Monday, February 09, 2009

Thoughts on Style While Feeling Crummy (Embracing My Inner Paglia)

I am at home with a cold. Forced by my body to stop the quotidian forward motion from prep to class to prep to class and then to grading, I find myself propelled instead toward reflection, bleary and slightly feverish though I am.

The catalyst for this introspection, which will likely take an outward turn, is Camille Paglia. On Saturday, in an almost accidental way, I picked up her 1992 book Sex, Art, and American Culture at the local branch library. As I leafed through its pages, it seemed as if the book would spontaneously combust as a result of the attempt to contain Paglia's intense personality. I happened to open to her almost ritualistic dismemberment of David Halperin and Michel Foucault, and I found myself rubber-necking as if I were passing the scene of a grisly highway accident. I checked the book out, along with a few others, and took it home where the next day my feverish brain fell completely under its spell.

There is a lot Paglia says that I don't agree with -- her aesthetic preferences and mine differ significantly at times, and I suspect that a conversation with her might be more monologue than dialogue -- but I was enthralled by her slash-and-burn prose, and her iconoclastic a-plague-on-both-your-houses independence. I was reminded of Emerson's injuction to "Speak what you think to-day in words as hard as cannon balls, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said to-day. " Paglia's style unleashes an entire arsenal.

I like that in a writer. I like the fact that Paglia, who got her graduate degree from Yale's Harold Bloom and whose learning is prodigious, writes that with "most academics, I feel bored and restless. I have to speak very slowly and hold back my energy level." It is her energy level, and her courage, that speaks loudest. I suspect that is why I enjoyed Ayn Rand's Romantic Manifesto, although I found her aesthetic judgment horrible.. Her writing style was clear Appollonian fire, like the blue flame of a metal cutter. I learned something from her. I like John Taylor Gatto, the anti-education teacher-of-the-year winner whose dissection of the banality of compulsory education is fiery and principled. I like business writer Tom Peters, who wrote in the introduction to his incendiary book Re-Imagine, "I don't expect you'll agree with everything I say here. But I hope that when you disagree, you will disagree angrily. That you will be so pissed off that you will...Do Something. DOING SOMETHING. That's the essential idea, isn't it?" Yes, it is. In 1956, Jimmy Porter sounded the alarum in Look Back in Anger when he demanded "a little human enthusiasm," and condemned the fact that ""Nobody thinks, nobody cares. No beliefs, no convictions and no enthusiasm." Fifty years later, the torport continues.

Our world, our educational system, and our arts have become Fogelberged. We have traded passion, intensity, and integrity for mushy sensitivity and adolescent pique. We condemn the identification of bullshit as "intolerance" and an insistence on intellectual standards as "insensitive." And it is the worst in academia and the arts, where we are so fearful that we will damage students' and faculty's self-esteem that we applaud any piece of garbage that either produce. Graduates take that expectation of easy acclaim out into the world, where they get all in a huff when some critic says anything even mildly critical of them or one of their chums. Members of the theatrosphere justify their unwillingness to write anything less than adulatory on the basis of self-preservation, as if personal integrity was unimportant and honesty the equivalent of a raodside bomb.

After ten years of trying to toe that line, I've had enough. Theatre is hard, and there is a lot to learn. Failure will be constant, and should not be seen as anything but failure. You learn more from failure than success, but only if you look deeply at the failure and mine it for its treasure. There are thousands of years of theatre history. and theory, and criticism, and they need to be learned before young artists have the right to be taken seriously. And even then, there is more anthropology and psychology and philosophy and comparative religion to be understood before they have anything to say that will be of interest to anyone older than fifteen.

Our theatre is shallow, and it is because young artists emerge from their undergraduate and graduate experiences uneducated, unread, and unchallenged. If they read more than a couple dozen plays over the course of four years -- and I mean read the plays, not the on-line Spark Notes -- it is a rarity. Theory? Forget it. The understanding of Aristotle, Brecht, Schiller, and dozens of others is shallow or non-existent. Theatre students spend their time focused on "doing plays," and none of their time trying to figure out why they ought to be done in the first place, and what they have to say to the world today. They sit bored through any class that isn't a "how to" subject, and the faculty, most of who themselves are the product of how-to education, condone their apathy as an artistic temperament. Bullshit. Boredom is the sign of a shallow approach to experience. I am reminded of the aforementioned John Taylor Gatto, who wrote about his grandfather: "One afternoon when I was seven I complained to him of boredom, and he batted me hard on the head. He told me that I was never to use that term in his presence again, that if I was bored it was my fault and no one else's. The obligation to amuse and instruct myself was entirely my own, and people who didn't know that were childish people, to be avoided if possible. Certainty not to be trusted." I feel the same way. Most young artists aren't to be trusted with the power that is embedded within the theatre. Neither can their faculty. And neither can their artistic leaders.

If we wanted proof of the mindlessness permeating the contemporary American theatre, we need look no further than the latest edition of American Theatre. In the midst of a massive social and economic crisis, one that not only will affect the arts but also one in which the arts could conceivably play an important role through the telling of a new story about who we are, Teresa Eyring, the titular head of arguably the most important organization on today's theatre scene, took to the bully pulpit, Marilyn Monroe-like, to gurgle a Happy Birthday to Facebook. Could we get a grown-up back in charge, please?

Closer to home, theatre education is a mess. The sacred cow of most theatre departments is production. Everything is fine as long as production after production is cranked out year after year with no purpose beyond simply "doing plays." Most theatre departments are little more than play clubs, like chess club only with more resources and better cleavage. Production is seen as an end in itself, filled with intrinsic good that comes from the mere fact of learning lines and saying them in front of a set under the bored eyes of general education students required to be there for a "cultural event." Across campus, other departments actually contribute new knowledge to their field; not theatre. Somehow, we have decided that a production in and of itself qualifies as "creative activity," and should be taken seriously as "scholarship." What a con job. Theatre departments ought to be the Research and Development arm of the theatre, where a stable budget allows true experiment, complete with hypothesis, experiment, and analysis all reported for the benefit of the field.

Over the years, I have tried to be polite about this, taking a "bless their heart, they can't help it" attitude toward the mediocrity that permeates my chosen profession. But enough is enough. I am embracing my inner Paglia, polishing up my Rand, flexing my Gatto, and grabbing my Peters (har har). Back on January 30th, perhaps in anticipation of today's post, I changed my Facebook status (no doubt a high artistic expression in the eyes of Teresa Eyring) to "Scott is determined not to dumb down what he does." A friend of mine from grad school days wrote, "What the hell is going on? You probably don't want me to write the admin at UNC to tell them to back off academic freedom, but I'd like to hear details." The enemy is us, not the asdmin. It is about lack of rigor, lack of curiosity, lack of engagement. And it is about how four decades of careerist nonsense passing as education has bled our theatre scene white.

Theatre may not be dead, but it sure is dumb. Tony Kushner, about the only contemporary theatre person left with a brain, said it all quite powerfully in 1998 when he published "A Modest Proposal" in American Theatre. The lack of response from the field was deafening. No doubt, Kushner just ought to change his Facebook status.


Sarah McL said...

Sigh, I love it when you're out for blood.

Tyler said...

I can attest to the lack of imagination and complacency in undergraduate theatre programs. I recently took a class where the final assignment was to write our own manifesto of the arts. I thought it was a brilliant assignment, and it really got me thinking. But then time came to turn our papers in. We did and that was it. Nobody transcended the class assignment. People poured their hearts and minds into these papers (well I did) and didn't want to talk about it. I had to hunt people down to ask them questions about their philosophies. It was quite excruciating. Nobody wants to think in theatre anymore. "We are here to act not to think" Very sad indeed.

Ian Thal said...

Thank you! You identified exactly what it is that bothers me about so much new work. Now, I hope I can live up to these standards.