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On view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the moment is an exhibition entitled “Seurat’s Circus Sideshow,” a collection of mostly French works from the late 19th century featuring scenes of street circus parades and sideshows, and anchored by Seurat’s work Parade de Cirque. Some of the works are familiar – the distorted and grim images from Daumier have been much reproduced – but mostly these works were unfamiliar to me. How fascinating that the down-and-out traveling circuses, with their strong men, fat ladies, acrobats and raggedy musicians, were apparently so present in everyday French life that they were a subject for so many artists. They must have been as familiar to people then as TV commercials are to us today. The iconography is consistent and repeats itself again and again across all the works: fascinated children and gaping adults, looking on as sad, underfed and exhausted performers go through their routines of shouting, playing, gesturing, dancing, drumming, in a frenzy of manufactured jollity. None of the performers, none, looks happy.

It is hard for us today to imagine the pre-internet, pre-television, pre-cinema world, where news traveled slowly and most people lived, worked and died very close to where they were born. Even in sophisticated Paris there was a taste for the exotic, and this must have been multiplied one hundredfold in smaller towns and villages. Consider the curiosity and excitement when traveling performers arrived in town, they who did work that did not seem like work, wore colorful clothing, consorted seemingly outside the normal conventions of parish life, and moved freely from place to place. They were a diversion and a window into a world otherwise mysterious and unknown to the farmers, laborers, and townfolk who looked on in wonder.

I am grateful for those performers who lived a precarious life and are documented by Seurat and his colleagues. As far as we know they always existed in some form, stretching back into unrecorded times, story tellers, musicians, poets, troubadours, jesters, clowns, often unwelcome, staying alive and bringing a little color and life wherever they went. It may have been they who whispered of a more interesting world, somewhere, to the young eager to explore and travel. It may have been they who piqued the interest of nascent physicians and scientists, urging them to pursue the unknown It may have been they who evoked creation and inspired the talent in future playwrights and musicians. And it may have been they who, by their very existence, dangled the notion of freedom in front of women and men enslaved by a gender and class-bound life.

Today we look on in wonder at a different sort of sideshow, in the form of so-called “reality” TV. Manufactured for maximum intrusiveness, we follow the lives of the extremely ugly, the extremely fat, the loud-mouthed, uneducated and profane, the marginal, the different and the other, with the same open-mouthed stupor that sideshow gawkers felt in another era. Far from inspiring, these shows allow us to feel superior to their unfortunate and desperate subjects; my life may be chaotic, my relationship rocky, my family crazy, my health dubious, but I’m not as bad as that! Video and live streaming have likewise given unprecedented opportunity to whoever wants it, for attention, for notoriety, without consideration of talent or worth, and minus the significant inconvenience and uncertainty of an itinerant performer.

Are contemporary artists going to treat these subjects? Will museum-goers one hundred years from now view an exhibition on reality TV and marvel at the talent it inspired? Probably not. Perhaps the clowns of today are politicians, for whom the art of buffo is never far away. Perhaps, right now, we are living in a sideshow on a national scale, one whose primary color is orange and is redolent of reality TV. Personally, I’d rather have the fat lady and the strong man.

©Melody S. Owens, Poets Sinews, 2017. Reuse with permission.

La Parade (The Sideshow) (recto)

Photo source: Metropolitan Museum of Art