Activism vs. Art

Like everyone else who came to the Fringe Festival this year, I truly wanted to adore Heart of Coal. Anyone who I had met who was involved in the show, even people whose names appeared in the program that I knew – I really like all of them. And of course the fact that Heather Henson had created the show’s puppets was a huge selling point. I got to learn a little bit about the environmental issue at hand in the show and I agreed with it a great deal. I was really excited before sitting down in the Green Venue to see the show on Thursday night. I even brought a bunch of friends, Fringe virgins, to see it.

At the end of the production, I regretted that it had been my friends’ first Fringe exposure. They hated it. I didn’t have such strong feelings against it, but something about it had bothered me. The set was beautiful, and I even liked the story. Albeit simplistic and lacking the allegory to truly make it a fable, I loved the idea of a fantasy kingdom and the problem seen through the eyes of a little girl. I loved the whimsy of it. I loved the concept and I adored the look of it, its use of music, the video that opened the production.

But it’s taken me this long to figure out what bothered me about it. First of all, the show would have been immensely more satisfying had there been a small, squawky puppet character, as I have come to love so well in other Henson creations. Think of the rats in Muppets Take Manhattan.

In all seriousness, however, I think there is a fine line crossed when the message of artwork overtakes the artistic achievement of the product. I don’t listen to any particular music for its message. But I try care for the earth – I’ve been a vegetarian for years, I drive a compact car (until I can afford a hybrid), I love composting, I am a recycling maniac, and I voted for Dennis Kucinich in the 2004 primary. But I don’t listen to music for any political purpose. There is great political music – don’t get me wrong, but it’s also first and foremost beautiful music. Think Sergai Prokofiev and Bob Dylan. I don’t listen to third-rate fourth-wave punk music just because the bands making it espouse hatred for George W. Bush and love for tofu.

I don’t disagree with the message of the Heart of Coal in any way, shape or form. I doubt there are many people who attended the Fringe who do, although I saw a McCain sticker on a car in the Shakespeare Festival parking lot. But the show’s problem comes in that it needs more development than simply presenting an issue. The same problem is everything I take issue with in Christian rock. A great deal of extremely popular Top 40 or radio rock music is awful, and much Christian “rock” consists of slimy derivatives of that. Yuck. But people listen to it because they agree with its message.

And don’t get me wrong. Heart of Coal was not that. It was completely original (although the Evil King could have done without the eye-patch). And it came close to living up to its potential. But there’s a reason that Schindler’s List is a movie that high school students watch in classrooms all across America and Syriana never will be. Much of Hollywood needs to realize this, too. We as audiences don’t have to put a stamp on something and say it’s great just because it deals with an important issue. There is a decided difference between activism and art. As a piece of activism, Heart of Coal is stellar. As a work of art, it’s a good start. More than that, though, I would love to see the ideas in this play developed into something that pulls together more, possibly developing other characters, and playing around with dialogue more. The bottom line is that to me, the best art doesn’t tell me its important and then try and live up to that label. The best music, theatre, anything really, is that which compels me with a beautiful story, a wonderful structure, and has an artistic impact on me which changes my mind. I think that a work like Heart of Coal has the potential to be that – it just needs more time.

1 comment

 
Jeremy wrote 14 years 33 weeks ago

Thanks for your thoughtful

Thanks for your thoughtful words, Emily.
What I'm discovering, in regards to opinions of the show, is that people either loved it or hated it. For every person who said that they were disappointed, someone else said that they were very moved by it. And I'm ok with that. I think it's all a matter of expectation. It seems that our show was one of the most anticipated shows at the Fringe this year (for either the theme or the design aspects). I think people wanted something that the show never was, so of course they were disappointed. The story was never supposed to be epic or complex. If it came across cliche or obvious to people, well, it was kind of meant to be... in the way fairy tales are. We didn't want to be important. Schindler's List and Syriana are both way out of our league. Hell, we weren't even trying to be Pan's Labyrinth. We just wanted to educate with a little tale that anyone, of any age or background, could understand. Did we have a message? Absolutely. And that in itself is a huge risk at Fringe.

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