Staging Cultural Prosperity


There is general agreement now that culture is capitalism. Whether their value is financial or symbolic, the processes and products of cultural expression are widely acknowledged as submitted to an advanced network of capital transactions. The processes of global capitalism have long since invaded the sphere of artistic production.

Cynical as it may seem, this assertion has never been acknowledged by artists themselves. From the cut-up paintings of the early avant-garde to the degradation of the body in contemporary performance, art has always challenged the ideological concept of its own autonomy: the idea that aesthetics is secluded from the processes of commercial and cultural production. In the early 00’s, the scrutiny of art’s socio-economic and ideological premises that the nineties knew as postmodernism, has led to the development of a new aesthetics, based on a deconstruction of boundaries between aesthetic, political and intellectual experience, and on the consequential cultural interchange between artists, intellectuals and political activists. Be it publications, exhibitions or concrete pieces, traditional institutions of modern art have become vehicles for political as well as aesthetic discussion, allowing these discourses to interweave.

Despite repeated efforts to recycle its political relevance, no similar development can be said to have taken place in European theatre. There is little critical discourse surrounding the traditional institutions, and aesthetic experimentation as well as political discussion is left to off-off companies, operating in the margins of both subsidy and publicity. Theatre in Europe seems not to have undergone the same deconstructive process as that of the visual arts, and one might ask whether theatre is still protected by the modernist illusion of artistic autonomy that once governed the art institution as a whole. The answer to this question is yes, but only insofar as artistic autonomy is a viable currency; an appropriate means to increase theatre’s market potential in the symbolic economy of culture.

Theatre in Europe has never reached the visual arts’ level of aesthetic autonomy. More than artistic presentation, theatre has always been a re-presentation: a more or less pertinent display of something prior to it. For this reason, governing principles of theatre have always been sought beyond the borders of the theatrical event. Theatre’s own worth has been examined only in its ability to conform to an ‘exceeding logic’ ( i.e. a logic that goes beyond the boundaries of the specific discourse in which one is operating). Consequently, there has not been much of an autonomous discourse to deconstruct in theatre.

Historically, theatre has played an important part in the nation building of young countries throughout Europe. And although its ambitions may no longer seem so lofty as establishing a supreme national essence, theatre still holds a primary function in representing national identity. This identity, however, is not an imagined common ground for the citizens of a particular nation, but rather an indicator of the nation’s cultural prosperity, its assets in the circuit of the symbolic economy.

European theatre today works mainly as a provider of symbolic capital, not only to the respective countries in intra-continental competition, but also to Europe itself as a continent and economic union. Through a high level of high culture, the challenges to European identity presented by the culture industry of Asia and the US are kept at bay. As are the challenges raised by contemporary aesthetic and political theory, which have long since left these ideological notions of art and culture behind.

Based on the assumption that commercial interest is an impediment to artistic excellence, theatres throughout Europe are sustained financially as autonomous institutions. However, this simulated autonomy actually becomes destabilised, as theatre simulates its own submission to the market economy!

This tendency that emerged in the early nineties has been central to the cultural politics of small countries like Norway and Denmark. Demands are made of the heavily financed theatre institutions of these countries to exercise a certain amount of hard-headed economic competence, in order that they regain some small share of what they have been given through public subsidy. And so, with a paradoxical twist to classic culture consecration, European theatre simulates market submission, to render its own withdrawal from the market legitimate.

All this has meant that Theatre has become a showcase of successes from other media. It has submitted to the circulation that renders the products of other media as trademarks, and, because it has withdrawn from the same circulation, it is deprived of the possibility of producing similar trademarks of its own. Which might explain last year’s production of Jerry Springer: the Opera at Britain’s Royal National Theatre, and the movie star Emanuelle Seigner playing Hedda Gabler in Paris, not to mention the many state-financed re-stagings of movie blockbusters on national theatres in Scandinavia, such as A Clockwork Orange, The Celebration and even The Full Monty.

Withdrawn from the circulation of cultural capital, theatre is deprived of the discussions governing contemporary aesthetics. Nevertheless, as a result of demands for its economic self-sufficiency, it is submitted to the same circulation. Through this double strategy, European countries maintain their theatres as impotent institutions, without commercial potential, but with strictly commercial boundaries. This mixture of withdrawal and submission ensures that theatre is kept alive as a symbol of cultural prosperity, while a discussion of theatre’s aesthetic, political and socio-economic premises is kept at bay. Now, as this discussion has been crucial to the proceedings of contemporary art, there is good reason to insist that theatre, not least from an aesthetic viewpoint, should be its next object of scrutiny.

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