Editor’s Fanfare Vol. VI, No. 7

Art  vs. Skill

With Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey gone and only a handful of traditional circuses still touring small towns, their impact on where the American circus will go and what it will look like is seriously limited. A new form of circus which is struggling to replace the so-called traditional circus has an even more limited audience and therefore its influence is similarly limited.  So it’s anyone’s guess as to what form the American circus will take in the future and how it will be presented.

For some it is a battle between the traditional circus and what has been dubbed the contemporary circus. That latter term doesn’t really help to explain or describe what the new circus may be all about.  After all, everything that is happening today is considered contemporary.

I would prefer the term the New Circus. (Despite having been used once before, this is in many ways an extension of the original movement.) It distinguishes itself by its aim to include an emotional or intellectual content in its work.  In other words it wants to be seen as art.  Perhaps then the best term for this version of the New Circus is Art Circus.  By trying to include an emotional or intellectual component  its proponents seem to be trying to elevate the circus, as if to scrub it of its presumably tawdry past which they seem to be embarrassed by and from which they wish to divorce themselves.

Although some of the people in this movement do respect the traditional circus, people like Gypsy Snider whose earliest introduction to circus was traditional shows like RBBB and the talent scout from Cirque du Soleil who talks about the future of the circus in the article in this issue about a unique talent hunt.   But there are others who insist the future will be one without scary clowns and abused animals,  an obvious attempt to disown one’s own roots.  Like it or not, however, the traditional circus is part of our heritage if we are involved with circus.    Apparently a lot of them are uncomfortable with that fact, and they are hoping to find redemption for the sins of the past in art.  So let’s try comparing “art” to its fraternal twin “skill,” the basis of the traditional circus.   Most great artists in any discipline begin by mastering a skill and then elevate that skill to the level of art by adding their individual creativity.

It is difficult to know how to define “art.” Like pornography it exists in the eyes of the beholder.  One man’s art is another man’s pretentiousness.  On the other hand a triple somersault indisputably takes greater skill than a single or even a double.  A seven ball cascade is certainly a display of greater juggling skill than a four or five.  It doesn’t take any program notes to explain and appreciate the difference.  The evidence of skill is right there before our eyes.  But where is art?  Identifying it takes some other ill-defined ability.

On the other hand (As Tevye was wont to say) a demonstration of skill can be as beautiful a thing to behold as any self-conscious effort to arouse emotion. A successful display of outstanding skill can be as triumphantly emotional as any arguably poetic expression.

Since the traditional circus appears to emphasize the physical over the intellect, it could be argued that in some undetermined way the intellect is only engaged in that which we define as art. The intellect, however, can be just as stimulated by physical perfection as it can be by a less than skillful try at profundity.

So if those who insist on the superiority of Art Circus’ approach to circus as an intellectual or emotional exercise they are, I think, approaching it from the wrong angle. Instead they need to consider adding something to a well developed skill, and that would be style.  It is that combination of skill and style that can move the circus into the realm of true art.

Although it may seem as if I am promoting traditional over what I am here calling Art Circus, there are individuals and companies who present performances based on highly developed skills with a style that engages the audience on many levels, and I have always found such performances stimulating and exciting. These include  Canada’s 7 Finger company and Cirque Èloize, as well as the productions of Daniele Finzi Pasca, some of whose work, incidentally, I have seen in an opera house.  No one at such a performance argued that the show was anything but art.  If the venue in which a circus based performance takes place makes a difference as to how it is viewed, i.e. art or spectacle, is there really a difference, except in the level of skill being displayed?

So when it comes time to stage a new circus show, I think it would be best to see that the skill level is as high as possible and then infuse it with a winning style instead of self-consciously thinking about creating something that might be called art. Art will emerge spontaneously, it can’t be willed purposefully.