The Washington Post and violinist Joshua Bell conducted this experiment where they had a young man of incomparable talent play his heart out in a Metro station. He was ignored.
Maybe the fact that a crowd didn’t form to watch him play suggests that Mr. Bell has no business getting paid $1,000 a minute in concert halls. Perhaps the observation by a curator (quoted in this article) that no one would be impressed with a five million dollar Ellsworth Kelly if it wasn’t hanging in a museum, should prove that his art really is worthless.
I mean, if the art is incapable of affecting people unless some cultural arbiter of taste is standing there telling them it is worth money, then isn’t that the same thing as cheap wine in a fancy bottle? Let the people decide! Whatever moves, titillates, delights, inspires people will be rewarded with their attention; and if something is too “conceptual” or complicated to speak to someone without a specialized knowledge –that sounds like the emperor’s new clothes, right?
No. Clearly, I am baiting you.
The point of that article, and of most effective art criticism throughout all time, is that the value of human expression exists outside of its commercial appeal. However, the more pragmatic point is that frames do matter. Structures matter. Context matters.
In comedy we are experts at experimenting with expectations: diminish them, build them up, or foil them for a laugh. What we wear on stage matters. How our show is introduced matters. Dress in spandex or robes if you want to be seen as avant-garde. Wear a tux and carry a bottle of champagne if you need to impress! We are pros at performativity on stage. But we don’t often consider all the things we take for granted in how improv in general is presented, regarded, and received.
What we do rarely happens in large historic theaters. There are no improv groups playing arena shows, though plenty of comedy acts do. We still explain what we are doing by saying “It’s notWhose Line is it Anyway?” –because that is the only form of improv that has ever been a TV show. Even Comedy Central doesn’t have a showcase for improv groups: say all you want about how well respected our best conservatories are but they better churn out stand-ups or sketch actors, because this art does not have a public sphere. Put down your TJ & Dave DVD and face facts.
We are the lo-fi movement of the 1990s before Beck broke out. We are punk, underground, subculture. It feels pretty badass knowing that improv has about as big of a following as the Fluxus in 1964 and less of a following than Death Metal. However, it doesn’t bode well for our ability to influence the public dialogue.
So dudes and dudettes: Let’s all focus on getting our own Stradivarius and playing it. Let’s sharpen up our skills so that we know incontrovertibly what we do is moving, valuable, and meaningful. But also, we must not fail to dream of how we want this art to look in 20 years. Right now we are a guy in a T-shirt playing in a Metro station.
I have my own dream and I will be posting it here in a few days. In the meantime consider this an open call for your vision of what improv-as-art should look like in the future. I would love to have several to post at the same time: jot me a paragraph and I’ll compile them<shylahuray at gmail>. How do we frame this debate, how do we ensure someone is listening?