This week’s best reads hover around existential questions. What arts organizations should exist? Does truth exist? Can theatre really change anything, and should it even try? Canada’s new government makes an existential bet on culture. And do our tools define art?
- Arts Organizations At The Existential Crossroads: Some have argued that when arts organizations have outlived their missions, they should be shut down. Instead, failing arts institutions often muddle on for years, wandering and propped up by funders and patrons on autopilot. Then when things get so bad failure is imminent, they inspire heroic “save-us” campaigns and communities rally. So this week come two stories of arts organizations at the existential crossroads, with very different paths taken. Minneapolis’ Theatre Collective decided that after a decade it had fulfilled its mission to give opportunities to Minneapolis-based playwrights, and disbanded. Admirable, even if from the outside you still think there was work to be done. Making an entirely different decision was Montreal dance center Studio, which after it lost its government funding, refocussed towards the creation-support and artistic-development activities the Studio had always done, and found itself revitalized.
- A Post-Fact, Post-Truth Society: It’s bizarre (in a macabre sort of way) to watch existentialism of another sort playing out in the political media, as pundits and reporters struggle to try to explain the Trump Republican meltdown. The New Yorker sees the split starting in the mid-20th Century: “fundamentalism and postmodernism, the religious right and the academic left, met up: either the only truth is the truth of the divine or there is no truth; for both, empiricism is an error. That epistemological havoc has never ended: much of contemporary discourse and pretty much all of American politics is a dispute over evidence.” Might one also broadly apply that idea to art and post-modernism in which a breaking down of established traditions and truths resulted in existential dilemmas over what art is and isn’t? Truths don’t matter when there are disagreements about what truth is. Technology is undergoing itself a definitional crisis in which technology is being redefined less as software or hardware, but as a “state of being,” a culture and a style, one that has spread into new foods and clothing, and all other kinds of non-electronic goods.”
- Canada Is Reinventing Its Culture (Go Justin!): Fulfilling a campaign promise, new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau proposed massive increases in a new arts and culture budget. This reverses years of neglect and disdain for arts funding by the previous Harper government. “The Canada Council, whose budget will double by 2021, called it an unprecedented, once-in-a-generation investment, while the performers union ACTRA expressed the hope this marked the beginning of a new relationship between government and creators.”
- Theatre. (Yes, Theatre): Does theatre activism have any effect? Does activist theatre do anything more than preach to the already converted? How about challenging ideas generally? David Hare believes that today’s theatre is too safe and “middle-aged”. “The idea of a pioneering, cutting-edge avant-garde, I am afraid, has more or less completely disappeared from the British theatre, and now you just have every artistic director with his or her eye on the box office, because that is the mood of the times.” On the other hand, maybe we’re just not presenting enough voices. Ottawa’s National Arts Center has decided to launch a new Indigenous Theatre devoted to indigenous performing arts that is intended to be an equal to the arts centre’s long-established English and French Theatre companies.”
- The Tools We Use Shape Our Art (We Think. Maybe): If we think about this in terms of the language we use: “language is shaped by the culture that has produced it, which means that it, in turn, shapes those who go on to use it.” This could be illustrated by examples that are specific to a language such as English: What we see as the clear-cut dichotomy between “the writing of imagination and the writing of fact” doesn’t exist in many languages, and in others the equivalent distinction is drawn along somewhat different lines. (see our discussion in this week’s Story #1 about truth and “post-truth” societies). So let’s carry this discussion a bit further and conjecture about what happens when machines get to be really good at art. Think it won’t happen? It already is, and it will inevitably force us to reconsider our notions of what art is. “While it might seem tempting to pit man against machine to determine artistic mastery, perhaps the better approach involves combining human and AI skills, allowing real and artificial neural networks to flex their creative muscles in tandem.”