Waiting for Godot, starring Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen
“Art that bewilders one generation becomes accessible to the next; or so it would seem,” writes theater critic Michael Billington for The Guardian. So, how does theater come to be accepted by general audiences? Billington puts forth a few theories:
- Artists are ahead of their time. It takes some time for the public to catch up.
- Theater (like art) encompasses just about anything these days, so we embrace a lot more.
- Audiences now prefer theater that avoids easy resolution, which is why we like Beckett.
I don’t wholly agree with any of these ideas, though there’s some grain of truth in the remaining. Those who read Eight Fallacies About Contemporary Art won’t be surprised to read that I think the first point misrepresents history’s natural chronology. Did Hedy Lemarr anticipate her invention of frequency jumping would later drive the functionality of cell phones? No. The inventor had no special vision, she simply had talent and the good fortune of conceiving an idea upon which others built. The same applies to art. I don’t care who you are, you simply can’t anticipate the importance your work will have in the future.1
That said, it takes a while for ideas to permeate culture. Or at least it used to. Good and bad art alike can spread like wildfire across the net. As I’ve mentioned previously, artists are the most likely to embrace a wide range of professions and methods of working– a behavior that doesn’t cross all fields. It therefore seems unlikely that everyone embraces more culture. We do however, consume more.
Finally, the amount of television produced avoiding “easy resolution” (The Wire and Lost immediately come to mind) may at least, in part, explain increased audience interest in classics. But so too does contemporary culture’s constant recycling of material. Does this also explain increased public interest and acceptance of 2oth century art? In part two, I will attempt to come up with some of my own answers. (hat tip: MoMA Twitter)
- On a related note, if I read one more person describe internet scholar Clay Shirky as a genius or visionary, I think my head will explode. He’s articulating what a lot of us already know and just happens to be better at it than most [↩]