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January 19, 2010


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Scott Walters

I hate to say it, but (like Lou Costello in "Who's On First?") we're back at third base, which is our lack of vocabulary. "The audience won't go for it" is, indeed, rejection language boilerplate -- it makes it possible to reject a piece of work without having to take responsibility for or explain your individual opinion. And part of that is cowardice -- the same sort of cowardice that we've discussed in the theatrosphere as based in a desire to never offend anyone who might, in the future, help your career -- but I also think it is a lack of vocabulary. The AD may not be able to say why he or she doesn't like the play -- not clearly, and in a useful fashion. And "useful" is the key word -- when we reject something, what we REALLy want is for that person to just go away and not ask questions, but if we were going to help the art form, we'd give USEFUL FEEDBACK that would help playwrights understand how to do better (according to this person) in the future.


There is a very fancy creative producer out there who often says, "The audience doesn't know what they want until you give it to them." Maybe, just maybe, part of the solution is audience development.


When I read that section it jumped at me as well. I don't think it's about not having a better way to say what they mean to the playwrights whose plays they are not doing. I actually think it's a disconnect between what they are dealing with and what they were asked. I think it is true that they mostly don't NOT do the plays because their "audiences won't go for it"-- they don't do those plays because "it won't sell as many tickets". "Audiences won't go for it" implies that the AD is afraid to confront the audience. That's not how they see it-- they see it as "my marketing people will have a hard time selling it and therefore we can't do it". It is the same thing-- they don't do it because they don't know the audience for it-- but when they read the choice that says "I'm afraid of my audience" they don't ascribe that to the reason.


An illuminating related quote:

"The show Beckwith has curated at the Studio Museum comes at a moment when it's at last possible to "think about what it is to be a black artist," she says, rather than simply assuming there's such a thing as black art and a black aesthetic that speak to transparently black issues.

Late in the 20th century, the most sophisticated black artists "took their work beyond the racial and cultural 'scarification' that identified previous generations," writes Duke University professor Richard J. Powell in "Black Art: A Cultural History," his discipline's textbook. Instead of hanging on to such "tribal markings," as Powell puts it, these artists have spent their time "analyzing socially rooted emblems, questioning traditional concepts of identity . . . and, in general, dealing with culture and history as artistic currency."

Or, more shocking yet, occasionally refusing to deal with racial history and culture at all. If Ligon and Walker mostly make work about race, some of their most prominent black peers, especially the non-Americans among them, have what Powell has called a " 'Sometimes I am, sometimes I'm not, sometimes I forget' sense of the racial."


African Americans are still dealing with something King-Hammond dubs "post-traumatic stress slavery syndrome." She describes them as "traumanauts" who can't achieve the aesthetic remove a white viewer might have, when confronted by complex art that picks at the scabs of race. "You can't be like Precious and magically escape when you see your blackness in the mirror," she says, referring to the title character in the recent film, who imagined herself out of painful situations. "Being black in America is an extraordinarily conflicted existence."

King-Hammond talks about how the first heroes of black art were all about the affirmation that was needed then. "They were telling precious stories, preserving heritage," she says, even proving that, "yes, you can paint the image of a black person." That cultural role may have been taken over by all the African Americans working in movies and music, whom most blacks now look to as symbols of success.

When it comes to racially charged contemporary art, she finds members of the black community expressing doubts about its "authenticity and appropriateness." They ask whether a Walker cut-out makes "a good statement or a bad statement," rather than asking if it's compelling art or not. For a larger black audience, she says, "the ugliness of the race thing is prohibitive." It's not something to be probed and questioned by art, but to be shunned as "the vampire in the house" that no one wants to encounter.

Whereas the larger art world may cherish the frisson of race. Speaking from her office at the Driskell Center, Childs worries that the success of what she calls Walker's "emotive" take on race is really all about "blackness being fetishized by a white audience." She talks about "a certain avant-garde white consumer" who, since at least the 1920s, has tended to view the race-based work of black artists as an "exotic and interesting" spectacle -- and therefore different from the supposedly race-free work that white artists produce. Powell notes that there's a history of how "black subjectivity appears and disappears" as an art world interest, as though it's not much more than a fashion.

Ligon says he's obviously happy that works by him and his peers are getting into major museum collections. But he wonders if that will pan out as the kind of "sustained institutional support" that leads to in-depth acquisitions. Will the race-themed works of Ligon and Walker, of McQueen and Douglas, be acquired as notable examples of something called "black art," or as signs of important artistic achievements that don't simply depend on skin color?

"We're still the subject of articles about black artists," Ligon says. ". . . That's the reality." "


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