Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Response to Comments

Isaac: I did not address your arguments about How I Learned to Drive because I don't want to get sidetracked by a discussion of individual works. I used those examples to illustrate, in broad strokes, a general concept. If How I Learned to Drive is going to sidetrack the discussion from the broader idea (the most effective way for an artist to interact with and affect a community), then I withdraw it as an example and substitute another -- say, Neil Labute, if you like, or none at all. Same with Chris Ofili's work -- my point was that an almost identical approach as Serrano's to a religious topic predictably provoked the same reaction. Whether this is part of Ofili's ouevre is an important context for understanding the work of art, but it doesn't mitigate the underlying similarity of form and content, nor diminish the strong reaction, which was my point.

Isaac and webloge: Yes, I have seen a production of How I Learned to Drive, and yes I have seen Chris Ofili's work (the latter in reproduction, not the original). And yes, I have seen Piss Christ and yes I have seen Mapplethorpe's photos. And no, I have not seen Passion of Christ. See above.

Joshua: You ask "Attack or not, what's the difference?" and also say "Freedom of expression means that we are bound to hear something that we hate." The roots of this discussion reach into other posts I have made on the artist as a member of a community, on the preference for classic plays over new plays, and on the despair over whether serious work can find an audience. I am proposing that artists engage in imagining their function differently as a way of stopping the downward slide toward theatrical oblivion we seem to be seeing. If you think everything is great on the theatre scene, then you should be free to ignore my writing, since it is an underlying assumption for everything. The idea of freedom of expression, clearly expressed in the First Amendment, has become disconnected from the responsibility to the community that protects that freedom, which is also in other parts of the Constitution. I couldn't agree more that "artists have played a huge part in social change because of their willingness to tackle subjects that many may want to avoid." What I am saying is that we are in danger of being ignored because we too often use our freedom to provoke for the sheer sake of provocation, and that is making us ineffectual when we have something important to say. Also, a minor thing: I use "artist" for lack of a better word to encompass the creators in different art forms. I tend to agree with Georgia O'Keefe, who felt that "artist" was what others called you after you had a body of work that has been acknowledged as worthy. But writing playwrights-actors-directors-painters-photographers-sculptors-composers-etc in my posts seems rather pointless. It is shorthand, nothing more.

p'tit boo: Yes, I am talking about cynicism, which of almost all viewpoints I find most objectionable. I believe in hope, and I believe that things can be improved. Not very postmodern, I know, and lacking in the irony that Matt says is the "sticky lifeblood" of his generation, and "like it or not, its the language we speak." I guess I'm just an old fart who prefers hope and engagement. Anyway, you beautifully express many of my deepest beliefs, and I thank you for your comments and participation. I would add, however, that I am not suggesting that artists should never be provocative. What I am suggesting is that the definition of a serious artist not be confined to being a mere "provocateur," and that in a cynical world of disorder, meaninglessness, and shallow materialism, it might be more "provocative" to create works of art that point toward hope, order, meaningfulness, and idealism. In another post, I mentioned Shlovsky's idea that art exists to "make the stone stony," which means breaking us out of the usual ways of seeing. Some plays that seek to provoke do so in a way that actually feeds the thing they wish to attack. In my opinion, Big Business benefits from chaos and meaninglessness, because they operate in that painful void and sell us things to fill it. If I really want to unsettle our materialist society, I would suggest not more chaos, but rather more reflexion.

I appreciate others engaging me and trying to persuade me to see things in another way. I think the worst thing that can happen to a community is the naive relativist statement "you believe what you want, and I'll believe what I want," which totally shuts down communication. If it is important, it is important enough to discuss and persuade. As Isaac says, "the civility mixed with passion of this conversation is quite invigorating." I agree.

I hope I can persuade someone to see things my way. However, just as important to me is that others clearly understand what I am saying. I would rather be understood and rejected than be misinterpreted and agreed with. And obviously being misunderstood and rejected base on that misunderstanding is entirely unacceptable.


Joshua said...

Hey Scott,

Obviously if you've read my blog (esp No More Covers) you know that I don't think everything in theatre is going great - you kind of left out the point in my comment, don't you think?

I don't think that everything is cool, but I don't think it's because writers, singers and artists are attacking too much. And I don't think it's because of obscenity.

If anything (and this I didn't state before) it happens because we lose the importance of the audience. We separate ourselves from them, and by doing so we lose them. That's what I think.

Joshua said...

I forgot to mention, your fixtation on provocation is a little strange to me - as I mentioned, some audiences love to be provoked, some look for it -

The work is built to move the audience, if it doesn't move the audience, then they don't listen and the work dies.

It's not that the work is provoking (and I actually think theatre is much tamer than it used to be, there are far less risks in theatre than in other mediums such as music and film) so it's not that the "artists" are driving the audiences away by provoking them - it's simply that a lot of "artists" in question have lost touch with their audiences and the audiences went somewhere else to be moved emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.

Broadway is a great example. Tickets are 80 dollars. The audience I write for couldn't afford that. My audience goes to movies and plays video games and listens to rock music. So I probably won't end up on Broadway and I'm comfortable with that.

Additionally, I saw a revival of Danny & The Deep Blue Sea last spring, 20 years after its premiere (a friend of mine starred in it and comped me) - it was Off-Broadway and tix were 60 bucks or so. Shanley was big now and the house was full.

But the play, as you know, is about working class rage and anguish and passion (among other things) and while my friend and I were laughing and touched by it (one quote "one time, my dad, my dad got so foocking mad he just foocking died") but the rest of the audience, median age 55, median income a lot higher, were untouched because it didn't mean anything to them. Little laughter or gasps, nothing. Polite applause.

They would probably go nuts if someone did a musical version of the film WALL STREET. That's why THE PRODUCERS did so well.

That was my experience.

It's not the provocation - it's the audience and the connection you make with them that sustains our community. If we don't do that, we will not survive. We have to find our audience.

This is all just my opinion, of course.

Anonymous said...

Hey Scott,

I think the reason why the specific examples matter is that my central counter-argument is that the phenomenon you are critiquing isn't real. Or rather, isn't a real force in art (although it perhaps used to be) and isn't a real force in theater. I think you're kind of barking up the wrong tree here.

What I was trying to say earlier is essentially this: Paula Vogel's art doesn't fall into the category you've described, neither does Ofili's unelss you believe that an audience has a right to a completely ignorant response to the art it sees, something which I disagree with (as I wrote on my blog). Furthermore, Neil La Bute and Rebecca Gilman (The shock jocks of today's theater world) are incredibly successful amongst the middle class, and therefore perhaps the problem one should have with their work is that it is fundamentally dishonest.

In other words, I fail to see how relevant your point is to what is going on today in the theater or in the art world. If this speech were made 10 years ago, I might get it. But you name no contemporary artists in any field producing current work who obey this rallying cry that I have never heard before reading your speech. I think you are grasping at straw men. And perhaps if you could supply some artists (instead of using ones that others have supplied) I'd feel your point more. The examples do matter, they're not side tracking.

I understand the point you are making, and there are large parts of it (About community and respect for one's audience etc.) that I greatly support and admire.

Honestly, to lay my cards on the table: The problem I have is that I fear that your speech may be taken by your impressionable students as advice along the lines of: don't challenge the viewer. And there should (in my book, anyway) always be a bit of a challenge to every work of art if it is to remain interesting. Not a "fuck you!" challenge or whatever, but a challenge nonetheless, be it formal, contextual, content, whatever.

I don't think you mean that. I really don't. In fact, I'm pretty sure you at least briefly address that other extreme in your speech. But by using work like Vogel's and holding it up to support a lambasting of a practice that isn't really going on anymore, I think you run the risk of encouraging another, equally dangerous extreme.

Does that make any sense, or am I just being overly contentious?