What is art for?
We caused a bit of an upset in the park.
The ancient question “What is art for?” reared its head in a very real way a few weeks ago in Ireland.
On June 1st and 2nd I had the pleasure of performing at The Greystones Arts Festival in County Wicklow, Ireland.
Grainne McGloughlin, a wonderful woman, booked two shows. Both Joseph D’Amour Bouffon in the show ‘A modern man’, and Jeremy Farquar the twisted butler in ‘The Fool, the cow and the art of corruption’. www.passion4laughter.com .
On June 1st Joseph D’Amour Bouffon took his turn. A fun crowd pleasing show which plays with the theme of being a modern man. Two thoroughly enjoyable shows with big hats collected for the arts festival itself. Lots of very happy laughing audience members.
On June 2nd it was the turn of Mr Jeremy Farquar. Some of you reading this will know about Mr Farquar and what he does. For those who are not familiar, the show addresses the issue of the world arms trade. It informs and inspires the audience. It is funny and the tricks are impressive… but although Jeremy Farquar wears a red nose he is not truly a clown. He is a fool, in the tradition of the Shakespearian fool in King Lear. The fool uses tricks and laughter to tickle the audience into a state of openness, before delivering some unpalatable truth; much like a fisherman tickles a trout before …
The first show on Sunday June 2nd was programmed for 1.30pm. Just after lunch. During lunch for some of the audience who were enjoying a picnic in the park.
The audience grew and grew. It became a large crowd. They all stayed even when the deeper meaning of the piece became clear. After the show the collection was good. As is often the case members of the audience came forward to share with me how much their hearts had been touched by the message, to thank me for giving hope, to urge me to continue touring and performing this piece. One audience member this time was in fact an MP, or TD as political representatives are called in Ireland. He said “I have never seen a piece of street art as impressive as this. To incorporate such skills with such important meaning is really excellent. Inspirational. Well done.”
The performance had gone fairly well. It was not the best… I had to shout over the local coast guard helicopter as it made 4 flybys, thus the delivery was a trifle brutal. The final scene was not so beautiful and inspiring due to me trying out a different sound track. I noted these thoughts and made mental changes for the second performance. But given the audience feedback it seemed to have hit the mark.
The second performance was scheduled at 4.30pm in the same park. At about 3pm Grainne, the lovely booker, arrived at our truck. She was worried as she had had a few complaints about the show…about it being too political…could I tone it down? I thought. It is an overtly political piece. Grainne knew that when she booked it. The theme cannot really be changed. I have an old friend from Hoi Polloi Theatre Company who welcomes an ‘good review’ as much as a ‘bad’ one. Then she knows her work is provoking a reaction of some sort. What she is dissappointed with is no reaction at all.
I offered Grainne to cancel Jeremy Farquar and have Joseph D’Amour instead. She was the boss and I would do what she wanted… but , I said, some art is fluffy and fun, and some is provocative. This is a provocative piece. It is all art. She was running an Arts Festival. So it was up to her to decide what she wanted. Grainne consulted the few members of her crew who were there. No one saw a problem with the piece. It was not rude, or lewd, or illegal. But yes it was provocative and it touched the heart. One person suggested that at the end I not give out the pieces of paper with my email address asking people to contact me for words to send to their MP. We agreed I should not do that for the 4.30pm show; but that the Jeremy Farquar performance should continue as programmed.
The 4.30pm performance was a good one. No helicopter blasting the performance. A big crowd, full circle, with many hearts touched and minds turned on. Spontaneous applause during the final scene. Audience reactions again thanked me for the hope, urged me to continue, hoped people would listen to Jeremy Farquar, thanked me for holding Ireland up as a beacon of hope to the world. People paid well into the collection made at the end. All money went to the festival. It was an exhilerating performance. The conversation between performer and audience had been sustained all the way through. Even with such a mixed family audience. There was a buzz in the air at the end.
Later that evening I bumped into Grainne again. I let her know that the second show had been a cracker. Her response was that she was sorry to have asked me to change it; she was angry with herself for having done so. In fact I think she did the right thing to come and talk to me. In the end she decided to defend her decision to book a provocative piece, but equally as a manager she had listened to a couple of members of the public. She could say to them in the future that she had acted upon the conversation. I truly felt she had taken the correct course of action. I told her so and gave her a hug of support.
I took the opportunity to ask her in more detail about what had been said in complaint. It turned out really that they had liked the theme and the message, but that they were not ready for such a serious and hard hitting piece of performance at 1.30pm in the park on a Sunday. In the clear vision of retrospect it was not a complaint about the piece itself, but rather a comment showing that the piece had been successful. Those audience members had been strongly touched by the piece. “It hit them hard” as Grainne said. The problem had been that they did not expect that at that time in that place. They were expecting pleasant entertaining fluff, fun and laughter. They got laughter, intrigue, a surprise, deeper meaning, harrowing reality, and a hopeful message in the end.
I am glad Grainne chose to support a more serious piece of street art. I wonder how , now time has passed a little, the people who were not comfortable with it feel? They had asked Grainne if this type of performance really had a place in their community’s festival. Should politics really be brought here? Her response was that all communities are touched by the larger issues in life, even if they don’t realise it. I believe she is right.
As the performer I learnt how to be more delicate in taking the audience with me on such occasions in such pleasant community situations. The second performance had a different rhythm, a different timbre to it. I also learnt to impress upon programmers that this piece is best after 3pm, so people have the chance to digest their lunch before being asked to digest such disturbing facts about the world we live in!
I suppose my answer to the question at the start is that art has a variety of uses or roles… There is art for beauty’s sake; art for laughter’s sake; art with a comment; art which provokes. All are valid. All are art.
That said, I am a little bit proud to be making this work. And thankful to be learning how to lead an audience on such an emotional but important journey.
What do you think is the role of the artist in society?