I caught the tail end of an interview on the radio today with a choreographer who expressed a wish that some of the interest that we have in this country for sports events could be shown for the arts as well. He felt some optimism due to the exposure dance has gotten from TV programs focusing on competitive ballroom dancing; "ballroom dancing is a form of dance," he conceded.
My immediate reaction was "Yes, but..."
The reason why Americans watch sports is not to admire the ballet-like grace of Brett Favre executing a precision pass, or Michael Jordon soaring over the basketball court; it's to see who wins. Seeing your team play well has a beauty of it's own, to be sure, but we still want to keep score. Skill and artistry are but means to the end; and Vince Lombardi could tell you what that end is: "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing."
The choreographer on the radio admitted as much when he attributed a renewed interest in dance to TV dance competitions. Oh, he put the emphasis on television for bringing dance to the multitudes, but the fact is that television wouldn't be interested and neither would those multitudes unless there was a prize to fight for.
But that got me to thinking. Maybe that's just what Art needs; a little conflict, a little drama; a little good, healthy competition to get people's interest.
But then, isn't this antithetical to the very idea of Capital "A" Art? After all, Art is supposed to be about Beauty and Aesthetics and Good Stuff Like That There, right? The Artist should be pure, creating Art solely for Art's Sake, without crass consideration of commercial value. Otherwise, Art gets dragged down to the level of the Lowest Common Denominator and we'll be stuck with blah, derivative art that imitates whatever's popular at the moment.
Except Art also needs an audience. If no one experiences the Art in one way or the other, it's just a tree in the forest falling on a philosopher when there's no one around to hear him yell. More importantly, even a Starving Artist has got to eat. As Samuel Johnson once said, "No one but a blockhead ever drew nekkid cat-girls except for money." (Or maybe he said something like that).
And even closer to the point, artists compete all the time. They compete against each other for inclusion in art exhibits; for grant money; for seats in an orchestra. It comes with the territory. This Darwinian Survival of the Most Aesthetic generally goes on invisibly, out of the view of the usual consumer of art; but maybe it's time to bring the general public into the process.
Theater was actually born in this type of environment. Greek theater started out as religious rituals, re-enacting old myths and legends of the gods; but by the Classical Era, it had become the tradition to hold competitions. At the Diyonisa, an annual festival in Athens, prominent community figures would produce plays that would compete against each other and the audience would vote on the best. Most of the Greek plays that have come down to us were entries in this competition.
Now granted, the Greek plays that are most highly-regarded today weren't always the ones who won the prize; but the very fact that they were a part of the competition brought them to an audience.
So would this type of thing work in other areas of art? It's an interesting indea. Composer and satirist Peter Schickele once offered a suggestion along similar lines:
New Horizons in Music Appreciation.
Then again, maybe what Art Galleries needs is more cheerleaders.