Tonight I was watching a little of So You Think You Can Dance, which is a pretty good reality show as far as reality shows go.  By which I mean, don’t mock me for watching reality shows; you totally do too (even you jerks who “don’t even own a tv!”).  Anyway, that’s not what this post is about.

While watching a bunch of well-built shirtless men stomp and flail fairly brilliantly around (while the lighting guys went madly off in all directions with the strobe), I was thinking more about the audience reaction than anything else.  Here are 5 guys doing an African dance routine, and here’s an audience of teens and young people pretty much going crazy over it.  It made me think about what tv is doing for artists.

So we have a long history of art for an audience; plays and music and dance have been performed for millennium for paying and interested audiences.  It wasn’t an elitist thing; it was general entertainment.  Sophocles, Shakespeare, the ballet, the opera; they were all popular entertainment in their time.  For the masses.  For the rabble.

The things of our parents’ or grandparents’ time often seem fussy and dull to later generations.  It’s a pretty straightforward progress from cutting edge to cool to mainsteam to yesterday’s news, and some things make the unlucky step from yesterday’s news to elitist fare.   Once they make that final step, it’s unlikely that the edgy hipsters will ever rediscover it.  Live theatre and live dance, and to a lesser extend live music, have become things that are somewhat elitist to go out to.   It’s been like that for decades, so don’t go blaming the internet or tv, those perennial scapegoats in the debate over what gets to be called culture and what gets to be called entertainment.

Oh, that dirty word, entertainment!  God forbid that we should entertain; serious artists not only suffer for their work, but make their audiences suffer too.  We should be bored and baffled by real art.  We should approach an evening of theatre or dance as a trial to endure, almost a matter of pride or a reaction to a particularly stinging dare.  Can you sit through the whole thing? Can you understand it?  And can you talk about it later as if you understood it and the unbelievable genius it took to create it?
In fact, I’m pretty sure that the Canadian publishing and film industries are solidly built on the foundation of that idea.

I think this is all ass-backwards.  Art can enlighten us if it feels like it, but it doesn’t have to and I don’t necessarily think it should.  Art isn’t laughable just because it entertains; and it isn’t laudable just because it fails to.  And more than anything, art is for people – all people, not just phDs or initiates or the rich.

Dance is an excellent example.  Even a hundred years ago, there were no dance schools – very young kids would be taken to the theatre and would work their tails off in the chorus.  If they were diligent and had talent, they’d move up the ranks in a sort-of apprenticeship system.  Rich kids had dancing masters.  People in villages and towns and cities taught each other new dances.  Dancing was a trade to some, and amusement for others, but it was something for everyone.  In more recent times, there’ve been schools upon schools established, formal levels and grades to attain.  It’s meant producing some really rarefied, gifted, and disciplined dancers, but it’s also meant that dance is the province of the very well-to-do, and people who can’t afford dance lessons and competitions are left out. And even worse, dance is now seen as something so elitist (and boring, and baffling) that very few people would even consider going to see a live dance performance.

Shows like So You Think You Can Dance turn some of that around.  We still have a lot of the rarefied, child-of-privilege dancers, but the audience is  drawn from many demographics, very few of them traditional live dance supporters.  Dance is starting to look like fun again, something people can learn to do.  Dance is starting to excite people, to be relevant in a way that it hasn’t been in decades.  It’s even drawing people out of their homes and into live performance venues.

No art can really be successful if it alienates it’s audience.  Art is communication, and while I don’t believe that all art has to reach the masses, it does have to engage in a dialogue with them sometimes in order to stay relevant.  Those jerks that I’m referring to who brag about not owning a tv are usually the same people who churn out stale ideas and cliquey in-jokes instead of vibrant, relevant works of art. Because they’ve shut themselves off; they’re out of touch.  The shared dialogue has moved forward (in N. America, at least) mostly through tv.  A lot of really breathtaking writing and acting is happening on tv right now, and some really exciting dance.

This is the golden age of television (and comedy, I’d argue), and I don’t think it will last as technologies and economies change.  But while we’re here we should stop and appreciate that huge numbers of regular people across the continent  are excitedly cheering African dance, tango, ballet – something that ten years ago would have been so unlikely to not even cross your mind.

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