A Pop Conversation

Posted by David Seals, Jul 20, 2011 6 comments

David Seals

In the height of the 2007 football season, shortly after the Audience Experience Initiative project began talking about a new vision for audience engagement, I found myself on my Monday bus commute after a Steelers defeat.

“What if these people felt as opinionated about what happened at the ballet this weekend as they do about the Steelers?”, I thought. Be careful what you wish for.

Last week, Squonk Opera had the moxie to place their critically-acclaimed work in front of an incredibly unforgiving audience: three judges and millions of viewers on NBC’s America’s Got Talent.

The initial responses (which, in the long run may be the least important result of this experience for Squonk) seemed to be abject confusion—both from the judges and the Twitterati. The comments were not exactly the sort you’d find in a theatre review, but the gist was a lot of strong opinions ranging from visceral reaction to technical critique.

Squonk had the challenge of condensing its 90-minute performance into as many seconds, and yet its work was probably seen by more people during that small window than in the previous 20 years combined. This raises a question: Was this a good thing? (Knowing Squonk, I’ll be interested to hear their take.)

Two weeks ago, nearly 4,000 Pittsburghers showed up at a rally to welcome home an amateur dancer and his partner who had won a national competition together. The celebration included participatory dances and a proclamation by the Mayor. Would we say that this was a good thing for dance?

The amateur dancer was Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, who with partner Kym Johnson, won ABC’s Dancing with the Stars. Would this have happened if Mr. Ward hadn’t been an icon for the trophy-obsessed Steeler fans? Perhaps not. Is it still a good thing for dance?

I absolutely love the Pittsburgh Dance Council. Paul Organisak has curated some of the most intellectually and emotionally rewarding performances I’ve ever seen. In the past year, I also saw brilliant dance from Attack Theatre and from choreographer Kyle Abraham set on the August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble, to name just two.

And yet, it’s getting increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that last season, more people saw Hines Ward dance during one hour of television than saw all of these incredible Pittsburgh performances combined. What does that mean for arts and culture?

What are we to make of these two forays into pop culture? I’m not sure. But I believe two things: 1) It means something, and we ignore it at our peril, and 2) This volume of arts dialogue is what we’ve always wanted, and now we have to guide its meaning before mass media gives it meaning without us.

According to the Arts Experience Initiative arts audiences “Want a real forum—or several forums—for the interplay of ideas, experience, data and feeling that make up the arts experience. In short, they want to retrieve sovereignty over their arts going by reclaiming the cultural right to formulate and exchange opinions that are valued by the community.”

This is exactly what we’re seeing, for audiences of all kinds.

As I watched thousands of people I’ve never met share strong opinions about a performance on America's Got Talent, one thing struck me most: a distinct lack of meaningful art criticism in the stream. Where was that voice?

If artists and arts workers don’t want a culture where dance is relevant only when there’s a star involved, or where a theatre performance is judged only in 90-second increments, we have to participate in the dialogue that will happen whether or not we join it. Fear or revulsion for this pop culture phenomenon only makes us look like we no longer believe our most basic conviction: that art is powerful in people’s lives. That art is something people want, not just something to which they should go. That people really want to own and love artistic performances and exhibits.

But people want to own and love art on their own terms, no longer willing for its meaning to be controlled by an oligarchy of curators.

If those of us who presume to be the culture-bearers refuse to help them do so by coming alongside them in the conversation, perhaps they will move on without us into a future where truly great work is lost or marginalized into obscurity.

6 responses for A Pop Conversation


August 16, 2011 at 7:48 pm

These are interesting points about this co-opting of the arts to feed "reality" TV and reinforce the celebutantes of media and spectator sports. People are talking about the "arts," sort of. But Bill T Jones said something to the effect of that “competitive dance shows are bad for dance because they equate dance with sports." Hines Ward fans wouldn’t care either way.

We were approached and invited by the network and had no doubt that we would be the equivalent of arty cannon fodder on network TV, so we struggled with our response to the invitation. We were also told to play a "cover" song many times, and refused. We make our own work, that is who we are - we aren’t interpretive artists, which is what many folks mean by the word "talent." This offended celebrity judges and many Americans who they represent. This stance, along with our lack of the charm and backstory of a 6-year-old, guaranteed we would lose.

In the end we decided: it was our job to go, and our job not to play a "cover," and our job to get a spanking in the process! It’s what we do best!

We went to lose, which is the only adversarial position that matters, if you are actively engaging the world. Kind of like watching Obama embattled and besmirched by a tea party government: thank God he doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty. It meant that we lost the unsullied beauty of his untested promise: but it could have been so much worse, as we remember the growing shame of the W years.

We perform for people - and many years ago Squonk Opera purposely avoided the cloistered and self-satisfied world of academia and the NYC-based world of art and fashion and money. There are people who suffer the elitist sense that the best arts are exclusive, and there are well-funded NYC art embassies across the country, because this reinforces the manifest destiny of the wealthy and culturally privileged.

We think that arts should have inclusive intentions, which is not to say everyone should like the same things. But that it is not about preaching to the converted: we wanna take it to the streets.

Now some may say that we have traded the Manhattan art-hegemony to that of more commercial LA imperialism, but our audience is made of individuals, not groups, and mass media has a reach that is broad.

Art should engage the world, and it cannot control the terms of that engagement. However, art needs to stand aesthetically on its instincts, which is why we wouldn't play a cover. There are depths we won’t sink to in terms of intrinsic qualities: like the "pops" desperation of the blueblood high arts institutions. We don’t mind a public smackdown, but we will only do it on our terms, with our art. Our first show was in a junkyard. We aren’t gonna get fussy now!

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July 22, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Another item to add into the mix is that the Pittsburgh Opera is presenting Jackie Evancho in October, the little girl whose operatic voice took America's Got Talent by storm last year. What does this mean for Opera-goers? Is this different than it would be to present Josh Groban, who is often reviled by opera enthusiasts?

My colleague Sam Reiman at the McCune Foundation also pointed out that this raises the question of what types of artists are best suited for the environment of reality TV. Little blond girl with beautiful voice = no brainer?

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August 17, 2011 at 9:54 am

Well put Steve. I was/am proud of Squonk!!!

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August 17, 2011 at 10:27 am

Go Steve! Go Squonk! Pittsburgh's goin' to da Squonkerbowl!

Finding the audience for puppetry is a similar struggle. It's essentially an everyman form of art that came from the lowest, DIY levels. There's great work being done still at that level in addition to the very few high-budget shows who tend to get more attention. When people think of paying money to see a puppet show, they want Warhorse, if they aren't familiar with the broader options.

David, thanks for opening up a good dialogue!

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Alba Pictinelli says
September 05, 2011 at 10:07 am

After seeing Squonk Opera on AGT I looked the group up on the web to see if I could find out who the singer was. She struck me as not only beautiful but really talented, and I wanted to see what I could find out about her. From the Squonk website I found her name is Autumn Ayers, she has a MySpace page, and there are several amazing songs on the website that she wrote and performed. I wonder, would Squonk have been better served by letting this young woman be the focus of the AGT performance? As it was I thought there was an attempt on Squonk's part to cram too much into the 90 seconds, and to be sure that every member of the band was featured. Artistic integrity is all well and good, but if you can't read the parameters of your environment so that your art can be shared you will be alone, just you and your integrity, singing to the walls of your room.

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Van says
December 25, 2011 at 8:27 pm

America's Got Talent. HAHAHA. What can I say? That show entertains me a lot! :)

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