Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Ground On Which I Stand

On Monday, George Hunka responded to my post on Academiaphobia with a challenge that I continue doing exactly what I'm doing, "only better," by which I assume he means that I should avoid some of the lightweight kvetching about Charles Isherwood and A O Scott and really write something with some weight. Fair enough. I'll try to pick up that gauntlet.

I find myself once again fallen afoul of the theatre blogosphere. This has become such a common occurence of late that I can't really express surprise. However, never before has something I have posted been labeled "evil," which is how George Hunka characterized my post of a manifesto by Frederick Turner. You can read George's full dismantling here. Allison Croggon and MattJ also contribute their thoughts, con and pro, in my comments box, and Joshua James dittoes George's viewpoint while Isaac provides an ad hominem argument in George's comments box. So I guess almost all countries have been heard from. Indeed, the comments box on George's blog was filled, at last check, with fully a dozen responses to his post. This is the problem with following George's challenge to post thoughtfully and deeply: one misses the flurry of the discussion. Nevertheless, I will take my time, and answer carefully.

While I did not expect everyone to stand up and throw their hats in the air shouting "Huzzah!," I must admit to being rather upset by the response. Allison "felt more and more depressed reading this post," and has since gone on to call Turner (and by reflection, I assume, me) "reactionary" and "intellectual[ly] dishonest." George experienced a "growing sense of confusion; then wonderment; then bitter despair." I must admit that I had a similar experience while reading their responses. Never have I felt such a philosophical chasm separating me from my fellow bloggers, and I won't pretend that it doesn't depress me, primarily because I have a sense that it is at the level of bedrock worldview that we differ. In his comment, George writes "I'm afraid we're going to have to disagree," a sentence that I find deeply saddening, because it seems to evoke silence, not further discussion.

Nevertheless, in the face of my despair, I will do what bloggers do and write in the hope that, while agreeement may be impossible, at least a clearer understanding of the disagreements might ensue and a rope thrown across the chasm might provide a point of connection, even if it is only that of a tug of war. George has apparently gone on a holiday break, but it is my hope that the others who failed to leave a comment on my original post but have contributed, indirectly, to the conversation by leaving comments in George's comment box will grace me with their presence.

At this time, I am not going to respond to Allison Croggon's description of the "New Classicism," because I do not know enough about that movement to comment. If I have time, I will read a little more of Turner's actual work to find out whether I agree with the entire program. I will say, though, that I find the application of political terms like "conservative" and "reactionary" to aesthetic issues to be objectionable, because its effect is to place a general label in the place of consideration of individual aesthetic ideas. Furthermore, I cannot agree that one cannot sympathize with Matthew Arnold's aesthetic opinions without simultaneously accepting his political opinions any more than I can agree that Ezra Pound's poems cannot be appreciated without sharing his fascism. I don't have to swallow the whole Christmas goose just because I've nibbled on a wing. We have the right -- indeed, perhaps the responsibility -- to pick and choose and interpret ideas individually.

Therefore, I would like to base my conversation, at least for now, on the manifesto itself, and some of the questions that surround it, rather than Frederick Turner's other writings, his website, or his attempts at poetry.

Responding to Turner's first item, "The reunion of artist with public," Allison Croggon writes: "who are the "general public" lauded here? Aren't they a bunch of individuals whose tastes and desires are impossible to second guess?" Yes, and no. I think the intention here is avoid the creation of art for a coterie audience comprised of a small group of people who share the artist's background and viewpoint. The assumption is that addressing the general public requires that the artist broaden his or her scope and personal understanding, much like it is said Shakespeare did by addressing both the groundlings and the educated elite, and encompassing their worldview, within the same play. I believe that there is a place for coterie theatre such as the independent theatres created late in the 19th century (e.g., Theatre Libre, Independent Theatre, Freie Buhne) that gave birth to Antoine, Shaw, and Brahm, and that spread the work of Ibsen throughout the world. These theatres were laboratories in which new ideas were tried out and perfected, and they changed the face of the theatre. But eventually each of those great artists stepped outside of the lab and used what he had learned to address the public as a whole, thereby spreading the experiment further. Today, the realism these artists pioneered is now the norm, and generations of artists have committed their careers to new experiments to unseat that realism. That is as it should be.

Turner goes on: "Those members of the general public who do not have the time, training, or inclination to craft and express its higher yearnings and intuitions, rightly demand an artistic elite to be the culture's prophetic mouthpiece and mirror." A few people have expressed a sense that Turner's ideas smack of conservatism and reaction, but the above sentence also echoes Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci's idea of the organic intellectual who "function(s) in directing the ideas and aspirations" of the public. Ultimately, the idea is not to "second guess" this group of individuals (in Allison's phrase), but rather to see oneself as "organically belong[ing]" to that group in order to serve as a "prophetic mouthpiece and mirror." This does not mean pandering and flattering, which is to appeal to the base aspects of human nature, but rather to express the "higher yearnings and intuitions" of that group. Lincoln appealed to Americans to look to the "higher angels of our nature," and Turner seems to be calling on the artist to do the same. This requires, not that artists ignore the base actions of humanity, but rather that they portray those actions not as ends in themselves, but means of conjuring those higher angels.

George writes that "The horrors of existence, as exemplified by Lear's struggles against community and nature...are hard to squeeze into that word "beautiful,"' but I would beg to differ. I can think of few plays that are more beautiful than King Lear. Admittedly, the play is filled with horror upon horror, and these are not beautiful in themselves, nor are they meant to be; but what is beautiful is how Lear changes as a result of those horrors. We watch the tempering and burnishing of Lear's soul as he changes, through suffering, from an intolerant tyrant to a true spiritual king. For a man such as Lear, whose self-centeredness had made him blind to all but his own desire to be loved and worshipped as a god on earth, wisdom could only be attained through suffering and pain. But we see, at the end, perhaps for only a few moments before his death, a man who has attained redemption, empathy, and wisdom. It is the portrayal of such redemption that is beautiful.

And so the call for beauty in art does not exclude suffering, violence, and pain. But rather the suffering, violence, and pain is not presented as an end in itself, nor is it presented as the true and unchangeable nature of mankind. George writes (and it is here that the chasm may open between George and me), "It's hard to 'restore reverence for the grace and beauty of human beings and the rest of nature,' ...when one sees what human beings and nature are capable of destroying." For George, it seems, the horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima blot out, perhaps forever, the "grace and beauty of human beings." To this, I cannot assent. The existence of evil, even evil on such a horrific scale, does not negate the good. For every act of hatred and violence there has been one of love and caring, and while it is irresponsible for artists to ignore the former, it is equally irresponsible to ignore the latter. Noel Tichy, the head of the University of Michigan's Global Leadership Program, once said "What we view determines what we do." If we fixate on horrors and degradation of the world to the exclusion of beauty and goodness, we will create art that is partial, hollow, and despairing, and that ignores fully half of human experience. Consequently, I fail to see what is "fishy and banal" about the statement "Art recognizes the tragic and terrible costs of human civilization, but does not abandon hope and faith in the civilizing process." If that statement is truly embraced, and experienced deeply and profoundly with one's heart and soul, it leads to a sense of human possibility that comes through a balanced recognition of the power of human beings for both good and evil. A belief in the "civilizing process" of human existence -- a belief that humanity can be improved -- seems to me to be a necessary ingredient to the creation of art, indeed, to the creation of anything at all, to the continuation of life itself. Even if one believes that evil will always overcome good, one must believe in the heroic value of the struggle itself, or else lapse into silence and despair.

Citing several instances of the censorship of artists by governments or organized groups, George writes "the relationship of artist to public isn't necessarily a happy one, not these days. The artist usually needs to insist that she stands against the public, in opposition to it, separate from it, to do her artistic work." To be reunited with the public does not mean the reunion is always a happy one, or at least happiness as a continuous state of contentment, agreement, and euphoria. There is nothing in life that is always and ever happy. Nevertheless, the existence of conflict, of evil, of oppression, suppression, and censorship is not grounds for the isolation and self-banishment of the artist. We must participate in the pain of the world, not stand separate from it. Artistic work of value grows out of life, both the pain and the glory of it, and requires of the artist not distance, but profound experience and the wisdom that grows from that experience.

It is this that Turner's words bring to my mind, and why I posted the manifesto. I don't care about the value of metre or rhythm, or even about the connection of art and science. What I care about is a commitment to profound beauty in art, defined with complexity and wisdom, and I care about the belief that if an artist can communicate to humanity that beauty, in all its pain and glory, through artistic experience that is profound and wise, that in some measure it will contribute to the "civilizing process" of history. This is based on hope and faith in the educability of the human being, and held onto with bloodied fingers in spite of all the evil that men do. If this is conservative and reactionary, so be it. For me, to quote August Wilson, it is "the ground on which I stand."


Freeman said...


It's not about everyone agreeing. It's about everyone having a conversation. If we disagree, then at least we're defining our position.

Don't feel "out of favor" with anyone. Your site is an essential one, and so is your contribution to the conversation.

Scott Walters said...

Thanks, Matt.

MattJ said...

thanks for the comment freeman, I think we all needed someone to say it as we are entering a period where all of us seem to be coming from very different places and feeling a bit helpless. But these conversations are so important and valuable, the disagreements eye-opening and exciting. I hope we all keep chugging away for a long time.

Alison Croggon said...

Quite - I agree with Matt here. Your post led me to a lot of thinking, and that's what counts. My comments were not personal, and I'm a bit sad they seem to have been taken that way.

The thing is, if we take theatre and art seriously, which I certainly do, and especially if we are writers, then what things mean matters very much. Turner's manifesto exists in a context of ideas, and those ideas have ramifications in the real world. If we're not interested in what those ideas are, what are we doing? Art is political, all of it, in the broadest and most interesting sense of that word: and this is a political document. It is reactionary, explicitly, because if you look at Turner's own definition of New Classicism, he says it is reacting against certain modernist and post modernist artists. He names some of them - and a mixed bag it is, covering a huge range of 20C aesthetic - Burroughs, Brecht, Cage, Ashbery et al. Even Beckett, by implication. Just about every 20C innovation seems to incur his displeasure. It is a conservative agenda, by definition, politically and aesthetically. He just won't own up to it.

I don't dismiss Arnold because of his ideas (I am still fond of Dover Beach, just as I wouldn't do without Pound's Sextius Propertius). Nor do I dismiss Heidegger, despite some very dubious aspects of his thought. The thing about Arnold's Culture and Anarchy - which you might find interesting to read in connection with this - is that however deeply I disagree with its premise, it's elegantly argued and thought through. Turner's, the more you look at it, just isn't. He wants to have his cake and eat it too - to take the energy and beauty of the Romantics, say, or the intellectual lustre of the complex sciences, while at the same time explicitly refusing the ideas that inform their actual work. That's what I mean by intellectual dishonesty.

Also I worry about what I read as a misrepresentation of much of the work he's arguing against - eg, Brecht is a playwright working in a popular theatre, using vernacular language, for instance, and indeed creating work that I find beautiful. He does, in many ways, what Turner calls for: but he's on the blacklist (mainly, it seems, because of that common misunderstanding of what "alienation" is, which probably would be better translated as "making strange", the ostranie of Schlovsky and probably also because his work is left wing). And so on. The truth is, Turner is generalising wildly, putting a lot of wildly disparate artists under a single banner. (Btw, there's a lot of contemporary poetry that is indeed drawing from chaos theory et al in interesting ways - the thing is, it produces the kind of poetry that Turner would dismiss as decadent).

As for beauty - that's a complex question. I wrote a little about what it is for me in my novella Navigatio, and I might quote it here, because I can't say it better:

" is nothing, sang Rilke, but this terrifying beginning... The terror of beauty is that everything is beautiful. It is the chaotic self, the chaotic body, the chaotic world, fragmentary, diffuse, unassigned to meaning, against which form, an aesthetic armour, a self by which we understand our given selves, defends itself from the chaos within and without it. And art contains the terror of obliteration, which inhabits the centre of beauty. It admits the reality of death, of human finitude and failure, it admits that the world is not us and that we do not control it. This admission is love: the voluntary renunciation of self-tyranny, the ascension to the place of ordinary beauty, which redeems nothing."

The best wishes for Christmas, Scott - have a great 2006, and keep on with the blog. I hope you take none of this amiss.


George Hunka said...


To quote Josh James, "ditto."

This manifesto, these criteria, may have room enough for the tragic despair that Shakespeare in Lear and Beckett in much of their work envision, but it's the tragic despair as envisioned by our more exploratory artists today that's in danger of being subsumed in the ultimate insult of being obscure, of willed avant-gardism because of its appeal to the irrational, precisely because it does not meet a community definition of art and its function.

I said my own piece about beauty in my review of the Wieszalin show, and I quote it here since I feel that it's precisely this kind of theater that this manifesto would find without function, without use, whereas its beauty is precisely what a community may need:

"[The script of Saint Oedipus is] comprised of repetitive images and phrases ... that serve to annotate the story of Jocasta and Oedipus, as they attempt to expiate the original sin of the body's entrapment of the soul. As son and mother, brother and sister, husband and wife, they exemplify all man-woman relationships; the guilt and terror accompanying sexual pleasure is demonstrated through a variety of images, from sadomasochistic costumes and practices to blood sacrifices. There is a beautiful, pure moment of physical calm and release in copulation here, bare bodies, having been self-anointed in a cleansing blue water that washes the blood from their hands, achieving graceful orgasmic precision; however, the pain of the play soon returns as Jocasta recognizes Oedipus as her son–-as a bodied individual–-in a moment of post-coital epiphany. ... If there's something Sadean-sounding about all this, that's because there is, and quite beautifully so. Far from exploitative, Tomaszuk and the performers, Rafal Gasowski and Edyta Lukaszewicz-Lisowska, explore rather than condescend. ... Somehow the Oedipus myth has remained with us as a reminder of our ambivalent sexuality down through the last three millennia; Saint Oedipus does not condescend to try to explain it to us, but dares instead to invite us to experience this mystery with the performers, the celebrants of this secular communion, as they trace it from the Old Testament to our own time."

This is amoral work, beautiful because it's amoral; and, according to the manifesto, this is therefore not art. I wouldn't want an art that couldn't include it.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi George - love that description. Just a quibble - the work you're talking about here sounds like it belong in a tradition of moral thinking, all the same - I wonder if it is really amoral (though I agree all good art refrains from moralising) - can I bring in George Bataille's term "hypermorality", which covers work - like Baudelaire, Genet, Sade, Bronte, Blake - which offends conventional morality but which is, in fact, fiercely moral in its own terms?

George Hunka said...

It's a morality after Nietzsche, absolutely: Turner's morality is more conventional 19th century morality, if I'm reading him correctly. Bataille's very much in play here, and I've now got to go back to "Erotism" to look into this again--it's been a few years.

Joshua said...

And again I say, "ditto" - though I will add that we cannot state often enough that ALL art is political -