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9/29/08
Do People Still Sell Out?
  • comments (5)

As the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zanes Dance Company returns to BAM with A Quarreling Pair, I was thinking that while I’m not a big fan of his work, Jones has been branching out in interesting directions in the past few years—not so much in the dances he creates for venues such as Lincoln Center or the aforementioned BAM, but in the less rarefied turf of musical theater. The choreographer won a Tony Award for his work on Spring Awakening in 2007, and in an article for the New York Times, he talked about the experience of switching gears for a different kind of show. He went on to direct and choreograph Fela Off Broadway, about Nigerian musican Fela Anikulapo Kuti (it closes October 4). Of course Jones had directed opera and experimental dance-theater projects before, but Spring Awakening has been his most mainstream project to date. What I find most interesting about this branching out—and the one of choreographer Karole Armitage, who worked on Stew’s Passing Strange and the Shakespeare in the Park production of Hair (reopening on Broadway next year)—is now so much how a vocabulary groomed in the arty, “downtown” sphere transfers to the mainstream, but how nobody even talks about “selling out” anymore. Is that completely dead as a concept?It wasn’t that long ago that the battle lines were deeply drawn: Back in the early 1990s, for instance, signing with a major label was perceived as betrayal by fans of indie-rock bands, and many acts only made the jump after much hand-wringing. Selling your song for use in a commercial was anathema. Now, a band as identified with the indie community as the Moldy Peaches allows its best-known semi-hit (thanks to the Juno soundtrack) to be rewritten for an Atlantis commercial, while the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt (who, incidentally, has performed at Lincoln Center) sings a little tune for Volvo. Oh sure, some YouTube sage says that Merritt sold his soul, but really, nobody minds.

Meanwhile, an opera director like Francesca Zambello directs The Little Mermaid on Broadway, a path pioneered by Julie Taymor’s Lion King. Well, that’s only for recent history, really, because Disney has a long tradition of poaching the classical realm (eg, Fantasia, which reminds me that Mussorgsky-by-way-of-Rimsky-Korsakov’s Night on Bald Mountain also made the basis for David Shire’s “Night on Disco Mountain,” one of the nuttiest moments on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack). And one can easily point out that the start of Carnegie Hall’s fall-long tribute to Leonard Bernstein is a perfect reminder of Bernstein’s disdain for artificial barriers between styles and audiences—it was only a year after his 1943 conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic, for instance, that he wrote the score for the Broadway musical On the Town.

You might argue that reaching a broader audience is a natural step in an artist’s career: As their work grows more familiar over the years, it sort of sinks in and the relatively small circles that go to experimental productions or classical concerts metastasize into bigger audiences. Being an optimist (well, most of the time), I tend to believe that artists don’t “dumb down” their work for mainstream audiences—it’s the audiences that finally make the jump. The Wooster Group has become increasingly popular in recent years, playing sold-out shows in larger venues, and it hasn’t watered down its work in the slightest; in fact, I found 2007′s Hamlet, which played at St. Ann’s Warehouse then at the Public Theater, to be a trial in endurance. One of BAM’s most popular regulars is choreographer Pina Bausch, whose Brooklyn engagements have become hot tickets in the past decade; I’d argue she’s been on autopilot for a while now, but to her credit she does what she does and doesn’t budge from her self-imposed aesthetic line.

All this kinda makes me appreciate even more those who resolutely stay on the fringe: Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater will probably never stray out of its niche, and it’s unlikely Japanese noise artist Merzbow will ever make it to the Billboard charts. There’s something to be said for reaching a small number of fans rather than an army of consumers.

  • Colin Fitzpatrick

    The best example of modern selling out I think is Of Montreal’s Outback Steakhouse song, where they took “Wraith Pinned to the Mist (And Other Games)” and re wrote the lyrics so it’s all about going to outback steakhouse. And then the lead singer had the nerve to write an essay to defend it: http://stereogum.com/archives/commercial-appeal/of-montreal-art-brut-do-tmobile_007208.html#more

  • http://determineddilettante.blogspot.com Elisabeth Vincentelli

    At this point in time, the idea of “selling out” does not seem to enter the notion of radicality anymore. It seems to happen purely on aesthetic terms rather than where you show something. I’d like to be wrong though!

  • John

    I agree with Elisabeth. There is definitely an acceptance of commercial work within the art community and that the idea of selling out is dead. I think this relates to high-art’s acceptance (and embrace) of popular culture. Haven’t artists like Andy Warhol and Murakami broken down so many of these high/low brow cultural walls? As consumers of art, don’t we all watch public television and obsessed over Gossip Girl? Don’t we all read The New Yorker along with People? We’ve got PhDs but we also love some MickyD’s.

  • http://determineddilettante.blogspot.com Elisabeth Vincentelli

    The real difference to me isn’t between commerce and art but between good and bad; alas, the latter proposition is much trickier to define. (Speaking of enjoying it all: I have a terrible problem tonight as I’m going to see Salome at the Met, which means missing Grey’s Anatomy. And I don’t have tivo!)

  • jeanne

    I think artists are just tired of being poor.

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