If the definition of fine art is that it serves no purpose other than engaging the viewer, then reenactors are fine artists. My reenactor friends are every bit as focused and idiosyncratic as my fellow artists.
There are reenactors for everything: for the French and Indian Wars, for Druidism (although I have some doubts about their source material), and even for the Bronze Age. Reenactors are passionate about history, and they love being outside. Sometimes they even like to camp. Beyond all, they have an acute desire to get the details right when it comes to their particular interest. “I know a lot of cooks who have a barely-getting-by wardrobe, but can tell you everything there is about 16th century English cookery,” one reenactor told me.
Reenacting is performance art without an agenda. It’s kind of the opposite of Downton Abbey, more interested in long-gone reality than gloss.
A British reenacting group, Ragged Victorians, take us back to a time when there was no social welfare network and when poor people lived by whatever means they could. If that meant being the night soil man, then they did the work in order to feed themselves and their families.
Yesterday I knocked out a 90-year old ceiling (it was bowed) and was rewarded by a shower of the grossest detritus imaginable. All I could do to retain my sanity was concentrate on the promise of a bath when I was done. To me, that hints at one of the worst aspects of Victorian poverty: horrible sanitation. Lice. Maggots. Filth. Cholera. Hantavirus.
That’s what struck me first about Ragged Victorians: they’re dirty. They are a theater group, but one with strict adherence to detail. Cleanliness is a luxury of wealth, and they don’t go there.
The best art makes us think; Ragged Victorians certainly do that. They’re street theater, they’re art, entertainment, recreation and education. And during this week in which we ponder our blessings, they’re a reminder of just how blessed we modern Americans are.