Monday, February 07, 2005

It's Authenticity, Stupid

There have been sooooo many conversations I can write about lately. They include, to remind myself in case I want to write about them later, biological and social determinism in gender difference, bad art and how it sweeps both the nation and individuals, and authenticity as an artist. Today, I'm goin' with the last. Spoilers would be RENT again, a performance piece that very few people have seen or read yet, and a little bit SCENT OF A WOMAN.

After purchasing a copy of it for Cassie, I reread Sarah Schulman's STAGESTRUCK, which I mentioned in some much earlier entry about RENT; Schulman's fundamental claim, beyond that the non-LA BOHEME plot of RENT was lifted from her novel, is that the "popular" view of the AIDS crisis which RENT put forth into the world glosses over the homosexual perspective and is therefore inauthentic/dishonest. At the same time, my close friend is in the latter development stages of a solo performance piece about the diamond trade in Sierra Leone, about which piece I've been talking with her quite frequently; she is a white woman and will be playing . . . well, I can count eleven characters off the top of my head, and there are probably more, and a whole lot of those characters are black and African. In addition, all my professions and fields of interest (teaching--particulalaly as a white teacher in mostly black schools; theater; anthropology) automatically bring up a lot of questions of authenticity, ideology and authority. So yeah, that done been on my mind.

Every time I read or think about Schulman, or bring her up with somebody else, I have an entirely different opinion. I'm on a search for her novels, all of which are out of print (time for a trip to Myopic Books in Wicker Park--see, I can do product placement on my blog, too), so I can see how much water I feel her claim to RENT holds, and I'm often really irritated by small aspects of her book (such as her inability to check small things like the spelling of the names of people to whom she devotes significant textual time--it seems to me really disrespectful of her subjects and of fact-checking in general, and makes me wonder a lot about her non-self-focused research abilities), but either way the question of the authenticity of perspective is a question I can lose myself in. There is no question that the first community to be seriously effected by the AIDS crisis in America, both in terms of death tolls and stigmatization, was the gay male community. (I feel for some reason like there was a lot less racial division in it then than there is now, but really I have no fucking clue, so can an older reader tell me, please?) It was a "gay cancer," it was something else to stigmatize homosexuality (with remarkable and disturbing success, as demonstrated by the fact that in *1999* I was at a protest where there were actually signs that read "Thank God for AIDS" and "AIDS Cures Fags"). However, the "popularized" version of the early-ish AIDS crisis, the way that people who were too young to understand what was really going on at the time, like myself, came to understand it, was through RENT. The protagonists of RENT, the central figures through whom we enter the story, are straight white males; while myriad secondary characters are black, Hispanic, gay, lesbian, drag queens, college professors, performance artists, lawyers for the indigent, bla bla bla etcetera, Schulman's claim, which I think holds some water, is that it's disingenuous to present the AIDS crisis that way, as if everyone was truly equal and bonded in the face of AIDS. But when I mentioned this to my mother, she pointed out the obvious, which I hadn't thought of and which also holds some water: why does it have to be that way? We must accept, as artists and as sophisticated audiences, that all art is completely subjective; why can't we simply say, the reason this musical approaches the AIDS crisis through the eyes of an HIV-negative straight white man is because the author was an HIV-negative straight white man and this was the most solid and honest way he knew of entering into the artistic dialogue?

Meta-question: are we capable of creating art, and by extension capable of understanding the world, from any perspective other than our own?

This goes back to the problematics both of HOTEL RWANDA, about which I posted earlier, and of my friend L.'s piece. The thing of L.'s piece, though, is that you can't help but know that it's a white woman's perspective. It's different from something a white American woman wrote that is supposed to be presented by black African people; if the sole performer is clearly white and American, and you know the piece was written by said performer, a lot of the limitations and sources of the perspective are on the table from the start. No audience, no matter how uneducated, accidentally ignorant, deliberately ignorant, bigoted, or stupid, is going to mistake this piece for the authentic perspective of someone native to Sierra Leone. Even if it's the first thing the audience has heard about Sierra Leone, and I count myself as one of those audience members, on some level the piece's limitations are on the table. I don't think that's quite the case for the ignorant audience member coming into RENT. Schulman says in the book that RENT "[portrays] straight people as the heroic center of the AIDS crisis," I think that's a little extreme, but even if it were true, can we say that if one happend to think straight people were the heroic center of the AIDS crisis, one shouldn't be allowed to create a work of art that implies that? Can we say that that piece of art would be bad if we didn't agree with that perspective? What about something like SCENT OF A WOMAN--a really well-made, well-acted movie with well-developed characters and a really offensively misogynistic moral universe? Do I think it's worse art because of that offensively misogynistic moral universe, or do I simply like it less, and what's the difference?

I mean, in the case of RENT, I also think it's not particularly good art and am a little offended by how far it has come in the world given that. D'apres Schulman, no piece of art--particularly of that quality, but any piece of art--could possibly have come that far in the public/mainstream eye if it had been written by a homosexual and had a homosexual as the central character, and she's right. Is that RENT's fault, or Larson's fault? He couldn't help being a white straight male. (To which a voice in my head, and probably in the head of many of my readers, sarcastically responds, "Oh, poor him.") Unquestionably it also sucks that there is so little art in the mainstream public eye from an authentic gay perspective, but is that RENT's fault, are they actually competing for the same cultural slot? Would I even dare to ask these questions if I were close to someone gay and HIV+?

And next question: did RENT actually *do* anything political? Did it raise awareness in the public eye of the AIDS crisis, or did it present an idealized version of it that made people think they didn't really have to do anything? And if the former, is it worth its being bad art to have it do that, does that excuse its quality? And does it make it easier for the mainstream, the majority of which *is* made up of straight white people, to digest the magnitude of the crisis if they have a protagonist like themselves through whom they can enter the story, and is there anything wrong with that?

It's been a question at the forefront of anthropology in recent years, too, since basically the discipline of anthropology was founded from a Eurocentric, or rather Eurosuperior, perspective. These cultures are not reflective enough to understand themselves, which implies a certain lower level of sophistication, therefore we have to understand them for them. Even when the more-often-studied cultures started to get a grip on what anthropology was and start looking at themselves, academic anthropologists claimed that perspective was inherently superior--basically, that if you're in a culture that's being studied, you can't see it from enough distance to understand it properly. Which has some resonance, on a smaller scale (people close to you totally understand things about you that you yourself cannot understand) as well as probably a larger, but it does make it clear that in a lot of cases authentic perspectives have been neglected. On the grounds that they're too biased, which by extension leads us to the fact that the Eurocentric, straight, male perspective has been treated as neutral. And it's obvious that it's not, and once you know it's not, it's as valid a perspective to look at things through as any. (Which is why I think there need to be Men's Studies department at universities that have Women's Studies--to answer "all studies are Men's Studies," which many proponents of Women's Studies do, really only perpetuates the use of the male perspective as neutral. Once you let a department acknowledge a man's perspective as just that, a perspective, you're going to get a lot further.) And yet, when you're putting forward your perspective, you need to think enough about your audience and how the piece will be received and the political resonances it will have to know that many to most people think the white perspective is neutral, like I said about HOTEL RWANDA. It's part of the responsibility, as far as I'm concerned, of being an artist; it's why I'm willing to say all art is political, because it does have that kind of resonance. While my objections to RENT are not nearly as extreme as Schulman's, I'm not sure Larson was looking closely enough at RENT's potential sociopolitical future. Then again, maybe he died before he understood how big it was going to get.

At some point we will have to ask ourselves why I have been so obsessed with RENT since I started this blog, and I think the answer lies simply in my fascination with the things political art does and doesn't do. Does RENT qualify as "political art" simply because it's about what was, and sort of continues to be though less so in this country, a really explosive political issue? What happens when people try to write about things they have not experienced? Some people make good art that way and other people don't, but it's generally better when you manage somehow in the piece of art--form or content, which as you know I think are inextricable--to make clear that your perspective is a perspective. There are about a million ways to do that, most of which, obviously, I have not thought of or acknowledged here, though I think my friend's is a big one. Next question: is it just that we're unable to *acknowledge* the perspective tells in things like RENT, because we're so used to considering that perspective not to be one?

2 Comments:

At 3:31 AM, Blogger Lawrence said...

well, i hope the solution to the "white straight male" question isn't that white straight males just need to stay put sitting on their asses all day and revel in their glory while the other whatever-percent of humanity goes off and acts creatively....

i used to want to have conversations in which i would talk to a particular person, and i would also talk *from* a particular person, not from me -- that was how i would think of it. we're talking, like, 12th grade here. it was one of those thoughts that would just come to me unconsciously and only later (say, half a second later) realize was ridiculous -- i mean, it wasn't a calculated desire. but still, i do feel like i succeeded to a greater or lesser extent in osmosing other people's personalities, unconsciously and consciously. i remember trying to get along with the people at MIT, when i first arrived there, as Rachel Lyon. (Dan Rosengart apparently had a six-hour conversation as me once.) so i'm going to have to make the claim that it's possible to tune into someone else's wavelength like that even if you're not with them at the time. but sometimes it's pretty painful -- especially if the personality you're adopting rather despises who you actually are. i'll go out on a limb and say i think this could be the thing that really makes writing in the persona of a minority that you actually aren't (black, gay, HIV+, whatever) so hard.

sometimes also, social institutions can be designed such that conflict between the institution's constituent members is necessary for the stability of the system. so this is a feature i'd say is common to both "healthy unemployment" (within that particular economic model that believes in it) and playing hard-to-get (within that particular romantic model that values that). sometimes it seems to me as a straight male that the "battle of the sexes" is another one of those necessary poisons. one of the problems i'd have with being gay, i think, would be being defined by my sexuality and therefore being defined as being a sexual being in general, when very few people can really afford to be a sexual being *in general*. as an audience member i appreciate "Rent" -- and i really seriously do, and to see you bashing it like a poor ol' wounded dog or something here makes me have to call up my own incessant Dar Williams-bashing on my livejournal (to people i *know* are fans) in order to not feel rather sad -- for the emotional charge it brings to something, and the strength of that something that represents the "Rent" ideal. (i also appreciate "Rent" because the dancing is simply phenomenal, i have to say. this probably is not all that relevant.) now if i were to fully believe you about "Rent"'s social irresponsibility, and believe me i'm gullible enough (somebody told me once i was the most gullible person they knew) to be convinced of that all the time while i read what you've written here, i would say that my appreciation of it corresponds with my appreciation of the stories of H. P. Lovecraft that flourishes despite his de l'epoque racism. it's simply all too easy to read Lovecraft's disfigured other races as symbols not of themselves -- since really Lovecraft was a writer barely to not-at-all interested in racial politics, or politics of any kind really -- but of the otherness and "eldritch" qualities that his writing is all about.

but, you see, i don't even really see how "Rent" could even be as socially irresponsible as all that. under certain models of my life i can say it's certainly changed my life for the better, in that it's probably taught me to value the chronically undervalued bohemian aspects that it espouses. (as for Marc Cohen raising a toast "to any passing fad", well, let's just ignore that for now.) not being close to anyone with AIDS, i don't hold the opinion that the AIDS theme of the play is really specific to AIDS (especially since it's a musical and therefore invites taking things not at face value, a.k.a. not as what they seem). when i was reviewing scripts for a theater company a block from my building (which i eventually quit doing because i hated being judgmental about them) the lowest score i gave was 1 out of 10 to a play about a Polish family and what it meant to be Polish; i suppose have a need for some sort of universality that compared to your ranking system lowers the value of that unfortunate play, while highly raising the value of "Rent". i'm not saying even that "Rent" was written with AIDS as a symbol of all other physical or psychical ailments in mind, but i would say those are the chords it touches regardless, and i'd say that it's powerful enough to make it good art for sure. (that and the dancing.)

i'm not sure if i can handle all this specificity that you're talking about in this post. dreadfully enough, perhaps, the first reaction i get is that it really shouldn't be necessary to absorb all this specific and particular information to be able to create art. i like your "one piece of information is light enough for a pigeon to carry" quote, but it does seem to imply that the function of art is to convince the experiencer of the veracity of a certain set of pieces of information, which then almost seems like a form of manipulation -- and of course here i can't help but think of the you and Max and Tavet vs. me and Katie argument in Ronnie's apartment over "Requiem For A Dream", in which i argued that it was perfectly all right for the movie to manipulate emotions, and you (i believe?) claimed it was a deception. i suppose then that i see emotion-manipulation as a tool to drag the experiencer into another world -- maybe even into an alternate self -- in order to get the full emotional experience or realization that the art contains. something like "Waiting for Godot" might even reduce the experiencer to a state of aporia, but still, after the play is over, this new "Waiting for Godot"-aporia state still seems to me like it's only one of many options to toggle between for viewing the world. what i mean is, the new mindstate created might genuinely believe that there's no purpose to life, etcetera, existentialist credos out the wazoo, but it's not really going to be practical or even possible to live in that state all the time -- the art can only make people suspect and integrate, and if the people realize they're being tricked, they won't integrate -- i guess is what i'm trying to say. i don't know. this all is an argument i suppose in defense of what is actually one of my favorite musicals, and some conceited force is still convincing me that it really is objectively better art than anything Dar Williams ever did.

i guess i wonder what you think is necessary for something to be good art, then? because now i'm so confused that i don't really have a clue -- "good acting" as you've talked about it seems to be a floaty esthetic principle that's almost at odds with your other criteria for valuing art. (i'm suspecting in this case that i actually make judgments about good acting that are less esthetic than you do.) it doesn't seem like it's necessary for art not to be offensive for you to like it, but you're still putting on the skins of all these different characters in judging "Rent" in this post and the Rwanda movie in the other post... i mean, aren't you? or do i just have this dreadfully wrong? "The Seagull", "Masked And Anonymous", "Rent" -- pieces of art i'd say were nearly flawless, and then i ask you and you despise them, and i don't know what to do.

 
At 11:23 AM, Blogger Ammegg said...

I'm going to respond to this as best I can paragraph by paragraph, because I think this is a really cool comment.

As far as I'm concerned, the "solution" is for everyone--both people who are white straight males and people who are not--to acknowledge that the straight white male perspective is just that, a perspective. Each aspect of what you are, white, male and straight being only some of those aspects, informs the art that you do. We--and I recognize that I did so in this post particulalaly, and I apologize, but at least it's to show how difficult and complex a social road this will be--need to acknowledge that being a straight white male is not neutral, and that while it is a perspective that has been given voice in our time a great deal more than many other voices, we will be able to look at it differently if we truly understand that it's only one voice.

I really like the idea of speaking from someone else; I'd never identified it that way, but I've done it.

I saw RENT long enough ago, I must admit, that most of the production values aside from its attempt to make the Nederlander look shabby escape me now; I'll take what you say about the dancing on faith. While I myself like Dar Williams, the only songs I could truly defend against Dar-Williams-bashing are "The Pointless, Yet Poignant, Crisis of a Co-Ed" and "Flinty Kind of Woman"; I see and can admit to the problems with most of her body of work, and yet overall I still like it. (If you want an ally in your bashing, I suggest you team up with my sister, who is far more vehement and virulent in her attacks than I can imagine you being.) That, I guess, leads to my overall standards of good art; I'm not going to go into it too deeply, because I'm going to write a post about it in the next couple of weeks and because, in spite of the fact that I'm going to write a post about it, I don't really understand it. But after long familial debate and a lot of belabored thinking that sprung out of the very conversation you cite, I *can* answer the part about manipulation!

Katie argued that all art is manipulative, that manipulation was an inescapable fact of art, and after some consideration I found that I couldn't really argue with that. (And yet, I did argue with it at the time--let that be a lesson to you about me, folks.) But in relation to my pigeon thing, I think the difference is between art that manipulates its audience into going through a process and art that manipulates its audience into coming to a conclusion. That, for me, is the distinction between good art and bad art: I favor the former. Both good art and bad art, assuming it's put together with any semblance of intelligence (and I include the entire spectrum of Howard Gardner intelligences in that word--I'm not attempting to belittle "outsider art" in this process, though "outsider art" is a longer conversation for a longer day), have some understanding of steps of the process through which the audience will be taken. Bad art assumes that it knows how every member of every audience will (or "should," if you will) react to each of these steps, and therefore believes there is only one "right" conclusion to reach at the end. Taking (or "manipulating," if you will) someone through each step of their process is a natural part of art and how it works; assuming you know that person's reactions and relying upon those reactions to make the logical jump to the next step is a salient feature of bad art. That's how I think of it. Hence the pigeon. I don't think art is there to convey a message as in "you should think this," but it is there to convey messages as in "here are some pieces of the world that contribute to why I think this, and I think this, what about you?" Also hence the subjectivity deal with straight white men and so forth. (And n.b. sexual orientation, race and gender are not the only salient features that contribute to a person's perception of a piece of art or making of art, they're just the ones with the largest lobbies right now. Class needs a larger voice, but the ways that the other lobbies get into the structure are inherently classist, so . . .)

I, however, have a particular bias at play here, which is that I don't believe there's a "right audience" for any piece of art. I think if there is, if there is a *class* or *group* of people rather than a smattering of individuals who have no connection to a particular piece of art, it's the fault of the art/artist. Not everyone believes that. Which is not to say that that's the case with RENT; I imagine there are plenty of lesbians who are delighted about RENT, just that none of them are Sarah Schulman. (I finally read PEOPLE IN TROUBLE, by the by, and hoo boy is that another round of conversations about authenticity . . . the fundamental argument of the book is that of separatism, that bisexuality doesn't exist and/or isn't politically appropriate, and that the only people who can honestly understand the cruelty of the world are homosexuals, and it seems to me hostile and nasty but at the same time another page in the authenticity book. And boy is it an example of conclusion-art--it's mad at you if you don't think what it thinks. I also found that I couldn't see it as more of a source for RENT than I could see the culture at large as being one.) I think Larson thought himself universal, and maybe he's wider-reaching than I'm willing to acknowledge. But that leads to a question of Broadway audiences and theatrical classism and so forth, and I'm not quite up for that today.

Yeah. That's all she wrote.

 

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