Sunday, February 8, 2009

On Judging Art

I was invited to be a judge at my Alma Mater's annual 24-hour play contest, "Wired." Six teams of students were given a theme, topic and several plot twists. They had 24 hours to write, rehearse and produce a short play, complete with props, costumes and scenery. They started Friday night at 8 PM and the shows went up Saturday night at 8 PM. The plot twists were often introduced at the last minute. For example, near the end of the writing portion, the teams were told they had to add a "death monologue." A character had to die (whether he/she was originally intended to or not) and had to deliver a monologue while dying. There were other random things assigned, as well. Each play had to use the word "Wired" at least 5 times; each play had to include the line "Who is Miley Cyrus?" and each play had to start and end with the same line. The young actors had basically one day to rehearse and memorize the scripts.
The resulting plays were often hilarious. In the first, two failing history students travel back in time to steal the Golden Fleece for extra credit, only to find themselves in the midst of a Trojan War where Paris and Achilles are actually in love with one another, leaving one of the students to whisk Helen away to the present just as Cupid's arrow pierces Achilles' heel, killing him before he and Paris can consummate their love. In another, celebrity gossip follows the dead into the afterlife: Moses is dating Princess Di ("She's only 12 years dead, you pervert!") and after Eva throws him out, Hitler moves in with Anne Frank. And another examined what might have happened if McCain had won the election -- He dies while taking the oath, Palin takes over and abolishes Congress; establishing herself as Overlord Palin while Al Gore leads the resistance from his secret Cold Fusion lab in Switzerland. Offensive? Maybe. Funny? Definitely.
We were all given rubrics which broke the shows down into three categories of points; 20 for Acting, 20 for Writing and 15 for Directing. The show I scored the highest (the one about Sarah Palin), didn't strike the same chords with the other judges (a friend and acting teacher, another alumnus, a randomly chosen audience member and the event's arbiters). Of course, we did finally choose, but it was far from easy.
I suppose the point of all this is, how does one judge art? Art, by definition, is completely subjective. What may move and inspire me, may leave you scratching your head and asking "What the...?" My favorite painting of all time is Salvador Dali's "The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus." It is a sprawling, gigantic work, depicting a beatific Columbus landing on the stepped shores of America, surrounded by thousands of crosses. The painting is housed in the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, FL, and every time I see it (about every two or three years) I get a lump in my throat and have to spend an hour or so just taking it in. I'm hardly religious; I am not a history buff and I don't believe that Columbus was the first European to visit North America. So why does this painting painting speak to me? I have no idea. It just does. Synapses fire, a mood is set and I am in awe.
At the end of the evening, as the awards were handed out, I felt that we had in fact, chosen the best play. Though I can't help but wonder how different the outcome would have been with a different set of judges.
Art is a very important part of what makes us Human. Only Humans truly create art. Yes, I know there are elephants whose paintings sell for thousands of dollars - but are the elephants sentient enough to know what they are doing? No. They are simply displaying behaviors imposed upon them by their trainers. Art is a Human trait, and I hope and believe that it is art that will save the Human race from itself.
So, how does one judge art? I don't know. I suppose it can only be judged if it moves you. If you are inspired; outraged; confused; excited; turned on; turned off or just made to think, then the artist has successfully done his or her job. And to that end, everyone was a winner at "Wired."
More, anon.

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