Thursday, March 30, 2006

In a Nutshell

I do tend to think that artists, along with the rest of the world, have fallen a little too much in love with being provocative to the detriment of being wise.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

So that makes you...an iconoclastclast? Or just a fella who appreciates a nice cocoa, a warm fire and book full of Words of Unconfrontational Wisdom?

Joshua said...

but by saying that, taking the position you have regarding Rachel Corrie, et all . . . you yourself state something very provacative to those of us who treasure freedom of expression . . . don't you see the irony?

Me, I believe in truth. I think by trotting out a lot of untruth propaganda sold by professional politico's doesn't necessarily compare to a work of theatre which is meant to be a fictional representation of a real person, based on her real words.

Your position is that the authors of Rachel Corrie, et all, created the work simply to be provocative . . . but we don't really know their motives, any more than I know your motives for your provocative statement.

One man's butter is another man's bee . . . by which I mean, some things provoke me but not others, and vice a versa . . . so simply saying we shouldn't be provocative doesn't really, in a way, say anything. Be provocative to who, when and how?

If what you are saying is that we need a higher standard of craft in theatre, I would agree with that whole-heartedly (The Wedding Singer The Musical is set to open on Broadway soon and I weep for the trade I have chosen, I really do) but if your position is too many people are provoking too many people, I just shrug and say, "too bad" . . .

Scott Walters said...

"Anonymous said...
So that makes you...an iconoclastclast? Or just a fella who appreciates a nice cocoa, a warm fire and book full of Words of Unconfrontational Wisdom?"

Excellent question! I am a guy who believes wisdom is the result of an appreciation of complexity, ambiguity, and subtlety, combined with a passionate engagement with general principles and specific details. Wisdom is not melodramatic and Manichaean, and does not separate the world into heroes and villains. I don't believe that provocation has intrinsic value, it is not a stopping point; but it has value primarily as a starting point for new ways of seeing and thinking. Accusation is not an idea.

Alison Croggon said...

Would you say then that you are wise, Scott? I fear I wouldn't be so imprudent as to describe myself that way, since folly, as so many satirical essayists have observed, quickly rushes in...

But again, who are these melodramatic Manicheans rushing in with j'accuse! stamped on their foreheads? (As Joshua said, offensive to whom? when? how?) What I've witnessed in the Corrie case, for example, is a fairly complex discussion, stamped all over with reservations and disagreements even between those who think that it is a troubling example of censorship.

If you were simply asking for rational, informed discussion which attempted to see past emotive swaying or manipulativeness on all sides, I'd be right behind you. But you label much of what I'd say was rational, disinterested discourse with this j'accuse tag, and make yourself emotive arguments about offence. If someone soberly makes a case, it may indeed be provocative to certain interested parties; but that doesn't mean that its main aim is in fact to cause offence. It may be that what is being argued about is in fact considered offensive in the first place.

Don R. Hall said...

In a society where the general population is categorized by apathy and an increasing lack of creativity, I would suggest that perhaps provocation, combined with invitation, is the wisest course of action.

$0.02

Anonymous said...

provocation qua provocation, and provocation qua attempt at social change really did help visual artists, right? no. they served to alienate "society" from the enjoyment of the artistic world -- so much so that people view even going to a museum as a boring chore, something they're ushered into once or twice a year for purposes they don't wholly own or even embrace.

in a culture where people (read: the middle and upper classes) have so many choices for what to do with their time, why would they choose to be provoked (e.g. go to a modern art show [by which I emphatically do not imply: modern art is intrinsically provocative], or an accusatory dramatic performance)? it's one thing to make a bold statement. it's another to change the world with it. for that, people have to actually listen, and the content of the statement has to transcend the mere whir and clang of the american zeitgeist, which is so capricious that it's barely a useable concept. these aspects are not independent.

-- chuck

George Hunka said...

If the American zeitgeist can be described with the words whir and clang, then a modern art which encourages something else, quiet and communion, is itself provocative to the zeitgeist. The impulse to a transgressive inner exploration, or an art's urge to the audience to that exploration, is an antagonistic stance to an expanding materialism, a louder whir and clang.

A population may choose to turn away from these museums and this art, of course, but it is their choice; it's not a fair validation of an art (at least to some lights) to say that it is a failure, or unnecessary to a culture, because it's rejected by a majority portion of that culture. And this is true not only for explicitly antagonistic, provocative art, some which can be described as in-yer-face and as whirry and clangy as any media-sodden zeitgeist. Feldman's music is provocative and antagonistic to the zeitgeist, as are Rothko's canvases, as are the elegies for the soul composed by Beckett, and Foreman, and even Adorno. Hard to say that in their provocations there is no wisdom, though I'm loathe to use the term.

One changes the world one person at a time.

Anonymous said...

George:

I didn't mean to suggest that changing art and provocative art are mutually exclusive. It might be the case that good art is (or more plausibly: is at some time) provocative. However, provocative art is not eo ipso good, or even worthwhile. Put this way, I think Scott's point is hardly contestable.

-- Chuck

Scott Walters said...

So many comments to respond to!

Alison asked, "Would you say then that you are wise, Scott?" Some wisdom accrues simply as a result of experiencing life; additional wisdome results from thinking about it; and still more results from thinking about the experiences of others. Am I wise? Wiser than a 20-year old, but not as wise as an 80-year old. I seek wisdom, and I believe this is true of most of humanity.

Don's scorn for his fellow man -- "the general population is categorized by apathy and an increasing lack of creativity" -- is what I think is poisoning the work of contemporary artists. I think what makes a work of art great is an artist's ability to empathize as well as criticize, and to stand among the people not outside.

I think Chuck makes a good point about our cultural moment: what distinguishes this time from what has come before is the sheer amount of entertainment available. When Ibsen was writing, theatre was the only game in town as far as storytelling was concerned, and so he could more easily afford a pretty snotty attitude toward the public; today, a similar attitude leads to half-filled 99-seat theatres and cultural irrelevance.

Provocation itself has become a cliched badge of honor, a false sign of serious intent, the first resort of artistic charlatans. However, if you define provocation as George does above -- as being the opposite of what dominates the zeitgeist -- then provocation serves as a balance, which can be valuable. Artists at the fulcrum point, judging which aspect of the society threatens to get out of control and providing a push in the opposite direction. This would require that artists maintain a fine and sensitive awareness of what is going on in the culture, and define their role as a responsive one. If our culture whirs and clangs, as Chuck says, then "quiet and communion" may be what is required of the artist, as George says.

Such sensitivity would require the artist to cultivate wisdom -- why be so scared of the idea?

George Hunka said...

Because it's a culturally self-determined label that creates a false dichotomy (we are wise, you are not) tending to grant intellectual or emotional and social superiority to one group over another. Given the vast number of ways one can define wisdom according to various contexts, cultures and lights, I just prefer to avoid that kind of exclusionary categorization.

George Hunka said...

For what it's worth a friend of mine (somewhat younger) says that I have an "old spirit," which sounds better to my ears than any imputation of wisdom, which I would reject with vehemence ...

Scott Walters said...

Yes, George, we live in a culture, and it determines some things. Do you propose to escape it somehow? And all words create hierarchies and exclusions -- why get skittish about it? Just be transparent about your criteria. I notice you don't seem to be similarly squeamish about judging works of art.

Scott Walters said...

"Old spirit" is "wisdom" with an extra syllable. This is hair-splitting.

Scott Walters said...

As George Carlin once said, "shoot" it "shit" with two o's.

Don R. Hall said...

Scott,

What you label as scorn is merely the truth of the culture.

It's a nice, rosey colored world you propose, but the one I live in sits on it's collective ass and watches the Bush Administration march us down the path to hell, watches as we destroy the environment, and rewards films like "The Pink Panther (w/S. Martin)" for its creativity.

As an artist, I'm not as interested in converting the converted or preaching to the choir. I'm certainly not suggesting that provocation should overshadow artistry or even optimism any more than you are suggesting a world of nothing but 'Godspell.'

George Hunka said...

Individual men and women and works of art are quite different things to me, Scott. And so far as individual cultures go, each one contains subcultures whose value and moral judgments may vary at considerable odds with the larger culture or with each other.

I don't think it's hair-splitting at all; there's no value judgment in "old" or "young". (I certainly wouldn't say that my friend, who herself has a spirit delightfully younger than mine, is any less wise by your definition than I am.) Unless you see it differently, of course.

Scott Walters said...

Don -- Cynics always protest that they are simply presenting things "the way they are," but really their viewpoint is as partial as every other.

George -- "Old" and "young" is as cultural determined as anything else. When life expectancy was 40, you were old at 25. What I say is that we should make our position explicit, define what we mean by "wisdom," and move on from there.

Alison Croggon said...

Well, all I can say is that the Brit Art of the 90s, the Sensation exhbition and the annual Turner Prize, which is always controversial, attracts the British public in their thousands, and the new Tate is always packed with people fascinated by this alienating modern art. I'm no big fan of Damien Hirst et al, partly because provocation is all they seem to be about, but there's no denying that (a) they were provocative and (b) they attracted the great unwashed public in droves. So I'm really not sure that provocation equals driving away a public.

I do think, however, that art that flinches away from provocation because it fears to offend is in deep trouble.

George Hunka said...

In fact that Sensation exhibition was a smash hit here at the Brooklyn Museum, where I saw it a few years ago: they haven't had the same crowds before or since. The Damien Hirst and Chris Ofili pieces weren't all that tremendous (though the Ofili wasn't bad at all), but there were pieces in the show that weren't purely provocative.

And Alison, I'm offended. I think we all washed.

Alison Croggon said...

My profound apologies, George, far be it from me to cast naxious asperions on your personal hygiene.

I was just thinking: artists are so often unwise, that unwisdom seems as important a component as any kind of wisdom (Muller's "poets must be stupid", which I think is a rather wise statement). And the best artists are never merely responsive; I think to be cast in that social role is to limit exceedingly what art does, as just another aspect of social discourse, instead of another kind of experience. Of course art responds, however obliquely, to the society in which it is created, but many other aspects go into that mix, including the artist's individual necessities. Ionesco - who was scornful of the whole idea of the "avant garde" - talked about art in those terms, as an individual necessity.

Scott Walters said...

By all means, let's create as much stupid art as we can. What we need is the theatrical version of "Dude, Where's My Car?" If you disagree (which I hope to God you do), then you are tacitly admitting that art should have more intelligence, which is a form of wisdom. I worked at Performing Arts Journal/PAJ Publication during the late 80s (George and I had the same job several years apart) when they were publishing Mueller's work, and I met him. I think I can say that Mueller is not a stupid man, and that he is saying something a bit different than that artists shouldn't be wise.

And I am certain that Sensation attracted a huge crowd -- our society loves a good fight, and I have no doubt that whoever produced "Rachel Corrie" will also have a huge crowd. But the question is whether all those people, once they were looking at the art, found it to be something they wanted in their life, something they would seek out again once the controvery was over. Exhibits such as Sensation turn art into pugilism, and do no favors for those who might want to do important work that is complex.

Alison Croggon said...

Scott, did I say I liked the Brit Art stuff? If you read my post, my reservations are clear. I was just pointing out that, despite claims made here by you and others about provocative art alienating audiences, Brit Art and similar cases show that this isn't by any means a given. I'm glad to see you agree with me.

You have a somewhat simplistic take on Muller's statement that "poets must be stupid", which is at once ironic and a straight observation (poets are too stupid to be afraid of the same things that other people are - like, for instance, potentially offending audience members or authority, which obviously works against their self interest). Yes, of course artists have to be intelligent, but that is not by any means the whole of what's required; if mere intelligence were all that was required, then every faculty professor might be an artist, which is manifestly not the case. Artists are not only concerned with ideas, but with responding to the world around them through the sensual media they use - words, paint, rock, their bodies - in ways which bypass cerebral thinking, which focus on the materiality and sensual properties of the things they use, and which seek emotional as well as intellectual response. As Rimbaud said, "Science is too slow": mere knowledge is not enough. That, too, can be a kind of stupidity, if seen from certain points of view, such as utilitarian attitudes to art. And anyone who tries to live as a full-time artist in contemporary capitalistic society (as I do) really must be stupid.

Ben Ellis said...

Yeah - that Socrates is asking too many questions.