Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Ground On Which I Stand

On Monday, George Hunka responded to my post on Academiaphobia with a challenge that I continue doing exactly what I'm doing, "only better," by which I assume he means that I should avoid some of the lightweight kvetching about Charles Isherwood and A O Scott and really write something with some weight. Fair enough. I'll try to pick up that gauntlet.

I find myself once again fallen afoul of the theatre blogosphere. This has become such a common occurence of late that I can't really express surprise. However, never before has something I have posted been labeled "evil," which is how George Hunka characterized my post of a manifesto by Frederick Turner. You can read George's full dismantling here. Allison Croggon and MattJ also contribute their thoughts, con and pro, in my comments box, and Joshua James dittoes George's viewpoint while Isaac provides an ad hominem argument in George's comments box. So I guess almost all countries have been heard from. Indeed, the comments box on George's blog was filled, at last check, with fully a dozen responses to his post. This is the problem with following George's challenge to post thoughtfully and deeply: one misses the flurry of the discussion. Nevertheless, I will take my time, and answer carefully.

While I did not expect everyone to stand up and throw their hats in the air shouting "Huzzah!," I must admit to being rather upset by the response. Allison "felt more and more depressed reading this post," and has since gone on to call Turner (and by reflection, I assume, me) "reactionary" and "intellectual[ly] dishonest." George experienced a "growing sense of confusion; then wonderment; then bitter despair." I must admit that I had a similar experience while reading their responses. Never have I felt such a philosophical chasm separating me from my fellow bloggers, and I won't pretend that it doesn't depress me, primarily because I have a sense that it is at the level of bedrock worldview that we differ. In his comment, George writes "I'm afraid we're going to have to disagree," a sentence that I find deeply saddening, because it seems to evoke silence, not further discussion.

Nevertheless, in the face of my despair, I will do what bloggers do and write in the hope that, while agreeement may be impossible, at least a clearer understanding of the disagreements might ensue and a rope thrown across the chasm might provide a point of connection, even if it is only that of a tug of war. George has apparently gone on a holiday break, but it is my hope that the others who failed to leave a comment on my original post but have contributed, indirectly, to the conversation by leaving comments in George's comment box will grace me with their presence.

At this time, I am not going to respond to Allison Croggon's description of the "New Classicism," because I do not know enough about that movement to comment. If I have time, I will read a little more of Turner's actual work to find out whether I agree with the entire program. I will say, though, that I find the application of political terms like "conservative" and "reactionary" to aesthetic issues to be objectionable, because its effect is to place a general label in the place of consideration of individual aesthetic ideas. Furthermore, I cannot agree that one cannot sympathize with Matthew Arnold's aesthetic opinions without simultaneously accepting his political opinions any more than I can agree that Ezra Pound's poems cannot be appreciated without sharing his fascism. I don't have to swallow the whole Christmas goose just because I've nibbled on a wing. We have the right -- indeed, perhaps the responsibility -- to pick and choose and interpret ideas individually.

Therefore, I would like to base my conversation, at least for now, on the manifesto itself, and some of the questions that surround it, rather than Frederick Turner's other writings, his website, or his attempts at poetry.

Responding to Turner's first item, "The reunion of artist with public," Allison Croggon writes: "who are the "general public" lauded here? Aren't they a bunch of individuals whose tastes and desires are impossible to second guess?" Yes, and no. I think the intention here is avoid the creation of art for a coterie audience comprised of a small group of people who share the artist's background and viewpoint. The assumption is that addressing the general public requires that the artist broaden his or her scope and personal understanding, much like it is said Shakespeare did by addressing both the groundlings and the educated elite, and encompassing their worldview, within the same play. I believe that there is a place for coterie theatre such as the independent theatres created late in the 19th century (e.g., Theatre Libre, Independent Theatre, Freie Buhne) that gave birth to Antoine, Shaw, and Brahm, and that spread the work of Ibsen throughout the world. These theatres were laboratories in which new ideas were tried out and perfected, and they changed the face of the theatre. But eventually each of those great artists stepped outside of the lab and used what he had learned to address the public as a whole, thereby spreading the experiment further. Today, the realism these artists pioneered is now the norm, and generations of artists have committed their careers to new experiments to unseat that realism. That is as it should be.

Turner goes on: "Those members of the general public who do not have the time, training, or inclination to craft and express its higher yearnings and intuitions, rightly demand an artistic elite to be the culture's prophetic mouthpiece and mirror." A few people have expressed a sense that Turner's ideas smack of conservatism and reaction, but the above sentence also echoes Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci's idea of the organic intellectual who "function(s) in directing the ideas and aspirations" of the public. Ultimately, the idea is not to "second guess" this group of individuals (in Allison's phrase), but rather to see oneself as "organically belong[ing]" to that group in order to serve as a "prophetic mouthpiece and mirror." This does not mean pandering and flattering, which is to appeal to the base aspects of human nature, but rather to express the "higher yearnings and intuitions" of that group. Lincoln appealed to Americans to look to the "higher angels of our nature," and Turner seems to be calling on the artist to do the same. This requires, not that artists ignore the base actions of humanity, but rather that they portray those actions not as ends in themselves, but means of conjuring those higher angels.

George writes that "The horrors of existence, as exemplified by Lear's struggles against community and nature...are hard to squeeze into that word "beautiful,"' but I would beg to differ. I can think of few plays that are more beautiful than King Lear. Admittedly, the play is filled with horror upon horror, and these are not beautiful in themselves, nor are they meant to be; but what is beautiful is how Lear changes as a result of those horrors. We watch the tempering and burnishing of Lear's soul as he changes, through suffering, from an intolerant tyrant to a true spiritual king. For a man such as Lear, whose self-centeredness had made him blind to all but his own desire to be loved and worshipped as a god on earth, wisdom could only be attained through suffering and pain. But we see, at the end, perhaps for only a few moments before his death, a man who has attained redemption, empathy, and wisdom. It is the portrayal of such redemption that is beautiful.

And so the call for beauty in art does not exclude suffering, violence, and pain. But rather the suffering, violence, and pain is not presented as an end in itself, nor is it presented as the true and unchangeable nature of mankind. George writes (and it is here that the chasm may open between George and me), "It's hard to 'restore reverence for the grace and beauty of human beings and the rest of nature,' ...when one sees what human beings and nature are capable of destroying." For George, it seems, the horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima blot out, perhaps forever, the "grace and beauty of human beings." To this, I cannot assent. The existence of evil, even evil on such a horrific scale, does not negate the good. For every act of hatred and violence there has been one of love and caring, and while it is irresponsible for artists to ignore the former, it is equally irresponsible to ignore the latter. Noel Tichy, the head of the University of Michigan's Global Leadership Program, once said "What we view determines what we do." If we fixate on horrors and degradation of the world to the exclusion of beauty and goodness, we will create art that is partial, hollow, and despairing, and that ignores fully half of human experience. Consequently, I fail to see what is "fishy and banal" about the statement "Art recognizes the tragic and terrible costs of human civilization, but does not abandon hope and faith in the civilizing process." If that statement is truly embraced, and experienced deeply and profoundly with one's heart and soul, it leads to a sense of human possibility that comes through a balanced recognition of the power of human beings for both good and evil. A belief in the "civilizing process" of human existence -- a belief that humanity can be improved -- seems to me to be a necessary ingredient to the creation of art, indeed, to the creation of anything at all, to the continuation of life itself. Even if one believes that evil will always overcome good, one must believe in the heroic value of the struggle itself, or else lapse into silence and despair.

Citing several instances of the censorship of artists by governments or organized groups, George writes "the relationship of artist to public isn't necessarily a happy one, not these days. The artist usually needs to insist that she stands against the public, in opposition to it, separate from it, to do her artistic work." To be reunited with the public does not mean the reunion is always a happy one, or at least happiness as a continuous state of contentment, agreement, and euphoria. There is nothing in life that is always and ever happy. Nevertheless, the existence of conflict, of evil, of oppression, suppression, and censorship is not grounds for the isolation and self-banishment of the artist. We must participate in the pain of the world, not stand separate from it. Artistic work of value grows out of life, both the pain and the glory of it, and requires of the artist not distance, but profound experience and the wisdom that grows from that experience.

It is this that Turner's words bring to my mind, and why I posted the manifesto. I don't care about the value of metre or rhythm, or even about the connection of art and science. What I care about is a commitment to profound beauty in art, defined with complexity and wisdom, and I care about the belief that if an artist can communicate to humanity that beauty, in all its pain and glory, through artistic experience that is profound and wise, that in some measure it will contribute to the "civilizing process" of history. This is based on hope and faith in the educability of the human being, and held onto with bloodied fingers in spite of all the evil that men do. If this is conservative and reactionary, so be it. For me, to quote August Wilson, it is "the ground on which I stand."

Monday, December 19, 2005

A Discovered Manifesto

I am getting ready to move from my office to a new building, and so I have been going through things and packing. A few days ago I came across the following in a stack of papers. I copied it from a lecture delivered by Frederick Turner, author of New Classicism and Culture of Hope, and I was very happy to rediscover it, because I find a lot of the values expressed inspirational. At the end, I have included my own addendum:

We stand for:

1. The reunion of artist with public.

Art should grow from and speak to the common roots and universal principles of human nature in all cultures.

Art should direct itself to the general public.

Those members of the general public who do not have the time, training, or inclination to craft~ and express its higher yearnings and intuitions, rightly demand an artistic elite to be the culture's prophetic mouthpiece and mirror.

Art should deny the simplifications of the political left~ and right, and should refine and deepen the radical center.

The use of art, and of cheap praise, to create self-esteem, is a cynical betrayal of all human cultures.

Excellence and standards are as real and universal in the arts as in competitive sports, even if they take more time and refined judgment to appreciate.

2. The reunion of beauty with morality.

The function of art is to create beauty.

Beauty is incomplete without moral beauty.

There should be a renewal of the moral foundations of art as an instrument to civilize, ennoble, and inspire.

True beauty is the condition of civilized society.

Art recognizes the tragic and terrible costs of human civilization, but does not abandon hope and faith in the civilizing process.

Art must recover its connection with religion and ethics without becoming the propagandist of any dogmatic system.

Beauty is the opposite of coercive political power.

Art should lead but not follow political morality.

We should restore reverence for the grace and beauty of human beings and of the rest of nature.

3. The reunion of high with low art.

Popular and commercial art forms are the soil in which high art grows.

Theory describes art; art does not illustrate theory.

Art is how a whole culture speaks to itself.

Art is how cultures communicate with and marry each other.

4. The reunion of art with craft.

Certain forms, genres, and techniques of art are culturally universal, natural, and classical.

Those forms are innate but require a cultural tradition to awaken them.

They include such things as visual representation, melody, storytelling, poetic meter, and dramatic mimesis.

These forms, genres, and techniques are not limitations or constraints but enfranchising instruments and infinitely generative feedback systems.

High standards of craftsmanship and mastery of the instrument should be restored.

5. The reunion of passion with intelligence.

Art should come from and speak to what is whole in human beings.

Art is the product of passionate imaginative intelligence, not of psychological sickness and damage.

Even when it deals, as it often should and must, with the terrifying, tragic, and grotesque, art should help heal the lesions within the self and the rifts in the self's relation to the world.

The symbols of art are connected to the embodiment of the human person in a physical and social environment.

6. The reunion of art with science.

Art extends the creative evolution of nature on this planet and in the universe.

Art is the natural ally, interpreter, and guide of the sciences.

The experience of truth is beautiful.

Art is the missing element in environmentalism.

Art can be reunited with physical science through such ideas as evolution and chaos theory.

The retentiveness of art can be partly understood through the study of nonlinear dynamical systems and their strange attractors in nature and mathematics.

The human species emerged from the mutual interaction of biological and cultural evolution.

Thus our bodies and brains are adapted to and demand artistic performance and creation.

We have a nature; that nature is cultural; that culture is classical.

Cultural evolution was partly driven by inventive play in artistic handicrafts and performance.

The order of the universe is neither deterministic nor on the road to irreversible decay; instead the universe is self-renewing, self-ordering, unpredictable, creative, and flee.

Thus human beings do not need to labor miserably to despoil the world of its diminishing stockpile of order, and struggle with one another for possession of it, only to find that they have bound themselves into a mechanical and deterministic way of life.

Instead they can cooperate with nature's own artistic process and with each other in a free and open-ended play of value-creation.

Art looks with hope to the future and seeks a closer union with the true progress of technology.

7. The reunion of past with future.

Art evokes the shared past of all human beings, that is the moral foundation of civilization.

Sometimes the present creates the future by breaking the shackles of the past; but sometimes the past creates the future by breaking the shackles of the present.

The enlightenment and modernism are examples of the former; the renaissance, and perhaps our time, are examples of the latter.

No artist has completed his or her artistic journey until he or she has sojourned with and learned the wisdom of the dead artists who came before.

The future will be more, not less, aware of and indebted to the past than we are; just as we are more aware of and indebted to the past than were our ancestors.

The immortality of art goes both ways in time.

In the light of these principles we challenge contemporary thinking and urge the reform of existing institutions.


8. Art should facilitate conversation and reflection about things that matter.

Artists should create opportunities for spectators to share ideas and emotions with each other and with the artist.

Artists should strive to create a community of reflection around their art.

Artists should see themselves as part of that community.

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

Every once in a while, I think I'll post a link or two to posts written earlier in the life of Theatre Ideas that seem worth revisiting ...