the role of the people in art

When the New Zealand parliament passed the bill allowing same sex marriage, the people stood in the gallery and sang its appreciation, its involvement. As a Maori song, undoubtedly, it has ethno-specific ritual meanings. However, it demonstrated the will of the people, something that institutions of democracy are designed to do.

All through the 1980’s I collected, played and appreciated the albums of Euro-electronic rock group Depeche Mode. The name means “fast forward” in the French section of a tape deck manual. I recently watched the group perform on YouTube; earlier tracks showed the foursome with little musical instrumental ability, unashamedly miming in front of a recorded version of their music; the audience which had bought expensive tickets being reimbursed by an elaborate light spectacle. However, in a recent concert in Cologne, the lead singer tipped the mike towards the crowd and invited them to sing: “here in my arms”. The otherwise wooden performance suddenly became an experience that the audience created. By repeating a DM song while participating in a sing along would be the best of both worlds, the comfort of tradition, combined with innovation.

One suspects that a lot of performance art has a similar logic at its core: the artist shows little developed artistic ability, but by involving the energy of the audience, a new experience is created. Simultaneously, it bypasses the need for the artist to exercise discernment and discrimination; the artist need not display knowledge of recent art history, or demonstrate intrinsic understanding of what has been recently created; that most difficult feat, of intelligently assessing what would logically progress from such events. Instead, it is easier to simply copy a recent work, to acknowledge indebtedness by calling one’s work an homage. Look at the safe offerings of contemporary artists online: seamless tastefulness, spiced at judicious intervals with a dash of irony or substitution when imitation becomes obsequious.


About anton veenstra

tapestry weaver, fibre artist, gay/qr activist, multiculturalist
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