While George Hunka humorously paints a picture of me "standing at the side of his blog, paring his fingernails" while the discussion blazes around me (rather Nero-like, I imagine), I haven't actually been paring my fingernails so much as coughing my damn fool head off. I was very pleased to have such a thoughtful email from Brian, since I was incapable of having my own thoughts through the antihistamine-induced haze. (One of my last posts during this blurry period equated some artistic attitudes to rape, after which I decided to remain silent, or at best, pretty vanilla until I was thinking more clearly.) Anyway, I'm glad to see you have all carried on without me.
In many ways, I am content to stand on the side, since you all are doing such a wonderful job without me. George Hunka, as usual, has made a beautiful contribution with his "No More Audiences." SpearBearer Down Left joins the conversation with Theatre/Religion, expressing her belief that "theatre is at its most relevant when it speaks to something deeper than just advocating for positions, or painting our political climate with broad, one-sided strokes." Both are really worth the read. Matt Freeman made me laugh by confessing that he was born in 1975 "sue me," and goes on to express his annoyance at the whole damn conversation and says the whole thing is "self-righteous." He also, in a comment left, pats Brian on the head and finds his interest in the Greek "touching." Awwww -- ain't that sweet! Brian, the founder of the feast, rejoins the conversation in the comments area, as do many others. As George notes: "This comments page is now about three times as long as the original post!" If you haven't already, I recommend you read all the comments -- well worth the time.
So, as much to provide another post to which to attach more comments as a desire to enter the frey, I venture tentatively onto the field, fingernails nicely pared. I no longer have an excuse -- I'm healthy again. (Although I am very busy catching up, and getting ready for a guest lecture tomorrow on "the artist's responsibility" [in a class on censorship] and a conference in Denver on Thursday. All of which is to say, this post may be briefer than the subject deserves -- perhaps blessedly so.]
Anyway, here goes:
Peter Brook, in The Empty Space, began his chapter on "Holy Theatre" with a definition: "I am calling it the Holy Theatre for short, but it could be called The Theatre of the Invisible-Made-Visible: the notion that the stage is a place where the invisible can appear has a deep hold on our thoughts." He goes on: "This is what is meant and remembered by those who with feeling and seriousness use big hazy words like nobility, beauty, poetry... Many audiences all over the world will answer positively from their own experience that they have seen the face of the invisible through an experience on the stage that transcended their experiences of life....When they reproach the contemporary theatre for its kitchen sinks and cruelties, this, honourably, is what they are trying to say." While Brook dismisses most previous attempts to recover Holy Theatre by searching in past forms and nostalgic sentimentality, he does not dismiss the search. "All the forms of sacred art have certainly been destroyed by bourgeois values but this sort of observation does not help our problem. It is foolish to allow a revulsion from bourgeois forms to turn into a revulsion from needs that are common to all men: if the need for a true contract with a sacred invisibility through the theatre still exists, then all possible vehicles must be re-examined." (italics mine)
In his 1997 book The Politics of Meaning, Michael Lerner writes about the hunger for meaning that he found among the middle class people he was interviewing as part of a sociological study in 1976. "Our aim was to better understand the psychodynamics of middle-income working people..." What they found is quite interesting, and important for this discussion:
"What we learned from the thousands of people who participated in these groups challenged many of the beliefs that prevailed among us, and, more generally, in the liberal culture from which we researchers had come. We had thought of ourselves as psychologically sophisticated when we started this work, but we quickly learned that our assumptions about middle-income Americans were mistaken, prejudiced, and elitist. For example, most of us imagined that most Americans were motivated primarily by material self-interest. So we were surprised to discover that these middle Americans often experience more stress from feeling that they are wasting their lives doing meaningless work than from feeling that they are not making enough money. We found middle-income people deeply unhappy because they hunger to serve the common good and contribute to something with their talents and energies, yet find their work gives them little opportunity to do so. They often turn to demands of more money as a comepnsation for a life that otherwise feels frustrating and empty. In the Left and among many academics it has been almost a rule of reason to believe that what people really care about is their own material well-being, and that believing anything else is just some kind of populist romanticization. But we uncovered a far deeper desire -- the desire to have meaningful work, work that people believe would contribute to some higher purpose than self-advancement."
I think artists, as a group, tend to share the mistaken generalization about the middle class that Lerner outlines above. We think that exhaustion symbolizes apathy, and that a seeming unwillingness to be "challenged" is the result of intellectual apathy rather than emotional and spiritual rawness. There is a TV commercial for car insurance with the tag line "Life comes at you fast," and I think this could be the slogan for the last twenty years. We are daily bombarded with more and more information delivered in ever louder and more intense voices; we run from place to place, trying to keep up with everything that is happening; we work longer hours and at higher speeds, and when we come home we are tense and tired and drained. So my question is: just what does such a person need?
My tentative answer is: he needs meaning. He needs an artist to sort through the avalanche, slow down the onslaught, and make sense out of something in his life. Perhaps he needs someone to imagine the world another way, perhaps a world that values something more meaningful, more fulfilling, more human, where contemplation is encouraged and where serenity is a possibility. He might need to see the mystery in life, the holiness of a person or a piece of nature, the grandeur of the human endeavor.
Viktor Schlovsky, in his 1917 essay Art as Technique, wrote about how we normally experience the world: "If we start to examine the general laws of perception, we see that as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic." Therefore, according to this theory, the more we get used to a thing, the less clearly and firmly we perceive it. Art exists, Shlovsky writes, "that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known." In other words, art changes the way we know the world. It changes our rhythm, our angle of perception, our way of seeing. If art simply reproduces what already exists, then it loses it purpose; it simply joins the cacophony that is daily life. This is the error of Realism and its muscle-bound cousin Naturalism, who found their greatest achievement in the reproducing of life as it is lived.
So if our experience of daily living is fast, intense, overwhelmed, bombarded, meaningless, violent, intellectually simplistic, emotionally deadening, and spiritually empty -- then shouldn't we, as artists, try to alter perception by doing its opposite? If a late-capitalist consumer society is decidedly materialistic, would not a truly revolutionary act be to create art that finds meaning in non-materialistic perceptions?
This is a vision of the artist as balancer, a healer, as someone who looks at what aspects of a community's life is out of balance and creates art that seeks to provide what is missing or weakened. What people long for is not what there is already a glut of, but what is missing. In American society, I would venture to say that what is missing is a sense of meaningfulness, of purpose, of serenity and contemplation, of reflection and generosity. Might we, as artists, try to provide what is missing?