Art and Democracy

In November 2008, I saw a theatrical piece by Dave St. Pierre at Theatre La Chapelle in Montreal.  The piece was entitled “Warning” and it was produced by Mandala Situ.  It was my first exposure to the choreography of Dave St. Pierre (the well-known Montreal avant garde choreographer and dancer).  The stage opened with 3 nude women and expanded to four when a woman in a make-believe bunny costume joined them.  It seemed at first like a male heterosexual fantasy, including gratuitous nudity.  This notion was further augmented by the fact that I had never seen so many male audience members at a “dance” performance, many of whom had come alone.  Was nudity the most compelling attraction?  I had also not been to a show that was so continuously sold out at Theatre La Chapelle.  Hmmm!  Following the show, a friend asked me my reaction and I responded negatively saying that I felt it exploited the female body to no benefit.  I wasn’t sure what was gained by it.  He challenged me by saying that I needed to see this piece in the context of Dave St. Pierre’s body of work.   To be honest the piece stayed with me in a way that many others haven’t. 

This issue of Montreal Serai is about “Art and Democracy”.    What is art’s role in a democracy?  I felt compelled to do further research on the subject, knowing that it had been handled through the ages in a variety of ways.  I listened to an interview of Caroline Levine, author of the book Provoking Democracy: Why we need the Arts, who was interviewed by Liz Bulkley on NHPR Radio (  Levine’s position is that a democracy occasionally smothers voices that are not part of the mainstream.  She indicates though that the test of a democracy is its ability to allow and accept genuine challenges to culture.  Artists should be looking to push us out of our comfort zone and force us to see things with an alternate lens and consider the possibility of a parallel universe.  Artists seek to re-define conventions.  Levine also states that notions of diversity/pluralism are of significant importance for allowing us to know each other better.  If we relied solely on the marketplace, we would be continually dispensed more of the same…a la Hollywood.  Artists expand our horizons and stretch the impossible to the possible.

As it often happens in life, as I was trying to figure out of what to say further, the quotation below jumped out at me while I was reading Adrienne Clarkson’s biography of Norman Bethune.  In it she quotes Bethune as saying:

“The function of the artist is to disturb.  His duty is to arouse the sleeper, to shake the complacent killers of the world.  He reminds the world of its dark ancestry, shows the world its present and points the way to its new birth.  He is at once the product and preceptor of his time…  In a world terrified of change, he preaches revolution – the principle of life.  He is an agitator, a disturber of the peace – quick, impatient, positive, restless and disquieting.  He is the creative spirit of life, working in the soul of men.”

In an interview on the website Xtra, Dave St.Pierre is quoted as saying:

“You have to follow your art, not what other people say,” he says. “I will always try to push the limits with my work. If someone tells me I can’t do something on stage, I’ll do it.”

How do I feel about Dave St. Pierre’s piece now?  Still conflicted, but more clear around the role of art in a democracy.    Montreal Serai has played a role in this debate for the last twenty four years.  Bringing  the margins to the center!  Raising issues that would otherwise be glossed over and enabling debate which the mainstream media avoids.


A couple of websites you may want to check out:

An interesting blog….