When is art art and when is it spectacle? Can spectacle be art?
To me there is beauty and then there is spectacle. Can spectacle be beautiful? Yes, I suppose it can. But it is different. It feels different.
I believe, as Isadora did, that what is beautiful is what is natural, mathematical, logical, but exaggerated in some way that enhances what is familiar to something that is beyond. What is spectacle is unnatural, unfamiliar, and almost miraculous in its execution. In our world that is increasingly moving away from the natural and toward the robotic, we seem to be more interested in spectacular art than beautiful art (if you are using my definitions of spectacle and beauty).
To me, this is why we need Isadora more today than ever. When a person can jump, twist, and spin beyond what seems humanly possible, it is awe-inspiring, it is crazy, it is amazing – but is it beautiful? When they can move as sharply and quickly as a machine, it is strange, it is exciting, it is unusual – but is it beautiful? When a person can contort their body into shapes beyond the reach of most, it is phenomenal, it is astonishing, it can even be grotesque – so it is beautiful?
Dance today, like many other aspects of our lives, is most appreciated the more spectacular it is. The more flamboyant the movement, the more exaggerated the set, the more technology is intertwined, the more mass culture seems to enjoy it.
We spend our days in front of screens. Even our athletes compete with the allure of technology. Why are certain sporting events not shown on television unless there is a large enough crowd at the stadium? Because television brings us onto the field, allows us to replay the action, allows us to listen to commentary. Live games force us to see it once, experience the downtime, and judge it ourselves. We would rather sit home to consume than be there to experience.
When I teach Master Classes, I often joke about how unnatural Isadora’s “natural” movement feels when you are trying it for the first time. But what is amazing about Isadora’s art is that it is natural. She did not ask people to move their bodies beyond their capacity. She did not want her dancers to contort their bodies beyond belief. She did not ask them to be pedestrian – she was creating an aesthetic art. But she asked them to create the beauty with their humanity.
While there are many kinds of art – some meant to shock, some meant to wow, and some meant to inspire change – to me true beauty is the best kind of art. True beauty, that has stood the test of time, that continues to awe people, even in our spectacle-rich culture of today, is exactly what Isadora sought to create – an aesthetic exaggeration of what is natural. And as we increasingly turn to machinery to simplify our lives, entertain us, and distract us from the discomfort of idle time, I believe that art that is accessible, familiar, and natural, is more important than ever. Let’s create art that reminds us of our humanity; reminds us that we part of nature, limited by the mathematical rules that determine our existence.
True beauty is what is ordinary, presented to us in a way that reminds us that the ordinary is the extraordinary. We are here. We exist. Many scientific laws played together to create us. Call it nature. Call it G-d. Call it science. We exist within the boundaries of those forces. And it is beautiful.