This is a theory that I've been mulling over for a while--about a year now, I guess--and I think that I can fairly confidently boil it down to that statement.
I subconsciously became aware of it when I was considering CalArts, but I actually put it into words last spring, when I was deciding whether I was going to take the job with the Calgary Fringe Festival for the summer. In that case, it wasn't about whether I was artistically opposed to anything, but it was the fact that a lot of the work I'd have been associated with and working on would be work that I was morally, ideologically, religiously, and politically offended by.
Could I put my name on that kind of work professionally? Well, in a sense, I do it every day, simply by being at CalArts. A lot of what comes across my path is work that I don't find very aesthetically pleasing, work that is in direct contradiction to my beliefs and the way I live my life, and even work that mocks the things I build my life around.
However, the conclusion I came to (even though I didn't end up taking the Fringe job) was that I could seriously consider it, those objections aside, because the work I do is also "fringe." Faith-based theatre is fringe theatre in the sense that it doesn't attract the mainstream, LORT-going1 audiences who want to see the same shows re-mounted year after year. Both fringe edges struggle for funding, audiences, press coverage, and so on, because they, by definition, attract a "fringe" of the theatre-going public. Work that is shown at a Fringe Festival may be "fringe" because of its content or its execution; faith-based theatre may have a more conventional presentation, but its content is what makes it less accessible to the general public.
Both groups are struggling for validation, recognition, and some level of mainstream presence in the theatre world, and by championing one type of fringe, I am a part of building a world where my kind of fringe has a voice.
I think that one of the most important qualities that an artist needs to have is the ability to recognize quality work, whether they like the work or not. How else will art continue to grow, unless artists recognize that their niche is only one part of a larger world? I don't have to enjoy work to recognize its quality (or lack thereof). I don't have to agree with it to see that it's good. Conversely, I don't have to like everything that presents a worldview that I agree with.
I need to be free to criticize the work of artists with whom I have everything in common. If I can't see past content to quality (in both senses--the worldviews I agree with and those I don't), how will my work combine both quality and content? If I'm only learning from people who are doing work that I share an ideology with, how will my art transcend the implied and perceived boundaries of faith-based theatre and draw its inspiration from the world around me, including the avant-garde work that can be, at times, offensive, scary, and polarizing?
And, just as importantly, if I'm committed to doing quality work, what can others--who may find my work offensive, scary, and polarizing--learn from me?
The art world is symbiotic. We are all constantly learning from and drawing from each other. A world with only LORT theatres would suffer from a great deal of deprivation--and yet, those theatres reach a certain demographic and serve an audience that may or may not ever branch out from it. If an artistically conservative audience is ever going to see anything on the fringe, are they going to get there if they haven't started with something more conventional? I'd say that most of them probably won't.
Although CalArts doesn't bear his name (but theatres and spaces inside the building are named after various members of the Disney family), it was founded by Walt Disney and his brother Roy. CalArts students, on the whole, have a love-hate relationship with Disney. There's the typical "it's so commercialized, it's mass-appeal" thing2, but in my mind, Disney's work (speaking of Disney the corporation, not necessarily Walter E. Disney the person) exists on a different plane than CalArts' work. They both shape the art world in some way, and they exist together and can learn from each other, but they generally reach different audiences--or reach the same audience for different reasons.
In any case, I read an article which argued that Walt Disney should be recognized as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Not only because he revolutionized animation--which continues to impact the film industry to this day--but also because he was committed to things like CalArts. Even though he admitted that he wasn't a huge fan of its avant-garde work, he recognized its importance in the art world and established a school dedicated to it. CalArts is, in some ways, the antithesis of Disney3, and yet Walt Disney understood the importance of quietly championing a subset of the art world that wasn't his "preferred" aesthetic in order to make the art world a richer, more diverse place.
That's the thing. It's not always about championing the work or the artist. It's about championing an art world where the work I find offensive has the place to be made, because I recognize that my work is offensive to someone, yet it needs its place, too. Their place isn't--and doesn't have to be--my place4, but we both need a place.
No, I don't go see everything that comes across my path. There are certain things that are so offensive to my faith and my beliefs or that are so graphic, grotesque, or unappealing to me that I choose not to see them. There are things that I'm not aesthetically attracted to that I choose not to see. I make that call based on a number of factors, but for me, the important thing is that no single factor, in and of itself, is enough to make me write off a piece of art5.
I'm not obligated to see everything. I'm not obligated to agree with, like, or even understand everything. I'm not even obligated to appreciate everything. Like everyone, it's my prerogative to choose not to watch something based on whatever criteria I want. It's even my prerogative to judge my desire to experience something based on reviews and other sources, even though I haven't seen it. It's my prerogative to have certain artists or companies whose work I refuse to support financially.
Those are the rights of every patron of the arts. This entry isn't an ultimatum; it's not something that makes "good" or "bad" artists or audience members. It's not something that means that an artist or audience member is "more" or "less" sophisticated than others.
What is it, then? It's a way to promote the growth of the artistic community, in all aspects--mainstream, fringe, and everything in between. It comes down to the fact that if I refuse to acknowledge the artistic merit of work that is opposite mine and they refuse to acknowledge the artistic merit of mine--and if we refuse to recognize that there are ways in which we can learn from each other--the art world becomes a very narrow place.
1. LORT = League of Resident Theatres. Most rep houses in any major city are LORT theatres (or LORT-style, if they're outside the U.S.). This is one of the styles of theatre that's fairly widely considered to be detrimental to innovative and creative work; the kind of house that will do things like remount "A Christmas Carol" every year. However, it also appeals to the broadest subscriber base and probably represents the largest pool of theatre-goers in the not-for-profit world (i.e. excluding Broadway). (Back to entry)
2. Certain CalArts students--and artists in general--have an automatic disdain of anything that has mass appeal, thinking that it loses some sort of artistic validity, but this argument goes both ways. There's something to be learned from art that has reached and touched the masses, both in an artistic sense and in a business sense. Does that mean that everything that has mass appeal is good? Depends on your definition. Some of it, not so much, but there's something to be said for the fact that it appeals to people. (Back to entry)
3. In other ways, it's not, especially when it comes to animation. CalArts' original animation teachers were some of the Nine Old Men, and some of the most influential people in animation today are CalArts alum (every animated film nominated for an Academy Award this year had CalArts alum attached to it). While CalArts is cutting-edge and experimental in its animation work, that department has the closest ties to Disney and the "mainstream" industry. However, that's not to say that there aren't alumni from every department who have had notably successful careers in the mainstream eye. There are. I could name people in any artistic discipline, and if you've got some sense of who's who in the arts, you'll know their names. Animation is just the subsection of the arts and entertainment industry that's most dominated by CalArtians. (Back to entry)
4. Although sometimes it is. When I was in negotiations with the Fringe last year, they were considering a partnership of sorts with the faith-based art community, because they were beginning to recognize that, although we come from very different places, we end up side by side. That partnership didn't happen last year, but the seeds have been planted, and both sides are more aware of the common ground between the two groups. (Back to entry)
5. A lot of what's out there breaks my heart, because I believe it's so far from what God intended humanity to be, but each piece of work represents and reflects a person, and the way that work changes--in any significant trajectory of an artist's career--is because their life, ideology, faith, circumstance, etc. changes. In other words, I can't make art be more reflective of the world I wish I lived in by trying to ignore or silence the work that is in opposition to my beliefs. The work will change (in any way) if people themselves change. Some do, some don't. (Back to entry)