Wednesday, April 07, 2004

De Politics

I put in a call to some fellow culture bloggers to get their thoughts on arts and politics. Laura Axelrod has pointed me to a section on her blog where she’s archived such writing. Rob Matsushita wrote me an e-mail, and George Hunka, ever the good sport, wrote an excellent post on the subject. I promised I’d post my own thoughts on the issue, and here is where I am circa 4/7/2004.

Also, if you’re out there, Noah Smith, I’d love to hear from you on this subject!

One thing that Rob and Laura both make clear is that politics has it’s place, but aesthetics are of primary importance. Laura Axelrod writes about this subject passionately here in which she reacts to some anti-war agit prop installation art on display at a certain “Times Square Arts Complex” (I’m guessing it rhymes with Obama). She writes, “there was no sense of style. And that's what I find offensive about the exhibit. It's not the political message.” This was echoed in Rob’s e-mail to me, “As far as current theater, I think it always depends on the work itself. Personally, I think that it's too hard to write in a vacuum. When I start, it's usually because I'm pissed off about something, political or otherwise. But, at the same time, it's always story first with me. The story is driven by my feelings about some issue--even if the story has NOTHING to do with that issue, if that makes sense.” The emphasis on story, character, style, all of these are aesthetic issues as much as they may be political ones as well.

Meanwhile, Hunka talks about how politics should shape our art, arguing that politics must inform our art, but that our art must challenge, must ask questions, must avoid preaching. Illustrating the point, he quotes Richard Foreman, “The real politics of America, it seems to me, have to do with the conflict between people who can sustain ambiguity and uncertainty in their lives, and people who get terrified by it and want everything to be black and white and clearly defined, and so become reactionaries or conservatives. That's the political situation in America. I think my plays always deal with exactly that issue, and therefore are very political. But they're obviously not terribly political in terms of what particular political party you happen to belong to.” He then expands on this idea, talking about the metaphysical questions we should be asking, and arguing for an inherent link to the metaphysical and the political, writing “to convert, not to preach to the converted: this is the political challenge of American theater today, and a metaphysical conversion is what we should aim at.” Foreman’s sentiment is echoed by many an anti-naturalist playwright and director, that the political conflict is one between certainty and ambiguity, between simplicity and complexity etc.

To add my own 3.5 cents :

I think our gang discussing this is talking about many definitions of the term politics. The first (espoused by Axelrod, Matsushita and, when I originally framed the question, myself) is of the more bread-and-butter variety. This is the politics of issues, of how groups and people are represented on the stage, of voting, of social awareness and consciousness. I think it is fundamentally irresponsible of artists to think about themselves as totally apolitical or, as Rob put it, making art in a void. Art exists in the world, it speaks in communication with the world, and ignoring one of the major facets of our world is cowardly head-in-the-sand avoidance. It’s the kind of art that screams “please like me” and “don’t hurt Messers Helmes and McCarthy!” simultaneously.

It is also, fundamentally, an uninteresting posture to take, it kills a part of your personality off, and boring artists make boring art. We live in a world that needs our active participation, regardless of your profession, but that is ruled by people who want you to participate as little as possible. If anyone is going to challenge this, artists are. Get out of the bunkers and into the streets.

At the same time, Laura and Rob are absolutely correct, aesthetics matter. Character, plot, story, all of these things are just as important. We are creating theater, after all, not writing pamphlets, and there is a very important difference. Let us not forget that Shaw and Shakespeare were both intensely political (although the former was much more polemical and pedantic than the latter) and absolutely brilliant writers who gave us unforgettable stories, characters and lines.

So how do we synthesize this with the other definition of politics that George has so handily given us? As Foreman posits (and most anti-naturalist playwrights, especially folks like Mac Wellman concur) the fundamental mission of art (beyond being entertaining, a concern that’s fallen a bit by the wayside) should be to challenge the way we view the world, and to change our methods of perception. This is a political activity, and this speaks very clearly against agit prop. Agit prop seeks to answer questions before they are raised, great theater exists to frame the world in questions you never really knew were there.

This is why I love playwrights like Caryl Churchill, Chuck Mee and Tony Kushner. When they are at their best, they simply rock your worldview. When they are at their worst, they walk down the spiral staircase into the depths of pedagogy. Take Kushner’s wholly unsatisfactory Bright Room Called Day. The play is split into two separate narratives, one of which is a rather fascinating portrayal of a house full of dissidents during the rise of Hitler. It asks daring, bold questions about the individual’s place in the world and in relation to history, and never comes up with any kind of satisfactory answer. The problem with the play is the narrator character, who stomps all over the proceedings by comparing (at length and frequently) Hitler to Ronald Reagan (AIDS being the new holocaust, I suppose). Regardless of what you think of the comparison, it single handedly destroys the play by painting over all of this fascinating ambiguity with easy answers and trite polemics.

Now compare this to Angels in America. No one can enter that play and not have their worldview challenged. I know people all across the religious and political spectrum, and that play has a little something for all of us. This is most evident (for me) in the liberal Jewish character of Louis, in his ever-famous argument with Belize that forms one of the central parts of the Millennium Approaches. Kushner is clearly not siding with either character, he’s letting them duke it out and letting the audience live it and that is what is so powerful.

Kushner, Mee, Churchill and many others are making theater that, in Mac Wellman’s words “teaches you to think rather than what to think”. That is the boldest kind of art imaginable and it is what we should all be striving for. This goal demands of us that we experiment with language, that we create bold characters, that we do not lose ourselves down the rabbit hole of genre, and that we continually challenge ourselves to ask interesting questions rather than give the right answers. Part of this political mission is to constantly challenge theater (both the art and the institution) and how it is formed. As artists, we should care about who makes cultural decisions, whose voice gets represented on stage and by whom, and other concerns that shape the politics of theater itself.

At the same time that I am writing all of this, I am directing a delightful little romantic comedy that I am absolutely in love with. So where does all this political mumbo jumbo fit in? To me, the politics (and they’re there, mainly around issues of isolation and alienation vs. collectivity and connectivity) are one of the guideposts that I can use to figure out the play. They’re their with everything else—the language used, the tone, the motifs, themes, symbolisms, characters etc.—as a tool to help me create the world more clearly for the actors and audience. This might sound like a cop out, like I’m excusing myself for doing not-particularly-political art, but I believe that my political consciousness informs the play and helps create the questions we ask of ourselves and our audience. And hey, you can’t go around doing Caucasian Chalk Circle all the time, anyway, it’ll make you want to kill yourself.

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