Sunday 4 April 2021

Clowns are not always good

For many years I’ve protested about the suffocating ideologies of wholeness and goodness and claims to truth in the world of clowning. The words and practices of clown teachers, their students and even unknowledgeable journalists and promoters who regurgitate tales of clowns being universally and homogenously uplifting, sacred or progressive, have always rung false in my experience. My initial rebellion came from knowing that, in my early years of learning clowning, being told to find truth or inner clowns, or freedom, or whatever, was not only utterly useless as a teaching and learning technique, but positively obstructive to learning and understanding. Giving students abstract instructions or formulas that they cannot even begin to try, let alone achieve, sucks strength and hope from them. That’s if it doesn’t create cult members of them. 

So when, over the past year, our global conditions and concerns have forced us to face up to many uncomfortable things, and clowns and clowning too came under the spotlight, I very much welcomed that. Here was a chance to challenge the specious universalism in clowning, for example, and to look for ways to work, teach, learn and create, that acknowledge that clowns and clowning, and even the concept itself, is not universal, and does not erase cultural, historical, ethnic, gender and other differences. My excitement - to challenge our lazy conformism to one ideology of clowning which is, by now, over half a century old and most likely highly inapplicable to today’s world, which has changed radically since the early 1960s (the date of the origin of most of our ideas today about clowns) - this excitement has increased over the last year as I‘ve seen many others ask themselves questions about what we have been doing and about how our practices have often become elitist and isolated in privilege. 

But, please, in our search for more progressive ways to clown and to teach and understand clowning, let’s not dismantle one set of lazy of thinking and then install yet another bit of binary thinking! Because, no! clowns have not always been anti-authoritarian, progressive forces for good. Even if we would like them to be that now. Clowns and clowning have also served reactionary, abusive, discriminatory and harmful forces throughout history and across cultures. Pick a topic for further research from many: blackface, ethnic comic types, famous clowns under the Nazis, erasure of women clowns from historical record, clowns as villains under Stalinism, appropriation of First Nation practices in Canada, neo-colonial export of Western pedagogy and aesthetics, populist right-wing leaders, and a host of clown representations which have been misogynous, racist, ableist or homophobic.

And it’s no use trying to claim that these are not examples of ‘real clowning’. We don’t need to exclude others and privilege ourselves in order to remain critical. If we are to really self-examine, then we must constantly remind ourselves that an artistic or pedagogical practice cannot in itself be ‘good’ or ‘progressive’. It is the use we make of it, the amount of thinking and reflection we can bring to it, that determines the ethics and politics of what we choose to do.  Please let’s not fool ourselves into assuming that, just because we work with clowning, we are ‘good people’.