Wednesday, September 10, 2008

On Ruralism

I can't tell whether Matt Freeman has his tongue lodged firmly in his cheek when he writes that he kind of likes a little contempt in this theatre, and I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt he's earned as a long-time respectful blogger, so I'll just say that I give Rachel Saltz great credit for expressing discomfort with the small town bashing that seems to lie at the center of The Chalk Boy by Joshua Conkel. In her last paragraph, she writes:

A cynicism that too often looks like contempt runs through the play: for Clear Creek and the other nowhere towns that form “a dotted line across America’s grossly obese belly”; for the pop culture inside that obese belly; and, most important, for characters like Lauren, whom Mr. Conkel uses as straw men. If you lead with contempt, it’s hard to make an audience follow.

Indeed. It must have been really bad for a reviewer from the New York Times to be discomfited. I've addressed this topic before -- this constant and gratuitous bashing of small town (especially southern) America in theatre, film, and TV, as well as in the mainstream media, which is seen as acceptable by urban dwellers because they often share those values. It is one of the last acceptable sites where narrow-minded prejudice and offensive stereotypes are allowed to be displayed without censure. Let's call it ruralism, following the examples of racism, sexism, ageism, and all the other isms that we've become aware of as being offensive and hateful. We're seeing ruralism rearing its ugly head yet again in some of the attacks on Sarah Palin which are based on an assumption that population size is equivalent to value. Now, I take a back seat to nobody in my contempt for McCain and his choice of Palin, but it raises my hackles when urban bloggers and MSM journalists portray small town America as backward and unworthy of respect. If you want Blue States to stay, blue, just keep it up. Obama skirted the edges of this prejudice with his "bitter" comment, which reflected the urban-dweller's disconnect from non-urban lives.

As artists, we should be better than that, especially at this time in America that is so awash in contempt and disdain.
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Freeman said...

Hey Scott -

You know, I hadn't looked at from this angle. I wasn't really being too tongue in cheek here, just actually saying that cruelty or contempt, as a part of the voice of the playwright, doesn't really make much a statement to me about the quality of the play. I think it stings whenever a writer shows contempt or anger towards that we feel protective of...but that doesn't mean the work is bad or good.

I might completely DISAGREE with the writer. That's fair. I might think he or she is wrong or sophomoric. That's personal. We're supposed to have strong reactions to strong material. But to treat a disagreement with the content as a failure of the writer (i.e. to say a play doesn't work because you disagree with what's being said) means you're confusing your own response to the material to your objective critical view of the work.

This is all hypothetical. Her review has more to it than that, and I haven't seen the play. I just didn't like the idea of contempt for small towns as a disqualifying criteria for having written a good play. If a rural writer builds a very good play that shows deep contempt for cities, that's fine too.

Contempt is, for better or for worse, something people feel. Like bitterness. For better or worse.

Scott Walters said...

Well, this of course leads us into questions of whether something is valuable as art simply because and artist feels it. Someone might feel contempt for, say, Jews or African-American people, and we probably wouldn't think a minute if a critic skewered the playwright and the play. Ultimately, anything that is said or written about a play reflects values, but we have somehow decided that there are certain values it is OK to espouse ("quality" of the artists, structure of the play, etc.) and others that it isn't OK to espouse (i.e., values about content). I would disagree with the latter prohibition. Further, I would espouse that putting on a play is a moral act, and should be evaluated as to whether it contributes to the betterment or diminishment of those who watch it.

Mark said...

I haven't seen this production, but I do hope, with respect, that you note that this was produced by a small, independent company. Neither the writer nor the work can reasonably be said to be representative of the New York theater scene or the American theater. This is much like the small Iowa show you latched onto last time around, only even more obscure. It's nice that the Times came to their show however.

And, if written opinions about work can be used as proxies for discussion (in lieu of seeing the play or reading it), here's a quote from a different review of this play: "The play also highlights how blind most theater audiences—and New York audiences in particular—can often be to how the other half of America lives."

Anonymous said...

When I go to small towns in Maine, where I was born and my extended family resides, I find the people there largely uneducated, unambitious, and full of offensive stereotypes about people they've never met and places they've never been. To note their narrow-mindedness doesn't make me narrow-minded.

Maybe the small towns you frequent are different. Maine has an aging population, and few white collar jobs. Young ambitious people tend to leave, not always by choice.

Scott Walters said...

Mark -- I don't see the relevance of the size of the theatre. It is one of many examples. My comment was applauding the critic for recognizing and talking about the nature of contempt.

As far as Anonymous -- first of all, I OK'd your comment despite it being anonymous, but I will warn you that the next comment that insults a group that ISN'T signed will not get through moderation. Also, I think it would be relevant if you indicated where you currently live. My guess: a big city. There's nothing like someone from a small town who moved to a large one. And you know what? I've lived in NYC twice, and I encountered quite a few uneducated, unambitious people who were full of offensive stereotypes. It's a universal type, but playwrights such as this one like to portray small town people as solely possessing those characteristics, while urban dwellers are all open-minded, highly educated go-getters. This is called ideology.

I would also say that the loss of respect for aging blue-collar workers in this country is shameful, and it is all too common in the theatre, which is mostly written by and for the educated middle-class. There was a time in the 1930s when the working class was seen as the backbone of this country, and the farmer was seen as an icon of what it was to be American. Now we get "Sex in the City" with its $500 shoes and rampant materialism promoted by educated, white-collar professionals. I don't consider this an improvement.

Freeman said...

For me, I actually wasn't thinking much about who the artist has contempt for, so you're just looking at it differently.

I do think that artist's values are fair to question and debate and engage with. One could fairly ask if Leni Reifenstahl's films are morally good (they are not) but also say that they are groundbreaking film (they are.) The question here (and its not a black and white one) is how much the attitude of the writer has to do with the artistic assessment of their work.

Scott Walters said...

Matt -- We actually don't know the attitude of the writer, do we? Aren't we talking about the attitude that comes through the play?

Paul Rekk said...

Putting on a play is a moral act? That's almost enough to get me out of theatre for good there, Scott. It's hard enough keeping track of my morals; no way in hell I can account for everyone walking through my door.

Scott Walters said...

Yes, Paul, it is a moral act. And I'm not talking about the stupid way we have defined moral in this country since the 70s -- I'm talking about addressing the question "how are we to live?" It is a responsibility we, as artists, have to those who come to see our plays. Nobody is asking you to "keep track of" the morals of people who walk through the door -- but rather to keep track of what you put out there and think about its effect on the populace. in a word, care about making a positive difference.

Anonymous said...

May I add that a New York Times review of any show is not worth getting this worked up about? They are not good writers, they don't cover the theater in a healthy, supportive, or productive way, and their aesthetic tastes are suspect at best. Save for strength for something more worthwhile, gentlemen.

Paul Rekk said...

I'm a relativist, Scott. I concern myself with placing into the world those things that I think it is better with than without. However, I know from experience that not a small number of people at times disagree with my assessment; these people also tend to have a different idea of what constitutes a positive difference or betterment in an individual. As a result, I've long since learned to avoid concerning myself with improving the audience, lest I drive myself and the audience crazy.

I'm not in the political game. I have no desire to convince people to see and do things my way as a result of my art. If my audience chooses to approach my work with an open point of view in order to discover what they might, I welcome them with open arms. If not, then Jean-Jacques Rousseau said it best: "It is my function to tell the truth, not to make people believe it."

And I know it's silly, but the is the stricture I hold other artists to as well. Say what you mean and espouse what you believe. If I disagree, believe me, I'll let you know, but that conversation in itself can be a betterment to me and/or you as an individual. I don't need contempt with my art; but I don't need a lack of it, either.

Freeman said...

Suffice to say, I just think a little contempt can be a healthy thing. Arthur Miller had contempt for McCarthy, I'm sure. Contempt for and fear of McCarthy-ism.

Sometimes, I just hear you applying your own set of personal values to others, and stating that these values are a sort of absolute criteria for an artist's behavior.

Scott Walters said...

Contempt applied to actions is a worthwhile thing; contempt applied to groups of people is wrong.

I apply my personal values to artists and argue that they should be criteria for an artist's behavior. Disagree? Argue against them. But "you believe what you want, and I'll believe what I want" is also known as naive relativism.

Paul Rekk said...

I had given up on the Whatever comment thread, but was still interested in where this was going... but really, Scott? It's 'known' as "naive" relativism? By whose definition exactly? Is this something they're teaching over in North Carolina, cause that wasn't in any of my textbooks?

I disagree with you referring to relativism as 'naive'. I disagree with your declaration that everything on the blogosphere that hasn't interested you is 'shallow'. I disagree with many of your snap judgements as of late. But how exactly am I supposed to argue against those, when apparently I'm part of the naive, shallow problem, thereby invalidating any contribution I have on Theatre Ideas?

I always used to wonder why you and Josh James just couldn't give it up and make some sort of peace or at least not turn every conversation into your own personal battle. I'm certainly not saying you were the only one at fault in that relationship, but things are a lot clearer now that you've attempted to swing your belittling ray over to a general direction much closer to myself.

How do I respond if not in trading insults? You haven't left much room.

Scott Walters said...

"Naive relativism" is a term that describes a certain approach to morality that says that all opinions are equally valid. The step to relativism (without the naive part) is the step that says that all opinions are not equally valid, but have to be supported. So I am not using "naive" in an insulting way, but rather as a term: naive relativism, "you do what you want, I'll do what I want, they're both the same value." You can object to that characterization, of course, I'm just explaining the term (a Google search will also turn up others using the term).

My characterization of certain opinions as "shallow" (or I also use the word "superficial") applies to the definition of naive relativism as well. These are opinions that aren't supported with evidence, reasons, or argument. The difference between an "opinion" and a "judgment" is the additional of evidence or reasoning. So: Theresa Rebeck writes about male bias in play selection, and somebody says, "Well, that's just the way it is -- it's probably not intentional." That's superficial.

In answer to your last question, I don't know if there is a way for us to converse if you don't feel that discussing values has value, in other words, if you think that we should just all do what we want and not bother anyone else. Then there's no reason to discuss anything, right?

Paul Rekk said...

That's part of the problem; that's not what I think. We should all do what we want and if that doesn't include bothering someone else, there's probably something wrong.

And maybe you weren't referring to me at any point during this whole rigamaroll. Maybe I never even entered your mind. But if you paint the theatrosphere in one broad color, the parts of the theatrosphere who aren't (or at least think they aren't) that color are going to be the ones who react most strongly and in the most confusion/frustration.

In asking for empirical reasoning, you fail to provide any. Yes, you quoted a snippet of Tony's and Matt's blog, but then instantly go on to abstract universality. It's a different problem. The opinions you are sharing are far from superficial, but we have no specificities on what exactly is causing them, which is an even greater problem when the people you are addressing are at least in part those very same specificities.

As far as my own entry into your complaints (which at this already cloudy juncture is all I feel assured in talking about, naive or not), I can only passionately discuss things that I feel passionately about. When the copyright issue came up a few weeks ago, I was right in there, because it is an important issue to me. Female playwright representation? Not so much. I don't bemoan those who do, but I can't force myself to feel passionately about it if I just don't.

I have purposely pared my blog down to the theatre that is taking place in Chicago and the technical and theoretical interests that I find based on actual work being done in my community. I still participate, and look forward to, dust-ups and the like that happen on others' blogs, but my own is dedicated to Chicago theatre and what does and does not work within. Which to me is not shallow or boring in the least. And maybe you weren't referring to it as such initially either, but I'm a member of the theatrosphere, so I'm going to naturally assume that any blanket statement made applies to me as well.

Scott Walters said...

Well, of course it is your right to feel attacked if you'd like. I don't quite get it, frankly -- I mean, if someone writes that male academics don't care about feminist issues and that isn't true of me, I don't feel required to defend myself to the author. But, hey, enjoy!

When I call for reasons, it doesn't mean "empirical" or even extensive. It means presenting an argument. An argument involves a thesis statement, plus a reason that defines that thesis, and some evidence to use to support it. It doesn't require an extensive longitudinal study. We generalize from individual instances all the time -- that's not a blanket statement, it is a form of reasoning.

To me, much of the theatrosphere seems flaccid, superficial, and intellectually lazy.

You wanna write about Chicago, have at it. But if you're writing a blog, and not just in your home journal, then you must be interested in communicating. Do you only want to communicate with Chicagoans? If so, I'll remove you from my RSS. Is that what you want? Or can Chicago serve as a reference point for larger issues?

Paul Rekk said...

The theatrosphere is an infinitely smaller and more intertwined group than male academics, Scott. That's hardly a comparison worth continuing.

This has steadily seemed to evolve from a call to arms to a manifesto on proper blogging. It's a shame that the theatrosphere can't live up to your astounding example and I'm only sorry that you find yourself bogged down by the lesser beings you've discovered on the internets.

I am interested in communicating with those who find a foothold of passion or even joint interest in what I am providing. That's not limited to Chicago, because theatre is made using the same techniques worldwide. I tie it into what is being performed in Chicago, but the ideas are universal. Remove me from your RSS if you can't find anything of interest in my writing. What I want is people who can, and that's the only guideline.

Maybe I'll see you over there. Maybe not. But if this is it, I've had my fill of proper blogging for a while.