Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Nature of the Artistic Citizen

Recently, I have been mulling over the question of "artistic citizenship." That this is a weighty concept in and of itself seems self-evident. After all, what could be more important than the essence of political engagement combined with a chosen life path? And yet, at the same time, it seems like a strange question to ask. After all, there seem to be no other professions which cast doubt upon one's value as a community member. One doesn't see much ink expended in the contemplation of "Accountancy citizenship," or "Urologist citizenship," while Routledge Press published an entire book by numerous luminaries under the title Artistic Citizenship to discuss the concept while, centuries earlier, Plato banished all poets from his City in Speech. So today, I propose to examine this concept more closely in order to try and establish a working base of meaning in order to chart a potential future for the arts in our country.

Nietzsche formulated a concept which is generally known as the "eternal return of the same." It is, in essence, the idea that every moment, every action, will be repeated eventually ad infinitum. Every moment, minute, action and breath will happen again, and again... and again. It is a perplexing issue, for the precise details are unclear. Is it that everything will happen identically? Or perhaps it all changes over time in a (hopefully) virtuous spiral, improving with each pass around?

Regardless of the precise nature of the eternal return, Czech novelist Milan Kundera makes the supplemental point in regards to the nature of repetition. If an action is to be repeated eternally, then one is tied to eternity by an unbreakable bond. This repetition creates a immense burden, a great deal of heft that holds life down to the earth. Lives pressed to the earth due to their importance lend importance to the actions involved, for if nothing is ever repeated, how can it be of any notice in the long term?

The concepts of repetition and weightiness are echoed in Aristotle's definition of tragedy, that most communal and regenerative of arts. "Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is admirable, complete and possesses magnitude; in lanuage made pleasurable, each of its species separated in different parts; performed by actors, not through narration; effecting through pity and fear the purification of such emotions." Let us first examine the concept of an imitation, or mimesis. Mimesis is that force by which the actor and poet represents the story and character to the audience (it is their imitation). Yet, the crux of the matter turns on what is being imitated. In one of the most famous passages in his Republic, Plato banishes all poets from the City in Speech based on the idea that they lie. Plato posits that, at the heart of all things (ie. The Mind of God), stand the Eidos which are the perfect forms. The physical world (the world of our senses) is a mere imitation of the Eidiatic world, and the arts are am imitation of that. Based on their degenerate and potentially vicious imitation of an imitation, the poets found themselves excluded from the perfect polity. However, the expulsion is hinged on Plato's conception of the universe, which is itself flawed. The actor and poet, in constructing their performance, must rely on the probable as opposed to the actual. The actor playing Oedipus is not, indeed would be unable to, imitating the historical Oedipus, but instead the idea of Oedipus. As such, Aristotelean mimesis connects the artist directly to the immanent and, through imitation, repeats it. In Kundera and Nietzsche's conception, the artist thus renders the immanent more real in our world.

NYU Professor E.L. Doctorow echoed this idea in his September 14, 2001 Address to the Students of the Tisch school of the arts, citing Emerson's idea on the artist as the reporter of the universe. There is a certain mystical gnosis at play in such a knowing, but it is there all the same. The storytellers (ie, actors & poets) walk a fine line between atavistic reaction to modern scientific determinism and a potential affront to the annointed (prophets and priests) of earlier times, for whom storytelling and the creation of governing myth was a sacred right. However, though the right of authorship has devolved from the prophets, I question Doctorow's assertion that it is now in the hands of everyone.

For the arts were once communal. Scott Walters of the CRADLE has pointed this out repeatedly, as well as countless other anthropologists and theorists. However, the professionalization of the arts, particularly as evidenced in the degree-granting programs of the Western universities, has been a conceptual backflow from this natural devolution. As Robert Edmond Jones wrote in his The Dramatic Imagination, there is no one like Oog... Oog who can impersonate the dinosaur. On some level, the professional artist is requesting payment for performing an action which once was (and on some level still is) open to anybody who cares to give it a try, regardless of skill.

This attempt at enclosure of storytelling is at the very root of how an artist's ability to participate as an equal in the community may be called into question. John Locke wrote in his Second Treatise on Government that "The great and chief end therefore, of Mens [sic] uniting into Commonwealths, and putting themselves under Government, is the Preservation of their Property." And further, one that seeks to violate the property of another can be considered to be in what Locke refers to as a "State of War" with the wronged. In essence, the taking of that which belongs to others (in this case the storytelling right), places one outside the society.

However, one can defend the professionalization of the arts on the grounds of simple economic theory, with Adam Smith's (or Bernard Mandeville's... if one desires an older, more poetic, source) division of labour providing ample excuse. And though this is natural in the liberal (used in the older sense contemporary to Locke, Hobbes, and Smith) West, it would seem that it does not come without resentment. Thus, one finds the theoretical basis for questioning the artist's relationship to the polity to the the result of a conflict between those who identify as artist and the polity who feels wronged by their primary focus on the storytelling that once was the property of all.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Some Thoughts on the Concept of the Revolutionary Dramatist

It does not seem at all uncommon to find amongst the reviews and criticism someone willing to designate this or that dramatist as a "revolutionary voice" or some similar radical designation of both their prowess, power, and perceived stance in regards to the mainstream. In essence, the revolutionary is a powerful and skilled transgressive, violating the rules and running contrary to established standards in order to find a voice in the theatre today.

Perhaps the single most expansive work on this particular topic is Robert Brustein's Theatre of Revolt, which takes a number of modernist dramatists (Ibsen through Genet) and demonstrates how their theatre is truly one of revolt, of casting off. Perhaps the clearest rubric is the one he provides on the varying types of revolt:
  • Messianic Revolt: A form of revolt where the dramatist attempts to tear down the old order of being and replace it with something of their making.
  • Social Revolt: A form that removes the metaphysical aspects and lowers the stakes. In essence, it seeks to tear down the old order yet lacks the energy, or perhaps clear will, to replace it with a new one.
  • Existential Revolt: This one comes about in the last feeble gasps of the dramatist. When he cannot even cast off the old order, but simply by existing, by persevering, registers his revolt against the system.
And this seems to be a very neat, very simple way of thinking about the revolutionary dramatist, a ranking on order of energy and capability of making difference. However, the rubric quickly breaks down in the concepts of Messianic Revolt. Though the new messiah attempts to build a new order, they rarely (if ever) succeed in a meaningful way. Even the Nietzschean has difficulty describing what precisely he means by a "dancing Socrates," and the prime examples of Messianic work, Ibsen's early dramas Brand and Peer Gynt, end in the catastrophic failure of the superman. Thus, even this three-step hierarchy, elegant as it may be, collapses into a binary form: transgressive or cisgressive (Trans- and Cis- being the two opposite prefixes). Thus, the revolutionary (or revolting?) dramatist is simply in rebellion, defined by their status as opposition.

This status has the effect of, essentially, creating a stable of sacred cows. It becomes difficult to critique a transgressive stance. By defining the work of a revolutionary dramatist as being against something, one has a problem similar to attempting to prove a negative assertion. In standing for nothing aside from the end of the old order, any critique is structurally obligated to defend that very order. Such cyclical arguments get nowhere and thus the status of the transgressive dramatist is, in essence, unassailable.

However, such a binary structure is based on a basic misunderstanding of the concept underlying revolution. According to the Collins English Dictionary, revolution is rooted in the Old French "to revolve," meaning to roll back or come around complete circuit. Indeed, such a concept is echoed in John Locke's conception of revolution as an "Appeal to Heaven." Lacking an earthly recourse to the violation of natural rights, revolutionaries call upon god (the ultimate in intrinsic value) to be their judge. Revolution, as opposed to functioning as a simple transgression, is in reality a cisgression in favour of a (perceivedly) superior or more basic value. Thus, the cis/transgressive binary of drama is collapsed again.

The effect here is a basic one. Status as a revolutionary (in drama or otherwise) is thus no protection from additional critique. The very structure of the dramatic revolt lends itself to continual improvement, continual examination, and perhaps a virtuous spiral.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Not 20 Minutes Into...

... the Tony awards and I cannot help but grind my teeth once again. Mr. Harris is delightful, engaging one might say, in his piece about Broadway not being just for gays. And that the doors have been opened to heterosexuals is laudable on a number of counts, but as the list ran on it simply underlined the highly commodified nature and NYC-centrism of the Antoinette Perry Awards. After all, one has to keep those out-of-town relatives entertained.

This had me reaching for the April 2011 Issue of American Theatre Magazine and flipping for this article. The question as to whether or not there are too many awards shows for the theatre seems to be a strange one at first glance, yet the thrust of the article is clear: The Obies and the Tonys matter, the rest is chaff, according to Village Voice theatre critic Michael Feingold and article author Eliza Bent.

So what are those of us exiled to the provinces to do? Simply stand outside and refrain from lauding the best in our communities? The question in Ms. Bent's article, in terms of an award's worth, hinges upon the question of it helping a career or, possibly, functioning as a marketing tool. Forget the fact that such traditions and critical assessments are a big part of the glue from which artistic communities are made.

Which brings me back to the Tony Awards. I want to like the Tonys, really I do. They are, evidently, the pinnacle of achievement in my chosen field... and they look like a great deal of fun. But the "molotov cocktail" cited by award winner Ellen Barkin (Featured Actress- Normal Heart) never made it out of the great quadrangle on Manhattan, and those of us who aren't dedicated enough to join the tribe properly are left to watch. Scott Walters, of the C.R.A.D.L.E. and Theatre Ideas Blog makes an excellent point in regards to our system, and can be read here.