market worth

It’s obvious the performing arts – like sport, like fashion, like everything else – are becoming more and more professional, that is to say, commercial. Everywhere, even in the so-called alternative circuits, an all-out effort is on to utilize the contemporary commercial model: develop brand, platform and image, situate oneself as product somewhere in the largely virtual landscape, and above all: network. After all, the commercial model is basically a question of positioning. Where am I in relation to my colleagues, and what can I do to be seen or heard in the marketplace?
“Cultural Enterprise Entrepreneurs are cultural change agents and resourceful visionaries who generate revenue from a cultural activity. Their innovative solutions result in economically sustainable cultural enterprises that enhance livelihoods and create cultural value for both creative producers and consumers of cultural services and products.”
This entrepreneurial relationship between producer and consumer means that inevitably the consumer is the ultimate arbiter of success; and that in the world of entrepreneurship, success does not necessarily come in tandem with artistic achievement. In fact it has little to do with it. Success is equated more with aggressive salesmanship and calculation. For example, a sure-fire strategy for the so-called cutting-edge artist remains the century-old idea of provocation. We can see this today not only in the arts, but also in sport, fashion and even politics. Push a button and get a response; strike a nerve and get an even bigger one.
What we make seems not as important as finding a buyer for it, or in the case of the performing arts, finding a producer and an audience. Unfortunately with the enormous explosion of artists of all kinds in the past thirty years it’s increasingly a buyer’s market everywhere.
In the Netherlands where I live the concept of government support for the arts has gone from its postwar origin as a sponsor of the arts irrespective of public opinion, through more recent policies using the arts as a political tool, and now to funding only the arts that prove themselves popular in the marketplace. The implication now is that funding should foster and reward commercialism, with the end result the rapid disappearance of art that has no commercial value. For the performing artist, this means either adapting to the entrepreneurial model and developing a careerist mentality, or risking isolation and obscurity by pursuing ones vision irregardless of the wishes of the market.
Tied in to this is also the larger puzzle of a so-called artistic standard in contemporary society. What is good or bad art, and do these terms even matter anymore? Is relevancy determined by public, media or by market forces? How is it possible to overcome the unfortunate situation we now seem to be in where both artist and public are ever more conscious of the seemingly arbitrary nature of aesthetic decision-making, and the dubious role of the media in perpetuating both newer as well as older traditions?
What is the point of making art? To make a living? We do have to seriously question our motives and our expectations, not least so that we don’t end up unsuccessful, over-aged and bitter. How can an artist, no matter what discipline, develop work independently?
Maybe good and bad need redefinition. The uniqueness of art products, in all their forms, is already a special quality in this packaged reality we now live in. Maybe art’s relevance is personal rather than public. Personal to the artist, and to the individual viewer. And it might not make any money.
Just in case it doesn’t, we might want to find out what could be rewarding in being an artist on the longer-term and not necessarily measure it by someone else’s standards or by our paycheck. We may have to consider ourselves as having a practice rather than a career. A practice that develops the work, and the person making it as well. This may not be an economically feasible proposition, but it has the potential to be much more rewarding than money. Though they might be hard to find, ask any self-respecting starving artist – after you’ve fed them a hot meal of course.
We may not live in the days of the lonely and heroic originals anymore, but that doesn’t mean they can’t set an example we could ponder, redefine and adjust to our own times.

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Only by starting from this situation of man’s relationship with the work of art is it possible to comprehend how this relationship – if it is authentic – is also for man the highest engagement, that is, the engagement that keeps him in the truth and grants to his dwelling on earth its original status. In the experience of the work of art, man stands in the truth, that is, in the origin that has revealed itself to him in the poetic act. In this engagement, artists and spectators recover their essential solidarity and their common ground.
When the work of art is instead offered for aesthetic enjoyment and its formal aspect is appreciated and analyzed, this still remains far from attaining the essential structure of the work, that is, the origin that gives itself in the work of art and remains reserved in it. Aesthetics, then, is unable to think of art according to its proper statute, and so long as man is prisoner of an aesthetic perspective, the essence of art remains closed to him.

Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content, 1994

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zeami 5

“What is felt in the heart is ten, what appears in movement seven.”
This expression refers to the following. When a beginner studying the Noh theater learns to gesture with his hands and to move his feet, he will use all his energies to perform in the way in which he is instructed. Later however, he will learn to move his arms to a lesser extent than his own emotions suggest, and he will be able to moderate his intentions. This phenomenon is by no means limited to dance and gesture. In terms of general stage actions and posture, no matter how slight a bodily action, if the motion is more restrained than the emotion behind it, the body will become the Substance and the emotion its Function, thus moving the audience.

from ‘A Mirror Held to the Flower‘ (1424) On the Art of the Noh Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami, English translation J. Thomas Rimer and Yamazaki Masakuzu, Princeton U. Press, 1984.

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moving ideologies 3: neutral body

Occasionally someone comes on the floor and after that the performance begins. If the starting point is onstage that means a body appears that has not yet begun to act or dance. Who or what is that body?
In the performing arts, especially now, there is a huge emphasis on the identity of the performer. But here we’re not talking about people portraying themselves or others onstage, instead about something more elemental. If the performer appears before the performance begins, then he or she can be identified as a sort of servant to the performance, about to enact something. This servant body is usually that of the professional actor or dancer, a kind of commando set into choreographies or plays.

In the process of dance and theatre training there is often an agreed-upon starting point, described by different names like ‘zero’, ‘first position’, ‘natural’ or ‘neutral body’. These terms refer to a state of balance and readiness without character or choreography: a position of preparation in order to accomplish any role or task, starting immediately. There is an implication that a neutral body, like a neutral mask, is a blank slate, a tabula rasa: “the mind before impressions are recorded on it by experience.”

But there is a problem with beginning here. This neutral prepared body is like a neutral gear in a car – the motor may be running but the gears are disengaged. The audience can see beneath the repose and the confidence to the feigned quality of anonymity in this neutral body. A neutral body is a representative of the cultural values of balance, harmony and reason merely by the fact of its verticality, horizontality and symmetry. The performer and viewer begin by implicitly agreeing on these same underlying values.

But the human body does not have to be anchored to ideals of beauty. It might even be refreshing not to think of the theater at all as a place for universal values or ideals. The performer does not have to be an everyman, a repository of projections, or carry a message like a spear.
To create really alive unexpected public experience, instead of just provoking the viewer it might be more interesting to evade the audience’s search for illusory content – rather than attempt to attract it. The viewer is then not able to rest on his or her assumptions about the artist or the art. The performer’s challenge can be keeping the body anonymous but somehow specific. This anonymous body would not then be some neutral representative of order.
In fact performers are free to act as if it is the audience who is the tabula rasa. There are opportunities in sustaining suspense, refreshing a situation by sidetracking the interpretive mind of the viewer, and propelling the work forward in a rhythmic and unexpected way. Performing is then about remaining alert to the vicissitudes of the moment – what comes up. Engagement rather than display can become the hallmark of good performance.

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I think that most art which begins to make a statement fails to make a statement because the methods used are too schematic or too artificial. I think that one wants from painting a sense of life. The final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement. It has to be be what you can’t avoid saying, not what you set out to say.

Jasper Johns, London, 1974

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Dear incomprehension, it’s thanks to you I’ll be myself, in the end.

Samuel Beckett, The Unnameable, 1954

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zeami 4

Is it not true that fundamentally there is nothing fixed concerning good or bad? Rather, depending on the occasion, what is useful is good, and what is not useful is bad. Our art depends on the taste of the audience at a particular time and place and will be produced in response to the general taste of the time. Such is the Flower that is truly useful. Here, one kind of performance is appreciated; there, another sort is welcomed. The Flower must differ depending on the spirit of the audience. Which of these Flowers then represents the true one? The nature of the Flower truly depends on the occasion on which it will be employed.

from ‘Style and the Flower‘ (1418) On the Art of the Noh Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami, English translation J. Thomas Rimer and Yamazaki Masakuzu, Princeton U. Press, 1984.

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