Offending the Audience

by Cole Matson

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?