There is a battle for the soul of creativity, which rages across genres, across time, across art forms. In certain periods, one side will dominate: yet even in the most polarised skirmish, neither side can deny the opposition’s importance. Ranged on the high ground, with battalions of conceptualists and scholiasts, are The Forces That Believe in Form. The plains are held by Those Who Believe in Content.
The 1960s looked tasty for the Formalists. Their enthusiasm is for the way that art is presented. Recognisable tricks include the classic “Ah, but what is art?” bombshell, dropped by Marcel Duchamp when he exhibited a pissoir in a gallery; the adventures of Fluxus, as booked by Minimal Extreme; the abstract choreographer of ballet.
Yet the Content Young Team has always been more populist. Emphasising what the art is actually about, their ranks feature the great romantic ballets (sod finding new moves, let’s get down to Romeo and Juliet’s tragedy) and Chto Delat, Russian troublemakers and stars of Arika Episode 3. Critics, always an alienated bunch, might be able to play both sides. This critic is sufficiently lazy to have grasped hold of a tagline - I don’t believe in systematising taste – and so gets to run with both packs.
Glass/Flux was a sweet introduction to the Fluxus gang – kicking off with LaMonte Young’s hummed Composition 1960 #7. It wasn’t clear whether Ars Nova had actually started: as a teacher, it brought back nasty memories of those times a class acted in unison to create a low level buzz that might just be my hearing aid playing up, again. But the interludes taken from Philip Glass’ opera Einstein on the Beach were cunning interjections. They marked the shift between pieces – Jackson Mac Low’s The Blueburd Assymetries and Dick Higgins’ hank and mary, a love story, a choral could have run into each other too easily, since they both juggled words in disordered orders – and gave a quick blast of how Glass enjoyed playing with form without getting hung up on content. The choir sung them beautifully, Jonathan Morton gave it laldy on the violin, but the actual words were just numbers, counting.
Fluxus were naughty youngsters meddling with the zeitgeist: on the rump of hippy culture (LaMonte Young inspired The Velvet Underground via John Cale) and a more rigorous classical heritage, their selection at ME was psychedelic and witty. Emmett Williams had Paul Hillier, the big chief of contemporary choral, grunt and grumble his way through Genesis until the strange candle lighting ritual resolved into the Grand Phrase That Started the Universe. It’s high concept all the way – every piece questioned what a choir could do and still call it music – but equally funny. A score for the Formalists.
Chto Delat weighed in with The Russian Woods. The references to post-modern dance, the lecture demonstration and choral sing-along were in place, but secondary to the clear enunciation of the idea. The Russian Woods are a transparent metaphor for contemporary Russian capitalism. Broad enough to apply to any country, but made specific by some fancy video footage, The Russian Woods made a stark comment on how the apparently diffuse layers of society – from celebrities to internet geeks – are part of a social ecosystem.
Despite the laboured interludes, The Russian Woods is healthy food for thought. Rather than wail against the system, it sought to understand how it operates, linking the activities of the church to those of the media. The direct address to the audience, the self-deprecating chatter of the performers as they reflect on the process of the product while they make it: Chto Delat are more interested in saying their piece, and making it stick in the memory.
This cosmic square-go is, perhaps, ultimately about the purpose of art. The Formalist tend to see it as an end in itself, although they might add that the cognitive dissonance produced by artists messing with the way art is presented might have a social and political dimension: the Contentualists (sorry) often grade art according to its social or political function, even when they consciously exploit the format to support the content. Both the Fluxus crew and the Chto Delat gang are provocative. They hot-wire the easy judgement – I am not sure whether The Russian Woods is amateur propaganda or a subtle parody of the way that media is screwing my mind – and expect the audience to engage. I’ll call it a draw, or plaintively ask whether I can have both.