I did not hate Sasha Waltz’s U.S premiere of Kreatur at the Brooklyn Academy of Music because it enlisted every cliché in ‘avant-garde’ dance-theatre—dancers speaking gibberish aloud, awkward jerky movement, bodies colliding, self-conscious actorly dancers, same-sex kissing, topless women, dancers pulling down the briefs of other dancers, expensive couture costumes, hi-tech lighting, an electronic score, gratuitous use of special-effects props. I hated it for the reasons these elements could not rise above their own triteness. Kreatur demonstrated how the urgency of art making, how the avant-garde itself, has been tamed and subjugated by the very mechanism that brings it to our attention in the first place—the econo-system of arts subsidization and presentation in our contemporary global market economy.
“Successful artists,” or artists successful in the marketplace, become brands. Branding oneself, or being branded, has become a way of surviving while ensuring an audience for one’s work. And audience size is vital, not only because it is commensurate with market value, but with an artist’s agency and influence. This sort of ‘selling out’ no longer has the pejorative connotation it once did in the avant-garde of the Greenbergian era, for example. The ‘art for art’s sake’ crowd of early modernism, mostly white males, savored their exclusivity and at least shared a contempt for commerce. Until a few got rich, I’m guessing. Note: I’m not calling for a return to those days.
It is still, relatively speaking, a minuscule percent of fine artists, writers, musicians, and filmmakers that reach the kind of mega-success that translates into financial self-sufficiency. In the visual art world, in particular, this has to do with a small network of powerful dealers, curators, museums, and collectors who essentially practice insider trading of their chosen few, protecting and increasing their portfolio of artists as long as the bubble lasts. This closed system for making A-list art stars was borne out by a Northeastern University study published only this week in the journal Science. The less fortunate, the vast majority of emerging and mid-career artists, are forever stuck in B&C-list limbo, often seeking financial assistance.
Experimental theatre and dance companies have their own hierarchies of success, with few on the level of international influence. Even those, the most critically acclaimed companies, due to the nature of the performing arts, are forever dependent on financial support. With less and less money to go around, arts funding institutions, and artists applying for those funds, must jump through a series of hoops that, good intentions aside, I believe, actually harm or at least alter the quality of work.
Most alarming, artists are asked to justify their projects before the work is produced, based on a host of criteria that includes educational value, projected audience numbers, and the demographics served. This is because most funding institutions are asked to make those same justifications, especially when federal and state government money, i.e. tax dollars, is involved. Even private and corporate donors have conditions for giving, since they often make contributions to the arts for self-serving reasons.
Because artists are asked to show outcomes for their work at the application stage, before the work is barely conceptualized, granting institutions more often favor work that is easily nailed down, like already critically successful dance companies, for example, that have guaranteed institutional and audience support. Or in the visual art world, they might favor reliable versions of garden-variety abstraction and realism, reinforcing the status quo. Or boilerplate conceptual and socially engaged work because it hits all the politically correct markers.
More open-ended, experimental artwork that is contingent on process, an immersive studio practice of manipulating and responding to materials, becomes, in theory, less suitable for funding. Process work depends on more than an initial concept and intention; it depends on the unknown. Therefore, outcomes are impossible to predict. In fact, not knowing the outcome is the point, which is a condition that allows for the best of these artists to reach beyond their intellectual and artistic limitations.
The demand for outcomes prior to making the art is changing the way many artists work, if not teaching them to lie and make things up. What is most irksome is that the granting institutions, like most state arts councils for example, are essentially asking artists to do their work for them. This is a particular pet peeve of mine. Don’t even suggest that I have a better chance at funding if my work reaches a certain demographic, when the demographic for my work may not even exist yet! Consequently, granting and presenting institutions tend to support and rely on the tried and true, the safe bets, the tested brands and modes, which is also why we see the same artists, or kind of art, supported over and over again.
The international team behind Kreatur, the high-profile German choreographer Sasha Waltz in collaboration with “revolutionary” costume designer Iris van Herpen, “experimental” sound designer Soundwalk Collective, and lighting designer to the avant-garde Urs Schönebaum, was a co-production of Waltz’s own production company, Sasha Waltz and Guests, with Festspielhaus St. Pölten, Les Théatres de la Ville de Luxembourg, and Opéra de Dijon, and made in Radialsystem. Waltz also received funding from the Berlin Senate Department for Culture and Europe and Hauptstadtkulturfonds. The performances of Kreatur are also part of the German Year in the USA 2018-19 initiative and are supported by the German Federal Foreign Office.
The big ideas of collaborative productions like Sasha Waltz’s Kreatur at BAM, productions between name brand theatre and dance companies and other internationally recognized artists and designers, are more likely, these days, to be hatched in the boardrooms of production companies rather than in the studios, bars, and bedrooms of artists. Consider the conditions of a Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg collaboration in the mid 1950’s, or a Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, Lucinda Childs collaboration in the mid 1970’s, to that of a Sasha Waltz, Iris van Herpen, Soundwalk Collective collaboration in our present-day globalized art world ecosystem. Big-idea productions, like this one, are big business, and they are projects granting institutions, foundations, and public relation departments can get behind and get mileage from.
As I sat impatiently through the 90 minutes of excruciatingly earnest attempts at poetic and profound images that failed to come anywhere close to what “examines the phenomena of existence against the background of a disrupted society: power and a lack of power, dominance and weakness, freedom and control, community and isolation”—as per the media release, all I could see were competing elements fighting for my attention. Specifically, the distinctive contributions of each collaborator never coalescing into anything that mattered.
Collaboration is successful when every element equally serves the whole. In Kreatur’s case, most of the elements were strong, but not so much in service to a whole. Though I might argue the weakest link was Waltz’s choreography, which had the appearance of trying too hard, and being in competition with, rather than enhanced by, her collaborators’ offerings. It made me wonder if all of the collaborators had ever been in the same room together. There was the sense that each collaborator was unable to risk anonymity for the better whole—as though each felt compelled to maintain, at all cost, his or her signature style or brand. In this way, their contributions came off as gimmicks, clichés, and tropes.
Anonymity, or the willingness to make one’s work unrecognizable, is necessary for a collaborative work of art to become something larger than its parts, to become completely itself. Without the organic, personal urgency between collaborators toward a common goal, as opposed to a packaged, orchestrated, institutionally sanctioned collaboration, this higher result is much harder to achieve.
Bradley Wester is a visual artist and writer. His work has been exhibited extensively in New York as well as other parts U.S. and Europe. He has just completed the first draft of his first creative non-fiction book titled, “Growing Up Under Water.” His “Brothers Katrina” won the 2016 Fresher Writing Prize for Nonfiction. More of his writing about art can be found on his website, www.bradleywester.com