A Purpose of Art

February 4th, 2018

I think one of the advantages of teaching the same subject every year is the prompt to revisit my own attitudes. Surprisingly, my definition of art has changed very little. Instead, it narrows and becomes clearer for me — on the personal level.

Not theoretical.

Every year I struggle to teach the theories I find silly — or “unsound” — without bias. (For the record, I think I do okay.)

One of the disadvantages to living in a small town is having to deal with the question, “What did you think?” from colleagues or students. The inevitable sense of loss I feel when I know that I have to answer flatly. On the other hand, it’s a comfort to know that no one really wants to know what I think, anyway. And there is such a thing as social decorum, after all. I get that.


This past Friday was the first time I experienced a post-dramatic theater piece without feeling defensive or reactionary in my dislike of the form. Today, post-dramatic is entrenched in tradition, no longer brave or edgy in any sense. And I feel fine saying it really isn’t for me. I don’t even feel “old” when I say it.

I came home from the post-dramatic performance, and before bed I read a script that had come in the mail that day: Bird, by Katherine Chandler. I sighed with relief. This kind of work is still out there. This kind of art.

I have two banal problems with “The Post-Dramatic”: 1. How is Hamlet Machine truly post-dramatic in essence when it presupposes you know who and what Hamlet is? Isn’t the post-dramatic art form merely derivative work? Marginalia and commentary as an art form? It doesn’t actually abandon a narrative, it presupposes it, in the best case. In the worst case, it disingenuously disavows it, or throws it up — with a cowardly grab at significance — to say it is “whatever the viewer makes of it”. The artist becomes nothing more than the spinner for a game of Twister. (I admit though, it’s nice when the craftsmen are technically skilled. I do find pleasure in what talent can produce, if not a space to formulate private meaning, a springboard for my own creativity.)

The second is personal — and is rooted in my personal understanding of the purpose and definition of art itself: the communication of the experience of being human. The key work being communication. The sense of connection, the intentional exchange and understanding of perspective. I know it is an old-fashioned, but I believe that it is ennobling to move beyond our own subjectivity. And that art is partially defined by this. 

No matter high tightly I am backed into a bathroom to watch a piece of post-dramatic theater, I feel isolated. My experience, ultimately isolating. If there is conversation afterward, it is the sharing of individual interpretations of personal perspectives. Like comparing Rorschach interpretations with friends at a dinner party. Art that makes the artist irrelevent (or artist as tarot reader). Art that is without intention. “Art” that is a stimuli for an essentially individualistic experience that demands personal agency, and results in a sense self-importance and private significance*.

There have been times when I have sat in the audience and thought, what if I don’t want to play along? When I have obstinately felt a desire to rebel, and NOT play along. When I have wanted to stomp my feet and demand that the artists GIVE ME something of themselves, and an earnest intention to communicate something specific and meaningful, something that touches on the what it is to be human.

I actually feel odd paying for a theater experience that does nothing more than reassure me of my own creativity.

(How arrogant is that?)

I do not need to be co-creater in order to be an active participant in an artwork. I do not believe for a moment that the act of listening is passive. I believe more of us would be better at it if it were.

Clearly, I do not lack a sense of self-importance. I don’t even lack a sense of personal agency in my life. What do I want from art? I want it to give me something I would otherwise not have in my life. Why is art essential for me? For what purpose do I need it?

When I put down Bird, I felt a sense of connnection. The woman who wrote that play somehow seemed to know what it is to be human in the same way I have experienced it. We’ve shared that, without ever having been squished up in the same bathroom stall. She dared to construct a story from the fragments of life. She dared to share a whole-cloth work of art. Of course, I can never know if she intended to communicate the experienced I received. (That’s is the absurd truth of our lives, isn’t it?) But there was an attempt. And just that attempt, that act of courage — of vulnerabiltiy — is a human experience that I recognise.


*I’m not alone in thinking along these lines. Though Adam Alston has been much more systematic and erudite in his approach. I am in no way suggesting he agrees with me here in terms of what he would prioritise as a purpose of art. 




Posted in: Poetry, Theater

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2 thoughts on “A Purpose of Art Leave a comment

  1. I’ve just been reading Alston’s book! It’s such a smart critique by someone who also obviously loves what immersive theatre can be, all the while he exposes its problematic coerciveness, emphasis on a kind of processed “productivity” that only reaffirms an audience member’s sense of their own individuality and creativity. It’s a hollow, noisy thing.

    Oh, to find that middle ground, where you’re not attending a piece of theatre that’s a little worse than watching a hep sit-com, an audience member slurping on froth, but also where you’re not “empowered” by a construction that puts you at the center, that ensures that you have your own “unique” experience inside the theatre machine.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I really enjoyed the book. But I have to say, it has made me think more than I’d have wanted to about – for example – Billy Elliot and the political messages in all these feel good shows that Ayn Rand would have loved.


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