Monday, September 19, 2005

What moral ground of performance...

I went away for a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat recently. Whenever I do something like this I am intrigued by how the space, schedule and atmosphere is constructed to help the attendees focus and do what they are there to do...in this case meditate.

The style of Vipassana that is practiced at the retreat I attended was Goenka Vipassana. Vipassana being something like the original techniques of meditation that was taught by Gautama Buddha back in the day. Monks have maintained the techniques and philosophy over the years and stylistically it leans towards the monastic and renunciate path but there are also very clear access points for the non-monk (they call "householders").

I bring their monkness up because being renunciates they create their space very much to shut out distractions. There are many rules to follow during the retreat and it required a good deal of motivation and discipline to play along. One of the major contextual rules is a code of conduct that everyone is supposed to agree to get the most out of the retreat. There are five rules for new students and seven for older ones. They include not killing, stealing, speaking lies and so on.

Now there are a number of reasons for these rules but one of the benefits I see is that there is a discipline that is clear to follow and helps you focus. In the case of the retreat, everyone is silent so there is no chance to speak lies but if you slip and speak accidentally you know it and you know you can return to the discipline of following the rules. So a clear guidepost is one good thing, increased discipline and focus is another.

Anyway to bring this over to considerations of art and performance, when I participate in this kind of retreat environment I think about the kinds of way I make performance and the kinds of disciplines that are involved. I also wonder what is the moral ground for making art?

Recently on the Chicago Other Group List, there has been a little bit of discussion about what is “going too far” in art making. Posters have brought up things like Damien Hirst’s shark as an example of wrongfully killing something for to make “art” and others have suggested that it is art’s job to “go too far”.

I think this is a good discussion and touches on many of the interesting questions about art and performance. How should it be taught, what is an artist’s responsibility to their society, what freedoms should artist be allowed that are beyond the norm, what is good art and what good comes of good art, and so on. How do you place any restrictions on art at all without censoring expression in a negative way?

Now I bet this discussion needs more space than a listserve to get worked out. What I take from that exchange is that there isn’t language and sense of agreement in the forward thinking art community that can quickly sum up an objective position that isn’t romantic avant-garde ideas of the self-sufficient need to push boundaries, a eco-sensitive moralistic angle, or strangely a free-market-economy-will-regulate-us point of view.

Reaching back to my experience in retreat I put forward some kind of moral ground is necessary to keep art from being too permissive and crappy but also liberal enough to resist the potential censorship of a hard-line moralistic angle.

As a starting point, it seems like a simple agreement like doctors take could be useful. An agreement to first do no harm.

How can art and performance harm? What is harm is necessary for the greater good? …there are a lot more question to bring up of course but the point is there should be some starting point and some sense of social responsibility in place that art can be held accountable to, and that artist can use to justify a unique social position that is potentially disruptive to social norms and that might not add to the national GDP.

I doubt any formula will be perfect without the wisdom to know when and to what degree to apply it. Performance art training, for instance, could start with the idea that you practice your art to develop the wisdom not to harm in the midst of the performance of the dynamic complexities of the world.

erik

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