Sunday, March 19, 2006

From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

Daily Duck readers should be well acquainted with my overwhelming sense of dismay over the sorry state of the arts in contemporary society. This weekend I got a chance to experience one of the highest artistic achievements of Western Civilization amidst a setting that juxtaposed that achievement with the aforementioned sorry state that the artistic urge has led our society.

Adjoining the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, the very same institution that houses the infamous "Sugar Packet art" of the late notorious committer of artistic crimes Joseph Beuys, is the soon to be demolished and relocated Guthrie Theater. The Guthrie, the brainchild of Sir Tyrone Guthrie, who, being disenchanted with the deleterious effects that the profit motive wreaked upon the artistic integrity of theatrical productions on Broadway, sought to build "a theater with a resident acting company that would perform the classics in rotating repertory with the highest professional standards."

The Guthrie became a prototype for an important new kind of theater in contrast to the commercial environment of Broadway. There, the high costs associated with mounting a production increasingly mandated that shows must be immediately successful at high ticket prices. The Broadway atmosphere was conducive neither to producing the great works of literature, nor to cultivating the artists' talents, nor to nourishing the audience.

The idea of a major resident theater was introduced to the American public in a small paragraph on the drama page of The New York Times on September 30, 1959, which invited cities to indicate interest in Tyrone Guthrie's idea. Seven cities responded: Waltham, MA, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, San Francisco and Minneapolis/St. Paul (which was not only interested but eager). Guthrie, Rea and Zeisler visited the seven cities, but were drawn to Minneapolis/St. Paul because of its location in the heartland of America, the vitality of the cultural community, the presence of a large state university and many small colleges, and the enthusiasm shown by the Upper Midwest for the new theater project.

I had seen two earlier performances of Shakespeare at the Guthrie, "Macbeth" and "King Lear". Both performances were absolutely riveting and inspiring, both for the quality of the acting and production, and, of course, for the artistic brilliance that is the hallmark of Shakespeare, the most sublime artistic genius of our civilization. I had been up to then, like most Americans, rather off-put by Shakespeare, finding his rich, intricate prose inaccessible and unpenetrable. Having learned what I had about his plays from readings in high school English class, which made the experience more a chore than a delight, I had left the Bard to the serious theater enthusiast, and contented myself with the more accessible contemporary fare of movies, novels and television.

But Shakespeare's plays were not intended to be read, but performed. One misses in a reading the pace, the inflection, and the context of the words. In a good performance the viewer gains so much additional context from the emotion, the body language, the interaction of the players, that the words spring to life, and the full brilliance of Shakespeare's vision shines forth.

Yesterday my 18 year old daughter Chantal and I attended the Guthrie's production of "Hamlet". It was a marvelous performance. It was the first starring role for the young actor who played Hamlet, 23 year old Santino Fontana. It was refreshing to see a touch of humor injected into the production, and Fontana was very good at playing the mad Prince as alternately clownish and seriously deranged. It was amazing to see how many laughs they were able to wring out of the audience while holding true to the tragic nature of the play.

On the way out of the theater we passed by a work from one of the Walker Art Center's current exhibitions, "Kiki Smith: A Gathering". It was the sculpure entitled "Born", of a fully adult naked woman being born from the womb of a deer. The sculpture showed very little in the way of expression on the part of the woman or the deer, which seemed to take no more notice of the event than as if it had been passing gas. There is probably some sort of feminist consciousness raising message being expressed that goes straight over my head, but I have to say that such works present an inaccessibility of a much different sort than Shakespeare does, a kind that I don't think can be remedied by repeated contemplation.

Here is the obligatory theoretical justification for Smith's art, from the Walker web site:

Best known for her provocative depictions of the human form, Kiki Smith has explored a range of subjects, from natural science to mythology. By turns intimate, universal, earthy, and fragile, her art renders the figure in frank, nonheroic terms, expressing its dual aspects of vulnerability and strength. Comprising more than 125 works, this Walker-organized 25-year survey reveals the startling symbolic potential in Smith’s choice of both traditional and unexpected materials in sculpture and also features prints, drawings, photographs, editioned objects, films, and installations.

The human body—both in anatomical fragments and in full figure—is at the heart of Smith’s art. “I think I chose it as a subject because it is the one form that we all share,” she says. “It’s something that everybody has their own authentic experience with.” Her earliest works investigated its form and functions, which she articulated through individual parts, suggesting flesh with delicate handmade papers and fashioning internal organs and systems from fragile materials such as glass, papier-mâché, terra-cotta, and plaster. In the early nineties, she gained widespread attention for her life-size figures in wax and bronze depicting naked female bodies in disturbing, visceral poses.

Smith’s work has long addressed the ambiguous and difficult relationship between female artists and feminist issues. In the mid-nineties, she began to engage with themes from literature, history, and folklore, reinterpreting biblical and mythological women as inhabitants of resolutely physical bodies. More recently, her vocabulary has expanded to include animals, the cosmos, and the natural world: “My work has evolved from minute particles within the body, up through the body, and landed outside the body. Now I want to roam around the landscape.” In pieces that merge human and animal, she creates new mythologies, finding in the mortality that has pervaded so much of her process the possibility of rebirth.

Though I am not bright or articulate enough to truly understand and describe the exact nature of the gulf that separates the acievements of William Shakespeare and the products of the Kiki Smiths and Joseph Beuys of this era, it doesn't take much brainpower to recognize that the gulf is indeed vast and unbridgeable. Shakespeare captured the essence of the human psyche in its timeless universality and variety, and reflected it back to us in works of great power, beauty, disturbing brutality and undeniable compassion. One can only gawk at the works of the contemporary artist and scratch one's head in bewilderment. One senses in them not a quest for universals, an attempt to represent and elevate the recognizable experiences of humanity, but a meandering jaunt through bored and alienated psyches in an attempt to lay claim to some distant and unique experience not yet reflected in humanity.


Blogger Brit said...

To be fair, I doubt even Kiki Smith herself would rate her work as art on an equal footing with the greatest of Shakespeare's tragedies.

She might however defend herself by suggesting that there's room for both Smith and Shakespeare in this world.

Occasionally I like to listen to the music of Van Morrison, even though he's not a patch on Beethoven.

March 19, 2006 8:23 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

In honor of the Bard I've penned this sad little ode:

Lived a man once with no mortal peer
A Bard of Avon named Billy Shakespeare
With visions of Heaven
And Hell did he leaven
Breads of beauty and grace we hold dear

So lowly the Muses have prostrated
To consorting with egos inflated
Our modern poseur artistic
Launching excretions ballistic
Our culture hath he desecrated

March 19, 2006 9:01 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


That is a worthy point, but I'd have to say that even Van Morrison stands on a high pillar in comparison to Beuys and Smith.

At least Smith's work is representational, original, and shows a mastery of technique. Beuys works are totally appropriated(stolen) from others and show no mastery of anything but the Big Lie. Yet even with Smith's work I'm still left scratching my head in bewilderment. I'm left wondering "What is she thinking? What should I be thinking about this work?" I'm left totally cold.

March 19, 2006 9:07 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Never heard of Smith, but I bet she'd dump Shakespeare in with all the other irrelevant dead white men.

I go to Broadway shows every other year or so. They are not so shallow as Guthrie may have thought.

Nor do I find pretentious non-profit productions of Shakespeare appealing.

We went to 'Two Gentlemen of Verona' at Lincoln Center a few years ago, which opened with a working swimming pool on stage, in which the leading man took a dip.

I commented to my artistic daughter-in-law that I preferred my Shakespeare straight. She said, 'You don't get invited to Lincoln Center to direct Shakespeare straight.'

We see a lot of Shakespeare, sometimes in unpromising venues (like a public park in Louisville, Ky.), and while the quality varies, the amateurs and semipros often do a good job.

The absolutely best I've ever seen was 'Midsummer Night's Dream' under the stars (and, several nights, in pouring rain) on Maui, with said daughter-in-law in the lead and son as lighting director.

Son was technical director of a show ("Super/Vision") that was tried out at the Guthrie about a year ago. It's on tour in Australia, N.Z. and U.K. this year.

There's plenty of good stuff out there. Little of it, though, produced by self-proclaimed leaders of high art.

March 19, 2006 12:05 PM  
Blogger Duck said...


I'm not sure if you include the Guthrie types along with the "self appointed leaders of fine art" or not, but I have been very pleased with the thre performances that I have seen. I agree with you that I don't much care for directors who won't do it "straight" but feel they have to make some unique statement with their production. The only non-straight part of the Guthrie production of Hamlet was the time period for the coustumes, which was, according to the playbill around 1947, but it was unobtrusive and had very little impact on the meat of the play. As long as they stay true to the language of Shakespeare, I'm happy.

March 19, 2006 1:33 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

This para:

Smith’s work has long addressed the ambiguous and ... pervaded so much of her process the possibility of rebirth.

caused such a bad case of MEGO that even now I'm seeing in triplicate.

While Brit is certainly correct in noting there is room for a wide spectrum of artistic endeavor, modern art strains my appreciation for that spectrum to the breaking point.

I've never been to Broadway, but I've seen several Shakespeare productions at Stratford-on-Avon.

All of which, no surprise here, stayed true to Shakespeare's language.

But in doing so, they provided proof that the Bible is not God's word, for it would be past ironic that He would be nowhere near as good a writer as a mere mortal like Shakespeare.

March 19, 2006 5:11 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

But what are we saying here other than "I like Shakespeare but not Smith"?

To which the reply is: "That's fine, and it's up to you."

Or are you saying that some art
is intrinsically and objectively better than other art?

I don't have a problem with that, because even though I like a lot of pop music and blockbusting cinema and think there's room for all of it, I'm also an unapologetic cultural snob who thinks that classical music is superior to rap and that Joyce is better than Grisham, whatever the great unwashed prefer...

March 20, 2006 1:21 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


What I'm saying is that paras such as the one I cited are near proof that the associated art is navel-gazing krep that ultimately only serves to let artists tell each other how transgressive they are.

Which is a different thing entirely from acknowledging some art is better, far better, than other art. I am able to entertain at the same time that one of my favorite bands is Oingo Boingo (when I'm not mainlining Pink Floyd), while acknowledging the vast superiority of classical music, despite the sad fact it leaves me entirely unmoved.

March 20, 2006 4:35 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

At some point I will write a more in'depth piece on what I see as the distinction between good art, bad art and fraudulent art. But I think the key differentiator is that good art is the product of artists who strive to find the perfect expression of some feeling or experience that moves them and which they aim to replicate in the mind of the person who views or listens to their art. The good artist considers himself a failure if his art is not able to elicit that response. The good artist demands of his art that it pleases his audience.

Much of what comes from the modern artist does not seem to follow this rule. I think that for so many of them the response of the audience is irrelevant. To go further, I think that incomprehension or disgust on the part of the audience is the desired response, which proves to them that their art is superior. I'd once like to hear from an artist who will admit to failure based on the poor reception his art has received from the general public.

March 20, 2006 5:49 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Duck, I write for money, and that's a useful correctiveto flights of self-importance. I haven't seen any productions at the Guthrie, so I cannot say in particular about them.

But the idea that art has to be rescued from the marketplace probably produces art that is the equivalent of Soviet consumer goods.

I take it that your distinction among good, bad and fraudulent art is a more sophisticated way of saying something close to that.

March 20, 2006 7:23 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home