Whether it’s dance, music, theater, literature, or visual art, many people find themselves in Never-Never Land when experiencing contemporary work-especially those pieces that challenge pre-conceived notions of what art should look, sound, or feel like. When a work of art lacks a traditional subject, comfortable harmonies, a logical structure or challenges conventional rules, how do we judge it? What do we have to hang on to? No wonder we feel lost. We find ourselves asking, "What is it?" or "What’s it supposed to be?" because we haven’t a clue.
Sarasota’s cultural community has been thinking and talking a lot about contemporary art lately, because we have been planning the first annual "On The Edge Festival." We’ve been asking all sorts of questions, including these: What place should work that challenges traditional conventions play in our seasons? In light of the conservative tastes of our audiences, how can we program work that represents the vision and passion of the composers, playwrights, filmmakers, painters, and choreographers of today? And how can we guide our audiences to worthwhile, meaningful experiences with work that challenges their very definition of art?
For thousands of years, most figurative paintings and sculpture were realistic representations of some "thing"-a woman, a landscape, a Madonna, the family patriarch, a bowl of fruit, a horse scratched into the cave wall. If it were executed with minimal skill, anyone could look at it and recognize its subject.
But while most accomplished realistic works have this literal, recognizable subject, they also have a non-literal, subjective side, expressing abstract concepts such as hope, despair, or religious or secular love. Images communicate much more than their literal subject. They communicate a metaphorical, underlying meaning.
Somewhere along the mid-to-late 19th century, artists became interested in going beyond representing life as they saw it and began interpreting life as they felt it. Impressionism blurred the subjects. Cubism twisted and rearranged them. Finally expressionism eliminated the literal subject altogether, leaving only the non-literal, metaphorical information for the viewer. Instead of painting or sculpting a beautiful woman representing the concept of "perfect beauty," for example, painters began representing concepts such as "perfect beauty" alone, without the literal beautiful woman.
I’d like to offer a few suggestions for experiencing new works of art. And then I want to tell you about April’s "On The Edge" Festival, where you will have opportunities to put these suggestions into practice.
Leave Expectations at Home
I asked Sarasota music critic Richard Storm his advice for people new to the experience of contemporary music. "Listen in as unprejudiced a way that you can. If you don’t like it, say so," he advised. "And remember, you never have to hear it again."
Contemporary works of art, especially those "on the edge," often defy the status quo. Our challenge as an audience is to stay open, to try to accept the work on its own terms. This doesn’t mean that we have to like it. But it does mean giving the work the benefit of the doubt. Leaving your preconceptions and expectations at home will increase your odds of having a meaningful experience.
There May Be No "It" in "What is it?"
Most on-the-edge art isn’t meant to be a puzzle, even though it may look or sound like it is. Generally, serious artists don’t create their work as a test to see how many people "get it." It’s more often created to stimulate an emotional and/or intellectual reaction. Hans Will, formerly with the Sarasota Film Society, says a lot of contemporary film is "meant to get you to react. You’re supposed to feel something. A little discomfort means that the film is a success. Like it or don’t like it, it’s okay."
With less literal information or linear plotting, you as an audience member, viewer, or reader must play a more active role. This is a big change from most works created before the mid-to-late 19th century, where the artist’s skill was in his or her ability to recreate life and nature as he or she saw it.
Instead, much contemporary work is now an artist’s expression of life as he feels it. Composers, choreographers, playwrights, novelists, and visual artists are likely to use the tools of their art as an outward expression of an internal impulse, feeling, or idea. The quality of the work tends to be measured in its ability to engender our own unique responses in thought and feeling.
Leave Criticism to the Critics
A few months ago, I took my mother to the theater. "Thank you," she said after it was over. "It was great. I couldn’t find a thing wrong with it." Everyone’s a critic-even Mom. But you don’t have to declare art "good" or "bad" to justify your feelings. The fact that you might not like it doesn’t mean it’s bad. It means you don’t like it.
According to Allyn Gallup, owner of the Mira Mar Gallery, which specializes in contemporary art, "If it’s any good it should provide you with some quandary, but shouldn’t cause you to be worried that you’re somehow not up to it. At some level it should be pleasurable. Even in the not liking it, it should be compelling if it’s any good."
When art was created in a time with more rigid rules, when it was more representational to the eye, more consonant to the ear, or when a story unraveled in linear sequence, quality was measured by the art’s proximity to reality or its ability to please our ears or eyes. As reality and happy ears and eyes became less important, the standards of quality became less objective and required more skill and background to judge. So don’t bother. You don’t have to make the judgment. Leave your inner critic home, babysitting your expectations.
"Beauty" Isn’t Always Pretty
For centuries, happy eyes and ears created the standard of "beautiful." Consonant melodies and harmonies created beautiful music. Beautiful paintings were pleasing to the eye.
While sensory pleasure has not totally abandoned the contemporary arts, the element of "truth" has become more importantin defining beauty. Philosophers have linked truth and beauty for years, but we have seen a growing willingness to confront social and cultural issues in a more direct and honest way-which may not necessarily be pleasing to the senses or particularly comfortable. Modern plays about people living on the moral margins of society, for example, are more likely to show them dealing with realistic issues and using authentic language than traditional plays did.
Consider the 1995 exhibition of the photography of Sebastião Salgado at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Titled Workers, an Archaeology of the Industrial Age: Photographs by Sabastião Salgado, the photographs chronicled the lives of laborers around the world-Indonesian sulfur miners, Indian dam builders and Rwandan tea pickers, among many others. The photographs depicted brutal lives, yet these horrific images showed the workers holding onto their human dignity in the face of the most dehumanizing conditions. They were stunning, shocking images, yet beautiful in their honesty, in their truthfulness.
In contemporary work, beauty may come in fearless, direct, accurate vision. While it may not please your eyes and ears, it can leave you breathless nonetheless.
Pushing the Edge of the Envelope
Music from brake drums, plays over the Internet, dance with giant bungee cords, paintings with elephant dung: When it comes to on- the-edge work, just about anything goes. In fact, it is characteristic of on-the-edge art to be relentlessly obsessed with the "new."
This unbridled search for the "new" has led to traditional musical instruments used in non-traditional ways, the invention of new instruments, the integration of electronics with all art forms, digitally generated art of all disciplines and the blurring of boundaries among the disciplines.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in New York City, for many years the center of on-the-edge art with its highly regarded Next Wave Festival, is pioneering the exploration of art and the Internet. What happens when dance and the Internet intersect? Point your browser to www.bam.org/tree/ and find out. BAM has also pioneered challenging collaborations between scientists and artists and visual and performance artists.
The one expectation you should bring to contemporary art is the expectation of the unexpected. Good new work should bring something new to the experience, and if the work succeeds with you, there’s a decent chance it will lead you to a place you haven’t been.
"On The Edge" Sarasota Style
While many arts organizations and artists present contemporary work throughout the "season," Sarasota will have a special showcase of contemporary art April 10 -14, 2002 in the first annual Sarasota On The Edge Festival, coordinated by the Sarasota County Arts Council and sponsored by SARASOTA Magazine.
The idea was born over two years ago at a Sarasota County Arts Council meeting when a few Sarasota artistic directors, including Florida West Coast Symphony conductor Leif Bjaland, began discussing the challenges of presenting contemporary work in our community. As you might imagine, much discussion ensued.
What does "contemporary" mean? Andrew Lloyd Webber’s "Phantom of the Opera"s a contemporary musical and Titanic was a contemporary film, but they are hardly "on the edge." So it was clear that we were not only discussing newly created work, but work that existed to some degree out of the mainstream and/or work that challenged traditional style, form, or content. We also acknowledged that what may be considered "on-the-edge" in Sarasota might be a full mile back from "the edge" in New York, or San Francisco. Finally there was discussion about risking too much money on work that seems to have such a small audience in Sarasota. As we talked, we realized that what sounded like a simple concept was in fact much more complex.
As a result, for the 2000-2001 season we decided to identify those works already scheduled in our seasons that met the qualities of contemporary work discussed above. Ringling School of Art and Design students developed a brochure describing these works, their dates and venues. DO WE HAVE TO HAVE THIS?The first "Sarasota On The Edge Series" was off the ground.
And this year, at the urging of Maestro Bjaland, and On The Edge chair Ina Schnell, we decided to create the first On The Edge Festival this April with many Sarasota cultural organizations contributing performances, lectures, and demonstrations.
The details of times and venues are available in the special insert section in this magazine, but here’s a taste of what adventurous Sarasota audiences can look forward to:
Other organizations currently contributing to the festival include The Players of Sarasota, Venice Little Theatre, New College, Selby Gallery of the Ringling School of Art and Design, and Dance On Camera.
How well will Sarasota’s audience receive all this contemporary work? We don’t know. It’s an experiment. Like the work it’s presenting, the festival is on the edge of Sarasota’s mainstream tastes, which is probably where such a festival belongs. If you like contemporary art works, circle your calendar and watch for more details to follow. If you’re tempted to dabble and try something new, you’ll never have a better opportunity.
Bruce E. Rodgers is associate director of the Asolo Theatre Company and the author of a number of plays.