Aug 13, 2013

Historical Artistic Significance

So I have been thinking lately about the theatre and visual artists I admire... the ones from history both far and near. I have been trying to reason out what they all have in common as far as how they rose to prominence. I mean, what makes a playwright (well, any theatre artist, or, well... artist) important, and therefore, remembered? The exact formula varies in every case, and to be sure, there is no definitive recipe, but typically a person of historical artistic significance has some combination involving several things (probably not all, but most) :
  • some combination of the skill, talent and originality of their practice
  • A substantial masterpiece or work that is representative of their oeuvue
  • a compelling personal biography, often tying them in with their time and place
  • their presence in important venues, festivals, anthologies, etc.
  • their popular appeal
  • Or their critical/ academic appeal 
The most influential artists hail from every period, school, and movement. They can be Old Masters like Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Moliere or Goldoni, trailblazers like Jarry, Beckett , Brecht and Wellman, or solid contemporary (or near contemporary) scribes like O'Neill, Miller, Churchill, Shepard or Mamet . The history of theatre is long and offers many examples. And this doesn't even touch on all the iconoclastic non-playwrights like Garrick, Bernhardt, Irving, Craig, and so on. All are indisputably important, but they each took very different paths to entering the canon.
More often than not, I believe, an engaging life story is a key part of the mix. Christopher Marlowe, for instance, was hailed during his tragically short lifetime, so besides being considered a talent to rival Shakespeare, he is most remembered for his death. Marlowe was stabbed in the eye in a bar brawl under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Marlowe is also tied to his time and place: Elizabethan England.

To take a non-playwright as an example for a moment, Edwin Booth's narrative is almost like a play itself. From a volatile theatre family he rises to success until his brother assassinates Lincoln. Edwin Booth must then make the greatest comeback in history. His appeal to theatre history  is like the appeal of fine artists to museum goers and collectors alike - it has always been bound up with the artist's personal story. 

This story often epitomizes the romantic narrative of the doomed genius. From the world of art lets look at Vincent van Gogh’s biography. Though markedly more tragic since he never received recognition during his short lifetime, his story has likewise become inseparable from his incredibly popular and visionary paintings. Another example: Caravaggio, an aesthetic rebel in his time who has become one of the quintessential Old Masters, was notorious for getting into bar fights and died in exile at age 38 after killing a man in Rome.

Is it necessary to have insanity, disaster and the aura of doomed genius? I'm not convinced that the artist's personal narrative must include tragedy and death, but it must be compelling. A little struggle in the story is not a bad thing. It should be pointed out, one's personal narrative is often left to the whims of history, rather than self-constructed by the artist his or herself (with key exceptions, of course, such as Alfred Jarry, Andy Warhol, etc.). However, this emphasis on the artist's life story seems to have a lot to do with the artist's place in history. For every Edwin Booth there is a Lawrence Barrett (now nearly forgotten 19th Century actor-manager).  
Affiliation with a revered movement or time period can often boost an artist’s status. When we hear Elizabethan we think Shakespeare. Alfred Jarry is indistinguishable from the pseudo-science he "invented" called Pataphysics. Taking a page from more contemporary writers, Mac Wellman is the banner-carrier for New Language playwriting that rose up out of the early 1990s (though it is hard to tell if he'll end up being really historically significant). Spaulding Gray influenced a whole generation of sit-at-table monologists telling personal stories directly to audiences from simple outlines.

Sometimes, one-hit-wonders make their way into history books by sake of time and place or specific movements. My beloved Edmond Rostand wrote several plays, but it is his CYRANO DE BERGERAC that launched him into history books. His movement was neo-romanticism and the time period and place was tremendously important. That he wrote it in Paris in the 1890s (fin de siècle, post-Franco-Prussian War, post-Commune, the Belle Époque, in the midst of homegrown anarchist terrorism and the civil unrest of the Dreyfus Affair) is not a small reason for that play's almost impossible impact. That his anachronistic CYRANO stands out in a Europe neck-deep in Ibsenesque Realism should also not be over-looked.

In art, Georges Braque kept at Cubist painting throughout his career, and is indelibly associated with it, even while his friend Pablo Picasso continued to evolve, becoming the quintessential modernist genius. Initially labelled a fauvist, by the end of his life Matisse explored the furthest reaches of color with his paper cut collages and laid a path for many, many artists that came after him.
At the same time, many artists become marked as important specifically because their work stands out from any movement or classification. In this category, you have Samuel Beckett, with his tackling of the ultimate mystery and despair of human existence combined with his biting comic, and cathartic, humor and sparse staging. Also, see Rostand's CYRANO DE BERGERAC above. 

Speaking of CYRANO DE BERGERAC, it must be pointed out that most artists have at least one work they are most known for, often the jewel of their oeuvre, their masterpiece. CYRANO was Rostand's biggest hit and the cornerstone of his legacy. Despite being a successful novelist and Pulitzer-prize winner for her early 1930s play ALISON'S HOUSE, Susan Glaspell is most remembered for her one-act TRIFLES. Of all her work, TRIFLES appears in countless literary anthologies as a representative of early feminist literature and is ultimately what she is remembered for.

Alfred Jarry will always be known for UBU ROI. Tennessee Williams will be known for STREET CAR NAMED DESIRE. Shakespeare will be known for HAMLET. In art, Edvard Munch is known for his painting The Scream.  Matisse will always have The Dance. Van Gogh will be remembered most for Starry Night. Duchamp will be known for Fountain. These are their masterpieces.

Work must be seen and experienced. Art in a drawer never makes an impact. At some point in nearly every artist's career, they find their audience... those few or many who respond intensely to the work.

Upon being seen, the work is ultimately judged in two ways: by the audience itself and on a critical or academic level. Ideally, an artist will make work that garners positive attention from both, but it is not necessary. Beckett's work, for instance, has been critically celebrated by scholars, academics and theatre theorists for decades, but is it accessible in a popular sense? Arguably, no, not by a long shot. On the other hand, comic playwrights like Neil Simon, David Ives and Christopher Durang were hugely popular as audience favorites at their peaks in the 1980s, but have been considered lightweights by critics and theatre practitioners. Sadly, these three have fallen out of the fickle favor of popular taste in recent times as well.  

Hand in hand with an audience, artists of longevity found some sort of critical or peer-driven acceptance as well. Playwrights like Sarah Ruhl and Annie Baker are favorable of late, due to their hard work, luck and most chiefly nice positive critical response and peer acceptance. Every few years, the theatre community as a whole kind of makes an unwritten contract, an agreement to acknowledge several  individuals as having "arrived." This is not a promise of longevity or lasting importance, but is a step in that direction. At some point, the field kind of "accepts" an artist "into the fold." Even Shakespeare stopped being a struggling writer at some point and started performing for royalty.

This critical and colleague acceptance often comes from exposure through high profile theatres or festivals. Mike Daisey was doing okay with his monologues in Seattle in the late 1990s, but his performance of 21 DOG YEARS at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2001 really launched him as the national-touring act he is today. 

For fine artists it is important group shows or winning solo exhibitions. Basquiat was a street kid doing his rather obscure SAMO grafitti (tellingly, in the gallery neighborhood of Soho) until the Times Square Show group show in 1980. That along with a lengthy profile in Art Forum magazine are what really launched his career.
To conclude, the importance of a theatre artist (or any artist, really) is an impossible thing to gauge and notoriously difficult to predict. Some may remain consistently popular, like Moliere, while others reemerge after their oeuvre is re-appraised, such as Witkacy or Kleist. Whatever the case, the artists who continue to rank as most important always offer some combination of biographical intrigue, market desirability, institutional support, critical praise and a distinctive, visionary aesthetic.

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