Friday, June 27, 2008

Figure and Ground (A Response to a Question from Don Hall)

In Don Hall's post yesterday. he asked a question of "The Prof" that apparently I was actually supposed to answer (I thought it was rhetorical). Here's the question:

"And, if what the Prof says is true - that I have a responsibility to the community in which I live - is my responsibility to provide art that is "in the public's interest" or to provide art that "the public is interested in?"

I'm going to try to rephrase this sentence as I understand it. If I get it wrong, I hope Don will correct me and then I'll try again. Let's start with the premise that an artist has a responsibility to the community. While phrased in terms of the artist, I think all people, artist or not, have a responsibility to improve their community (even if that is just one other person), and thus through the ripple effect the world. However, there are many ways to improve a community (not simply through addressing socio-economic issues, for instance, which is how this idea is all-too-often interpreted), and truth be told there aren't many plays that don't do this to some degree or other, whether in the avant garde or the mainstream. When the Communist leaders of East Germany tried to get Brecht to change the ending of Mother Courage to provide a positive message, Brecht argued persuasively that people could learn as much from a negative image as a positive one, which of course is the tragic vision. When we see Oedipus' fall, we are reminded through his negative example of how small is our understanding and power as human beings, and the result may be greater humility. So this "responsibility" that I have argued for is not an argument solely for upbeat, optimistic art. So what, then, is this responsibility?

I agree with Viktor Shklovsky's idea that "art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony." Or as anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake writes in Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why, the core of art is "making special." Again, there are many ways to do this, positive and negative. I am reminded of the opening sequence of the film Blue Velvet, which moves from the image of a bright, happy suburban scene down into the grass where we see a severed ear, an image which says in a few short moments what the rest of the film reiterates: that we can't become complacent about the Good Life because beneath it lies a world of violence and sickness. On the other hand, making the stone stony may involve drawing our attention to details of life unnoticed, as in the Gerald Manly Hopkins poem: "Glory be to God for dappled things -- / For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow, / For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim, / Fresh firecoal chestnut-falls, finches' wings." Or what Virginia Woolf called the "little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark."

To make the stone stony, then. one must work with the idea of figure and ground -- that in order to be seen, an object must stand out from its background. A match glows most in the dark, and a picture of a polar bear in a blizzard is, after all, simply a blank piece of paper. This is where an understanding of community comes into play, for the community provides the background from which the artist must draw a contrast through his or her work of art. To simply reproduce the values and perceptions of the community is to disappear, and thus to make no contribution at all. This is the problem, for instance, with some mainstream art: it blends into widely-accepted values without adding anything.

Which may be the answer to Don's question about art that "the public is interested in," if what he means by that is art that the public is so comfortable with that it fails to stand out from the background. Many people will seek out such art because they believe it will make them happy. But truth be told they often come away feeling as if they have wasted their time and money, sort of like how one feels after eating a whole lot of cotton candy. It seemed like a good idea at the time... I happen to believe that we live in a culture that emphasizes violence, conflict, materialism, and cynicism, and so in order to make the stone stony I must create art that stands out from that ground in some way.

But if the art "the public is interested in" (as defined above) isn't the answer, neither is its negation: art the public ISN'T interested in. Because unless there is someone compelling attendance, no matter how profound the work of art it will have no effect whatsoever if nobody sees it. Which is the problem of some avant garde art, which stands out from the background through sheer negation in a way that results in lack of harmony and thus in ugliness. The spectator recoils, and thus is not changed in any way because the image has been refused, rejected, blacked out. In that situation, the spectator emerges from the event unchanged, no better than if they had chosen the cotton candy event. So art may exist at a midpoint between these two extremes.

Which, strangely, brings me to Richard Schechner, who rather famously talked about performance artists as being "not not themselves" onstage. Not his actual self, nor a character, but a hybrid. In other words, a double-negative is not a positive. (I think my head just exploded.) Let me try it this way: if asked if I am religious or not religious, I might say I am not not religious, which is not saying that I am religious -- it is more ambiguous. And perhaps this is what art "in the public's interest" is: art that the public is not uninterested in, that offers some initial attractor that gets the spectator in the door, and that proceeds to move the spectator by making the stone stony.

I am a firm believer that art exists to move the spectator. That word "move" has several connotations. One is emotional: to be moved to tears, moved to laughter, moved to anger; another is spatial: to be moved from Point A to Point B. The best art does both. The emotional is a technique, the spatial is a goal. We move people emotionally in order to move them from Point A to Point B, in other words in order to change their interior geography even just a little. And that change may be simply a deepening of values and beliefs, a few more shovels full in a hole that has already been dug ("I always thought roses were beautiful, but now I see even more ways they are beautiful"), or it may be making those values and beliefs more complex through the introduction of another perspective ("I always thought roses were beautiful, but when rose breeders created hybrid teas they created beautiful freaks.")

All of which is probably more than Don bargained for. I suspect what he was asking was whether he had a responsibility to "give the public more of what it thinks it wants": my answer is no. There is a difference between "wants" and "needs," as any nutritionist will tell you. Artists need to tap into a community's needs, which still involves listening very, very carefully for the hopes, dreams, and pain of one's fellow man.
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Don Hall said...

Sweet Jebus! That was an AWESOME response. [seriously...]

You totally had me until:

Artists need to tap into a community's needs, which still involves listening very, very carefully for the hopes, dreams, and pain of one's fellow man.

The follow up question, of course, then is "To what end should this tapping be?"

Here is where your Artist/Community model seems to wax into vague territory. The examples you often cite indicate that your ideal in this circumstance resemble community arts festivals and the like, and I'm curious what other kinds of theater do you being created. How does this work?

Do I go and talk to random members of my community (keeping in mind I live in a city of 6 million people) and find out what their hopes and dreams are and then craft theater that speaks directly to that? Or do I rely on a sense of Universal Empathy and tap into what my own hopes and dreams are and hope that I'm also a part of said community and thus am addressing those needs?

Scott Walters said...

Thank you, Don.

I guess I would define the community not in terms of the entire city or nation or world, but perhaps more in terms of the actual people you are trying to reach, who are attending or who you'd like to attend. And yes you ARE a member of that community, and listening to yourself is also important. This isn't about total self-abnegation.

Ultimately, the type of theatre is unimportant. A production of Antigone can be as relevant and as powerful as something about local issues, as many artists found when they produced it during WW II. The context provides the filter.

There is a quotation from Nelson Mandela in "Invitation to the Party," when he responded to a visit from the Dance Theatre of Harlem during the early and difficult part of his leadership of South Africa, in which he said: "It is occasions like this that make us forget about the hard knocks which we continue to receive in life...We have forgotten about all those problems tonight because Dance Theatre of Harlem has taught us lessons which are more significant than a group of artists coming to our country and performing...As I look at them, I am reminded of the words of a poet who said: 'In the rough marble, beauty hides unseen -- in the still air, music lays unheard.' There is nothing rough about them: there is only beauty. At least for a few hours tonight, we were able to forget all these things, and we were transported on a wave of happiness, which has put us in peace with the entire world."

To me, Mandela is in touch with the needs of his community, people who have been bruised and battered by the course of events, and who benefit from a reminder of the presence of beauty in the world.

We forget, we lose our ability to see, and we rely on artists to make the stone stony. And it is important for artists to try to be in touch with what stones need to be made stony, what stones we are no longer seeing. We must tell our truths as artists, that is our job, and we must tell them in such a way that they are heard and seen. And our opinion about a community's needs will only be a guess. What I am saying is that we should listen within and listen without, and then do our best from there.

Don Hall said...

I think I may have finally landed conclusively (at least for my POV) on why we seem to clash on this issue so often.

I think (based on this last comment) that you and I are in close proximity on the issue of how to deal with the community. The difference lay in the fact that where I see far too much "waves of happiness" types of theater, you see far too much "kick society in the nuts" theater and neither of us likes what we see.

Tony Adams said...

Is there not a place for both waves of happiness and a kick in the nuts?

Too much of either pretty much ends up in sterility.

Scott Walters said...

Tony and Don -- Of course there is a place for waves and nuts, and it changes on a daily basis.

I dislike insulting an audience (or a community), and you insult an audience as much by assuming they can't handle anything but candybars (the commercial producer's disease) and assuming that they are tasteless oafs who will never appreciate depth of art (the avant garde artist's disease). Both under-estimates the audience.

The distance between people is minimal, once you get below the surface.

ian mackenzie said...

Hey Scott,

Wonderful post.

It should be required reading for anyone interested in art.

Tony Adams said...

Scott--I'm curious to know at what point you got the impression that I've advocated insulting audiences or a community? I'm confused because that is the opposite of what I've argued at length for a long time.

Or was your response just for Don?

Scott Walters said...

Tony -- That response was to Don's question, but not to the rest of the discussion. The generalizations were about extreme attitudes, and not you or anyone else. I have never had a sense that you insult your audience, Tony. I sincerely believe that you have created a purpose and a community that is integrated and whole, and I respect that.

Director said...

Hmm, I don't think my last comment went through.

Great stuff, Scott.

You mentioned Antigone and WWI, and how context set the filter for that, not the play itself.

My question (as noobish and amateurish and stupid as it may seem) is this: how does the context get set up for a show?

In other words, how much control do I, the artist, have over the context of a show? Is it the artist that determines the context, or society itself, or current events? How can I make sure that a show like Antigone is relevant to my audience without, as you say, insulting them?

Scott Walters said...

Director -- You have no control over context, you simply respond to it, listen for it, sense it. You hear it in the grocery line and the local newspaper, at the bar or the coffeeshop, in the church or the gas station. And when you gauge that context, you make a decision as an artist what the best way to address it would be. Let's say you are in a town that is particularly hard hit by the economy: people are losing jobs, factories are closing, people are losing their homes. Now you have to decide what would be best in this situation. Do people need to forget about their troubles and be assured that things will work out? Maybe "You Can't Take It With You" or "Once in a Lifetime" is called for. Or do people need a way to vent their anger? Then maybe "Waiting for Lefty" or "Awake and Sing" is the ticket. Do we need to grieve? Maybe "Trojan Women" is best. Or maybe you want to create a theatre piece not unlike Studs Terkel's "Working." It is a judgment call you make as an artist in relation to what you sense in the community right now and your own needs as an artist.

Don Hall said...

Based upon your last description, I'd say I was pretty in tune with my community - in fact, the context is often thrust upon WNEP shows whether we intended it or not.

Case in point: in 2001, with a scheduled opening of our adaptation of Lives of the Monster Dogs to held on September 11, we did a show about a society of genetically engineered talking, upright walking dogs that commit suicide by burning down a castle in Central Park. Many folks thought the insane terrorist dog (Mops Hacker) was a stand in for Osama Bin Laden.

The only difficulty faced when trying to gauge the community's needs is that, by the time the play is written, re-written, cast, rehearsed and produced, often the need has changed.

Scott Walters said...

Yes, the slow production time of theatre can be a problem (although it is not as long as mass media like film or even TV). Some needs, though, aren't as current event oriented. But it does, indeed, sound as if you were tuned into your community, which is very cool.

Director said...

Scott and Don:

Thanks, that answered my question perfectly. That's kind of what I figured, but I wanted to make sure I wasn't missing anything that seemed obvious to everyone else.