Talking About Your Debates

I had an interesting conversation the other day that convinced me I don’t spend enough time talking to people from other arts disciplines. We were backstage talking to some visual arts professors about the mural project I wrote about a couple weeks ago.

The wall the mural is on is slated to come down soon. While I think it is is a little too soon, I was a little surprised to learn one of the professors (who wasn’t present) really wanted to preserve the mural and have it mounted. To me, the very media it was on–a plywood construction wall–implied a certain impermanence.

This got us to talking about theories of visual arts preservation and the extent you go to in order to keep art around. For example, if you take the chunk of wall a Banksy is on and put it in a gallery of some sort, aren’t you missing the point and leaving it bereft of its context?

When you restore a painting, how good a job do you do? Should it be absolutely indistinguishable from the original or is that fraudulent?

We talked about how theatre embraces the transitory nature of art. Sure you can have a video of the performance, but we always stress that it isn’t the same as having been there. (As it is with some visual arts pieces.) With the exception of the quest to exactly replicate all the original elements of Shakespeare’s plays, theatre people pretty much strive to find some new way frame a performance. (Some times trying far, far too hard to find an original approach.)

What theatre often obsesses about is the process of creating illusion. How does the performer depict their character? Whose approach do you subscribe to? Strasberg? Adler? Meisner? All of the above? None of the above?

There is a famous story that illustrates the conflicting theories. Dustin Hoffman is said to have stayed up two days while filming Marathon Man in order to fully empathize with his character who had also been awake for two days. Sir Laurence Olivier reportedly said, “Why don’t you try acting?”

Hoffman addresses this story in a 2003 NPR interview (around 15 min mark) giving a great testimony to Olivier.

Where theatre people don’t worry overly much about presentation, visual artists don’t really view embracing another artist’s emotional state as crucial to understanding and replicating their technique. While emotion is important to dancers, discussing how one moves through space is of much greater importance.

Yet the conversation got me thinking that someone could make an interesting project out of focusing on those areas that other disciplines find important. For instance, trying to embody the emotions of a famous painter while creating a painting or explore if improved body awareness impacted sculpting techniques.

I am not sure how it would work in the opposite direction since attempts at preservation would make a performance static and dull.

Really, my concern isn’t really with creating new approaches to artistic expression. My point is that talking about the biggest points of debate in your artistic discipline with people from another discipline can be fun and informative. The folks from the other discipline will have a basic understanding about why things like preservation of an artistic expression would be a concern, but since they are not as emotionally invested in the debate, they can bring interesting perspectives.

Who know, it the conversation might plant the seeds for a collaboration on your next project.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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