Are We On Stage to Reflect the Audience or Create It?


This article is also available in French

IETM will host its Plenary Meeting in Brussels, Belgium 23 November 2017 to 26 November 2017, with a particular focus on the position of the arts in the age of populism. Populism may be considered as an ideology, a movement, or simply a style. Some may perceive it as a weapon against democracy, because it shrinks the space for plurality; some may view it as democracy's last vessel of hope, because it brings politics closer to the people. This series of articles explores how the Belgian arts sector confronts this complex phenomenon.

Éric Fassin is a sociologist and professor of political science at the Université Paris VIII. His research focuses on contemporary sexual and racial politics and their intersections (particularly with regard to immigration issues in Europe) from a comparative perspective. He is the author of Gauche: l’avenir d’une désillusion (2014) (The Left: The Future of Disillusion) and Démocratie précaire: Chroniques de la déraison (2012) (Precarious Democracy: Chronicles of Foolishness) and has contributed to Roms et Riverains. Une politique municipale de la race (2014) (Roma and Locals. Municipal Politics on Race)

In his book Populisme: le grand ressentiment (or Populism: The Great Resentment in English), Éric Fassin takes a critical look at left-wing populism. He argues that there’s just one step from political representation to artistic and theatrical representation. I met Eric after his lecture/debate at UPJB (Union of Progressive Jews) in Brussels last September. He is putting his faith in the audience’s intelligence.

Sylvia Botella: According to your book Populisme: le grand ressentiment, what is populism?

Éric Fassin: What interests me is not coming up with a sort of universal definition of populism that applies equally to Russia and the United States in the twenty-first century, Latin America in the twentieth century, or France and Spain today. I don’t want to start with an essence of populism and then specify variations. I prefer using it in its adjectival form and talking about a populist strategy. My starting point is that for a long time in France and elsewhere, this derogatory word was only used to describe the far right. Then it was used to discredit left-wing critics of neoliberal Europe. But for a few years now, there’s been a populist strategy asserted by the left, whether it’s France Insoumise or Podemos, referring to Chantal Mouffe or Ernesto Laclau. So my question is, “Is left-wing populism an effective political strategy?” My answer to this is: “No.” And that’s what I’m trying to show.

Sylvia: In this era of populism, what ideas should we have in theatre about the issue of representation and the democratization of access to culture?

Éric: Talking about populism is talking about politics, and even more precisely about electoral politics. So I’ll be careful when I’m talking about culture! I’m interested in the question of representation in all senses of the word: political representation of course, but also artistic representation and even theatrical representation. Beyond playing with words, I think it’s important that a set of public discourses contributes to defining representations of the world: politics, art, literature, and theatre, as well as sociology or law. Representing the world involves devoting yourself to fixing a representation of it. That’s why representation is a political challenge—indeed a political challenge par excellence.

Populism aims to represent the people. That can function on two levels: reflecting it on the one hand and creating it on the other. With the former, we assume that the people exist before a representation of them is made. With the latter, we want to make it exist. This second concept is performative; we understand that it is close to the performance. The link with theatre and the other performing arts depends perhaps on how we should understand what an audience is. Like the people, we can consider that it existed before the representation or conversely that we made it come about. It’s between these two positions that a policy towards the audience is made, just as a policy towards the people is made. Are we on stage to reflect an audience or create it? That allows a shift to be made in the question of cultural elitism.

It’s a fact that not everyone goes to the theatre. There are cultural differences that are partly class differences. But we know very well today that there are also racialized differences. The color of the audience is not representative of the colors in society. So we’re right to question ourselves on the distance between those who come and those who don’t, which goes back to a social hierarchy. The question of elitism is therefore a legitimate one—necessary even. Yet beyond acknowledging it, it’s important to wonder about the response to this problem. It’s obviously not about giving people what they expect in the hope of attracting them. In reality, people are not necessarily asking for something. It’s important to create a demand. In other words, we can endeavor to build an audience by offering representations that reflect all people. That’s where the analogy can be found between the people and the audience.

Sylvia: So the issue of the audience comes from issues of representation. How does the sociologist see it?

Éric: Indeed, the issue of the audience is not external to the content of the performances: the person being addressed is part of the show, of the performance. Let me explain. I’m thinking of the controversy around Exhibit B by Brett Bailey (which premiered at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels in 2012). I intervened twice. Once after seeing this installation or performance at the Festival d’Avignon in 2013. Like many in the audience, I was deeply distressed not just by the spectacle of racist cruelty, but by the black actors looking out at the white spectators. I wrote a piece for Libération called “La race, ça nous regarde” (“Race concerns us all”), playing on the double meaning of race watching us and concerning us. My argument was that the audience in this creation about race found that they were “white”; it was something they could no longer ignore.

The following year Exhibit B came to Seine-Saint-Denis. The difference from Avignon was that the audience in Seine-Saint-Denis was not uniformly white. There was a huge controversy around the show, with a mobilization against the racism in this “exhibition” by primarily Black people. Many cultural authorities defended the work: “Brett Bailey is antiracist; how can you judge a show you haven’t seen?” In other words: “You understand nothing about culture!” However, many of the Black demonstrators were also creative and cultural producers, but still felt themselves to be marginalized. The incomprehension encountered during the controversy intensified this feeling of exclusion.

So I intervened a second time by writing an article in Le Monde to analyze how the controversy changed the performance. Because remarkably the device set up by Exhibit Bincludes the audience. They are part of the materials that made up these tableaux vivants. So the issue of the audience was not external to the work. It’s legitimate that the audience who takes part in the installation intervenes and asks for an explanation of the role assigned to them. “Art concerns me too!” These political issues (here, elitism) are not external to the art form, they’re part of it. We shouldn’t think that the audience is external to the art form, otherwise they remain outside it.

The question of the audience concerns me as well when I intervene as a sociologist. I’m not looking to tell people what they already think. I’m trying to shift the questions, ask them in a different way than how they’re currently being asked. My work as a sociologist therefore consists of suggesting representations that aren’t already installed, established, or fixed. Saying something a little different is not about speaking to an audience that has already been created; it’s about wanting to introduce a slightly different questioning. A different way of looking, of representing things. But that means that the audience is associated with my reflection. Their incomprehension and disagreement are part of what I’m trying to include in my thinking just as much as their approval and complicity.

This is true for sociology, the performing arts, and politics: it’s about getting people to see the world in a way that allows them to understand what they’re being told, to enter into this way of seeing things, to share this representation. Our governments tend to believe that you have to do market surveys, which we call opinion polls, so that they can then respond to what the “customers” want. Democratic politics and democratic art as well seem to me to fall within an inverse logic. It’s about creating what isn’t there yet: a new audience constituted by a political or artistic representation. Hence the importance for me of gambling on the audience’s intelligence. People are capable of understanding what I’m telling them. They’re not idiots and they shouldn’t be considered as such. There’s a demand for intelligence, which is the complete opposite of the gamble being taken by television, for example, who believe that people don’t want to think.

English version by Claire Tarring.

This article was originally published on HowlRound on the 21st of November 2017. Read the original article.

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