Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Freedom, Baby

It is with some trepidation that I venture into the arena of political theory, because it is definitely NOT an subject in which I have a thorough knowledge. But a comment by Joshua (whose comment prompted the title of this post), which reflects the ideas of many of you who have responded to my posts, leads me there reluctantly.

Many artists, including many of you who read this blog (and truth be told, me as well) are pretty liberal. We tend toward a leftist political orientation that favors programs to help the poor, to heal the sick, to educate the masses, to save the environment, to enforce equality in matters of race, gender, and sexual orientation, and to create economic justice. Some use their art to promote these ideas, some use their blog, some simply possess these values as foundations for personal behavior. At root, we want a society that is built on the respect and appreciation of all people. But when it comes to their art, libertarianism is the order of the day.

The artist should be completely free, giving no thought to anything other than the expression of their personal truth. The idea that an artist might have responsibilities as citizen, as members of a community or a society, that goes along with such safeguards as freedom of speech leads to cries of "Censorship!" To suggest that artists might simply think about the effect of their art, and whether it contributes to the improvement of their society, is greeted with arguments about "slippery slopes" leading straight to strict government censorship and the regulation of taste and expression. Thoughts immediately fly to government intervention and coercion, even when the suggestion concerns simple human civility. This response demonstrates a level of paranoia that may, in fact be justified -- it hasn't been that long since the McCarthy Era, for instance, and in the midst of a Bush presidency that labels any questioning of government actions as un-American, such watchfulness may be very, very necessary. Let me make this plain: government control of the arts, or control by any group outside the arts, is very, very wrong -- I condemn it without hesitation. But government control and self-control are not the same thing.

My political orientation combines a socialist economic stance with a Communitarian social orientation. According to the Responsive Communitarian Platform Text on the Communitarian Network website:

"A communitarian perspective recognizes both individual human dignity and the social dimension of human existence. A communitarian perspective recognizes that the preservation of individual liberty depends on the active maintenance of the institutions of civil society where citizens learn respect for others as well as self-respect; where we acquire a lively sense of our personal and civic responsibilities, along with an appreciation of our own rights and the rights of others; where we develop the skills of self-government as well as the habit of governing ourselves, and learn to serve others-- not just self. A communitarian perspective recognizes that communities and polities, too, have obligations--including the duty to be responsive to their members and to foster participation and deliberation in social and political life. A communitarian perspective does not dictate particular policies; rather it mandates attention to what is often ignored in contemporary policy debates: the social side of human nature; the responsibilities that must be borne by citizens, individually and collectively, in a regime of rights; the fragile ecology of families and their supporting communities; the ripple effects and long-term consequences of present decisions....

America's diverse communities of memory and mutual aid are rich resources of moral voices--voices that ought to be heeded in a society that increasingly threatens to become normless, self-centered, and driven by greed, special interests, and an unabashed quest for power. Moral voices achieve their effect mainly through education and persuasion, rather than through coercion. Originating in communities, and sometimes embodied in law, they exhort, admonish, and appeal to what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. They speak to our capacity for reasoned judgment and virtuous action. It is precisely because this important moral realm, which is neither one of random individual choice nor of government control, has been much neglected that we see an urgent need for a communitarian social movement to accord these voices their essential place." [ital and bold my own]

I believe in freedom of expression, and the preservation of that strong right; I also believe in personal responsibility for one's actions, and what those actions do in the world, and I believe in relationships based on mutual respect. Joshua, in a comment appended to one of my recent posts, writes: "If my friend, whom I respect, is just not getting it, I might grab his shoulders and shake him "Please, please, just listen!" I might say, "I have something important to tell you, forget everything else for just this one moment." I'm in his face, but I need to be there, because I care for him." The key phrase here, for me, is "because I care for him." Mutual respect does not undermine the need to speak truth, to argue vigorously, to get people's attention. But mutual respect does affect the way you do this. Joshua and his friend are not strangers -- they have a relationship that has been established that allows Joshua to shake his friend to get his attention. If Joshua were to go up to a total stranger and do the same thing, the likelihood that such shaking would lead to the stranger listening carefully is lessened, because the stranger will feel in danger. His focus will be on self-protection, not openness to a new idea. This is why I have called for artists to get to know their audience members, to get to know the people who make up their society, to become a part of their community; so that when they grab their audience's shoulders and shake them, the audience will listen because they have a bond.

If you believe that your audience is comprised of "ignorant redneck backward-ass country fucks," as Joshua characterizes his hometown community (and who am I to argue), and you can't find any point of contact or mutual respect, then the likelihood of communication happening between artist and audience is pretty low. Joshua can shake them all he wants, but all he's likely to get is a fat lip. For some reason, Joshua believes that I have told him "I cannot and should not say something like that." Not true. I have never said you shouldn't say it. What I have said is that an artist cannot communicate with his audience if he sees them in these terms. Continuing, he says: "I can and will. It may be mean and disrespectful, but it's my truth. And I love that I live in a society where I can express my truth freely every day. It's important, that freedom. I may disagree with you, I may say you're full of shit, but I'm not going to ever say you don't have the right to spout whatever you want to spout on your blog." I agree wholeheartedly. And I am alright with you telling me I am full of shit because we have an ongoing relationship that is based on (here are the words again) mutual respect. The same is true of George and me: I think we tell each other we are full of shit more than we applaud each other (which is actually, too bad, but that guilt is for another post), but early on we established a mutual respect for each other as thinkers and human beings. If some other person arrived in my comments box telling me I am full of shit, I probably wouldn't feel all that compelled to respond. Same with Alison and p'tit boo, who are currently whooping my ass. None of us are "friends" -- George isn't going to call me up to celebrate his birthday -- but we have established a relationship, and that relationship allows a level of honesty and directness. I listen, I think, I have even been known to alter my opinions because of George's, Alison's, p'tit boo's, Freeman's, MattJ's and Joshua's comments. But anonymous-reply blogger blasting into my comments box without a name or history? Garbage pail.

If you want to actually affect opinions (and there are some who profess to care only about expression, not about reception), then a relationship is necessary, one based on trust and foundational respect. As human beings, we are part of widening circles of community, from family to friends to world -- we are social beings. Art is a social act that is built on an exchange. I am proposing a simple thing: that the artistic exchange have a foundation of mutual respect, and a deep sense of responsibility.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Response to Alison

Since Alison and p'tit boo are double-teaming me over different issues, I think it might be best for me to address them separately, rather than in one long post. First, let me apologize to Alison for misspelling her name -- and I can't guarantee it won't happen again, much like I sometimes accidently type "Issac" instead of Isaac. It isn't meant as an insult.

So what do I really mean, Alison wants to know -- what specific plays am I talking about? While I tend to resist getting down to those sort of specifics, not because I prefer obscurity but because the focus tends to shift from general ideas to arguing about whether Play X is good or not, I'll take a stab.

Someone asked me about Brecht. Let's compare a Brecht play like, say, Good Woman of Setzuan to a Wedekind play like Spring's Awakening. Now, I like both of these plays, and have taught both in the past -- this is not about quality. To my mind, Brecht's relationship to his audience in Good Woman is much more embracing than Wedekind's. It is clear from reading Brecht's play that he believe's in the audience's ability to confront the problem of goodness in a capitalist society that rewards brutality -- if for no other reason than that the play ends with an appeal to them: Shen Te cries out, "Help!" If he did not believe that those in the audience were capable of hearing and responding to that cry, I don't think he would have had her make it. Wedekind, on the other hand, while also wishing to confront an injustice (the destructiveness of repressive attitudes toward sex), does so in a way that, to me, clearly implies he has no faith that his audience is capable of seeing the problem and changing it. His approach, it seems to me, is pure provocation -- scenes meant to leave the audience shaken, but not inspired to change. Both plays are dynamic, even brilliant, but it seems to me that the relationship with the playwright in both is very different. Brecht's play leads to discussion; Wedekind's, to guilt and anger.

Even playwrights change over the course of a career. It seems to me that Brecht's relationship to the audience in Threepenny Opera is different, more Wedekindian, than his relationship in Good Woman or Galileo.

[It is my fervent hope that my comments box will not be filled with people telling me "I never liked Good Woman as much as I liked Mother Courage blah blah blah." That's a different conversation.]

Allison asks me about Offending the Audience, and whether I think this displays hostility toward the audience. Sure it does -- Handke is pretty upfront about it with his title. That said, I think it is pretty tame stuff -- the buttons being pushed are fairly arcane, and once the first performance occurs, and people are tipped off as to what to expect, it's power to provoke is rather small. My opinion is that Handke would have been better off writing an essay rather than a play. Offending the Audience wouldn't be a top example of a playwright attacking.

What about something like Richard Foreman? I am not a big Foreman fan myself, but I find a couple things he does to be very admirable. First, he writes extensively about his plays, and publishes them in the program to help the audience grasp his difficult material -- that shows respect for the audience. In addition, he seems to have made a real effort to create a community around his shows. I don't get the feeling that he as a playwright feels hostility toward those in his audience, and by not talking down to them while at the same time helping them to reach further than they perhaps thought possible -- that seems like respect to me.

As far as the phrase "you are with the audience, or against it," the Bushite echo is unintentional. [A disclaimer: While I'm certain that the positions that I take probably have you all thinking I am a Bushie, you'd be wrong. I'm probably as radical as Alison and p'tit boo. My leftism tends to be based on moral reasoning about the way people should treat each other, and not materialist reasons.] As I said in another response: "When I use "for or against," I do not use it in the same way Bush does. His means: "You either agree with us, or you're our enemy." I use "for" to mean: "Do you, as an artist, respect us as people who share your humanity? Do you consider us as intelligent as you are? Are sensitive? We may disagree, or I may not have thought of things the way you have -- but do you respect my ability to think and to feel, and do you respect my basic right to disagree?" So many (maybe not you) write, "sure I respect them all," but when the rubber meets the road, the attitude is "these people are superficial, exploitative, and unethical human beings," and that's where I flinch. I disagree with many of the actions and attitudes of the middle class, but I think that communication might happen, and as a result change might happen, if we meet each other in mutual respect.

I know I am talking about something that is hard to pin down: attitude. And ultimately I can only infer Wedekind's attitude from his writing, which is, of course, open to interpretation.

I am concerned for our world, which is becoming more and more polarized. This is the Bushie Effect, which has created a situation where people just stake out a position and shoot at each other. Democracy cannot thrive in such an atmosphere. Neither can theatre.

P.S. I hope, when I have any time, to read some Adorno.

Monday, February 20, 2006

A Thought to Ponder

A friend of mine -- not a theatre person, but someone interested in theatre -- emailed me about an article in American Theatre magazine. She says: " I read the article in American Theater and found this interesting. Sarah Jones says: “I think Bernie Gersten at Lincoln Center Theater coined the term ‘theatrons’: the units of energy that are created in an atmosphere in which actors on stage are communing with the audience. That kind of energy is unmatched in any other medium. On Broadway, I love the idea that 600 of us are going to get together every night and do something that no one has ever done before and no one will ever do again.”
I think this goes a long way towards addressing what my particular beef is with theater. It’s not so much that I want the actors to “pander” to me or make me feel good or only do something that is “heartwarming”. But I want to feel that we are in it together. That they are WITH the audience, not against it. I can look at very hard things with the actors and director if they are looking WITH me. But if they are shoving my face in it, well, no thanks. I can find abuse all over the world. I certainly am not going to pay to get it.