Tom Roden of New Art Club was recently quoted in the Metro newspaper, talking about dance and dancemaking ahead of their recent London shows. He says, “Good dancing is not caring if anyone likes it, including yourself.” It’s the sort of flippant-yet-profound observation that the boys are known for, and it made me think.
As teachers, we spend a lot of time encouraging our students to exercise quality control – explore possibilities first, then select and refine and rehearse until you have a good dance. I sometimes need to remind some of my charges not to leave absolutely all of their composition work until the last minute, to allow for the editing process as well as drafting and to ensure all performers are confident with the material created. But the act of “not caring” what an audience or anyone else thinks can be profoundly liberating for an artist – and not caring oneself can be the hardest, yet most liberating step of all.
Moving beyond our personal comfort zone and breaking out of old, safe habits really requires a leap of faith in oneself and the ability to turn off the inner voice that says, “What if that’s rubbish?” Pushing on with a new approach, even if it feels uncomfortable, can lead to fresh new ideas and processes and help us to develop as artists, rather than staying with the same old way of making work. From time to time, I think it’s really important to shake ourselves up and step outside boundaries that we might have unconsciously imposed on ourselves, by worrying about whether something is “good”.
“Good” for an audience is, in any case, a problematic, culturally-bound concept. For an discussion of how audiences develop responses to art, Pierre Bourdieu’s The Rules of Art is detailed and provocative – I agree with Bourdieu’s general thesis that pleasing a crowd with popular material has never led to innovation, and that art requires an avant garde to plough new furrows without popular acclaim. On a simpler and more personal level, I’ve often found myself surprised by what a given audience will like or dislike, and trying second-guess what will please anybody seems often to please nobody.
If I were to sound one note of caution, I think there’s a difference between the voice that questions if something is good and the inner voice that asks, “Does this work?” I think it’s still good practice when creating to check with oneself that a new work is coherent, readable, inhabitable by the performers and authentic on its own terms. A work can be disturbing, dissonant, discordant or downright unpleasant and still “work”; it might not be easy to watch or pretty or wholesome but it can still be effective as a work. It’s liberating not to worry if a piece is good, but it can still be of a piece with itself.
A final word of warning – when Lou Reed decided not to care what anyone thought, he made Metal Machine Music. Perhaps there’s a point to quality control after all?