Search Results

Keyword: ‘Nietzsche’

Moralists have no place in an art gallery

January 30th, 2009 1 comment

Recently a debate came up and I was asked two different questions: are there ethical limits on the public expression of art; is there nothing that is unethical in art.

**(Note, the response below is my initial response.  I’ve since read of some things that have very much shaken my notion, which I explain at the end.)

I think the only proper sphere for determining what is unethical in art is the public sphere.  I believe, as well, it is the only place where art should be limited.  I think this is the exact role that the public sphere performs.  I am inclined to agree with Supreme Court rulings on obscenity, which state that the object in question must be obscene by community standards.  I think putting up a piece of art of the Virgin Mother that uses as a part of its medium elephant dung will find a different reception in New York City than in my home town (village, really) of Fredericktown, OH.  The community standards are very different.  I believe very much that a community has the right to make decisions regarding what is acceptable for it and what is not—part of this is my Libertarian streak.  In politics, I’m very much a libertarian and believe in personal responsibility and respect for an individual’s decisions.  An individual has a personal stake in his or her own affairs and his or her judgment should not be overthrown unless very serious circumstances demand such an overthrow.  I feel this same way about communities—after all, the people making the decisions are the ones living in the community.  Caveat: this, so long as the community decision does not alter or infringe, fundamentally, the rights of another group of people (i.e. Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964, etc.).  Thus, again, the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit in Fredericktown, OH, would not be acceptable.  I am unsure the ratio of gays or lesbians as a percentage of the population there (probably much the same as anywhere else), but most people I know are Joe-average, beer drinking, Sunday church-going rural Americans who overwhelmingly voted for John McCain and George W. and Bob Dole.  They are not likely proponents of homo-erotic photography—at least not publicly.

With regard to art itself, my response is that ethics/morality and art cannot and should not co-exist.  They should not be concerned with one another.  Art that concerns itself with morality is journalism—or worse, propaganda.  The 20th century has well proven how art can be used as a “moral” tool to bludgeon people.  In my opinion, at the deepest moment of creation there is a spirit that enters the artist—some have referred to it as being possessed, other as having voices speak through them (muses in essence)—but there is a connection made between the artist and something very deep and inexpressible by words—the unconscious, perhaps?  This “voice” for lack of a better word, should come through pure and untouched.  It is an afterthought by the artist to deal with what this voice has said and any activity in this regard is a shaping, a filtering, and a censorship—it is also the work of a writer.  (Which brings up the very funny quip made by Truman Capote about Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”)  The problem of how to “craft” a work from the unfiltered stream that just poured through is a great problem and greater minds than mine have struggled with it. (For instance, Wallace Shawn mentions this in a recent American Theatre article—April 2008.)  To filter your voice as it comes through results in crappy art; crappy art is incapable of striking people—it’s a bland paste that’s met with indifference.  Paintings become those of Thomas Kinkade.

I think, really, this is an argument about ‘what is art’.  I remember reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, which I probably should read again—for here you have the character (Roark) that embodies true and uncompromising artistic integrity—integrity to a “personal vision”—but note, not to a societal vision, as that is corrupt.  I am reminded of Ellsworth Toohey, the art critic in The Fountainhead, who was a failed artist so his admitted goal was to glorify, through his criticism, mediocrity, so as to confuse the general public with regard to what great art really is. This to me is where the true question lies—whether something is art or not—not whether it is ethical or moral.  Another piece that came to mind is Neil LaBute’s play The Shape of Things, there is an excellent review that draws out what LaBute was saying—but it deals with the same problem: is there such a thing as immoral art?  LaBute’s piece is interesting because the art object in this case is another human being, which certainly raises ethical/moral questions—and certainly he uses the physical re-shaping of a person as a metaphor for the intellectual re-shaping that happens through art as well.  But what cannot be left out, here, is the role of the artist, which in LaBute’s play is intentional—that returns me to the whole art as journalism/propaganda.  One example that LaBute raises in his play, no doubt from personal experience, is an argument two characters have about a performance art piece they go and see. In the art piece a woman uses her finger as a paintbrush and her vagina as an ink well and finger paints a portrait of her father in her own menstrual blood.  Is this art?  Is this just disgusting?  Is it a form of mental depravity?  Is it foisting your own psychological problems on the public?  Truly it depends on who you are.  For some women—feminist, outraged, etc., this might be a compelling statement regarding a patriarchal society, as it might be for victims of sexual abuse, perhaps.  To a person like Jesse Helms, this would be absolute trash, depraved, and nothing more than filth.  Who’s right depends on who is looking.  And this is a debate of our own making.  But beyond the intellectual reaction, there is also the sensory reaction—does it strike you, affect you?  This matters too, but again, depending upon your sensitization or desensitization individuals will be affected differently.

Frederich Nietzsche, in the Genealogy of Morals goes at great lengths to show that the original definitions of the words for “good” and “evil” were associated strongly with the nobility and the powerful: the kings, queens, ruling class, etc.  All definitions of beauty and strength and health and wisdom, in short, all that was moral.  Then he describes how Christianity—a revolution sponsored by the Jews, he notes (and though not an anti-Semite purely, Nietzsche’s writings did find use by Nazis for this emphasis)—led to an inversion of the moral system: such that in the New Testament one reads that the meek shall inherit the earth, the poor and the diseased—these are the good.  The wealthy are the bad and cannot get through the eye of a needle.  Here in two strokes one can see how utterly opposite views on morality can be.  I am reminded of Joseph Campbell who quotes Heraclitus as saying, “To God all things are beautiful, good, and right; human beings, on the other hand, deem some things right and others wrong…”  God is beyond good and evil; God is beyond duality.  God is unity.  It is only to people that things are either right or wrong—and even that can vary in a person’s life time.  I know there are many people who yearn for absolutes, but to my mind there are none.  Each person is ruled by his own beliefs and these are imparted by parents, family, churches, community, etc.  To prove how far a foul these things can go, one need but only look at slavery, or the Ku Klux Klan, or Nazis, or any number of societies where certain forms of belief and behavior are perfectly acceptable but morally repugnant to many others—or in retrospect.  And no more timely point can be made than our struggle with some over-zealous Islamic groups today, which view the United States as the “great Satan.”  Are we?  I think not, but to their moral system we certainly are for a host of reasons.  Nietzsche said “God is dead.” A quote that has become a mantra for many atheists and exuberant left wing types, but as Alan Bloom notes in his book The Closing of the American Mind, Nietzsche was not happy about this.  He just observed it.  To Nietzsche the death of God meant the death of Good and Evil and with it the definitions that all people use to establish what in life is the highest, noblest, and best achievements to which a person can aspire—and those which are debased and foul and repulsive.  Instead, Nietzsche observed, we have replaced Good and Evil with Values.  And as Alan Bloom notes, Nietzsche was the first to use the term—and that in the 1860s.  To see how right his vision was, we need only look at code words in our cultural system: we have different values; his values are not mine; we don’t share the same values; family values.  What are values?  To think about it is almost absurd.  Saying it enough times makes the word disappear and become silly.  What are we saying when we say, “I value this” or “this thing I value”?  “I value honesty.”  One thing is certain; it has not the ring of “that action is evil.”  William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet, said somewhere that evil is when something is out of harmony with itself.  Others might say that evil is something that destroys the fabric of a culture—is toxic to it—unwinds the web that the Fates weave.  Can art be evil?  Can it have a toxic effect on the mind, the psyche, or undermine the morals of a people?  It is odd that Plato answered yes, given what happened to his mentor.  At what point does “art that challenges our perception of society” become “art that is dangerous to society”?  And what’s more, who is endangered?  Whose moral system are we to use in evaluating art?  The President?  The Congress?  Religious leaders? (Which ones?) A mayor? A mob?

Speaking of Plato…not only did Plato want to throw out all the poets, but Plato’s vision was fascist and very offensive—don’t forget, he felt that there should be no family and that all children should be raised by the state—expressly so there would be no emotional attachments, the bedrock of family and, in my opinion, human life—which to him were no more that threats to the political success of his ideal.  Interestingly, he is also the first to propose women as leaders, remarkable in a society that was terribly misogynistic. There is one conservative radio commentator, Michael Savage, who always quotes The Republic, which I find fascinating, considering much of what The Republic stands for is antithetical to “conservative values” in America.

In terms of ethics and morality, I think America is at a place where these are or have been legislated.  Top to bottom.  America has overthrown the religious basis of its moral beliefs, despite media statistics demonstrating a high percentage of belief in God.  (And there are arguments regarding whether religion and morality align anyway.) We have become a country that legislates morality.  Robert Bly, in his book Iron John, asserts that America has become a society of adolescents.  For the most part, there is no more a strong religious or moral character.  There is no more a “ritual” of “rebirth” for young men into manhood.  There is no clear indication that the great percentage of males even have an idea of what it means to be a “man” in society.  I often hear men my age (38) talk about playing their X-Boxes or Playstations and it makes me think of myself at age 13.  I wonder how it is that 38 year-old men can do nothing more with hours out of their day than play video games.  These are the same people who have 2-dimensional world views and who, when I discuss political issues, have little concern, empathy, or understanding of others and focus almost exclusively on generalizations and broad statements, knowing specifics only about political issues that touch their take-home pay.  I don’t know to what extent this has always been true, but I feel that we as a society are much less literate, much less thoughtful, much less concerned with each other, and much more isolated.  Going back to the opening discussion, I think ethics and morality are community values.  And with community withering, so too is any sense of those accompanying values. 

So this is where Art becomes important.  It confronts.  It challenges.  It asks questions that many people don’t care to ask, or points to things that people would rather not look at.  So I agree with the comment of my ethics professor, Steve Feldman, that art is important to a civil society, and the above statement, I feel, is why.  Art asks questions  because the artist is himself/herself asking questions.  It is true art if it has power, and, as Joseph Campbell points out in Primitive Mythology, acts as a “sign stimulus” to release emotions and repressed psychic truths or experiences.  Kitsch cannot do this. Knowing truths and having meaningful experiences is central to identity: core identity, not just trivialities: “I’m Tom Hayes, I live in Cleveland, I have a house, a car, etc.”  I’m not suggesting Art is the only venue for the formation of core identity, but it is a part of it.  Dr. Feldman formed a question in terms of Kafka‘s In the Penal Colony, where “one character is the Explorer, a man who goes around the world seeking new meaning. We are all explorers now. The penal colony (a metaphor for culture) is run down and falling apart.” So, what is more important, “exploring” versus “identity?”  In playwriting one question that recurs is that of which is more important: character or plot.  One unique answer that I’ve found is that character is plot and plot is character.  They cannot exist independently of each other.  The choice a character makes reveals much about him, and it moves plot in a different direction.  The action of a plot causes a character to make a choice.  I think exploration and identity are equally bound.  For example, for me, the question of dung on the Virgin was more about the artist’s value of dung.  What you learn if you bother to dig below the surface (i.e. shit on the Virgin Mother), is that Chris Ofili used dung all the time as a media form in his art and came from a culture that valued it highly. Now, he also used cut outs of women’s sexual organs in the piece, but the irony should be plain: sex organs and virginity—the sex organs lead to birth—and yet here is this woman (re-branded by Holy Mother Church) as bearing a child without a good romp for her effort!  My interpretation of his use of dung is that it was not done with the intent to offend or infuriate, nor was it done as an act of sacrilege.  Further, perhaps it caused some people to think about the mortality and humanness of Mary; after all, wasn’t that the point of Christ being made man?  To demonstrate his knowledge and experience of this human, mortal body? (Which has some rather unsavory ‘administrative’ duties attendant on it.)

Having two small children it’s amazing to me how active, aware, and interested they are.  How everything is new and fresh and an object of curiosity.  I contrast this with the depressing awareness of how asleep many people I know seem to be.  How asleep many in our nation seem to be…world perhaps?  It is no accident that films like Night of the Living Dead (1968) are critiques of American society that portray the mass of the population as zombies.  My temporary depression at this observation deepens at the thought that my children may grow up to be equally as asleep, passive, and disinterested.  At the very least, I think, Art wakes people up: even if the effect is only temporary.  To Plato I say, ‘your Republic is filled with cowards.’  What good are philosopher kings who cannot confront or sound the depths of human exploration/creation?  The Republic is the first Utopia, filled with mindless children and a few supervising adults; one can ask, I think, if they are truly out of the cave or still staring at shadows.  Art, I feel, confronts shadows and makes them real or dispels them.  In this way it has a sort of transubstantiational quality. 

Perhaps the great question here is: do we (as a collective culture) have an identity anymore?  And maybe this is what frightens people.  Should we have a collective identity—that is, isn’t pluralism more exciting with greater opportunities, perspectives, etc.?  I think this is not only a central challenge we face.  Some might ask if we aren’t out of harmony with ourselves and so Yeats might consider us evil, and thus validate the accusations of fundamentalist Islamists.  Of course, a more whimsical Joseph Campbell might say that we’re in a transitional phase and are searching for a new mythology, which will confer upon us a new identity, one that will be acceptable to us all?

**Follow-up note

I was recently watching a Clockwork Orange and somehow got off on a tangent that included the aestheticization of violence.  This also included a conversation about Kill Bill and how Tarantino achieved what some consider to be the highest form of an aesthetic of violence—one which our Humble Narrator envisioned in his gulliver in said Clockwork.  In that same Wikipedia article there is the following:

Laurent Tailhade is reputed to have stated, after Auguste Vaillant bombed the Chamber of Deputies in 1893: "Qu’importent les victimes, si le geste est beau? [What do the victims matter, so long as the gesture is beautiful]."

This is where my notion of art and morality really stumbles… as if the LaButian notion of art with the intent of reshaping a person isn’t enough…the outright killing of people for an aesthetic is terrible.  I mean, I can see what is meant on a highly visceral level—of pure or raw experience; but the sociopathic objectification of people such that their lives are meaningful only in one vain act of art is, to my mind, evil.

Writing as Transgression

January 20th, 2008 No comments

I was drawn recently to the article by Naomi Wallace in this month’s American Theatre. I was drawn primarily because in one of my early MFA courses the class read One Flea Spare, which is still ranks as one of the most beautiful and haunting pieces of writing that I’ve encountered. My professor and mentor Mike Geither knows Naomi and he arranged to have her come to one of our classes and there was a reading of one of her works The Retreating World, which was also very lovely and moving. I had the chance to talk with her during some down time and I found that my method of writing was much like hers–perhaps my method is like many peoples… Naomi said that she researched a project for nearly two years before writing and that generally had a good idea of where she was going with it, and generally disliked writing itself. That’s pretty much how I feel every time I start a play. Although, since I embarked a different approach as described elsewhere, I’ve found this to be less the case; and I’ve always loved the research–I guess that’s why I’m a research librarian. I also purchased the movie she wrote: Lawn Dogs, which has many of the attributes of her plays–a strange magical mysticism, etc. And a heavy dose of class angst. But, I digress. The point is, I looked forward to the article. Then I read it.

Now I’m not sure what to think. I feel that most of my mixed feelings arise from inner turmoil rather than from something she stated; but I can touch on this in a while.

Mainly, I was fascinated that she would begin by stating that writing is at its “best an act of transgression.” Transgression is an interesting word. Or rather, comes from an interesting root of words. Every time I see the word “trans” I’m reminded of my attempts to teach myself Latin, where many word roots were unveiled to me: “trans” = “across”. Just like “peninsula” which comes from the Latin “paene” (almost) and “insula” (island). I find etymology fun. So you have “trans” (across) and “gressus” (step). So, then I thought “aggression,” hmmm. “ad” (to) and “gressus” (step)–but in this case, it obviously means to step toward in a threatening manner; while transgress is to violate or cross someone’s step, violate their space or motion or whatever–I’m trying to figure this out as I go. Regardless, transgress means to step across the line; break a rule or a taboo. That is, Naomi begins by immediately setting up writing as something that runs counter, that is subversive, etc., with which I don’t agree at all. Or, let me say, rather, that this does not solely have to be the purpose and I take issue with her assumption, both at the beginning and throughout her essay, that it must be. Often times she’ll try to pull away from such a hard line–stating that “I tend to generalize. I like to generalize.” pp100 column 3–but despite her attempts? to pull away, she goes right on displaying her unconscious assumptions that all writing need be transgressive and politically directed. She gives the nod to writing for entertainment, writing for money, and writing for politics, but never writing for self-discovery, growth, or the search for the universe through the local–or rather, should I say, her brush, light with paint, but doth touch the canvas once with such a thought.

Writing to transgress, that is, to cross the self, to open the self and discover the self, while important to her, is seen as a means to a political end. To cross the self to realize how insulated you are, how naive you are, how self-centered, how white, how WRONG you are.

I take issue most with her on the politics of it. This is something that I have struggled with. In fact, I wrote a play, described or touched on elsewhere, entitled The Empiric, about at 14th century healer named Jacoba Felicie, or Jacqueline Felicia de Almania, who was forced out of the healing business by the violence of law in Paris, France. And yes, of course, I realize fully that “law” is a form of violence whose sole intent is to “force” a person to do something he doesn’t want to do, usually with the thin veil of physical violence lying in wait. But my question tended more toward the effect on the art itself that I was trying to create. Doesn’t the act of politicizing an art make it more like journalism? And no matter how pretty the prose or verse, or how human and empathetic the angle, there is some flavor left in the mouth that tangs metallic. It’s almost as if you must reach the truth by slight of hand–fooling even yourself. Sort of like Douglas Adams’ take on flying: that you must trip and fall and the split second before impacting be distracted by something such that you forget you’re falling and start to fly instead. And that you must not ever think of the act of flying or you will immediately fall from the sky, but must instead maintain the posture of distractedness. Such is how you must come to truth. For if you say it yourself it is your truth and if you force a character to speak it, it is degraded.

Politics overwhelms this article. The end of it invokes even global warming, for Christ’s sake. I want to state, openly and honestly, that I am not, nor have I ever been–well, except in a moment of youthful hubris at the outset of my undergraduate career–a member of the right-wing conservative establishment. And I do not want to be taken this way (I am a Libertarian today). But Wallace’s second paragraph smack so hard of Marxist overtones that it’s almost unbearable to read: “means of production,” “ownership,” “writing merely an exercise in accumulating…private property.” Give me a fucking break. And then has the audacity to posit that each of us should ask the question, when we write, “to what ends am I working.” What a load of shit. As if the act of writing is solely to polish a turd before launching it at some [thing, one, idea, group]. She begs us ask the purpose for our writing–positing the blatant assertions that there must be political motives behind when/what choices are made to a political end–one way or another, and then quickly steps behind the Brechtian shield that “all theatre is political.” As if that is an answer or ends all discussion on the matter. She states that the roll of theatre is to “speak truth to power” echoing Augusto Boal in his toppling reversal of Aristotelean logic.

But in much the way she casually dismisses “mainstream” theatre as being “mediocre” or entertainment to “keep the peace,” I defiantly state that theatre exclusively to the end of highlighting class politics, or race politics, is equally mediocre and certainly not original. She steps back from her take on Brecht by remarking that “all theatre is political” in the “human and social” sense, but immediately puts her foot back on the gas pedal of theatre as power struggle.

I am intrigued by her questions in this regard, that:

All theatre deals with questions of power. Who has it? Who doesn’t? Who wants to get it and how? Who lost it and why? Who has killed for it? Who has died for it?

And I tend to agree with Wallace’s “sizing up” of mainstream theatre’s–and it’s audience’s–penchant for congratulating itself on exploring the deep and meaningful issues of humanity, when its epic plow has only touched the surface tissue; a theatre that doesn’t think or even provide an experience of being alive, but instead provides a passable evening’s entertainment and a refreshing alternative to the evening news to while away the digestion of food: by spoon-feeding them the drama, exposition, and meaning as though it were pudding.

On page 100, Wallace defines “transgressive writing” by “calling for a teaching of theatre that encourages students to write against their ‘taught’ selves and to engage…in the kind of ‘self-transgression’ and ‘critical awareness of self’ that will enable them to become ‘citizens of the world.’

Hear, fucking, hear. I absolutely agree with this. To crack that self and unleash the torrent that is the unconscious. The become a citizen of the world by becoming one with all humankind. Nothing could be better. But the motive. My god. The motive should be the act itself; not, as Joseph Campbell would say, to move all the pieces around in the vain attempt to recreate the world–which seems to be Wallace’s explicit goal: writing to wrongs. As if the immense and powerful act of self-discovery should lead to nothing more than a new market economy in an African village. Throughout the essay Wallace waivers between stating greatness and suggesting ways to it, and then cutting it with transient political concerns of the day.

Wallace finishes this section by stating that, “Transgression is, among other things, a dissection of one’s self and a discovery of larger worlds.” A statement with which I whole-heartedly agree.

But again, to do it, Wallace states that one must be involved in “questioning entitlement and empathy.” A statement that seems to, again, take away from the main realization–to debase it. Entitlement and empathy are lesser points to the main act of self-discovery and larger world exploration. And, in fact, that new discoveries of self and larger worlds should, in and of themselves, lead to empathy and a questioning of entitlement, and not be in any way predicated on it. In fact, to listen to Nietzsche, one can make such realizations and discoveries and not give one mote of shit for other human beings at all–to elevate oneself to the status of a god: thus rejecting any empathy or questioning of entitlement; though, I admit I see Wallace’s point and don’t mean to dismiss it. The Holy Grail, or recognizing the pain of others an that in your own self (empathy) is core to the Western ideal of Christian love and understanding…and I think questions of entitlement fall immediately on the heels of such a realization. I am yet amazed that Wallace can make such bold statements regarding transgression and self-discovery and yet immediately lessen them by connecting their main importance with simple political thoughts regarding racism, sexism, etc.

Wallace ends her main introductory section by expressing her desire to see more writers “who envision theatre as a space for social and imaginative transformation.” Another desire that I share with her.

I’ll pick up this discussion again tomorrow, when my mind is clearer and my eyelids less inclined to fall over my eyes…

%d bloggers like this: