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In Resentment Of Functionality

I would like to write in resentment of functionality, and tying things to reality.


My mind’s been twisted by Twitter, so I’m going to caveat this right now by saying that there’s room in my heart and professional life for satire, realist theatre, social commentary, and activities for communities and other non-professional groups.


And now, I begin.


I’ve identified a slight trend in my writing, and since my blogging is intended to force me to clarify my thoughts, and I’ve quite limited time for writing, let’s try and dig into a resentment of functionality.


By ‘functionality’, I mean ways of thinking about art-as-tool, rather than just art-as-art. This is quite an old debate, and I don’t decidedly come down on the latter side.


But in an online age, high and sophisticated arguments become debased. When an idea is popularised and becomes a default, the reasons for it become weak or forgotten, and thus bad versions of those ideas take hold.


Functionality has become a default way of talking about art. You can see it in how people analyse work, and artists justify it, and more.


So to try and pin down my resentment, here are three forms of functionality I find myself resenting.


Effect


This is the obvious one. Funding has become tied to tangible effects - new audiences reached, education offered, and so on.


While funding is not essential, it does reflect a broader landscape where I’ve seen (for example) many fine makers of art-for-art twisting their work into something that might be vaguely relevant to community work. It’s how they can climb the ladder.


Yet if organisations were seriously trying to make good community work, they’d not use it as a training ground for artists untrained in how to do that work effectively. It’s a particular skill.


But the system requires artists to act as though they have it.


The within-arts version of this is the desire to assign many works socially-virtuous goals, from teaching people about historical figures to promoting awareness to bringing about revolutions. And these are sometimes laudable, but even when they’re the primary function, I’d like to see more discussion of other things.


Reality


My distaste for realism-as-default in art is quite well-established. I don’t really believe any art can be realistic, am generally drawn to unrealistic art, and thus find myself frustrated by the prevalence of a pseudo-naturalism in many forms of live performance and film.


Why? Because if art might strive to be anything, tying it to some strange conception of reality, whether in verbatim theatre’s effort at accurate documentation or the celluloid imaginings of Hollywood, tries to bind it to something quite small.


By stepping beyond reality, we might allow ourselves time to grow outside what art currently is.


By saying art is valuable as a mirror of the world, we also find ourselves tied to an idea that its purpose is to do with that everyday world. Which can make life harder when trying to work out the high concept side of art.


Ethics


It is true that works described as problematic often do not live up to the ethical standards we’d like to see, and that art’s capacity to change how we feel does mean that it’s wise to be careful about such things. Even when the actual problems are being articulated poorly.


It turns out that I’ve already written recently about the ethical aesthetics of ‘problematic’ - that in its workmanlike form, it can become a tickbox school which both neglects areas that we might like to see referenced, with an over-emphasis on authorial biography, and blurred lines between authorial biography, text, and historical context.


This can lead to an approach to art that prioritises trying to purge problematic elements over the artistic effect achieved. An effect which I do sincerely believe can sometimes mean it’s worth any unethical elements, in part because I am perhaps less concerned with people being tainted by such bad works.


If the first thing we talk about when discussing a work is how we know it’s problematic, but, I’m not sure that’s an entirely useful school. It’s just easier than talking about aesthetics, which requires both very vague and very specialised language.


As in that earlier article, concluding with a consideration of a New Romanticism that kept the ethical concerns of the ‘problematic’ school while diving into a deeper consideration of how, via aesthetics, we might find ourselves more deeply engaging with quite complex questions of humanity and ethics, rather than quite superficial ones that easily function within our systems.


It is, currently, a functional thought I appreciate, but resent when applied as the primary (and sometimes only) lens on a work.


Wrapping Up


Functionality is always an element of art. I am striving to reconcile my above comments driving away from it with my core commitment to the idea that all theatrical (indeed, most artistic) practice must be done with audience in mind.


For an audience does require some thought as to functionality.


But by allowing that audience’s imagined function to be as beings that can engage with art, we can wonder how we might do the… thing that happens on perceiving something beautiful.


Rather than just trying to teach them in a slightly more expensive way than usual.


And yes, I equally must strive at some point to reconcile that with my oft-stated resentment of the idea that “ah yes, if you just put it in front of people they’ll like it” as an excuse for conceptual opera.


I’d much rather you say you’re not concerned with your audience than pretend writing in a language they won’t understand is somehow an act of faith in them.


As I’ve said above, functionality isn’t everything. But I will still like to ask ‘why?’ on occasion.


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Illustration. Black and white. A childlike figure is reflected in a shattered mirror.
I dedicate this blog to my designer Charley Ipsen, whose response to my most functional request (a deck of cards the audience were unlikely to see) was met with art like this:

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