Art for Art’s Sake vs. Mass Appeal

March 28, 2013 / by / 0 Comment

Last week I went to see the last of my shows for the 2013 HK Arts Festival – Smear by Wong Wing-sze (《屠龍記》編劇:黃詠詩  導演:李鎮洲). It’s the first time I’ve watched a play by this local playwright and I thoroughly enjoyed the performance (shame I hadn’t noticed her work earlier!). The play dealt with a very interesting and contemporary issue – the dilemma between creating art that appeals to the ‘mass audience’ and creating ‘art for art’s sake’ (the phrase here is not used in the sense of the 19th century phrase “l’art pour l’art” but simply creating art for some sort of artistic purpose/value and not commercial profit, gimmick, mass appeal etc.).

The story is about a legal warfare between a theatre actor and a reviewer. The theatre actor had created a play that was the only entry from Hong Kong to make the cut for performance in the Grand Theatre (thereby, supposedly, asserting its artistic value since it made the cut). It successfully put on show after show of full house performances, making it a commercial success as well. Despite its popularity and success, however, the reviewer wrote a piece that condemned the play as a vulgar joke and the playwright a disgrace of the ‘art world’. The playwright then sues the reviewer for slander and so begins a war of words and lawsuit.

While the reviewer argues that the actor has sacrificed artistic integrity and personal principle for mass appeal and profit, the actor argues that he has simply created a piece of work that drew more people into the theatres instead of watching movies or sitting in front of their TVs. If anything, the actor believes that he has done the ‘art world’ nothing but good because he popularized theatre with his play. What the reviewer calls ‘true art’ only ever held small indie shows in a theatre with no more than 200 people and the actor’s ‘vulgar joke’ has successfully attracted a thousand times more audience and attention.

I’m sure many of you must have heard about the recent controversy surrounding the local Hong Kong film Vulgaria (《低俗喜劇》). Wong’s play is coincidentally reminiscent of that controversy – should artistic integrity be sacrificed for profit and mass appeal? Then again, what is artistic integrity and who gets to decide what is ‘true art’? Is there even ‘true art’? I think that both the actor and reviewer in Smear have valid arguments. There’s nothing wrong with appealing to masses and attracting more people into theatre, but there’s a reason why theatre differs from movies or TV shows and a piece of theatre work should meet some artistic standard that qualifies it for theatre performance and not otherwise. At the same time, art that’s intended to perform should do more than just satiate the desires and egos of its creators. Not to mention, it’s not too helpful to neglect the audience and just ride on one’s own artistic high horse either.

So is this dilemma inevitable and irreconcilable? In the post-performance meet-and-greet, Wong expressed that she doesn’t view this as a dilemma at all. And I think I agree with her, I mean her play Smear alone proves that there doesn’t have to be a dilemma—the play had swearing, it had jokes, it had physical humor but it also had an important and meaningful message. The existence of this dilemma really just depends on how much effort and thought an artist has given into his or her creation.

Another thought I had from watching Smear is that I have difficulty with the term ‘mass audience’. Firstly, who is this ‘mass audience’ actually referring to? It seems as though we always talk about it yet it’s so vaguely defined, if not undefined. And if there is a so-called ‘mass audience’, why is there seemingly an assumption that they can only appreciate a certain level, if not a low level, of jokes/content? Personally, I believe that the audience actually has a much higher ability to assimilate content than generally assumed.

All of this is just my personal opinion, I’d love to hear how yours corresponds/differs! And if you’ve watched Smear or any other of Wong’s plays, share and sound off below!



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