It’s that time of year again when we block out the noise of the everyday routine and reflect on our successes and failures, and remind ourselves of what is really important. With this in mind the Ovalhouse, celebrating its fiftieth birthday, hosted A Manifesto for the Arts: The Next 50 Years, a collection of performances and debates speculating about what might become a prevailing trend over the next fifty years. The Ovalhouse is well-known on the London fringe scene for producing reactionary work: I most recently saw Daniel York’s Fu Manchu Complex in its studio space, a darkly comic exploration of the continuing racism of conservative British culture against the Chinese, following the aggravating trend of Chimerica and The World of Extreme Happiness.
I was therefore disappointed with the lack of anything genuinely reactionary or agitating in this ‘Manifesto’ (presented as a set of short acts in several different media by young Londoners) to suggest that, over the next fifty years, ‘art’ would bring political change or creative revolution. The prevailing idea amongst those performing was that the most beneficial form of art is that which is therapeutic and provides the artist with a safe platform for self-expression: debatably pointless in a world where everyone can articulate his or her views online.
The performances were varied. There was a poetry reading from a young writer and a dramatic short by a new theatre company, but none of them but one seemed to address the question “what will the next fifty years bring”: a speech by Reuben Messiah on the prevalence of the immersive theatre phenomenon. He highlighted that shows which are a ‘360 degree’ interactive experience – such as Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable and The Shed’s Protest Song – are becoming increasingly mainstream, or even addictive, as one can surround oneself in an alternative universe in a vein similar to that of a computer game.
The panel included freelance critic and blogger Matt Trueman, editor of the Guardian Culture Professionals Network Nancy Grove, and associate artist at the Bush Theatre, Sabrina Mahofuz: all had divided opinions. Some agreed, believing that art and theatre will strive to become more and more immersive, and to be invasive of the human sensory apparatus. On the other hand some disagreed, subscribing to the idea that a theatrical experience can violate the audience’s senses before the majority react against this and decide that all they want to do with their evening is sit comfortably and watch The Glass Menagerie again. It is this which I believe is the crux of the question, “what will happen over the next 50 years?” It is a shame that it was mainly addressed in the debate afterwards, and not in the majority of the performances based on the issue.
In the discussion, I was constantly reminded that all ‘young people’ (a term bandied around far too much in the evening) are ‘artists’. This erroneously equates art to self-expression and makes little distinction between using creativity as an enjoyable cathartic experience and genuinely aggravating art as a catalyst for change. In lieu of the question “what will happen over the next 50 years?”, I hope that the ‘art as therapy’ mentality will be recognised as unsustainable: if so, no distinction is created between the reams of ‘artistic’ material that can be found through Google Search and the ‘art’ created by people who genuinely have ‘artistic’ sensibilities (however one can pinpoint these!), thus leading us back to the age-old question of defining art itself. Leaving this Manifesto encouraged me to hope for the certainty that the next fifty years will bring change and revolution, rather than paralysis.
A Manifesto for the Arts: The Next 50 Years played at the Ovalhouse Theatre. For more information, see the Ovalhouse website.