who decides what’s art?

I’ve been fascinated by all the reactions in cyberspace regarding the darkly provocative Don Giovanni presented by English National Opera that simulated gang rape by masked men wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the image of Jesus Christ.

Someone asked the question, “What do we think about this?” as if those of us looming in cyberspace were a  Greek chorus that should answer in unison, on cue.

I don’t think that’s the right question to ask. I would prefer the question be restated, “What do you think about this?”

Why? Because opera is art–especially the performance of it. Who decides what is art and what is not art?  It would easy to say, “Well, the critics do.” But that’s not an authentic response, and you are selling yourself short if you believe that.

Art can be understood as something different from science. Art affects a different area of your brain than science does. Who gets to decide what is art? You do. You get to define what art is and what it is not, based on your preferences.

The ability to perceive or take in art isn’t located on the same side of the brain as science. Science is left brain and rational. Art is right brain, where creative imagination, serenity, global view, and capacity of synthesis also lodge.

If you want to be liked or have a defined need to feel like you fit in, you can allow others who regularly exercise both hemispheres of the brain to tell you what you should think about this production or about that one.

But ultimately it’s up to you. Someone’s art is another’s kitsch, desecration, violation–you fill in the blank.

Think about it. Have you ever had anyone tell you that you had to read a certain book because you’d love it. You pick up the book and can’t get past the first chapter? Like literature, live theater and opera performance are also subjective. You might like it or you might not. Someone’s say so won’t change your organic, individual experience with that art.

Need another example. How about love? People can suggest whom you ought to love, but it’s a much more organic right-brain process than the matchmaker is suggesting. Who chooses whether you fall in love? You do. 

When you are going to take in an art form–a gallery show, a concert, an opera–it behooves you to investigate what you’re going to be seeing. If you are in touch with how you feel art should be interpretated in order to be appreciated, then you can choose not to participate in that art form as an audience member.

I’d have been reduced to viewing a production like ENO’s Don Giovanni using my left brain, completely detached from my right brain. Because I don’t like art that aims to be shocking or disgusting because the interpretation is intended to shock or disgust. If the shocking content is integrated into the text or the work and can be understood rationally, that’s a different story.

For instance, terrible things are likely to happen to a persecuted people in captivity. If you’re heading off to watch a movie like Schindler’s List, you’d better be prepared to be shocked and disgusted. The horror is essential to the story. Not to have it (aka Hogan’s Heroes) diminishes the suffering and slaughter of millions of people.

But if you are witnessing art being degraded in its interpretation, that’s another matter entirely.

I don’t care for sensationalism. I have no appreciation for shock value for its own sake. Nobody has to tell me that particular interpretation of Don Giovanni isn’t art. Because then we’re talking about art, and in that instance, I get to decide. It’s all up to me.


Filed under 21st Century Opera, Op-Ed

3 Responses to who decides what’s art?

  1. J.

    Hi Gale,

    “I don’t care for sensationalism. I have no appreciation for shock value for its own sake…”

    Totally agree with you there.

    On a slightly related note, you might want to read this critique of Alex Ross :


  2. Excellent point. Brevity is the soul of everything!

  3. Ally

    I think it all comes back to, “I’ll know it when I see it.” 🙂