Art In Public, For The Public, By The Public

maninmirror1I’m sure we’ve all heard someone say, “I think that I might like art, I just don’t understand it.” A part of the problem is that there are those who claim an elitist status in the artistic world, one that separates them from those that they deem to be ‘the rest of the populace.’ Far too much art has been made inaccessible to the public: to regular people who wish to just simply enjoy the aesthetics of what they’re seeing. The elitists of the art world have made it clear to them that unless they can spend five minutes spouting some rhetoric that has less to do with the art they’re speaking of than it does with the cavernous recesses of a self-absorbed brain, then they have clearly not understood the art they’re seeing.

There’s no doubt that this would put anyone off. If I went to a cricket match, attempting to understand what was going on and was laughed at and ridiculed by the fans, there’s an excellent chance that not only would I take my hot dog and beer (or whatever it is that they sell at cricket matches) and leave, but I would most likely never come back. Moreover, I might hold cricket fans and, by rote, cricket itself in less than high regard. By the same token, anyone that attended a gallery exhibition and was treated with the same lack of respect would probably begin to hold art and artists in contempt.

There is an obvious misconception about artists throughout a large amount of the general public. After Stephen Harper made his comments about restricting arts funding to artists because they were all a bunch of elitists who regularly attended black tie parties, a large part of the country appeared to agree with his assessment, even though there could be nothing further from the truth.

The mission now must be to involve people in art. To show them the beauty of art, to give them a sense of what it is that artists are attempting to accomplish. To let them know what it is that drives them and to show them what it is about art that is important, not just to artists and cultural elitists, but to the populace in general. To show them that artists are people just like the rest of the world and that they struggle, but do so willingly.

We, as artists, all know the choices we have made and we know that very few will make the sort of money in their endeavors that a chartered accountant or a business executive, for example, might make. Enough Canadians (barely) make their living as artists that we now represent a group larger than others that consistently garner more funding from the Federal and Provincial governments that it must be seen as nothing more than a crime.

Huge corporations are consistently and unashamedly given grant monies from all levels of government. Consider the massive amount of money that the oil companies receive in investment funds from government. The last time I checked, art didn’t kill a flock of ducks in a toxic pond created by the run off from a spoken word show, or a play. Modern dance has never belched so much smoke into the air that it caused global warming or gave children athsma, nor has a symphony orchestra ever spilled into a remote bay, killing off all the marine life that they came into contact with.

On January 14th, students from Concordia University’s Department of Contemporary Dance presented OCCUPANTS at Concordia’s EV Building at 1515 St. Catherine West in Montreal. The event was made up of site-specific choreography with the intention of interacting with the architecture of the space and intermingle with the building’s occupants.

The challenge here was to create works within an active public environment. As people rushed to and from meetings, work and appointments, the dancers engaged them in what turned out to be a spectacular artistic experiment that not only engaged the public, but shone a light on the daily workings of the city.

The goal, of course, was to engage persons and not alienate them. Amy Blackmore (Assistant Producer of the St. Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival) choreographed a piece that began with her dancers banging on windows and motioning for people to come over to them. While many ignored the entreaties, several walked over and attempted to find out what was going on. With strict instructions from Blackmore to not speak to anyone, the dancers were left with nothing more than hand gestures and movement as their tools of interaction. Most people were confused. Some got upset.

Art often attempts to shine a light on society, but with this experiment, the roles were reversed and the audience began to reveal its nature through the natural course of interaction with an unknown entity. Instead of the dancers performing for the public, the public began to perform for the dancers, giving themselves fully to the performance without even realizing that that’s what they were doing. What could be more natural than a performance of people attempting to go on about their daily tasks and are attempting to understand something that’s happening to them that’s so completely out of the ordinary that they aren’t sure how to react?

At some point, a man that had come over to find out what it was that the dancers wanted of him asked Blackmore what was going on. Giving nothing away, she replied that she wasn’t exactly sure what was happening and simply allowed the man to sit and watch the dancers and quietly assess the situation. Eventually, she walked over to him and told him that the girls were part of a dance piece. His entire focus given to their performance, he found himself surprised by how entertained he was. He felt like he’d been let in on a great secret and the show began to exist for him on entirely different level. Once he had understood what was happening, the show, for him, became much more than just the dancers, but those watching the dancers as well.

As the dancers began to move from social interaction to dance, once again shifting the focus, a man sat on a table in the midst of them and immersed himself in the performance. As the piece came to a close, he shook each performer’s hand and thanked them for their presentation. He walked away into the crowd, beaming.

And that’s really all it takes. Just a few people being given a simple understanding of what art is meant to be. There was no need for any of them to discuss the social ramifications of the experiment, they simply understood that they had been entertained. They realized that they had been given a gift in the midst of what might have been a very ordinary day that turned out to be quite extraordinary, indeed.

Art is easy enough to understand because ALL understanding of art is really up to the viewer, not the artist. Perhaps an artist might attempt to convey a message, but it’s what the audience takes away with them that is the most important thing. Artists exposing themselves and making themselves vulnerable in situations like this will help to give those that might be afraid to approach art an appreciation and understanding of the message that artists are attempting to convey. It will give them a sense of belonging in a world that they might feel that they know nothing about, but are a part of on a daily basis. If people don’t know about art, then it is the artist’s job to bring it to them and let them see how important it is in our daily lives. All we have to do is show them. They will see.

Art is the juice of life. Let’s squeeze out a glass for anyone that looks thirsty.

You can see OCCUPANTS on Thursday January 15 13h-15h & 19h-21h and Friday January 16 13h-17h for FREE at 1515 St. Catherine West (Concordia University’s EV building).

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