Is this play art? It’s a tricky question that I encounter a lot. It’s difficult partially because I’m never sure what, exactly, is meant by the word “art”. In a very literal sense, any theatrical production you see is art since theatre is one of The Arts. And while that broad definition is convenient and tidy, it feels dishonest. I know in my heart of hearts that not all theatre is created equal and that pure entertainments, like a juggling cabaret for example, don’t fall under the same umbrella as, say… Hamlet. They may both be theatre, but they are not both art.
Another problem with the “it’s all art” viewpoint is that it is also fairly useless. As a theatre practitioner and educator, I am regularly placed in situations where being able to determine whether or not a show is art can be an important distinction to make. Questions like what play should I choose to direct; how will I approach producing said play; what show will I ask my students to see/read; and what kind of review will I write are all affected by the answer to this very basic question.
So then how do we determine the difference between art and what I will call, for brevity and clarity’s sake, entertainment? When I pose this question with new theatre students everyone readily agrees that some performances are art and some are not. Often the students push shows with a focus on performance instead of theme (a show like Stomp, for example) out of the art category and into entertainment. Confusion arises, however, when they attempt to say why. Their attempts to discern art in the theatre usually touch on three categories.
First they claim that a play is art if it moves them personally. This is problematic because it sets an individual up as The King Of Art, whose personal opinion speaks for all. So an amendment is usually made that every person should get to decide for themselves whether a play is art or not. This idea, while nice in its utopian nature, is in no way practical. Outside of academic conversations, theatre must deal in collaborative practicalities. Plays need to be selected for funding, sets need to be built, artistic teams need to work together to make productions happen, and objective, not subjective, guidelines have to be followed if these productions are to be successful.
The next proposal to determine a play’s artistic worthiness usually involves consulting experts like theatre critics, playwrights, and other artists who “know”. Unfortunately, these experts often disagree with one another, and even when they do agree can be proved wrong by a production that finds favour with history instead of its contemporary audiences.
Finally, some students argue for craft as being a determining factor. How well did the actors perform? Was the script well written? How impressive were the sets and special effects? This is a very convincing argument, which smartly takes into account the individual parts that make up the artistic whole. While I appreciate the effort to point to an objective set of criteria, in my experience a play can have a fantastic set, script, and cast of actors, but still not be art. So why not?
Let us look briefly outside of the theatre to see how this question was addressed in the visual arts. In 1917, artist Marcel Duchamp placed an ordinary urinal in an art gallery, turned it on its side, and called it art. Despite causing an uproar with gallery patrons and art critics at the time, this and other Duchamp “ready-mades” have been named by history as important works of art and are shown in museums around the world. Why?
It’s because Duchamp was criticizing the status quo. These pieces were a response to a gallery rule that any art could be shown as long as the artist paid a fee to exhibit. With his ready-made sculptures Duchamp challenged how people determine what they call art. In this example we find a definite clue about requirement for art status: intentional communication. Since Duchamp did not make the items he was displaying, he utilized not mastery of craft, but of idea. Thus, communicated ideas and intention take centre stage in the debate about whether or not something is art. From this perspective, the true litmus test for whether theatre is art is whether the production was intentionally designed to communicate with an audience.
However, not just any communication will do. I propose that the statement must be worth making. Every production, if one looks hard enough, probably attempts to communicate something. For example, in a Cirque Du Soleil show there is usually a loose plot upon which is hung many feats of physical prowess. We marvel at the skill of the performers but leave without a clear idea of what the point of it all was. Love is good? Keep on dreaming? Something about The Beatles? I am not saying that Cirque isn’t highly entertaining and impressive theatre (they don’t tour the world because they’re boring), but I am saying it’s not art. It’s not art because it doesn’t communicate anything that is authentic and/or necessary to hear about life.
This assertion raises the question, what exactly does a production need to communicate to be considered art? The answer to this should probably not be overly defined since art tends to defy being put into neat little boxes. However, I can offer you this—a professor of mine once said something that I refer to when I am faced with the art question: “If it says something that you know is true but would have trouble putting into words, it’s probably art.” Similarly, American playwriting legend Tennessee Williams once wrote in the New York Star, “[Art] is a benevolent anarchy: it must be that, and if it is true art, it is. It is benevolent in the sense of constructing something which is missing, and what it constructs may be merely criticism of things as they exist.”
Both of these definitions, as well as the example of Duchamp’s ready-mades, point towards art being a communication of the elusive truths of life that, for whatever reason, need to be heard by audiences in the particular time the show is produced. Not just a show of talent or a deeply emotional experience, art is more than just the well-made sum of its parts. It is holier than that. True art is the unspoken, said aloud.