Dumbed Down Discourse: Challenges Facing Artists, Audiences and the Arts

Michael John LaChiusa

Above: Michael John LaChiusa

Something’s been bubbling under for a long time. And IT has starting to erupt. I think IT started brewing a long time ago, when I read Michael John LaChiusa’s brilliant column, “The Great Grey Way”. Comments like this one, from Stephen Sondheim also feed into it:

The dumbing down of the country reflects itself on Broadway. The shows get dumber, and the public gets used to them.

There were also Sondheim’s own comments around the recent revival of Porgy and Bess, which undermined not only the production itself, despite his protestations about his intentions being otherwise, but also to a certain extent his credibility. They did not represent logical, level-headed discourse on a topic that required debate, but were more like blog comments on a magnified scale.

Comments on social media platforms and news websites, of course, play a major role in IT. Random comments – often racist or sexist, violent in nature and hypocritical – are bad enough, but then there are ones that parade under the illusion of legitimacy, like when defensive producers defending their own projects as though critics are meant to be publicists. It’s amateur hour, folks – all of it.

Lara Foot Newton

Above: Lara Foot (Newton)

Also playing into IT in a big way was the poor, politically-motivated discourse on social media platforms around the Internet on the what has become known as “the rape question” in the Department of Education’s Dramatic Arts paper at the end of last year where nobody – neither the press nor the playwright (Lara Foot (Newton)) from whose play (Thsepang) the extract was taken or anyone who commented on any of the poorly written stories – bothered to think through the full picture before responding. The same lack of thought was evident in the responses to the responses, even those that came through official channels. The complexity of the issue was ignored in favour of emotional reactions and quick-fixes, with people serving their own agendas rather than dealing with the important issues.

Then there was the entire Carrie Underwood in The Sound of Music Live debacle.

What is IT? What is this thing that’s been troubling my mind? A practice of which even I am guilty, because to rise above IT would mean taking myself out of IT and the truth of the matter is that even if the discourse is poor, it will never be improved through the exclusion of a brain that desires complexity.

IT is the curse that all art forms face right now.

Carrie Underwood

Above: Carrie Underwood

We prioritise technological advancement over storytelling in the film industry, on television and in the theatre. We promote news about art instead of art itself. We make fancy marketing plans instead of making good theatre, film or television. We tell a story using gimmicks instead of telling the story. Where there used to be integrity, or at least a balance between integrity and the bottom line, there is now just a bottom line.

Welcome to the dumbing down of the world! Let’s have Carrie Underwood in a Christmas special every year! Let’s pretend that the last time deconstructed fairy tales represented innovative storytelling wasn’t a decade ago! Let’s accept undiscerning criticism in journalism, because people have forgotten that journalists aren’t publicists and actually need to be experts in their field! Let’s replace transcendence with idle chatter! Let’s be NICE.

People might say this is less about storytelling than it is about my current views of the world. But the entire point is that storytelling is wrapped up in our current views of the world, and the way that society will see the world tomorrow!

You’re welcome to buy into the sellout, but I’m just not interested in it anymore. I don’t know how to engage in discourse that is characterised by ignorance anymore. Not politely, anyway. It is time to demand excellence, and time to deliver it. As best we can, and not only in the arts – but in every other aspect of our lives too. Do your job. Deliver on your promises. Be informed. And always seek out the bigger picture, and view it with the deepest perspective you can.

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