, love and relationships. So thunderstruck are they to be in a theater with the godlike Jackman, they forget to turn off their phones. Or worse, they snap pictures. At the press night I attended, some woman lacking a filter filled in the final, quiet moments of the play with an audible, “Holy shit!” Nice way to ruin a final tableau.

How bad has it gotten? There’s a note inserted in the program, begging people to turn their damn phones off, signed by the actors. Now understudy Kerry Warren also takes the stage and reminds the audience to silence its frigging devices. “Before we had the onstage announcement, despite the note from the actors, we had constant interruptions from phones, texts and flashing lights,” producer Sonia Friedman explains. She says the extra live request “seems to be working, as we haven’t had a problem since Kerry started doing this preshow announcement.”

I’m not so sure. The night I saw it, there was one or two Siri bleeps, not to mention loud shushing and the aforementioned holy-shit lady. It’s embarassing, making New York theatergoers look like vulgar rubes.” David Cote, ‘What not to do at Hugh Jackman’s new Broadway show’

 

What seems lacking is an appreciation that there is more than one culture at work in attending events like the one spoken of here. Possibly any time two or more people come together there will be some basis for misunderstanding. Tradition seems to isolate us from that because the rules are often so clear. Which is why a challenge often seems to cut so deep. Whenever tradition stands on the brink of some threat the last thing it wants to acknowledge is that there is another culture out there somewhere with its own equally justified ideas for doing things. Its own perceived rights. Its not always simply personal ‘bad manners’ that flouts alternate customs but a lack of indoctrination. Or, its a belief in other virtues.

So, while there is nothing necessarily wrong with the competing traditions themselves, the truth is that all culture eventually changes and that even the most hard bitten traditions came from some sort of evolving circumstance. No tradition ever came about fully formed. The origins are always murky and multitudinous, until clarity takes over. The clarity impresses us. Because we agree, have faith, or simply learned the world in this way. And once we have found its security and comfort, resisting change is one of the things most natural to the human mind. Except when its embracing change. And that is simply the wholesome inconsistency of human beings…. Its the challenge of living in a changing world that has more in it than the pleasant truths of our own understanding. Its the human drama of conservation and progress.

I’ve labored over this post for more time than almost any other essay I have written here. Its still not what I’d call a ‘good’ post. I keep getting side tracked. I have deleted thousands of words of tangents gone astray. I feel this one is too slippery to give much room to. And there are too many interesting points that can be made. There are too many examples and quotes I could have dragged in. But as a Thanksgiving post, let me rein it back to how our attitudes on this holiday are or aren’t reflected in our general appreciation of art and culture.

The question, then, is how different cultures can coexist, how they can rub elbows at the same table, live side by side, and still have the integrity of perhaps doing things their own way. Can we sit side by side, some using forks and spoons and others their fingers? Chopsticks? How do we measure respect? Are we open to tolerance of the merely different? In what sense does there need to be a middle ground? Are there necessary compromises? Does traditional art simply need to be ‘fixed’? (For instance, in Classical music some folks want to loosen the rigid customs that can make concerts so off-putting to the general public)

Or, do we simply need to convert the heathens to our ways? Or ban the rubes from our hallowed halls? If culture throws up these little islands of seeming stability, they persevere only amidst the great seething turbulence of human change. And the longer they stay the same the further left behind they can sometimes become. It can be a struggle to carve out a place of acceptance when the rest of the world has simply moved on…. So how do we all sit down at the same table?

The inspiration for Thanksgiving almost seems mythic: Two cultures coming together despite their differences and celebrating the bounty of a harvest. Within a few hundred years the Native Americans had mostly been pushed aside, driven west, or killed outright. Our European forbears’ willingness to share was only short lived. But our society has come some ways into the light since then, though there is still so much nonsense. Its sad how we sometimes treat people who are different from ourselves. Its insidious. And I’m ashamed to admit that stupid lazy thinking pops into my own head more than it has any right to.

Maybe this Thanksgiving holiday we can all make that tiny bit of extra effort to open ourselves and embrace folks who are different from us. Maybe we can be more open to different practices and not see them as an insult to our own way of doing things. Perhaps one day everyday will seem more like that original mythic Thanksgiving than the terrible history that followed it…..Perhaps we can learn to celebrate not only our own difference but the difference of others.

Peace all!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Make beauty real!

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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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