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The Commercialization of Art
This “Russian Whirling Dervish” clip from the show “Riverdance” illustrates why the show’s producers were criticized for commercializing a supposedly pure art form.
John Dunn, Assistant Professor of Fine Arts, Northwestern State University of Louisiana
Courses Taught Fine Arts Survey, Music Theory
Original Source YouTube
Suggested forPerforming Arts Appreciation, Fine Arts Survey, Aesthetics
- Introduction: Riverdance was a wildly successful theatrical production based around traditional Irish stepdancing. While it was responsible for an enormous worldwide surge of interest in stepdancing, it was also criticized for commercializing the art form and for pandering to the audience with elements such as this “Russian Whirling Dervish” act which is not only not Irish but appears to be barely Russian. Many of the critics, however, were ignorant of the history of stepdancing which itself was heavily shaped by dance masters trained on the continent and by other non-Irish influences. Furthermore, modern stepdancing is a competitive sport which has evolved rapidly as participants seek any advantage such as a flashy costume or a new step (including recently rising up briefly en pointe). Riverdance itself started life as a competitive entry in the annual Eurovision Song/Dance contest and thus had to be appealing to a mass audience in order to win. Thus it may be observed that today’s “bastardization” becomes tomorrow’s tradition, and that, to the extent that art is intended to please an audience (or a judge), it must always have some level of “commercial” appeal.
- After viewing the clip and participating in the discussion, students will be able todescribe the extent to which the show “Riverdance” was designed to appeal to a mass audience rather than a narrow group of devotees of Irish culture.
- Students will be able to discuss the idea that all art is required to have some level of commercial appeal and whether they agree or disagree.
- They will be able to present arguments for and against the commercialization and popularization of traditional art forms.
- Before showing the video, ask students how many of them have seen or heard of “Riverdance.” For any that have not, give a brief history of the show, including the fact that it started out as an entry in a European-wide contest.
- Tell students that the show advertized itself as representing “the very best of Irish culture” then play the clip and ask students if they consider that to be a fair claim.
- Note that, in addition to the “Whirling Dervish” segment, the show also included gospel music, Flamenco, and other non-Irish elements, as well as taking significant artistic license with the Irish music and dance it did contain.
- Ask students why, if the show was intended to showcase traditional Irish music and dance, it didn’t simply do so in a straightforward manner. Were the changes intended as artistic experimentation or just a way to sell more tickets?
- Lead a discussion involving the following question: Does a commercial venture, like Riverdance, have any obligation to maintain “authenticity” when presenting a show based on traditional art forms?
- Continue the discussion by asking if the students think it is ever possible to be a “popularizer” while accurately representing what it is you are popularizing?
- A third question: Can a person be considered an artist if they appear to be more concerned about making money than making art?
- Finally, ask students to cite examples where other artists have been accused of “selling out.” [Elvis wearing gold jump suits, Ravel writing "Bolero," etc.] Where do they stand on the debate?
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