At the end of last month, Chuck and I went to the the Portland Art Museum for the media opening of the new show, "The Dancer" (I'd link to a page about it, but like many things about PAM, the website is rather ... er ... well, it says it's getting a revamping; I'd be real happy to check back soon and see it easier to use [not that we should talk, I know].)
So point is, "The Dancer" has the aura of a blockbuster, or at least a show that the museum director might hope would be one. What's a blockbuster? This blog entry from The Guardian explains:
The word blockbuster comes from the second world war: a massive bomb designed to destroy entire swaths of city at a time. In the 50s it started to be used about plays; in the 70s, the era of Star Wars, people began to talk about blockbuster movies. The blockbuster also hit art.
Hunh. I've been to many a blockbuster in this and other countries. Now apparently the concept of shoving as many people as possible through an exhibit, especially an exhibit that has little scholarly backing but a lot of popular appeal (i.e. anything, anything at all, related to the Impressionists, Picasso, Matisse, etc, mostly the French painters), is fading.
So complex. Museums can't live on grants alone, nor on the shaky generosity of a donor list. So they need to bring people in; also, it's nice and democratic, in some ways, to have huge, exciting shows that show people familiar painters or other artists in new ways (or even if not in new ways, show them at all in a new location where people haven't had a chance to see the actual paintings before). But lord, i hate being crushed through the galleries. When I was an art history grad student, I heard tales of my mentors getting to see and sometimes touch the work (usually sculptures and paintings) on which they wrote and worked. I longed for that. But I didn't want to get a Ph.D. in art history from the (particularly annoying) program I was in, so I gave it up. Being a journalist means I get to see (and sometimes touch) artworks at times away from the madding crowd. Nice, but undemocratic of me. So if the blockbuster really is retreating in favor of "more unexpected, perhaps more scholarly shows," I'm kind of happy and kind of worried. I don't want museums to be inaccessible.
BTW, that at the top there is, you know, a Claude Monet (Twilight, Venice from 1870). And he's really a freakin' genius even if a bit, oh, just a tad bit, overexposed. For a while I thought he was the biggest blockbuster draw of all time, but as time marches on, I think Picasso and Matisse are passing him. More on that when I'm not quite as sleepy as I am right now.
Because those crazy people update it like 6 times a day. I wish I had a staff of theater people writing serious thoughts about theater that often! Instead, I only have me, and theater is only theoretically about 15 percent of my job time anyway. (That might be an exaggeration. I might MAKE it 15 percent because I like it.)
So I rely on the writers to help me out in my own thinking and blogging. And today, the winner is ...
I am ignoring the lead-not-a-real-lead, which is one of those things where the writer was warming up and forgot to cut the warm-up exercise (hey, we all do it every once in a while).
I like to skip to paragraph 3, in which Field begins to talk about theatre in the UK:
In this country we are terrified of appearing pretentious. Somehow it has become theatre's cardinal sin. Be boorish, loutish, crude, superficial, snobbish, elitist or just plain boring, but please, whatever you do, don't be pretentious.
OK, is this true in the U.S.? I don't think so. We're pretty clear that Broadway musicals â€” say, Legally Blonde or, er, A Christmas Carol â€” aren't deeply thoughtful, but no one expects them to be, right? And I think, though I might be wrong, that theater critics tend to want intellectual engagement from their theater.
At the risk of sounding pretentious, I know I do. Apparently, according to Field, anyway, that's not the same in the UK:
In this environment, the term has taken on a sinister life of its own. It's a weaselly, insidious term used with smug certainty to dismiss work without a second thought. It's a nasty, smirking insult used to dirty forms of theatre that are not to the taste of the accuser. It's a deadening label that silences dissent, because how do you respond to being accused of being pretentious?
Good point. Circling back to the beginning I ignored, Field talks about how "racist" (and fascist) is the worst term a person could call someone else. And how does one respond to those accusations without sounding like a right idiot? "I'm not a racist, but ..." Um, yeah, that won't work. "I'm not pretentious, but ... " Hm.
Oops, I'm off-topic here. What's my point? Well, that I like "pretentious arthouse crap," and that, as Field says, is OK ... (the rest is from him; that's why it's in itals, just in case you were wondering):
Which is not to say that we should blindly embrace everything bizarre or confusing or new that theatre throws up. But dismissing it as pretentious only serves to stifle, rather than promote debate. It's an easy get-out clause for people who don't deserve one.
And anyway, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, "pretentious" has a secondary meaning to "affected, unwarranted, or exaggerated importance". It can also mean "making demands on one's skill, ability, or means". I like the sound of that. That wonderful pretentious sense of over-ambitious reckless endeavour; surely that's how all the best theatre is made?