20x20: Disturbing, not pleasing, should be art’s role

This week the theatre world farewelled a giant – Belgian festival director and curator Frie Leysen. We revisit her 2015 article encouraging boldness, as part of our 20x20 series celebrating 20 years of ArtsHub.
20x20: Disturbing, not pleasing, should be art’s role Frie Leysen. Photograph by Ilja Höpping via www.e-tcetera.be
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Richard Watts

Friday 25 September, 2020

This week the theatre world farewelled a giant – Belgian festival director and curator Frie Leysen. We published her article in January 2015 that encouraged Australian artists and arts organisations to be bold. Now more than ever her message has a resonance. 

As the next article in our 20x20 series, we take a look at how the sector's perspective has changed on this important topic of bold creativity and innovation.


Belgian festival director and curator Frie Leysen challenged Australian artists and arts organisations to be bold, and to challenge an increasingly ossified status quo in her closing keynote address at the 2015 Australian Theatre Forum (ATF).

‘We created a culture of “pleasing” that is now hijacking us,’ she said. ‘We want to please everybody: the audiences, the subscribers, the sponsors, the press, the colleagues… a big mistake!

‘Art should not please. On the contrary. Art has to show where it hurts in our societies, in our world. We urgently need the courage back to pick up this role of disturbers again.’

Delivered at Sydney Opera House on Friday 23 January, Leysen’s speech – entitled About embracing the elusive or the necessity of the superfluous – was wry, witty and well received by ATF delegates.

In it, she reflected on the role of art in a time ‘of right-wing nationalism, extremism, racism and intolerance … where politicians understand creating fear is the most efficient weapon to keep us all under control’; in a world where traditional boundaries were increasingly blurred.

‘Art should not please. On the contrary. Art has to show where it hurts in our societies, in our world.’

‘We all know that in the contemporary arts, the former labels for disciplines are no longer valid. The borders between them have become blurred. In Europe, I see the difference between art, culture and entertainment vanishing. I have a strong feeling, certainly after attending some of the meetings here, that the same is happening in Australia. But the three are completely different, have different missions, different needs and different logics.’

One of the key themes in her broad-ranging speech was a concern that existing structures in the arts sector were outdated, and not being renewed.

Read: How bold would we like the Australia Council to be? – Esther Anatolitis (2019) 

‘We have built theatres and arts centres, and we created festivals to produce and present art works and to welcome audiences in the best possible conditions. But, during the years, most of these structures and organisations have become rusted and sclerosized. They became dinosaurs,’ Leysen said.

‘Originally meant to support the artists, they got organised very well, often too well, and so lost the needed flexibility to respond to the specific needs of specific works. The artists now have to follow the policy and the rules of the houses instead of the other way around.

‘We urgently have to reconsider the role of theatres and festivals, as instruments to facilitate and valorise artists again. And we need more flexible structures, production houses that can work tailor-made with artists.’

Festival-makers in particular were sometimes guilty of under-estimating their audiences, Leysen continued.

‘Often I hear organisers say “it is nice, but not for my audience”. Who is that audience? A monolithic block of people? And who are we to say what they want to see? Underestimating is an insult. Being demanding is a sign of respect.’

Though the ability to rethink structures and systems does exist, it seems largely restricted to the periphery, among individual artists, she said. Leysen also identified a lack of focus on the creative – on the arts themselves – among contemporary culture-makers.

Read: Incubating ideas needs more than a hip share office – Gina Fairley (2018)

‘Also, in this pleasing culture, we constantly adapt to who is addressing us. We answer in the different languages, in the different logics of our counterparts. Mistake again.

‘To the politicians we speak with political arguments; to subsidisers and sponsors we speak with financial, economic arguments and of huge audiences. To audiences we speak with entertaining arguments; with the press we speak with superlatives and exclusivity arguments. And with colleagues, we confirm each other. We must urgently find our artistic language and artistic arguments again,’ she said.

‘We must urgently find our artistic language and artistic arguments again.’

One way to do this was to change our language; to focus on the risk of making art instead of trying to sell works of known quality.

‘How can we make the audience a partner in adventure instead of a consumer?’ she asked.

‘How can we communicate with audiences that theatre is a living art form, every night created again and again. And fragile. That even the biggest artists also make work that is not fantastic?

‘We should valorise the risk, the adventure, the ephemeralness of theatre, the uniqueness of the experience, the temporary community that is created every evening again with the actors and the audience.’

The full text of Frie Leysen's speech titled Embracing the Elusive, presented at The Australian Theatre Forum: Making It is available here. The Forum was held 20-23 January 2015 in Sydney. 

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R FM, a program he has hosted since 2004.

Richard currently serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management, and is also a former Chair of Melbourne Fringe. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, he has also served as President of the Green Room Awards Association and as a member of the Green Room's Independent Theatre panel. 

Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend in 2017. Most recently he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize for 2019.

Twitter: @richardthewatts