Offending the Audience

Several of us theatre artists have been having a passionate discussion on offending the audience, and other matters relating to the place of art and the responsibilities of artists, on Scott Walters’ blog, which I’ve found so valuable (see this post) that I’ve added him to my blogroll.

Scott puts his finger precisely on the problem with the modern art world when he says:

Artists have been taught, ever since the Romantic Movement, that they are above society, above morality, that they have no responsibility to anyone except themselves and their so-called vision, and that despite their anti-social stance society ought to support them because they’re Special People.

This was exactly the atmosphere at my undergraduate university, where many of my peers, encouraged by our professors, congratulated themselves on being artists, and therefore so much more sensitive, empathetic, and courageous than those plebians who weren’t brave enough to “live the dream” of life as an artist. And the height of bravery as an artist was being unafraid to shock, confuse, and offend your audience. I remember watching a taped theatre piece in which a naked man urinated on stage, fully facing the audience and the camera. At that point, which was about 45 minutes into that increasingly enraging piece of theatre, I and a couple other students walked out of class. When I mentioned it to one of my other professors, I was told I had a problem with peeing. On stage – you bet I do.

If you’re an artist of any kind, I highly recommend you read at least some of the thread (now over 70 comments long), which can be found here. Feel free to join the conversation there, or let me know what you think here.

One of the questions that came up was the purpose of art, especially whether artists have a responsibility to make art with their community in mind. I listed a few of my goals as an artist:

-Give people hope
-Inspire them to a morally higher level of behavior (more compassionate, more truthful, etc.)
-Increase a sense of empathy for others
-Celebrate the beauty and goodness in the world

Since I plan to write a doctoral dissertation (or at least Master’s thesis) on the moral responsibility of the artist, this particular question is of the utmost importance to me. I’d like to ask you, awesome readers: What are some of the goals you believe artists should have – if any?

7 thoughts on “Offending the Audience

  1. Subject: artistic goals
    there is a character in /two gentlemen from verona/ –very expressive poet– who seems a moral failure. i like your goals… in part simply because i’d like to see these things nourished to fruition in myself. a creative writer here, but i find these things lacking in myself /if not in my work/. i wonder if most artists are lacking and struggling with/without these things. glibness in real life is a common failing. it would seem that we can best represent these things [yr goals] but without possessing them personally. sad and a bit bewildering.

    please let me know either here or thru LJ –did you receive a similar copy of this comment from LJ? i would like to know about the various feed/site interactions. thanks for a thoughtful post.

  2. My brother nailed a pepsi can to a wall and put a sign under it saying “but is it art?”

    I have no problem with art of various forms pushing the envelope, making us uncomfortable and making us think, that is part of how we grow, as individuals, and as society.

    But really, how does someone peeing on stage move us, help us grow, or enhance anything? Pushing boundaries, just for the sake of pushing them, not for any goal, purpose or benefit, just reminds me of 4 year olds testing mom and dad just to see what they can get away with.

  3. I don’t believe that it is the artist’s responsiblity to give hope or celebrate only goodness and beauty. Obviously there are plenty of art that does this and I enjoy that but I also enjoy art that reflects other kinds of experiences.

    However it’s fair to say that an artist can have good intentions with their art but still fail their audience.

    This reminds me of when we performed our 9/11 telephone play and it offended and upset our classmates, many of whom felt uncomfortable watching our play or just didn’t grasp what we were trying to do. Our intentions were to give hope and inspire empathy but it seemed that a lot of people didn’t respond in such a fashion.

    Or consider Ibsen’s “A Doll House.” I think part of his goal for the play was to make the audience sympathetic to Nora who ultimatly does something that in the eyes of her society is unimaginably terrible- abandoning her husband and children. In one production the actess playing Nora refused to do that scene and forced a re-write where Nora is guilted into staying for the sake of her children. In that case the audience was missing the point.

    I think that great art hold ups a mirror and reflects part of the human experience back at us, inspiring powerful emotions and often a cathartic release of some sort. I don’t really see peeing on stage to be any kind of art i’d want to enjoy but I don’t think that art has failed if a play has an unhappy or uncertain ending. I suppose that say, Hamlet with its tragic ending doesn’t really give us a lot of hope but it does raise empathy.

  4. I think that it is the responsibility of each artist to be true to him or herself. If an artist finds something to be offensive or objectionable then they should not take part in it. I don’t think they should be made to feel like less of an artist for standing their ground.

    I also think it is the artist’s as well as i suppose the producers and anyone involved in promoting or advertising a piece of work to be honest with the audience. Just as theaters are required to notify the audience of things like firearm or strobe effects, the sight of someone urinating on stage or other such things should not be a “surprise”

    I cannot say that it is the job of each artist to avoid offending the audience, because there are some audiences that WANT to be shocked and offended – and for them… well to each his own. It’s all a matter of choice both on the part of the artist and the audience.

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