Tuesday, October 25, 2005

A Hurricane All My Own

Well, apparently I have drawn the ire of my fellow bloggers, who have taken arms against me en masse! Apparently I have epatered le blogeousie! For those of you who want to follow the whole controversy, here is the list (at least, those I know):

It begins with two posts on my own blog, here and here. Attached to these posts are several comments. Then other bloggers begin to brandish the cudgel:

George Hunka at Superfluities.
Isaac at Parabasis.
Mac Rogers at Slow Learner.
Matt Freeman at On Theatre and Politics.

If you like a lively debate over ideas, this is definitely the place to be. What is most impressive about all of this, in my opinion, is that the exchange is passionate, but not abusive. It is clear that everyone respects each other, even if we disagree. And that means a great deal to me personally, and I think speaks well for the theatrical blogosphere.

I have less time than usual to blog, because this week is registration advising, which takes up several hours in my day. Nevertheless, I don't want to disappear entirely while the debate continues.

Where to begin a response?

Perhaps with those who would like to argue over the artistic value of Serrano/Mapplethorpe/Vogel. First, let me state my pedigree: in my previous job, I was Assistant to the Dean of the College of Fine Arts and Illinois State University, where we had a very cutting-edge art gallery run by curator Barry Blinderman. So cutting edge, in fact, that during my tenure we were attacked on the floor of the Senate by Jesse Helms for displaying the works of David Wojnarowicz, who had suggested in the catalog of his NEA-sponsored display that we should shove TNT up Helms' ass and blow him up. A year or two later, we had an intense local controversy over an artist who painted pictures of his naked adolescent daughter. During both of these controversies, I was deeply involved in handling media and local relations. So I have earned my stripes.

To those who would argue about the quality and symbolism in the work of Serrano, Mapplethorpe, and Vogel, I would readily assent. It would be so much easier to attack these works if they were done by hacks. It is very true that Serrano picture is beautiful when viewed formally, and Mapplethorpe's photographs are absolutely gorgeous technically, and Vogel's work is extremely sensitive. Most of the masterpieces of the 20th century are absolutely brilliant -- say, Nabakov's Lolita. Despite their masterful use of the form, the content of the work is designed to provoke.

Now, Isaac says that most artists are not like Serrano, Mapplethorpe, and Vogel, but I am not certain I would agree. Perhaps I need to be clear, though: I am talking about serious artists, those who are attempting to do something that transcends mere commodity. If we include all those whose main goal is to tickle the audience, then I am in agreement with Isaac. But if we are talking about serious artists, I think most would share Matt Freeman's creed: "[Artists] are, in fact, supposed to break social contracts, attack their audience, embrace their audience and do whatever it is they feel is best to make their statement." I'm not certain how much clearer this can be stated: 1) artists have no responsibility except to their own selves, 2) their job is to break social contracts and attack the audience.

To me, this seems not quite grown up. In fact, it sounds downright adolescent. But I would be happy to entertain the notion if Matt or anyone would go beyond the level of assertion and actually lay out the case for this ethic.

Matt also makes what seems to me to be a very shaky argument: "For the record, "Piss Christ" is still being giving substantial discussion. Take this one, for example. We're not discussing "Our Town" or Winslow Homer are we?" We're still talking about the Holocaust today, but that doesn't mean that there is much to recommend about Auschwitz.

I also must admit to being very puzzled by what George Hunka calls Isaac's "key graf" (clearly, I still have to learn blog-speak): "Art isn't useful. It has no practical purpose. If you buy a chair, you have a chair. You can sit on it. You can commodify it. You can resell it. You buy a ticket to theater, and you have a couple of hours of an experience that may, indeed, change you. It will, with any luck, impact you in some way. But what can you do with that impact? It's all ephemeral. As artists we need to help our audiences enjoy and value that experience in a world where something uncommodifiable is another term for something worthless." I understand the idea, which has a little Kant in its background, I suspect. But I hope Isaac will elaborate: are you saying that only material things have a "practical purpose"? That because ideas have no substance, they are purposeless? Surely I am misinterpreting what is being said, because if this were so then only industry would have purpose.

Isaac also comes to the conclusion that I think "art is made for the middle class" -- I assume what he thinks I am saying is that "art is made solely for the middle class." Not so. But as I noted in my lecture, epater le bourgeousie has been a rallying cry for the arts for a century, and in that phrase the target is clearly named. Nobody says epater le lumpen-proletariat, for instance, or even epater le tres riche bastards. No, most artists come from the middle classes, and they tend to attack their roots.

That said, he mentions friends of his who run a "thriving artistic home" called BAAD! that addresses "queer people of color" as an example of artists not doing art for the middle class. Very true, and I also will point at the same group as being an excellent example of artists who have created a community around themselves, and address them. Now, I don't know the work of BAAD!, but I would be willing to bet that they do not take a hostile attitude toward that community that they have built. And so we can discuss artists being part of a community, or, alternately, artists being hostile to a community that they are not a part of.

Listen, I am not against art that provokes. I think we needed the provocative art of the 60s and 70s as a way of breaking us out of the complacency of the 1950s. But today's mass media is filled with hostility. We are constantly yelled at on TV, the internet, magazines, newspapers about environmental damage, the economic destruction of the global economy, the increasingly wide gap between rich and poor. We are constantly told, at least implicitly, that changing things is impossible, that idealism is stupid, that competition beats cooperation, that capitalism red in tooth and claw benefits everyone, that the spiritual is nonsense, that personal piece is impossible and undesirable. 2005 is not the Leave It to Beaver world of the 1950s, one that needed to be shaken up. Today, we are shaken up hourly, to the point where we no longer notice that we are shaking. Maybe if we want to attract attention, we need to stop shaking, noit shake harder.

I am not saying artists should not try to make a difference, however slight; nor am I saying that we shouldn't do what we can to get the attention of the audience. What I am saying is that our shock techniques, which were so right in the face of the 50s or the 20s, are wearing out in today's abrasive world. As Mac Rogers notes, shock playwrights like Neil LaBute are being embraced by the masses. We eat shock for an afternoon snack. If we really want to get attention, it seems to me we should change our tactics and focus on something we're not getting right now: significance, humanity, order, spirit, caring, community.

Is that so objectionable? Why are we so very much attached to attack?


P'tit Boo said...

I've been following the discussion on all sides and have been quite enjoying the debates . I am not quite as articulate as some of you on here, but I pop up here and there with some opinions. :)

Mainly, in response to what you say about provocation in the Arts, I think I hear what you are saying, Scott. . And it sounds to me that when you talk about hostility, you are not talking about provocation as much as cynicism. Cynicism is definitely prevalent in the medias and in the Arts these days and I think that it is the great killer of culture. It is so embedded in our ways of being and in our language that we don't even notice its omnipresence anymore. Especially my generation , the so called "generation X" ( boy that term never got much mileage thank god...). I think provocation is useful and I am not going to get into that too much because other bloggers already have, but. I don't believe cynicism is useful . I don't believe it serves any purpose .
What is also dreadful is when writers or artists start using irony to talk cynical. What I mean by that is when they put another layer of cynicism on top of cynicism. I used to think that was really funny. I don't believe so anymore. Advertising uses it more and more as well . Like.. "for everything else.. there is..."
Because what it does, is , it neutralizes language and eliminates meaning. And not in a good Becket kind of way. But in a "whatever, I don't give a shit" kind of way.
From working in schools and being around young people from 17 to 24, what I see is that they have no concept of what community is. They have no concept of how to create community or why they should even care to create it. They don't realize the power there is in creating their own rules, their own values , their world. So they make "I don't give a fuck" art. They are the babies of Tarentino ( I am talking early Tarentino, not the aging more spiritual Tarentino of Kill Bill 2) , of violence for the sake of violence. And they don't even realize that they do care. They do hurt. They do need. They do want. That is what to me is very dangerous and needs to be addressed in our art and in our classrooms. Community and meaning. A getting back to meaning and spirituality in The Arts is, I agree, essential. But I don't think that eliminating provoking art is what is going to do it. I think working on our awareness of how cynical we are in and with our art is more important.

Freeman said...

Scott, I think you've simplified my statement, even while quoting it. An artist is supposed to attack, embrace or do whatever it is they feel they must in order to express him or herself. That is not expressly praising or admonishing anyone for their degree of success. It's a broad definition that means: "Follow your own impulse." I like broad definitions in this case, because I think narrowing down what an artist should do (provoke, attack, hug) is not my right.

I'm not going to respond to the comment about your characterizing my thoughts as "adolescent." (My pedigree deserves a little more consideration than that.)

But I will say that I feel that an artists first responsibility is to speak the truth from his or her gut. If that means to attack the audience, they should do so. If a potential audience member wants a little more quiet, they have the right not to go to the galleries, listen to the music, or see the plays that make too much noise for them to stand.

I think my generation was raised with a sense of irony as its sticky lifeblood, and like it or not, its the language we speak.

You also write this gem (which begs a response):

--Matt also makes what seems to me to be a very shaky argument: "For the record, "Piss Christ" is still being giving substantial discussion. Take this one, for example. We're not discussing "Our Town" or Winslow Homer are we?" We're still talking about the Holocaust today, but that doesn't mean that there is much to recommend about Auschwitz."--

There is, though, much to recommend about visiting the Holocaust Museum.

Joshua said...

Hello Scott,

I stayed away from this thus far, not because it's not an important discussion, but because I've been involved in these kinds of talks before and, for whatever reason, they make me tired (no insult intended upon you or the other participants, understand, if you enjoy it, have at it) but it's been sizzling along and I feel compelled to throw my two pennies in.

Don't see, really, what you're worked up about on this subject. Attack or not, what's the difference? The work is the work - some work attacks, other retreats or invites you in - one style is not necessarily better than the other - it's whatever floats your boat. I think it's more important to do good work of good craft then to kill ourselves worrying about provoking or not provoking enough.

"Art" which is a word I often avoid 'cause it feels kind of pretentious, at least in my mouth, is what it is and the successful works are the ones that invoke a response, be it vicseral (sic) emotional or intellectual, hopefully all three at once. Hopefully the audience enjoys the experience and returns for more. If not, onto the next "artist". If the audience for the work feels nothing, odds are they won't come back. If they hate it, they may or may not come back (some folks love them some hatin', which is why provactours (sic) often have great careers, like professional wrestlers or political pundits).

But if you're saying that folks, writers, artists and photographers, are not free to insult each other, their audience or especially religion, that troubles me, that kind of censorship - we need that freedom because otherwise things that should be talked about (like the molesting priest scandal) don't get talked about. Bear in mind that artists have played a huge part in social change because of their willingness to tackle subjects that many may want to avoid. As long as no one is harmed in the making of the "art", I think we should let it go on to be whatever it is.

If I misunderstood your points, I apologize - but those are my meager thoughts on the matter.

Freedom of expression means that we are bound to hear something that we hate.

Personally, I don't find the Piss Christ as insulting as the film "The Dukes Of Hazard" or "The Passion of The Christ" -

Anonymous said...

Scott-- I'll have a fuller response up sometime over the next couple of days, but it seems that you totally avoided discussion of a few key points, the (most important) one i will bring up here:

That even if Serrano and Mapplethorpe fit your accusation of being "shock" artists, that assessment of Paula Vogel and specifically of her work "How I Learned to Drive" is totally unfounded and unsupported by anything in the text. Not to mention that your classification of the subject matter as "incest" instead of, say, pedophilia or sexual abuse belies your misunderstand of a text that clearly does not give Lil Bit any kind of consent into what happens between her and Uncle Peck (as the last scene of the play so painfully and beautifully illustrates).

Many of us in the blogosphere have specifically asked for proof in the text of Vogel's work (or, hell, in anything she's said or written about it) that supports your continued use of her play in discussing this matter. Simply put, her work is irrelevant to the conversation we're having, and it is a mischaracterization of her art to place her within these context.

Unless there is something in having read and seen the play I am missing. I guess I should ask as proof of your stripes if you have done either. I mean that not as a cheap shot, I'm just wondering where this response that you have as an audience member comes from, as I have never encountered anyone who viewed "How I Learned to Drive" in the same way you did. Thus, I am curious.

SImilarly, like Webloge, I wonder if you have actually seen Chris Ofili's work, or are responding to news reports about the work and its inclusion in "Sensation".

PS: Yes, BTW, the civility mixed with passion of this conversation is quite invigorating! Keep bringing it on!

Freeman said...

A more considered response:


devore said...

We're attached to attack, because we're a complacent, conservative society committed to our comfort zones. Your argument that art should or shouldn't be this or that way augments the truth that we're a culture of tribes.

For one, I don't believe in high brow or low brow. I spent a very brief period of my career as a food critic (very, very brief). The one lesson I took from it is that I love cheeseburgers as much as I love duck confit or toro sashimi.

Culturally, people want to be told what they want to hear. They're not angry, they're petulant. They don't want community, because a community accepts differences, and we're a society that wants to pretend everyone thinks the same and if they don't, if they want to truly buck the status quo, they get screamed at.

I have no idea what a serious artist is. I find the notion hopelessly bourgeois.
I have no responsibility to anyone but myself, as art is an affirmation of existence, a marker that announces in a thousand different ways "I exist, and this is the world filtered through my heart, my eyes, my mind, my soul."

Which is why, friends, the only true modern art form is advertising. It's what museums will be full of in 400 years. It reflects, honestly and properly, our era. And with that, I'm going to go purchase some Burger King chicken fries, and maybe scribble a few notes about a play about a talking Nazi fetus.