Thursday, January 07, 2010

Marga and Desi

In the comments to my post on "David Byrne on Arts Funding," a fairly common trope is arising that often arises in discussions concerning classics and contemporary work: that the classics are universal and as present as the contemporary. An anonymous commenter wrote:

Picasso once said that “there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all. The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was.” Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Wagner often if not generally remain more new than everything produced in our own era, and Schoenberg said essentially the same thing in his essay on "new music." Whatever is produced in our time isn't inherently superior, more important, interesting, timely, or let alone new, which is not to argue that it shouldn't receive support, but that the idea that what is made in our own era is inherently "new" is entirely specious.
When this idea is interjected into the context of diversity, it often takes the form of rejecting the concept of the Dead White European Male (DWEM). Ian Thal writes, "DWEM is a tired trope: it served a purpose for a while, but we need a method of calling for a more diverse canon and a opportunities for more new work and more diverse work without being so divisive and invoking identity politics and resentment-- especially, as you point out, when skin color and gender are not the only measure of difference."

I agree with Ian, in the sense that the DWEM trope is focused entirely on race and ethnicity, a concept that is more and more being called into question scientifically (which is not to say that it doesn't continue to be powerfully evoked sociologically and politically, which is probably ore germane to the discussion of diversity). We need to broaden the idea of diversity. However, we at the same time we also need to unpack the term. "Dead" is a different argument than "white European male." Byrne is talking about the "dead" part -- let's put the "WEM" off to the side for the moment.

I was reminded this morning of Joseph Campbell, the brilliant mythologist whose Hero With a Thousand Faces, and his interview with Bill Moyers The Power of Myth, have been so influential in our understanding of the importance of mythology in culture. I'd like to quote extensively from the book The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work, edited by Phil Cousineau. On page 45, Campbell, in his discussion of Jung's "collective unconscious," says that
"mythic symbols come out of [the unconscious that each one of us shares], not out of the personal depth at al. Every mythology is, of course, oriented to a historical situation; it comes out of this people, this province, and that one and the other. And so there is that local inflection. But what is inflected are the deep energies of the total id."
He then goes on to discuss anthropologist Adolf Bastian, who called those common themes of the collective unconscious "elementary ideas." However, Campbell reiterates, "they always come to expression in specific social environments and it's historically and geographically differentiated. [Bastian] called those differentiations Volkergedanken, or ethnic or folk ideas."

Campbell then goes on to discuss the same idea as it appears in the art criticism of India, in which "these same two aspects of images are recognized. The folk aspect, which simply has to do with people and things in stories and time and space is called desi, which means local, popular. On the other hand the elementary ideas, when the diety is represented, are called marga, the path."

Campbell, as is the case in all of his writing, finds the common ideas, the "marga," the "elementary ideas," the "collective unconscious" that lie beneath the "desi," the "Volkergedanken." The structure of the hero's journey is one of these margas, a structure common to many, many hero myths.

To say that a hero myth from the past or from another culture is "universal" is to evoke the marga. However, the marga is clothed in the language, the images, the ideology of the time and place in which it is created. Marga "is from a root word mrg, which refers to the footprints left by an animal," Campbell continues. "So following the elementary idea, you are led to your deepest spiritual source." Once one recognizes the underlying myth in the story being told, no matter how foreign it is to your contemporary mind, it is possible to tap into the power of the myth itself. In fact, Brecht would probably note that the defamiliarization of the past or of another culture actually makes us able to see the marga more powerfully, since it is not caught up in the fog of contemporary issues and ideology. (Thus the settings of The Good Person of Setzuan and The Life of Galileo.) So those who point to the universality of past masterpieces are correct in referring to their presentness, their contemporaneity.

Nevertheless, marga-stories all wear the clothing of their place and their time. Their images are drawn from the vocabulary of the people to whom they are meant to communicate. While their clothing would have been transparent to those for whom the story was written, to us the clothing is opaque, something that must be explained and stripped away in order to connect to the story beneath.

This process of decoding requires a certain level of education (assuming that said education is oriented toward learning the great ideas of past cultures), and to that extent the process excludes those who do not possess the skeleton key that will release the genii. The call for support of contemporary artists is not only about the importance of creating our own culture, our own Volkergedanken, but is also a call for a more inclusive, diverse audience. Antonin Artaud, in his still-controversial "No More Masterpieces," said it succinctly: "We have the right to say what has been said and even what has not been said in a way that belongs to us, a way that is immediate and direct, corresponding to present modes of feeling, and understandable to everyone." (italics mine)

British playwright and director John McGrath, in his excellent book A Good Night Out, calls this process of interpretation and translation "mystery," and he too sees it as exclusionary, reflecting the enjoyment of a certain class of people with a certain level of education. He writes:
But many audiences don't like mystery, in that sense of playing games with knowledge, and words, and facts. They become impatient, they want to know what the story is meant to be about, what is supposed to have hap­pened. They wish a different order of mystery. But because we have universalized the critical response to 'mystery' that proclaims it as a truly wonderful thing, we now have to dismiss those audiences as philistine, as outside true theatre culture, as - and this is the Arnold Wesker refinement - in need of education. My belief, and the basis of my practice as a writer in the theatre for the last ten years, has been that there are indeed different kinds of audiences, with different theatrical values and expectations, and that we have to be very careful before consigning one audience and its values to the critical dustbin.
And so this discussion, spurred by Byrne's evocation of a long-standing conflict, is not just about plays and playwrights, but is also about the type of audience we want and the richness of culture we wish to create.

This is not a problem to be solved, a zero-sum game in which we choose either the past or the present, finally and forever, or even contingently and temporarily. It is, rather, a polarity to be managed, a term used by Barry Johnson in his excellent book Polarity Management. He writes:
Polarities to manage are sets of opposites which can't function well independently. Because the two sides of a polarity are interdependent, you cannot choose one as a "solution" and neglect the other. The objective of the Polarity Management perspective is to get the best of both opposites while avoiding the limits of each. (italics mine)
Neither the marga nor the desi can exist independently -- they must interact, like the electrons and protons of a molecule. The argument Byrne is making, and that Todd London's Outrageous Fortune is making, and that I would make as well, is that we have not, over the years, achieved a healthy and dynamic interaction between the polarities of past and present, marga and desi, collective unconscious and Volkergedanken, educated and uneducated, rich and poor. It isn't about balance -- balance is static; it is about a dynamic flow between polarities, getting the best of both while avoiding the limits of each.

Few would argue that we should ignore past classics, DWEM or no, completely (although some would). What is being argued is that too much prestige has been given to the classics, and too much money has followed the prestige, to the detriment of the contemporary. There are others who would look at the larger picture and say that the mass media privileges the contemporary Volkergedanken and that the arts of classical music and theatre and visual art provide the balance necessary for dynamism -- without them, we would be drowned in the popular. This is a powerful argument that requires us to look at the larger artistic culture, not just out own local ecosystem.

However, the local ecosystem needs to serve as a hologram for the larger. If we would call on the mass media to exhibit a bit more appreciation for the marga, that would be to the benefit of those art forms. But we need to fight where we are angry. To neglect the desi in the theatre to balance the mass media is to create a monoculture that will eventually lead to a depletion of the creative nutrients within the theatrical soil.

The regional theatre is its own ecosystem, just as my proposed small and rural arts system will be its own ecosystem, and Broadway is its own ecosystem. They are interlinked, yes, of course, but not the same organism (which is a theme Rocco Landesman has argued forcefully in the past, and needs to remember in the present when he says dopey things in Peoria about the amateur arts "feeding" the professional theatre). We need each ecosystem to create and manage a dynamic polarity that gets the best of both while avoiding the limits of each. That is the challenge, one that is ongoing and eternal, one that requires monitoring by artists who will alert us when one polarity is being neglected.


Laura Sue said...

Thank you, John McGrath. As a plain old ordinary person, I find it insulting when artists of any media put up something that I need to be educated to understand. Basically, this tells me that those artists are creating for other artists and not for me. I feel under no obligation, then, to either get "more educated" according to their standards, or to support funding for said art. More and more teachers are seeing that if their students don't get it, it's because their teaching needs improvement. Likewise, if the audience doesn't get it, the artist, not the audience, needs to go back to the drawing board.

David Dower said...

I'm curious why you think of regional, rural, and Broadway as separate ecosystems, and "not the same organism". I'm sure you're working a logic in seeing them as separate but interlinked. Say more...

It may be too personal to my experience to extrapolate from, but in my journey in American theater they have all come into play, interpenetrated, and moved me along one path. I started doing plays in a rural high school, community college, and Little Theater. I continued doing plays in urban college settings, Equity waiver houses, and self-producing in site-specific venues in NYC and SF. I ushered at The Public in the days of Joseph Papp and it changed my sense of purpose/intention in my commitment to this field and my role within it. I saw plays on Broadway and regional theaters that made me think differently about the plays I staged on the beach, in the hospital, or in the storefront. I built the Z Space in reaction to/relationship with the gaps between those storefronts and the Bay Area's institutions. I made work that toured to rural and urban communities, for social change and escapist entertainment, I studied and taught in universities and studios and eventually moved my work into one of the oldest regionals, and for the first time am also engaged with the Broadway sector on the level of artistic collaborator as well as audience (though it's affected every corner of the field that I've traveled in).

To me, this is all the American theater-- a single ecosystem with many species at play in it. Like your rainforest v. orchard analogy. It's diverse, unruly, fecund, and resilient. And like a rainforest, each species, healthy and in balance, plays a crucial role in the overall health of the field.

Scott Walters said...

David -- First, I need to correct the record: while I did refer at the convening to an ecosystem, the brilliant rainforest v orchard analogy was not mine. As much as I'd like to, I can't take credit for it.

To answer your question about why I separate the ecosystems, it is mainly out of self-protection. It seems to me as if the minute we see the American theatre as part of one big ecosystem, the idea of a hierarchy is put forward. In the rainforest, somebody always seems to decide there is a King of the Jungle. I don't believe, as Landesman apparently does, that there is a system of arts creation that acts as a filter to pass up the "best" from the "bottom" up to the "top," which is inevitably defined as NYC. Yes, there is circulation of influence between the different types of theatre, but I believe that creativity should be an end in itself, and not used instrumentally to "get to the next level." It is the idea of a hierarchy more than any other, in my opinions, that is the biggest barrier to the creation of long-term ensembles. To change the metaphor, everybody is taught to date strategically, but nobody is encouraged to marry.

From my own perspective, I want to create arts organizations in small and rural communities that have their own values, their own purposes, their own best practices. I want them to be ends in themselves, with artists who are committed to their communities rather than their own individual careers. I want the focus to be on the facilitation of more and more creative expression within the communty, rather than the expression of a small handful of specialized artists.

It's not that I'm against cross-pollination, but I want there to be pride in and a commitment to being the species that one is, rather than a dream that the chimp, with hard work and some luck, is going to become a cheetah.

When I write things like this, I feel extremely conservative, in the actual sense of the word: someone who wants to conserve the best of the past. I am not enamored of the so-called "free gent nation" mentality in the arts. I look back toward Commedia, the Globe, and Moliere, which were filled with artists who worked together over the long haul. And I look to people like Robert Gard and Frederick Koch, who were committed to facilitating creativity within a region. Ultimately, I'm interested in an ecosystem that is more "crowdsourcing," "here comes everybody," "craftsmanship" than in a "free agent nation," "genius," "specialist" approach. And I think that separates me from the rest. Perhaps I am wrong. And after all, it is just a metaphor. But going back to the language of farming, you grow different crops using different techniques in Iowa than you do in Florida or Vermont, and I think the arts are the same.