The Old Brand New

Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam
Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam

What is art?  And what is “new”?

I was asked to address these questions in an evening lecture in Amsterdam Tuesday night (15 September 2009), as the final evening in a series of seven monthly events that were called The Old Brand New.  The lecture series was curated by a collaborative group of organizations in Amsterdam, led by de Appel arts center.  And the theater was without doubt the most beautiful venue I’ve ever spoken in (see the image of the Stadsschouwberg at right).

The tension between the new and the old.  This tension has been central to art theory and practice for almost 100 years, so how much “new” could I add?  The core of my message was based in my own research on improvisational performance, both jazz and improv theater.  I played audio and video clips for the audience that demonstrated how improv performers are always walking the line between the old (stabilities and structures) and the new.

Ultimately, the same question is central to all social theory–how to explain the tension between the structures that guide and support us in social life (cultural practices, ways of speaking, social roles, institutions, workplaces) and the new and improvised things that we do every day?  Sociologists call this “the structure-agency dialectic” and I talked a little about that, too, in Amsterdam.

My talk was preceded by a lecture by the famous scholar Dick Hebdige (known for the book Subcultures), and followed by Q&A with Dick and I.  A video of the event should be available on their web site before too long: