Friday, 13 June 2014

Is storytelling 'high art' or 'low art'?

I spend such a lot of time trying to work out what my research is really about. 

Here's a potted history of storytelling:

Once upon a time...it was a folk art, a 'grounded aesthetic' (as Paul Willis would call it) not respected by the art establishment.  It was sometimes conservative, sometimes subversive, sometimes brought communities together, sometimes kept them apart.  Teenage tellers never told it quite the same as their elders, sometimes they didn't even allow their elders in when they were telling.  It was whatever people needed it to be.

The times they were a-changin'...and it became a means of resistance.  One of the many cultural spin-offs of the 1960s.  A rough-edged crusader against high art, elite culture and economic power.

It 'sold out'?!?! It became too good for the arts establishment to miss out on.  It appeared everywhere and became zeitgeisty.  It was best served with a glass of wine and some appropriate world music. 

Time to give it back? It's possible that my whole PhD is about finding whether teenagers want it back, whether they want to make room for it in their 21st century 'grounded aesthetic' or whether it's already there. 

I think, more likely, it's about finding common ground between forms of storytelling flowing up from the 'ground' and down from the 'air'. Finding a 'new vernacular' which works for a given group of young people and 'feeding' or 'seeding' it with stories from the high/low tradition of storytelling while they are getting going (which is my contribution). 

Willis (in Common Culture, 1990), along with most cultural theorists after him, feels that commercial cultural commodities - film, magazines, TV, music, computer games, consumer culture - have stepped into a breach which late capitalism and 'High Art' have left empty.  Work no longer exercises most young people's creativity and skill. 'High Art' comes with its meanings already bundled into it, and repels young people, he says.  Consumer culture and media give them more to play with and transform into their own meanings - so capitalism is the cure for the disease of capitalism. 

Well, maybe so and maybe not.  Storytelling is never some ethereal thing existing independently of the economy - far from it - but I think it would be a very welcome additional presence in that same breach.  Always bearing in mind, it needs to be an 'open' kind of storytelling - a 'writerly text' (thanks Barthes) - which has no specific designs on its listeners.

On my optimistic days, I think the respect now accorded to storytelling as a 'proper' artform might mean it could act as a special language for young people to articulate their perspectives to the adult world. 

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