Art on Trial

I’ve got a confession: I’m not sure about theater festivals. I mean, I’m not sure what they’re supposed to do, and I’m definitely not sure if they’re any good at it. I’ve participated in a good handful of them from small to big, and in a lot of different capacities from artist to audience member to critic, and I still don’t feel like I know.

Hypothesis: Festivals are machines that add value to productions, playwrights, directors, and actors. An invitation to a festival is a stamp of approval, a badge on your website, a line in your CV.

Hypothesis: A theater festival, like any other festival, is a celebration. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re gathered here today to celebrate theater, no justification needed, obviously. (The celebration of the 50th Theatertreffen by extension is a celebration of a celebration. Adding value to a value-adder. A feedback loop.)

Hypothesis: We’re extending theater’s reach and grounding a(n) (inter)national conversation about the art. It’s important for the most relevant/groundbreaking/noteworthy work in contemporary performance—such a highly local thing!—to reach a wider audience if we want to talk about trends and development in performance as a field.

I don’t know. It all seems pretty navel-gazing to me, sometimes. It all seems like we’re patting our own backs for making something that’s good because we say it’s good. There’s another hypothesis I’d be more interested in:

Hypothesis: A festival is (or could be?) a kind of trial, with audience as plaintiff and the festival curator as defense attorney. And what’s on trial is art itself.

An expert jury performs the curatorial function for the Theatertreffen, and yes, to my American imagination, the word “jury” conjures up images of court trials and hotly contested verdicts of innocent or guilty. But there’s something else that has me thinking about this.

In January, The Curators’ Piece (A Trial Against Art) came to Performance Space 122 in New York City, where I live now. Six curators—actual curators of the international performance festivals at which The Curators’ Piece is performed, from NYC’s COIL and Noorderzon in the Netherlands to Homo Novus in Latvia and Queer Zagreb—take turns “on the bench of the accused and get to speak in defense of art and try to prove what it is capable of—that a world without art is a dead world”.

In the view of The Curators’ Piece, art stands accused by society at large. „You have failed us„, says society. „You promised to give us meaning and to save us, and you have not done so. You have a responsibility to us and it has not been fulfilled.“ The curators are called on to defend art as its supposed foremost advocates and friends.

I like what The Curators’ Piece is asking us to do: Be active in our consumption and curation of art. An audience should expect something of art, expect it to fulfill its responsibility, and press charges when it does not. Curators aren’t doing their job if they’re just collecting “the best” (because what good is the best theater if theater itself is guilty, is failing society?). The curator’s job is to build a case for art, with the full awareness that art could well be found guilty in the end. (Where is the artist in this equation?)

It’s great in theory: festival as trial rather than as self-justifying verdict. But if we take The Curators’ Piece as an example, adopting this trial-by-jury model isn’t easy. Sure, where the piece sets the curators in (largely extemporaneous) dialogue with one another, there are hard, provocative questions asked. But when the piece gives the curators the space to deliver pre-written speeches as evidence in support of art, it all comes off clichéd and tired. The performance asks the festival curators to defend art, but as I watched, it felt a lot more like I was watching them defend themselves. Their curatorial choices. Their taste in art.

As artists, audiences, and jury alike gear up in Berlin for the 2013 Theatertreffen, I’m interested in what we can do to be active members of the community that has curated, and is consuming, this year’s invited productions. To give German-speaking theater a fair but stern trial without falling into the trap of defending it for the sake of defending ourselves.

The finale of The Curators‘ Piece heightens the feeling that it’s the curators and not the art that’s on trial. One by one, each curator takes the stage to sit, alone in a bright, invasive light, and answer questions spoken by a vaguely robotic, disembodied voice: „What kind of art do you like? What kind of art would you die for? What would you die for?“

Most would die for family or love or freedom, but would not die for art. Not of any kind. Some friends they are.


  1. Awesome post Cory! I wish I could have seen that piece… curation plays such an important role in the art world, but there is very little art made about it.
    This discussion also made me think about Frie Leysen, who organized the first edition of the Foreign Affairs festival last year, because she really doesn’t see herself as a curator, but more as a „hyphen“ between artists and audience. This quote didn’t make it into the end article, but she said she structured the festival without a central theme because “then you’re illustrating the conviction of a curator and that’s not interesting. I’m much more interested in the conviction of these artists.” (Full interview at
    The theatertreffen is an interesting case because the theme is the “most remarkable in the German-speaking realm” as determined by an expert jury. So it can be easy to shift focus from the productions to the jury and their definition of “remarkable”, but in the end we are dealing most directly with the works themselves and the views of the artists behind them. And this is the material I hope we can engage with during this festival.
    Even though the meta-questions of curation, format and societal function are oh-so-terribly tempting….

    • This is part of the conversation for me, that I’m really interested in WHY we say things are „good“ or „remarkable.“ Is it that they’re objectively remarkable (that anyone could see the performance or piece of art and say „Wow. That’s remarkable“), or are they remarkable within a constructed world that becomes difficult for outsiders or newcomers to penetrate even to a level of basic understanding? I do think some theater—even theater that I really enjoy watching—is that way; self-referential, or wrapped up in its aesthetic which is developing in an ever-narrowing frame of performance reference…A friend recently told me she’s frustrated with theater in Berlin because it seems to her that every Inszenierung she sees is ironic, and the theater scene there has developed this need to be ironic, and it feeds into itself so that you can’t make something that’s honest, you’ll be laughed at, it’s „bad.“ My concern is: if all the theater is ironic, and audiences like it, but the audience is essentially the same pool of people, then this seems like a self-ratifying thing. And it becomes very hard to talk about because instead of trying to talk objectively about the work and the field as a whole, we as people who love the work can fall into feeling and speaking only defensively. And really my biggest problem with that is that I think it alienates people, potential audience, even potential artists, who aren’t already „in the know“ about a certain trend or style that is self-propagating. If we aren’t willing to be critical of aesthetics and where they’re developing from and why we like what we like, then I think we run the risk of shutting out new work and new audiences.

      In the end I’d argue that „remarkable“ is a curatorial choice too, albeit much broader.

      • Speaking defensively: I’m ready to admit that I’m guilty of loving theater and wanting to defend it. But I also think that at the end of the day the audience also needs to be defended from paying over a hundred dollars for a flop or from mistakenly believing that theater only has one type of aesthetic and they don’t like it. Those of us who write are responsible for communcating between the work and its (potential) audience, I think we have to do them both justice.

        What is good or remarkable: This goes back to those two fundamentally troubling questions of what is art and then what is good art. My safe but functional answer to this question is that art exists and whether or not it is good is a matter of taste. Taste is also a difficult term in that it seems to be a mysterious combination of natural inclinations, education and cultural environment. So in response to your question of whether or not these pieces can only be understood as remarkable in a certain aesthetic context, I’m of the opinion that all work has a context (and may even exist within multiple contexts), because theater is usually made by and for a community of some kind. So yes, these pieces may very well be remarkable in their context, and not remarkable to or even parsable by those outside their context.
        My biggest issue with the „what is good art“ discussion is that it often resorts to a misleading shorthand (director’s names, historical periods) to describe performances. Which is why I’m inclined to start with descriptions of the work itself and my subjective reception, and then get into the discussion about how work of this description can be understood in various contexts.
        I’m interpreting your observation of a self referential and alienating aesthetic context as an observation of the fact that the communities for which these works are being made can be incredibly closed and exclusive (please correct me if I’m wrong). I personally see no problem with these works, as long as the community actually exists and is served by the work. My worry is that certain communities are being served and praised to the detriment of others, which I think echoes your concern. So especially for those of us who have worked in diverse contexts, I think it’s our job to define and remain respectful and aware of the status of these contexts. And that while certain communities might be larger or more accepting than others, they shouldn’t have a monopoly on artistic vision.

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