Under the Big Top

In my study of history, I’ve noticed that artistic movements tend to pop up in pairs, with each one corresponding to (more often than not, anyway) either the upper class or the lower class (in this case, lower class is a very inclusive term–middle class counts, and intellectuals especially count). Even today, we have perceptions of high class and low class art: opera and ballet versus graffiti and hip-hop. I aim to understand and be able to articulate what exactly causes people to form these opinions of art (especially considering that low-class art has a tendency to evolve and be accepted as high-class over time), but for now, I’d like to focus on a very specific facet of it: the circus.

In general, I think people perceive the circus as low art. It has a reputation for being cheap, accessible to the masses, and reliant on eliciting shock and awe as opposed to contemplation (or whatever it is high art intends to evoke–any thoughts on that front?). It utilizes physical humor and bawdiness rather than wit and wordplay. Though it uses many elements of dance and theatre, it’s usually not considered a cerebral experience.

I’ve been to three different circuses in my life, and they’ve all had completely different vibes and intentions. They’ve had one thing in common that I remember, which (I think) is the main characteristic that sets circuses apart from the “pure” forms of the arts they draw from: self-awareness. At the circus, performers interact with the audience in such a way that makes it abundantly clear that they are performing for the audience’s enjoyment. Performers often speak directly to the audience, utilize carefully placed pauses during their acts to ensure full recognition of the feat they’ve just accomplished, and make a lot of significant eye contact.

I find it amazing that the extent to which circus performers acknowledge this relationship with the audience–and perhaps even more so the way they approach it–can completely alter the tone of the performance. Obviously, material things like the quality of sets, costumes, and props make a difference. but I’m betting if you watched Cirque du Soleil and Circus Oz perform one after another, in nondescript clothing on a nondescript stage, you’d still feel the difference. So what does it mean that even within a generally low art genre, there is a whole spectrum of classiness?

I’ve got a feeling that this connects to the constant development of art in the public’s eye. There is always a distinction between the judgements youth make and the judgements made by the generations before them, with the youth generally being more receptive to progress (and thus art that may be considered avant-garde or vulgar by older members of a population). So there is forward motion in what can be considered artistic, and the shock value of art is highest at its creation. Thus, I think that the longer a genre of art has been around, the more easily it can be integrated into high culture (but, of course, the lower versions of it still survive). New art seems to start out as a shared peer experience–self-deprecating, accessible, perhaps used to bring together members of a community–and gradually attain the ability to take itself more seriously. This ability is a double-edged sword: it takes something like the incidental circus (which comes to the audience and isn’t staggeringly expensive to attend) and gives it the power to permeate the minds of high class viewers, thereby increasing its accessibility in that sense. However, this upward slope often continues to the point where the original participants and audience members can no longer afford to access it (this definitely applies to Cirque du Soleil, and Circus Oz as well–which is ironic considering that Circus Oz presents itself as very working class and plays up the audience-performer connection). 

These concepts will hopefully get unpacked more, but in the meantime, I’ve got tumbling to do.


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