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Spectacle or art: backline techs weigh in

A few years ago when I started working with one of the country music artists that I design lights for now, we had a backline and patch tech from a very large, very well-known sound company1 who, to put it mildly, had opinions on what concerts should and should not be. According to this individual, concerts are places for nothing but big sound systems, big guitars, and big hair. For him, moving lights, strobes, cryo, lasers – these are all superfluous and should be shunned. As near as I can articulate of what I think his position was, big rock shows should be lit by a PAR rig and a few followspots. Anything more is just spectacle, fluff, ostentatious flash lacking meaning or symbol. While his message was perhaps obscured by the fact that he was a giant jerk (until he was fired for complaining about the PM on Facebook while simultaneously tagging him in the post, proving he was socially as well as technologically inept), a useful question can be extracted from his brain detritus: are all the lights, smoke, lasers, flash…are these elements that belong in a concert? Are they art? Or are they merely window dressing; a pretty distraction for a lack of musical integrity?

The issues raised here are not new, the question of what “art” is continues (and will continue forever to be) the subject of popular and scholarly debate. Aestheticians have been wrestling with this question for centuries, and we’re not going to make any sort of dent in the debate here. That said, in order to even attempt to answer this question, we have to agree – on some level – on a working definition of what “art” is, in order to have something to judge the merits of our hypothetical performance against. It seems intuitive that our definition should be quite broad, or we’ll end up regarding important works as worthless. Fundamentally, why is Piss Christ better than Michelangelo’s Pietà? Is Piss Christ art? That’s a topic for philosophers of aesthetics. Judging myself unqualified to say such works are not, and with apologies to philosophers of aesthetics everywhere who actually do this kind of thing for a living, I will put forward this provisional definition: any work that deliberately attempts to evoke an emotion, feeling, or thought in the persons viewing or experiencing it, that the artist has on some level thoughtfully reflected on.

Like I said before, this definition is broad; deliberately so. We’re not trying to enter into a debate about the finer points of whether a stack of vacuum cleaners qualifies as “art”.2 Our subject occurs in the context of a modern touring musical act that utilizes various forms of technology to excite the audience, punctuate bits of the music, and create a feeling, create a mood, tell the story either by highlighting, or distracting from, or drawing attention toward or away from something on stage.

By our definition, then, art is many things, and I’m okay with this broad definition, at least for the sake of our discussions. While pondering what we as designers might think of as art is instructive, considering the implicit (or explicit, in the case of the Jerk-Ass Patch Tech) assumptions that our occasional detractors are making is also illuminating. Generally, from my arguments with those who disagree with me, I think these assumptions are3:

  • Spectacle and art are mutually exclusive
  • “True” art is restrained and does not embrace new technology
  • A performance should stand on pure musical merit (or lack thereof) alone
  • Performances should be limited to a single medium, and that one necessarily suffers at the expense of another – as the quality of the lighting and visual performance goes up, the quality of the other elements goes down. Put another way, the music is necessarily diminished by large visuals.

One quick note on the subject of definitions, I define “spectacle” neither positively nor negatively, by this I simply mean that spectacle is something unusual and “big”, it makes you stop and look. A train wreck is a spectacle, but a horrible one. Modern rock concerts can certainly count as spectacle, too, but in a generally positive context. Onward.

There are several problems with these assumptions, not the least of which is the ongoing and well-documented “get off my lawn” old people kvetching about changes and seeing the past through the rose-colored glasses of youth. To illustrate this point, here is a picture of the rock band Genesis, who I think most old sound guys would agree is a pretty cool classic rock band:


I believe this is the 1977 Wind and Wuthering tour, wherein there are only PAR cans with gels, no moving lights (because they were just a twinkle in Showco’s eye) and no silly gags like lasers. What the crusty among us conveniently forget is that PAR cans with gels represented the state of the stage lighting art at the time in 1977. Even here, the very first Vari-Lites were less than a decade away, and this very band would go on to be involved in their development and usher in a new era of automated state lighting. Art pushes boundaries, and there have always been and will always be a portion of people whom new technology passes by as they fail to understand its potential and utility. The “past was just better” argument is basically a desire to freeze the present in something that closely resembles the past at a time when they were most emotionally impressionable. I find this argument without merit and therefore dismissible. The past, really, was just different.

But perhaps there are other arguments to be teased out here, so let us examine these assumptions one at a time.

  • Spectacle and art are mutually exclusive

This sort of thought process rules out other large and visually-striking performances that most would otherwise classify – unhesitatingly, I think – as art. Swan Lake is incredibly popular and a beautiful piece of performance, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who would classify a full performance of a ballet that requires a cast of dozens, an entire technical and artistic crew larger than many touring acts as small. Is it a spectacle? Again, to return to our definition of something unusual and big that makes you stop it look…it is. Undoubtedly. Is it art? Unquestionably.


A performance of Swan Lake by the Royal Danish Opera.

Why should the medium of the expression – lyrics sung by a lead singer with a band instead of ballet – change the artistic value of the piece? I do not believe that it does.

  • “True” art is restrained and does not embrace new technology

The camera was once new, and today Ansel Adams is widely recognized as a pioneer in the art of photography. James Turrell is an artist whose work for many years was an exploration of the possibilities of mundane fluorescent light tubes, and he has received no less than a National Medal of Arts for his work. Art has always embraced new technology, and only the most Philistine curmudgeon would suggest that true art is restrained. Art exists to break boundaries.

  • A performance should stand on pure musical merit (or lack thereof) alone

This objection comes closest to having a grain of truth embedded in it. Of course a concert performance should have musical merit, and it’s certainly possible that there might be artists out there who are wholly unconcerned with the artistic merits of their music. These, I feel, are probably the vast minority, and in any event I don’t think it’s possible to judge whether or not an artist has “true” artistic intent in their hearts by simply viewing their works. There are works, of music and otherwise, that I feel might be insipid and uninspired, or even bad, but to claim the artist was simply out to make a buck or had no grander vision than flash ‘n’ trash treads on dangerously arrogant ground.

  • …music is necessarily diminished by large visuals

A performance can be overwhelmed by too much “glitter”, for sure. There are contexts in which a whole bunch of spinning gobos would be distracting and in poor taste. The relevant distinction here is whether the lights and effects in question are tasteful, do they match the beat and tempo and energy of the music? In fact, every single one of these objections can be countered with an application of taste, which is very closely related to skill. There are lighting designers that I feel do too much, they overcue, they have too many chases or strobes or whatever going on at a time and it looks overdone and awful. Of course there is bad and poorly-done art in the lighting design world. There are principles of good lighting that we learn through studying the greats, fundamental precepts regarding angles and color and movement. A rig of two hundred moving lights isn’t necessarily going to result in a bad (or good) show, how the designer and programmer utilize those two hundred moving lights is going to determine that. And this point is the crux of what I’m trying to say: everything in our toolbox as designers is just that – a tool. Cryo is a tool, fog is a tool, Syncrolites are a tool. What matters is how we use them; how we paint on the canvas of the stage with the brushes of light and color.

Let us reject overly-simplistic and anachronistic notions of what constitutes a good show and instead focus on the merits of taste and skill of the artist. The art of stage and production design should be judged on nothing less.

1: Rhymes with “Schmlair Bluthers”

2: Astute readers may have correctly inferred that by using this piece as an example of controversy, I am in fact subtly passing judgement on it.

3: These are what I’ve picked up from my disagreements and conversations, if any of my sound brothers or sisters wish to disagree or wish set the record straight, my contact information is freely available on this site.

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