Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Guest Post: High Culture

By Alison Moffitt. Also available here.

Within the last week, Matt and I have done three particularly cultured things:
  1. We saw Bell Shakespeare's performance of Twelfth Night at the Opera House.
  2. We visited Sculpture by the Sea.
  3. We went to the Opera House again to see the Australian Ballet's Edge of Night.
Sculpture by the sea was alright, but the events at the Opera House really took the cake. Twelfth Night made me laugh until I cried, multiple times. And, amazingly, so did the ballet! The final piece, Molto Vivace, was a hilarious parody of traditional ballet set to some of Handel's most beautiful and upbeat string music. I was in stitches as an extremely tall ballerina entered the stage in the middle of the piece (obviously sitting on another person's shoulders, who was hidden under her enormous skirt) and demanded to be romanced by her male partner. I nearly fell off my chair laughing when she slipped away leaving her partner dancing with her torso-less skirt.

What a great week it was, but it has also got Matt and I thinking a lot about how consumerist high culture is. It's a hidden thing - when I think of consumerism, I think of things like Coke and Barbie dolls and ipods. But Shakespeare plays, ballet and other arts are products for consumption too, especially when they are marketed as an essential experience for the upper middle class.

I find great pleasure in these kinds of performances - dance and music performances especially. I love watching and interpreting and I love being moved by it all. I love crying when things are beautiful. I have cried at the beauty of a live performance of Handel's Zadok the Priest and I have bawled my eyes out watching the Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet ballet. But sometimes I feel almost guilty that I experience these kinds of moments so frequently. Seeing a beautiful performance is one thing, but it's never that alone. It's a night out in a glittering city - lit by thousands of fossil fuel burning lights. It's an overpriced meal beforehand, served up by underpaid kitchen hands and waitstaff. We eat food that has travelled thousands of kilometres to sit on my plate. Are the farmers who produced this food in foreign countries getting paid enough to take their family to see Shakespeare? Is this foreign food depriving local farmers of a decent income? Can local farmers take their families to the Opera House? The curtain goes up and the stage lights turn on. Who says that this form of dancing is the highest form of dancing? What about dancing from other cultures? Would this many people pay this much money to see dancing from a different culture?

These high culture nights always seem to go the same way for me: the indulgence of a good meal, the elation of an indescribable performance and then the gnawing sensation as I leave the theatre: how sustainable is this thing that I have just done?

Even with these sobering thoughts, I don't think I want to stop going and enjoying these things. But I definitely don't want to stop thinking of the bigger ethical picture behind it all. At the moment, feeling the weight of each performance I see makes me appreciate these moments as a blessing. Maybe for now it is just a case of being thankful that I get to enjoy these things now, to acknowledge that they are not essential experiences to be a human (not even an upper-middle class human!) and to remember that they are not to be taken for granted.

Twelfth Night photo from Bell Shakespeare, Molto Vivace photo from the Australian Ballet.


Mike W said...

Hi Alison, you've really got me thinking about consumerism. I'm wondering whether the heart of consumerism isn't desire for the thing as such. I wonder whether the heart of consumerism is wanting something to talk about. Something to be interested in, and so, to be interesting.
Since most free interesting things are now taboo; religion, politics, personal ethics, and our lives compartmentalised into fragmented meaningless units, we need something else to fill the gap. The downside of not consuming these high culture products (dare I include theological education? It sure isn't cheap!) is that one is, well, boring.
Of course one is not in fact boring, if we knew how to ask each other the big questions.
Perhaps consumerism is a failure of conversation

Megan said...

Great thoughts! Reminds me of Bourdieu - everyone consumes, taste is conditioned by class. Very interesting

Matthew Moffitt said...

@MikeW And the greatest sin today is being bored right?

alison said...

Mike - that's a very interesting. Do you think you can stretch that idea out to othr non-consumerist ways of being interesting? Like volunteering or going bushwalking? Would that kind of motivation turn those activities into consumer activities?