Friday 9 May 2014

Why do some clowns want to discredit some other clowns?

Why do some clowns want to discredit some other clowns?

In a blog article entitled When is a Clown Not a Clown?” Katharine Kavanagh reflects on how some divide clowns into two groups. On the one hand there are clowns possessing these qualities: normal-looking, beautiful, ambiguous, nuanced, artist, communicating something of the human experience, bring joy and lightness, highly trained, true skill. And on the other hand are these kinds of clowns: heavily made-up, bewigged, inhuman characters, visual spectres, lazy reliance on visual image.

As with most binary oppositions, this claim that the two sides possess opposite characteristics is not the end of the story. One side will be awarded the privileged status, the other denigrated. Value is ascribed to one side at the expense of the other. In this case, the first group is deemed ‘true clowning’, and superior as it is supposed to characterise the qualities of clowning known ‘to performers familiar with the clowning tradition’, whilst the second group are denigrated as ‘bad’ or ‘non-clowns’, and are known ‘to the layman on the street’. This baddies vs. goodies value judgment is then completed by claiming that ‘many people don’t know what contemporary clowning means’. This divides the population up into those (the public, the majority) who ‘don’t know’ and those (the performers, the minority) who ‘know’.

This leads to some ‘finding it terribly sad that the word [clown] has become so misunderstood’. Personally, I find it ‘sad’ that some clowns like to criticise other (unnamed) clowns based on nothing more than having a different aesthetic to them. Actually, rather than sad, it makes me mad.

This kind of dismissal of others is widespread in some parts of the clown world. It is rarely countered, maybe because those who are dismissed have little interest in attacking others just because of their different approach. In my personal opinion, this lack of attack is a sign of good clown values. However, as someone who not only performs but also writes and analyses clowning, I feel compelled to make these points.

The ‘just because’ argument works both ways. Saying it doesn’t make you a clown just because you ‘dress in the familiar garb’ might sound reasonable. But I could equally say: it doesn’t make you a clown just because you don’t wear clown make-up, or just because you have trained with such-and-such a teacher, or just because you believe that the ‘key tenets of clowning are improvisation, spontaneity, a sense of being present in the moment’.

But I won’t bother arguing that, since to claim superior clown-ness by these means is pointless. I can only judge the quality of the clowning on a clown-by-clown basis. Otherwise, I could say that, given that a large number of the type of clowns who claim greater truth who I have seen have also been extremely mediocre or bad clowns, then I would be justified in claiming that all these kinds of ‘truth-claiming’ clowns are bad. And that would be ridiculous.  So, if you want to criticise some clowns, please do so on an individual basis, giving reasons. Otherwise, this is nothing but snobbery.

Jon Davison

Co-founder of Escola de Clown de Barcelona and author of ‘Clown: Readings in Theatre Practice’.

(This article was edited on 10/5/2014 to reflect the fact that the views expressed in Katherine Kavanagh's article were those of her interviewees.)
(This article was edited on 13/6/2014 to reflect the fact that the interviewees in Katherine Kavanagh's article had not given their permission for their words to be published.)


Katharine Kavanagh said...

Hi Jon,
I don't claim to be a clown academic, and look forward to reading your book - this blog is great! I do feel I need to respond to your post, however, as the 'direct quotes' that you use have been pulled from different paragraphs and arguments within my blog, and were never set up in 'binary opposition' in their original context!

My argument was not to split into two types of clown (other than acknowledging the fact that there are both good and bad clowns working, regardless of style), but rather to highlight the difference between an image and an activity.

The visual picture received by most people in the uk when they hear the word ‘clown’ is completely unrelated to the realities of clown performance, which is non-image specific.
‘The difficulty, of course, is the distance between the public stereotype of clown, and the work itself.’

Just as I say a clown doesn’t require make-up, it goes without saying that they can use it; I agree that the aesthetic should have nothing to do with the appraisal of an individual clown’s performance!


Jon Davison said...

Hi Kate,

I definitely agree that these issues should be discussed and I’m glad you are up for that.

On the good/bad clown issue: even if you are not making those judgments yourself about which clowns are good or bad, I do think that the people you are quoting are making those judgments in the way I described in my comment before. But perhaps it would be more accurate for me to ascribe those opinions to them rather to you.

On my quoting from different paragraphs: one way of revealing the assumptions of a piece of writing is to pick out keywords which seem to group certain concepts together, especially in the case of good/bad binaries. I think that the accumulation of those terms throughout the text is what potentially steers the reader’s view towards agreeing with those value judgments, almost without realising it. So I wanted to point that out, so that we can see what’s going on with those assumptions. I used the exact words from your writing in each case, placing them in two lists. That’s just my analysis, which of course you can disagree with, but I would say the method is valid.

Moving on from that, I’d say that there is a key assumption here which I don’t share, which is stated in that quote you give: ‘The difficulty, of course, is the distance between the public stereotype of clown, and the work itself.’ I don’t see that as a difficulty, even if there were such a distance (which I don’t really believe there is). That’s really the point I wanted to make!

You may not be an academic, but you are thinking about what clowning is and what it means, so you are theorising it, the same as I am, so I’d say we are the same in that way. All practices are based on some theory, whether we are aware of it or not, I think.



katharine kavanagh said...

I think that the ‘distance between the public stereotype of clown, and the work itself’ – which I do believe exists ;) – is only a difficulty when it comes to marketing and promoting work. Particularly if a £70,000 charitable donation can hinge on a photograph! For the artists I quoted, I don’t believe from their conversations that they were denigrating other forms of clowning, merely making a point that they feel the need to disassociate from the label because of the impact it has on people who would otherwise book and enjoy their work.

This is clearly not a good state for the industry to be in!

And it’s disappointing that by trying to give a range of examples around the nature of clowning, I have fuelled a binary debate on style of performance, rather than the question of public image that I was interested in. But, as you say, theorising can (and should?) inform practise, and whatever opinions people have are useful!

The Facebook group is a great link :)

Jon Davison said...

You're not responsible for fuelling that debate, it's been around a while, so don't worry!

That point about funding being dependent on an image is very interesting, and might uncover more issues. If nothing else, it is evidence of a kind of 'reality', a stark one. Nikolai Poliakoff (Coco the Clown) said that a clown must appear funny immediately the spectator sees them. I'd agree with that, whether that be achieved through costume or attitude.

The facebook group gets wonderfully crazy at times!

Looking forward to reading some of your other posts when I get a chance.


Randy said...

Thank you, both Katharine and John, for "thinking outloud" so we can learn and grow from discussions such as this. I'm grateful.

katharine kavanagh said...

Hi Jon! It's just been brought to my attention that you had updated your post, but the alteration isn't correct! The only 'direct quotes' from people on my blog were the ones I boxed and ascribed as direct quotes. All other text (the elements that you have pulled into your binary oppositions) is my own, and none were mutually exclusive. Nowhere in my article does it imply that an 'artist' cannot be 'heavily made-up', or that a 'nuanced' performer cannot be 'bewigged', or that someone 'highly trained' cannot appear 'inhuman'!
I'd like to stress again that I was not reflecting on 'how some divide clowns into two groups', but rather how the word clown will often provoke an IMAGE that may be entirely separate from the ACTIVITY of clowning. Yes, sometimes the activity and the stereotypical image can go hand-in-hand (for better or worse) but, in my experience, less often than the public tend to realise.
It seems you have been the divisive one, choosing any words that you feel are negative, and any that you feel are positive, and then setting them against each other rather than considering that they can exist together (or not at all!).
I'm sure you stand by your provocation, but I'd be grateful if you could remove the incorrectly referenced names :)
Many thanks, Kate

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jon Davison said...

Hi Kate, I'm happy to revise my comment to reflect your revised original post as far as 'who said what' goes.

I know it wasn't your intention to split clowns in that way, but I still maintain that there is a certain use of terms and concepts and language which is common in the world of clowning, which in effect produces this division.

I think there is another instance of that in your latest comment here when you say:

"The visual picture received by most people in the uk when they hear the word ‘clown’ is completely unrelated to the realities of clown performance, which is non-image specific."

You are claiming that 'most people' are 'wrong', that their image does not correspond to the 'reality'. I thoroughly disagree. To claim that the 'reality' of clowning is somehow other, and known by some who practice it, is pure elitism. There is no such thing as 'the work itself'.

To claim that clowning is non-image specific is an arguable point. My point throughout this discussion has been that it is both image and activity,which are inseparable. As a clown,I know that one tool at my disposal is image,and that it may provoke an immediate response on sight. I may choose not to take advantage of that, but it is there as a possibility.


katharine kavanagh said...

Thanks Jon! I do see what you mean in my use of general language - I think it would have been more appropriate to write "The visual picture received by most people in the uk when they hear the word ‘clown’ MAY BE completely unrelated to the realities of a clown performance, which isn't limited to any one image over another"

An example of what I mean specifically, is people I've met who have told me they're 'scared of clowns'/'hate clowns' and, when I ask them what they mean, they tell me 'it's the make-up', and when I ask them 'what about the make-up?', it's that 'it hides the person underneath'. What they hate/are scared of is an image, BUT when I ask them about the things clowns actually DO, they have no problem with the general activity!

I agree that each clown choose for themselves what their look should be, and have seen clowns in full make-up entertain people who previously claimed to hate clowns. This again is the activity, or realities of performance, winning over the predisposition towards a certain look.

I take your point about image and performance being inseparable in terms of each clown. When I've been using the term 'image', I've often been referring to the stereotypical assumption of a set 'look', rather than specific individuals.

I've been enjoying thinking about this! It's all about semantics, and I'm learning how to pick the words I choose more carefully ;)