“If art benefits from a thoughtful, intense encounter between its offerings and the viewer, crowds become a liability, blocking engagement both figuratively and otherwise.” Joseph Henry, BlouinArtInfo.com
I was on a foot bridge late on Saturday night, lights glowed in circular formation above me creating a psychedelic tunnel effect while a lilting, ambient composition played; the night was distinctly urban, highway in the background, condos surrounding me and throngs of pedestrians clicking away on their phones. Someone in my group suggested we lie down and see how the flow of stumbling people might navigate through us. As I readied to do this, and at my age lying down in public isn’t something I am ready for on demand, a woman said to me, “isn’t this great, strangers doing something together for no reason but to just do it?”
I thought about this flaky but thoughtful comment a lot the rest of the night as we ambled through the monstrosity that is Nuit Blanche. As a species, we are apt to be ready for nutty cooperation or when our heart strings are pulled pointedly by a missing child or an Ikea monkey, but not necessarily interested in a group effort to change legislation or the law to protect our hard won democratic systems. We seem to be sitting idly by as our Prime Minister pro rogues parliament once again because he sees no reason to debate things that are not on his agenda. Nor are we that concerned with the accelerating gap between the very rich and the rest of us. A colleague who was just in Dublin, Ireland landed in a huge occupy protest that denounced this gap, calling out celebrities like Bono for moving to a more tax friendly country. In fact Europe is rife with civil protest; a large, loud angry citizenry who are not taking austerity measures lying down. Yes, strangers are out doing something together but in Dublin there was a reason.
Nuit Blanche seems to be the kind of energetic urban fixation the public really wants and art is used as its centre ring in its circus tent of spectacle and stupidity. Although I love the idea of public engagement it depresses me utterly that Nuit Blanche is considered a successful example of it. Wandering around in an alcoholic daze, stoned or just overwhelmed sounds fun and all but can’t possibly elevate the level of discussion surrounding art’s complex standing in this topsy turvy age of immediacy and multi-platform experiences. What I think Nuit Blanche actually does is remove art’s stature in our lives (and I am aware it has no stature in a lot of people’s lives) into the realm of a quasi grand guignol; art’s experience becomes a base expectation in the viewer. Add some corporate formalism and make it all free and you have one huge explosion of public energy that dissipates the next day never to be seen again until next year.
I don’t hate Nuit Blanche, but I think there should be a moratorium on it. Artists need a place to discuss it and talk about why they love and hate it. At this point it is an institution that happens whether artists like it or not. What would be radical is to open up a dialogue on what it is and what it means and what it could be.
But then I don’t take it too seriously because it actually engages a wider public that isn’t going to ever invest in the arts. The art that is made for it seems deliberately thin and ephemeral. It doesn’t inspire deep and long term engagement or thinking but it does get people out and looking at art. Is it a first step toward something more meaningful? Or paving the way toward disaster as the writer from the above quote fears?
According to a recent address by the executive director / CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts public engagement is the direction money is beginning to flow. Once it went into the pockets of artists, now, it is moving toward pulling wider audiences into the experience of art creation. This might be a great strategy for big cities. It doesn’t help or even address culture in rural and smaller places. Sponsorship, parking, accommodations and bandwidth are just a few troublesome areas that we have to always address when it comes to events. We are ok at studio tours but they can seem retrograde in our app driven, Instagram universe. Rural culture is another area of smart thinking that also need addressing – this blog is hopefully a part of that.
I’ve written a lot about public engagement with the arts, it is something I believe in. Obviously the public feels the same way. Now however we need extract it from corporate and municipal objectives and move it toward a stronger relationship with our viewers; art needs to take art back from the center ring where it can easily become banal and forgotten the next moment.
State of the Arts returns October 31