I recently got an email from Annie-B Parson, the choreographer/director who helped on my last tour. She’s in France, where The Anticodes Festival is funding development of a new show by her group Big Dance Theater, and the company is touring their previous show. She said some of her choreographer/dancer pals were upset at Tino Sehgal’s piece that just closed at the Guggenheim. To some of these folks, it seemed like “cheating” — the idea of putting a theatrical/performance/dance work (it is choreographed, in a way) into what is certainly a more financially lucrative context. A museum presumably pays more than doing a similar show at Dance Theater Workshop or The Kitchen.
Of course, Sehgal’s piece is somewhat conceived specifically for museums and art spaces — I saw it at the ICA in London, another art space which, like the Guggenheim, was emptied out to become a rambling shell expressly for this performance piece. It’s true this particular piece wouldn’t work on a conventional, theatrical proscenium stage — but in quite a few alternative performance venues it wouldn’t be too much out of place.
The piece consists of a series of hired people, of ascending ages, who one at a time engage the visitor in “conversation” while leading them around the institution to an encounter with the next conversationalist, who replaces the previous one. In my experience I took it all in naturally — I’m sort of used to being asked curious philosophical questions by total strangers, so this didn’t seem out of the ordinary at all. Well, not much anyway. In London I answered the questions the conversationalists asked sincerely, and didn’t notice the ascending age aspect, or much else, until it was maybe half over. There’s a whole structure here! Duh. I also didn’t try to subvert the piece or ask meta questions such as, “Do you get tired asking the same questions all the time?” It seemed that if one were to experience the piece one had to play along.
As a theater piece it’s unusual, though I’ve seen quite a few that are site-specific. Anne Hamburger, who later became an executive at Disney, did a bunch of site-specific works in abandoned theaters when 42nd St. was mostly shuttered, and one in the Meatpacking District at night when it was still a derelict zone at that hour. There were elements of urban archeology as well as narrative mixed together in those pieces. Noémie LaFrance has staged dance shows in a stairway and in a parking structure. Other theater pieces I’ve seen required interaction and audience movement as well. There’s one that was done in London recently in which the actors are anonymous bodies milling about in a train station crowd, but the audience — seated on benches nearby — can hear them via radio mics… and soon enough can follow a little drama that takes place. So the argument that the Guggenheim show is something in which the context has been changed is not without validity, though I would say that as it seems to have been conceived specifically for these large rambling spaces, it isn’t as much a fish in a different pond as some might claim.
Others have had issues with Sehgal’s business savvy that also relate to context issues. The NY Times reported that he “sold” the rights to a different piece to MoMA for 70k — whatever that means. (Does it mean that it can only be performed under the auspices of whoever now “owns” the piece? And can they presumably have it performed, like hanging a picture they own on a wall, wherever and how often they like?) Maybe the poverty-stricken alternative theater and dance folks got wind of this new kind of transaction and are jealous or incensed that he found a way to cash in on the same kinds of work they’ve been doing for years — except most of them haven’t been getting anywhere near that kind of cash. Should one congratulate him, or is he in fact “cheating”? Would they even want to “sell” a piece in this manner?
When artists who do live pieces perform them in galleries, I’ve been informed that they might not get paid, or at least not much — and admission to galleries, unlike many museums, is free for all, so there isn’t that source of income from which to draw. Often photos of the piece or other ephemera are sold to in effect fund the performance.
Last week I went to the Whitney Biennial and there were a number of pieces I really loved. Pae White’s giant woven piece depicting smoke blew me away (pun intended), but four others struck me as being all about this context issue. Kelly Nipper’s five minute video of a masked woman dancing is, in my opinion, weirdly out of context — much more so than the Sehgal pieces might be construed as being. It’s a single screen video of a short dance. The soundtrack is someone counting numbers. Whether it’s a good dance or performance or not is besides the point — it seems to me it’s better suited for the Whitney’s short film screenings, or a collection of shorts on DVD like Wholphin. Actually, it wouldn’t fit that well on Wholphin, but someone should start a DVD “magazine” of dance and performance work, and there it would be perfect. Similarly, Rashaad Newsome’s almost 7 minute long video of voguing without music has some conceptual underpinning about the movement and gestures being passed on — but it’s pretty much some nice voguing with the typical music removed. Nice to see some cool voguing, but refer to the previous dance piece for suggested placement. Jesse Aron Green’s 80 minute video of some folks doing old (1858) German exercises is an interesting idea, but again, why here?
The work is a dance piece shot — or rather, documented — with a video camera. Lastly there is Marianne Vitale’s video — an 8 minute harangue regarding an imaginary philosophy called neutralism — which is funny and disturbing, but this one really could be included in Wholphin.
I hate being negative about anyone’s work — and I hope this doesn’t come across that way — but in these cases I have to agree with Annie-B’s friends, as I feel that the recontextualization doesn’t add anything. In fact it makes one less likely to watch the whole thing! I might sit down for an 80 minute video of a dance piece at home — or go to a screening, if it is sufficiently filmic… or even watch it at a gathering of friends. But on a hard bench in a museum, no way. The Sehgal piece belongs in a museum much more than these do, in my opinion.
Annie-B pointed out the other day that dance is notoriously hard to film. When we experience dance, or any performance, she suggests that we simultaneously get the big pictures and the details — we see the shapes and bodies moving about on a stage, how the thing is organized, and at the same time, we see individual performers’ bodies and faces. Perceptually, we see with our minds both close-ups and wide shots at the same time. Not everyone is in agreement with this. Others have told me they think we “edit” between the two — making choices as to what to focus on. This would explain why film editing isn’t more jarring to us than we might expect.
Obviously video and film can jump from one to another via edits, or do split screens, but they can’t quite duplicate that experience — that simultaneity — to say nothing of the social/physical experience of being part of an audience. Multiple screens can sort of do it. Annie-B believes that an installation with one screen showing a wide shot and another showing details comes vaguely close. One can be aware of the intensity of an individual performer and at the same time how they relate to the whole… but it’s still a weird substitute. The wide shot that comprises the German exercise video only gives us part of the picture, for example — and a part that is, objectively, the whole thing — but subjectively much of the emotion that we would derive from closer shots is missing.
Movies As a Kind of Installation
Not only dance videos, but a lot of experimental film has recontextualized itself over the last couple of decades. Relatively short videos and films (between 10 minutes and an hour) are often shown in galleries inside black sheetrock boxes, usually with just that same uncomfortable bench for viewers to sit on. There are no “showtimes” and no sense of where one is when one enters the “theater.” You could be near the end or still have an hour to go, there’s no way of knowing. Full disclosure: I’ve done this myself with some of the short (4 minute) PowerPoint-generated videos I created. Most of the time these are not like the above works — documentations of performances — but works in which the editing, the effects, and the manipulation of the footage all contribute.
For filmmakers who show in galleries, the possible upside is that their work can, in this context, be sold for thousands of times more than what these same filmmakers with the exact same work would net from screenings at Anthology, IFC and similar venues. Those film houses used to show the works of Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow, Bruce Conner, the Kuchar brothers and others — work that is not entirely dissimilar from what’s in galleries today. Sometimes, in purely visual terms, the 16mm films they made in earlier decades were easier on the eye than contemporary video works — they had higher resolution, and film, until recently, was simply nicer looking than many of the grainy videos shown in galleries. Film grain in general is nicer than video grain or pixels.
I think that when these works are shown in galleries they are generally sold in limited editions to collectors for sizable sums. What does that mean? Does it mean that the new owner can show them to their friends at their homes but no one else has access to the work? Imagine having one of five copies of, say, Pink Flamingos? Or Gus Van Sant’s Elephant? No one else would know about the film from then on except by hearsay — which, depending on your taste or lack of it, might be considered a good thing. It would be like only seeing the masterpieces — like the one Steve Wynn put his arm through, or the Barnes collection — in reproduction, unless they were lent out from time to time.
One might think these artists are cashing in, but I’m informed that the cash part might actually be negligible. While many more folks may see their work as they pass through the Whitney, for example, the artists would presumably have previously shown the work in a gallery, whose attendance is nothing like the crowds at major museums. Those galleries actually have a pretty hard time selling most video works, so the change of context can’t be all about money in many of these cases. Prestige or glory maybe, but not strictly cash.
At least these videomakers and filmmakers who show in galleries have found a way to get their work out there. Or some have, at least. At last, some might say. Brakhage and many others used to teach to support themselves. They taught young folks how to make films somewhat like theirs… folks who, until this new situation arose, would inevitably be looking to replace Stan at his teaching position before too long. The British artist Steve McQueen used to show in the gallery/museum context, and still does sometimes, but his film Hunger, about hunger striker Bobby Sands, was shown in cinemas. I saw it in Wellington, New Zealand! Likewise Sam Taylor-Wood used to show videos on flat screens in galleries — and maybe she still does — but her latest is a regular feature on the childhood of John Lennon. Cindy Sherman made a movie, as did Robert Longo, David Salle and Julian Schnabel. But those folks didn’t really ever try to survive showing short films or videos — that’s the difference. Matthew Barney does show his films in cinemas, though I doubt these theatrical runs recoup the cost of making the nice prints and ads. I suspect it’s his sculptures that pay for the movies — though the DVDs are sold in limited editions in super elaborate packages. You essentially get an artwork that happens to have a DVD tucked inside it.
Granted, many gallery and museum video installations aren’t things that could ever be screened in cinemas; they are immersive pieces that can’t be experienced in any other way — they have multiple or oddly shaped screens, for example. But… even so, Warhol’s Chelsea Girls was shown on multiple screens simultaneously too, and in regular movie theaters. But despite the success of that film, he mostly had to churn out silkscreens to fund his films — the recontextualization wasn’t an effective financial strategy.
Sometimes the switch in context goes the other way. Not too long ago MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach did a reversal of this at P.S.1. He took all the episodes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s TV series Berlin Alexanderplatz and screened them simultaneously in a museum — as if it were an art installation! There was a circular construction that filled a large room, with all the episodes running at once; in other spaces there were larger fragments from the series projected on screens. Later the films of Kenneth Anger were screened at P.S.1 as well — in a large, dark, rubberized space — again with many films running simultaneously. These were pretty cool environments, immersive and considered, though free of any narrative or episodic structures that might be inherent in the works. They are also miles away from what the filmmakers might have envisioned when they made the work.
At a recent art world dinner Biesenbach mentioned to me that he’d crossed paths with Lady Gaga, who said that she felt she was a performance artist — or an artist of some sort.
Biesenbach responded that she was not, and reportedly she was a bit taken aback and stunned at his reply. Biesenbach
didn’t exactly detail as to why in fact she wasn’t an artist, but by way of a
sort of explanation he related that Susan Sontag had pronounced to him, “All we
have is our opinion.” We must be referring to cultural critics like
herself and other curators. Well, her opinions were always backed up by
extremely well-written and thought through arguments, and Biesenbachs’s
opinions now carry the weight of MoMA — so while some opinions are qualified,
some have more resonance and repercussions than others.* On the interweb everyone has an opinion, but most of it doesn’t matter. There’s no pretence of equal opportunity or democracy in the art world — which is probably fine. Komar and Melamid did “democratic” art as a kind of ironic exercise, and from their example I can say we seriously don’t want Wiki culture. According to their poll results, this is what folks in the USA want to see in a painting — even down to specifying that it should be “about the size of a dishwasher”:
I asked Biesenbach about the Fassbinder and Anger shows, and he quoted the attendance figures — 100k or so. Much, much more than might turn up to see screenings of Anger films at Anthology, I replied. The Fassbinder comparison is a slightly more complicated one, because it was originally a TV series — and it’s possible that many more than 100,000 saw it in Germany, though certainly not in the USA. The fact that Anger’s work was made to be watched in a cinema setting, and that changing the context to an installation might be in fact changing the work, wasn’t discussed. I have a hunch that Anger might have approved the rubber, clubby setting as a fun, kinky ambience for his films even if most viewers didn’t watch many of them all the way through in this new setting. His films were already about changing context — throwing leather boys and low car culture in front of bohemian experimental film audiences.
Recontextualizing work is a savvy strategy these days. In an extreme view it might appear that some folks simply move the exact same work around to different kinds of venues until it clicks — and the money magically starts to flow. Some see any presumed cleverness or market savvy on behalf of an artist or performer as distasteful. They feel that serious work should be driven primarily by passion or some kind of authenticity and purity, and that financial considerations — figuring out how to monetize one’s work and activity, as it is phrased in dot-com terms — is tacky, and goes against the rules. What rules? Where are these rules written down? Shouldn’t artists be cheered for making money if they can, if they don’t dilute their work?
The “rules” as I intuit them say that cultural production takes place on some moral and ethical high ground where money is not a consideration. According to these rules, for an artist or musician to take financial factors into consideration is to automatically lower and demean work that is supposed to stem from and engage our higher impulses. The work, once money enters the picture, is now assumed to be “work for hire,” to use the legal term. This is why fine artists often look down their noses on craftspeople, illustrators and graphic designers. During the Renaissance, they worked hard to separate themselves from the laborers of the trade guilds, and worked hard to gain acceptance for the idea that they were more than mere craftspeople — so to risk slipping back into that ignoble territory is completely unacceptable.
Speaking of craftspeople and work for hire, I’d argue that some TV ads, which are most definitely “work for hire,” are as innovative and transporting as any art film you can name. The production values are quite a bit higher, so the poor struggling artist can’t afford to compete. But, as if to balance the scales of value in some way, whispering into our ear is a little guy saying, “But it’s an ad!”
Here’s a recent Audi advertisement that features gymnasts as a machine:
…and another that features dark and scary bull riding:
...and here’s a Honda ad with a choir (based, I think, on a Slovenian group) imitating car sounds:
Some ads appropriate — steal might be a better word — ideas from the bohemian art underbelly and redo them with higher production values and tighter editing. The experimental gets absorbed into the mainstream, inevitably. One could cry foul, but to some extent it’s just proof that the idea was good. When I did a feature film, I hired Meredith Monk, Spalding Gray, Jo Harvey Allen and a few others on the performing arts circuit who had inspired me to do what they did, or sort of. Better they themselves get paid and make their own unique contributions than just get copied, uncredited.
According to the old fine art rules, it’s nobler to be poor — which is a cliché for sure, but one that is still held on to dearly. The assumption is that being paid well allies one with the bourgeois one is supposed to be busy offending and shocking. As if anything is shocking today. And making art — if these innovative car ads could be considered art — in service of machines that guzzle fossil fuels is not exactly seen as taking the high road either. Musicians have the same problem — in certain territories one’s peers look askance should one of the old gang get seriously financially rewarded for their work, the hip hop community excepted.
The Theater of Ritual
Along with being upset with Tino Sehgal’s clever dealings, some also view Marina Abramović’s recreations of her earlier performances now on view at MoMA as sacrilege — or at the very least, inauthentic. I can see their point — lots of work that has power in a garage, a funky loft, or in a cold and drafty art space loses some of that power when set in a well-lit white museum room.
Then, and now:
The show is a retrospective, so there is a lot of stuff — live people reenact earlier pieces, videos of older pieces run on screens, stills line the walls, and there are also some objects. It’s noisy too, as opposed to what one might imagine these pieces engendered when originally presented — a somewhat respectful silence in the observer. The bustling crowds at MoMA don’t allow for that.
Is it that these pieces weren’t originally created for these museum spaces? Is that what bothers some folks? Are they just nostalgic for the bad old days? Isn’t almost half the stuff in museums — tapestries, frescoes, altar pieces and Greek vases — out of context? Didn’t those objects come from temples, churches and castles? Only contemporary artists really make things for the museum context — giant, oversize paintings and sculptures that wouldn’t fit in any homes I know. The context for many performance pieces might have been more solemn than what I saw — but I have to remind myself that I don’t dismiss all the sacred art displayed in the world’s museums automatically… though I feel a little queasy that much of the power has been drained from it.
Looking at the feats of endurance and bodily mortification on display, I wonder: Are these performances more or less powerful than when Iggy Pop cuts himself or stage dives, or when — to really stretch things — David Blaine lives in a Plexi bubble or is frozen in ice? Are those guys not performance artists too? Are they any less as artists? In some respects aren’t they are doing very similar things? The context is vastly different, again, and something tells me Blaine makes money off his stunts… as did Houdini. So the context seems to be what makes all the difference.
Why, in a museum setting, don't they exhibit all the documentation of early pieces instead — couldn't that make up the show? Because it's sexier, and will sell more tickets, if there are a dozen naked performers on view. And the alternative might just seem a bit too academic and boring.
Another difference, maybe, is that by clearing space around these acts, placing them in a less sensational, muddled, chaotic or media-saturated environment, they are given an aura of solemnity, ritual and spirituality. At one extreme are sideshow freaks and geeks, and at the other is Abramović cutting herself with a razor blade or Tehching Hsieh living in a cage — or even religious ascetics. Iggy and Blaine are somewhere in the middle — though something tells me that Iggy is loved by both artists and sideshow performers.
Here’s a still from the Buñuel film Simon of the Desert, in which a religious ascetic in Spain isolates himself atop a pillar.
I’ve seen Hindu adepts during the Thaipusam festival in Malaysia pierce themselves with steel rods and hooks, and others in Bali attempt to stab themselves with daggers while in trance. The performance of these rituals is open to the public — though it’s not usually advertised as a “show.” SEE the man hang from a hook going through his tendons! SEE the Indian sadhu buried alive! SEE men covered in ash and blood!
Usually it is other faithful who turn out to view and witness — I think that word is key — these acts. And that might be what happens in certain kinds of performance art as well — the art faithful come to bear witness. In many Asian religious festivals there is just as much noise and chaos as at a rock show or at the MoMA, filled with visitors — but the attendants manage to keep their focus despite all the possible distractions.
Here are twin sadhus posing for a photo:
[Photo: Daniel Boiteau]
A sadhu is an ascetic who has renounced the world and seeks liberation through contemplation, often via tests of extreme physical endurance. I would argue that performance art like Abramović’s and that of Tehching Hsieh has a similar goal in mind… and like the sadhus, they present themselves and their mortification of the flesh to the public as examples to be witnessed. They don’t hide their asceticism or physical feats from the public — they’re not locked away in temples or monasteries — quite the opposite. According to the photographer’s blog, the sadhus above quickly disrobed and struck a pose when they saw Boiteau’s camera come out.
Likewise aren’t these artists “striking a pose” in museums? Does that make them, or the sadhus above, less authentic?
The Kumbh Mela, a gathering of ascetics, is the world’s largest act of faith… and that’s saying something. In some areas of India it takes place every twelve years, and in others every six years. The pilgrimage in 2001 was — get ready — attended by 70 million people! Not only did that make it a huge show of faith, but it was also the largest gathering of people ever in the whole world! Woodstock? Feh.
Obviously, not all of these people were sadhus — many came to watch. Some watch out of curiosity, and some as believers who observe as the sadhus act, in a way, on their behalf. Does that make it a show? Many of the acts and images here are undeniably and incredibly theatrical — one could argue that the events here are evidence for an innate human tendency for stagecraft and organized, aestheticized spectacle.
A mosh pit, but more artistic, almost staged… and with mostly older men:
The Semana Santa processionals in Sevilla might be looked at the same way — as a form of ritual theater.
So one way to look at performance art is as a form of aesthetic ritual enacted so that the faithful can bear witness — the art faithful, in this case. As we in the West have lost much of our deep faith, we still long for what is missing, and part of that is ritual — ritual that goes beyond the proscribed and formalized behavior of business meetings, PowerPoint lectures, conferences, frat house initiations, toasts and drinking games. Here, rather, are rituals and performances in which the performer, to some extent, loses their identity — either by disguise, nudity, unnaturally formalized behavior, collective activity or muteness — and using slow and methodical movement (implying considered intent), an action manifests and takes place that resonates with us in some hard to define way. The fact that this resonance is elusive is probably part of the reason ritual has so much power. It’s doing something nothing else can do.
If the museum is a kind of church — and I’m not original in saying that — then besides the art that has become the altars and sacred objects on the walls, one needs the presence of real body-based ritual to complete the cycle of need and connection that we all share. Some smells and bells would be nice too.
In the rituals that adhere closest to the above traditions, it is naturally out of place to buy and sell “rights” to the “performance” — to do so in a religious setting would be outrageous, sacrilege. Performance works that come close to these traditions likewise have a heavy aura.
Germano Celant is the curator who arranged Abramović’s piece “Balkan Baroque,” which was performed at the Venice Biennial in 1997. It has been re-created, or rather re-imagined, for the MoMA show. He felt strongly that much had indeed been lost in translation. In the piece she continually cleans a pile of beef bones, and in Venice the bones still had traces of meat and blood on them — and after a while, it got stinky and foul, and reportedly there were even rats.
While cleaning she sings songs from her Serbian childhood, and tells a story of a Wolf Rat that eats it’s own when it is afraid. It couldn’t be more clear. This conjures an image of the artist as a woman who has taken on the dark chthonic role of scrubbing bones as metaphor for memory, guilt, and pain. It is the artist becoming a mythological figure, a stand-in for historical memory; it’s pretty powerful stuff, even without the rats and smells. It’s a fairy tale image straight out of Grimm. Celant claimed that by cleaning things up — the MoMA bones have no flesh hanging off — the power of the piece is diminished.
Hard to argue with him in this case, but in other instances I see the change of context as being inevitable and well, deal with it. Some folks complained, for example, that all the pieces in Abramović’s show were originally performed by her, and that teaching others to do them is just not the same.
A friend says, “What's lost is witnessing the woman who feels she must endure this penance, the more punishing the better; we're witnessing her self-flagellation, knowing that she finds (somewhere) pleasure in it; the audience gets off on her suffering. That can't happen with paid performers.” The art and the artist (the artist or musician’s body) in this case are presumed to be one, inseparable.
No, it’s not ever going to be the same when someone else does it — but sometimes, if we’re lucky, it might even be better. Though, as my friend says, any presumed masochistic motivations and subtext are gone. People get all nostalgic over bands they saw in dank clubs, plays and musicals they saw with the original cast, and operas with specific divas in the lead roles. Yes, sometimes one cast or one set of musicians is better than others, but sometimes the first incarnation isn’t the best either — sometimes a new performer brings fresh life to a role or song. At some point, when a work is truly without resonance, no one will want to see or hear it anyway, regardless of whether the originator is performing or not.
Some of this might have to do with the presumed connection between the author and performer in certain mediums — but that presumed unity is a whole different discussion.
Songs being re-performed by successive singers who didn’t actually write or perform the songs are too easy to bring into this — we’re used to songs being reinterpreted. I prefer Fred Astaire’s version of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” over Sinatra’s — though some will go for Bono’s spiritualized version. (There are recorded versions of Cole Porter doing his own songs as well, though I doubt most people would prefer those. So much for the author being the best interpreter.) That a piece — a song, a play, an opera — can be reinterpreted is acceptable. It means we see it again, and from a new angle. New aspects are brought to light or are sometimes obscured, but if it works at all, the song or the role remains alive, which is the point. It’s a kind of continual resurrection, in which the new being is never the same as the old one.
One could, following a connection between performance art with other performing arts, also view performance art for what it is — a performance, a special kind of show, and a subset or genre of theater. Just as I perform in front of people for money (or not), I sometimes feel that why shouldn’t others be subjected to some of the same forces as I am? — ticket sales, audience attention span, word of mouth and patience. Why not? Maybe, instead of selling the rights to a piece to the Guggenheim, Sehgal and the museum might have considered splitting the income from admissions. Maybe any performance artist, videomaker or artist whose work has no physical manifestation might do the same thing. When there is nothing physical to sell, you can always sell tickets. (Maybe they should even have merch tables like we musicians do to supplement their income and provide keepsakes?) Fundamentally we musical and stage performers don’t have anything to sell either — we are selling an experience that takes place at that moment. That moment and no other. It happens and then it’s gone. If you pay to be there, you experience it — and a live record, still photo or video is a poor substitute, a mere souvenir. A totem, a relic. A phone video? Forget it — it’s not the same.
The downside of that idea — treating performance art as if it is like any other performance — is that inevitably less popular work would eventually get pushed aside because not as many people would buy tickets. (But haven’t less popular musicians, and theater and dance groups, managed somewhat to survive? Yes, but barely — most still make very little money.) Not just less popular work, but work that doesn’t require a long time commitment to experience might also not fare so well. One might want to gaze for a while, in curiosity and weird rapture, at someone uncomfortably suspended on a wall or counting to a million, or at someone living daily life in a window or a cage, but how long can you view these things? How much would you pay for a glimpse? Many are not very theatrically engaging, so would you actually pay to see them? There’s no entertainment value either. These artists begin, as stated, in galleries, if they’re lucky — where admission is free — so only when they achieve enough success to be given a museum show can this admission idea come into play… but by then, they’re broke.
Part of the high art idea is that important work should NOT have to be popular; value, in that world, should not be subservient to market forces. It should not be expected to be simply or mainly entertaining. It’s got a higher agenda. I would say, yes, lofty and serious work should be allowed to exist free of Walmart or Wall Street. However, one could argue that they are simply ruled by another, alternative and more rarefied market with a set of forces of its own — a market that has other criteria and rules of play. Some of these criteria are, as advertised, heartfelt, intellectual, innovative and creative, while others are neither better nor worse than the values of the common market forces — just different, as are those of other unique subcultures: trainspotters, stamp collectors and comic book geeks. Each of these values things according to criteria that they alone understand. There are market forces at work, but only within a proscribed world.
Anyway, I say more power to the artists who can place what they do, without adulterating it, into a context that will possibly provide them a living and ideally expose the work to a larger audience. Even those videos of short dance pieces might be reaching a larger audience than they might otherwise (though I still have issues with whether folks are really watching them). One doesn’t necessarily always do better work with more freedom or money. Sometimes to write you just need a pencil and paper, and you can create a whole universe.
Among musicians there is the aphorism, “The musician who doesn’t pay attention to their business soon doesn’t have any business” — which is a response to the snobbish and romantic attitude that to be pure and authentic one mustn’t be concerned with money.
There’s certainly a difference between simply being on top of your business and letting the business guide and influence your creative instincts. That’s a valid distinction, but the border is often fuzzy. If something is placed in a new context and becomes successful, was it necessarily because the creator cynically tailored the work exclusively to a business plan? Not always. But yes, sometimes.
So, what do I think? I would argue that nothing exists in isolation. Not an original idea, I guess, but we still tend to view things as discrete — songs, performances, artwork — though they’re not. Maybe the stuff around an object, film or performance is as important as what we’re looking at or listening to. Maybe context is the work. In which case we might be back to “all we have is our opinion.” Sheesh.