Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Tell Us About Real

More on environmentalism, then. Or rather, on art in the context of environmentalism.

I have several close friends who are serious environmentalists--serious in that they're working, actively, concretely, specifically, to change what's going on. I've learned an amazing number of things from them in the last year, some of which I've already shared here and some of which I will share as the information continues to seep into my consciousness, to the way I live in the world. They intend to, and I think they can, change things on a grand scale, change the way people interact with their environment and their thoughts about it, enhance knowledge, change thought. While I'm becoming more serious about my own environmentalism and that will only continue, I'm fairly confident I will never be able to change things/people/environmentalist thought on a grand scale, for any number of reasons. As a teacher or an artist, I will not create work that reaches millions or, in all likelihood, even thousands. And while I don't judge effect by quantity alone, in the face of impending global disaster I wonder. Should the coasts flood, should Europe face a new ice age, should we reach the point where cities languishing underwater can't simply be rebuilt "bigger and better" and have their residents return oblivious to future danger, our entire lifestyle is going to change. I mean, let's *hope* our lifestyle changes before all that shit happens, but it will change in manners beyond our control at that point or points. We're going to have a lot less leisure, and a lot more focus on fundamental survival. And I don't know how much of a difference my work, the work I'm passionate about and devoted to and need, and the legacy I want to leave with that work, will matter to that situation.

I really don't know how this post is going to turn out. I know I'll keep doing my work, in theater and education and the combination, because I don't know what else to do, but I honestly don't know if it's okay to do so.

The thing is that more than my friends, what's inspired this line of thought is a re-reading, in context of An Inconvenient Truth my friends' thoughts and my own, of Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. (Which you should read, right now--no, for real, I'm not sure why you're still sitting here reading this blog entry.) Published in 1993 and 1998 respectively, the novels follow Lauren Oya Olamina through the creation and development of her religion Earthseed, which believes that God is Change, the only constant reality of the universe. The books take place in California from 2027 to 2090; in creating that world, Butler makes use of every social ill and confusion towards which we seem to be tumbling right now, from global warming to the widening gap between rich and poor, human trafficking to the merging of church and state, prisoner torture to street crime. In the '90s she saw a trajectory that I believe we are still on unless there is dramatic lifestyle change. I mean, to be fair, Orwell saw that when he wrote 1984 and surely some of his readers in the '50s agreed, and 1984 clearly wasn't like that, but nevertheless Butler seems to see the complex interworkings of different political causes. These novels have given me, at least, a clearer view than any political tract, treatise or direct action ever could.

Certainly art is more important to me than it is to many people, in what it communicates to me and what I require of it on a day-to-day basis; it makes logical sense, given who I am, that a pair of novels would tell me more about the world than anything else I've encountered. But on the other hand, it was a rereading that made the political difference, a rereading in the context of new political knowledge, which itself came from my friends and my own nonfictional readings and film viewings. The novels were always powerful--this is the third time I've read 'em--but I wasn't able to place them in connection with my own reality in such an explicit way until this time around.

I don't want to be one of those essentialist artists who says that art imitates life, that, as Snowman teaches in Atwood's Oryx and Crake, "not real can tell us about real." The relationship of art to its social context is much more complex than that, and I think the "not real can tell us about real" philosophy ignores, as a lot of contemporary society does, the roles that pleasure and entertainment play, or at least that they can play. (As Bill Hurt so concisely put it--in Entertainment Weekly no less--"Entertainment used to mean 'entertain an idea.' Now it means evade your life.") I can find joy in the good execution of art, even when the art is as full of relentless misery as the Parable serial is, and that matters to me and to many viewers/readers/audience members as much as a message, as much as what we believe we've been told about real. We've also been told about not real, and I value that. Should I, when reality only gets more and more deafening the more I learn about it?

Using art to escape life is as treacherous as Hurt says, and only gets more so when one considers "issue" movies in light of Boal's critique of Aristotelian catharsis (if we've purged our emotions about a horrific incident or issue watching a hero or heroic action in a film, why do anything about said horrific incident in the real world? Our feelings about it have been purged already). But pleasure, and entertainment, and thought also feed life, and that isn't simply not real telling us about real. It's using art to *create* life. There are a thousand ways of doing that, and I intend to do some of them and teach some of them, to teach in a manner that has as many arms as it possibly can. I'll also live a more and more environmentally conscious life as I go on. If I know that I'm going to do my work anyway, I need to make it at the very least peacefully coexist with and at the most actively feed and support other things that I believe. So whether my work matters in the abstract needs to become irrelevant; I need to make it matter, matter holistically, in a concrete fashion. How am I going to do that? Well, I'll tell you: I have absolutely no idea. But it's good to know that that's the goal.


At 2:06 PM, Anonymous Milligan said...

Today in lab I took my students through an exercise to work out the probability of contacting extraterrestrial life. They were bemused to consider that an important ingredient in this problem is the likely lifespan of an advanced civilization, and I got wildly divergent answers when I asked them to think about this. They always want to think of humanity as somehow unique, but at the same time tend to project our own abilities and challenges as typical of any conceivable civilization.

I did have one optimist who thought humanity would survive indefintely and colonize the universe, and a couple of pessimists who doubted that we would make it through the 21st century, at least as a technological society. The median answer tended towards a few thousand years, but this middle group was also the least sure of what would be likely to bring down a civilization. I see a good deal of faith that better science or better leaders will see us through, but also simple denial of the "surely they wouldn't let that happen" variety. Overall they do seem to have a consciousness that includes the realization that we're all in a lot of trouble if things don't change, to I think a greater extent than when I last did this exercise a few years ago. I'm afraid, though, that most of them have not yet internalized the need to be an active part of the solution.

At 3:12 PM, Anonymous tyromaven said...

Every vision of human society and history needs art to understand itself and to celebrate and to mourn and to teach. I think the convergence of form and content is really what separates smarmy, surface-deep treatments of those visions and acts of art that are simultaneously creating and reflecting the world we want to see.

In related news, our EPA funding came through for this year, with a small budget for one day of theatre with me and the Rockford kids at the farm. It's a scaled back version of what we talked about more than a year ago.

At 12:10 PM, Blogger Ammegg said...

Why do we *need* art to celebrate, mourn, teach? I guess that's akin to asking why we can see things more clearly through metaphor, why by indirections we find directions out. In other words, I know the answer, but I'd love some help articulating it.

And in some cases I'd change "want to see" to "need to see." If every form of art created or reflected the world we wanted to see, we'd have nothing but utopias. "The way we want to see the world" perhaps?

Fantabulicious about the funding! Would you want me involved for that, or is it too much trouble for just one day? I'd love to be part of it if it's possible.

At 10:00 AM, Anonymous tyromaven said...

We need art to distill and structure our joy and grief and rage. Rational intelligence can't process those emotional motivations, all of those deep value decisions where the body bridges our logic. And Psychology fails when it tries to be a bad stand in for art--therapy is the medicine, art is the exercise. We need both, at different times and in different forms. Without art, we don't fully comprehend our own experiences in the richness that bridges our science, our myth, our epic passions.

Art elevates our passions to the level of something epic, gives greater weight to our decisions, greater consequence to our actions. Or it can. The art that matters to me does this, and it matters to me because nothing else does this work. Art certifies for us what is worth attention, what is worth our heartful contemplation. Artistic expression commands a place outside of the common modes of communication, and when it succeeds, it succeeds in convincing us that these weird, eerie, vulnerable modes are appropriate--are in fact, deeply fulfilling and stirring and motivating and healing in their capacity to give us a wholeness of sense and purpose.

So, uh, that's why I think we need, really need, art.

The need to/want to distinction has always bothered me. It's too easy to use that distinction to dismiss what people say they need as just what they want and can do without. I think people need to get things that they want. The danger you point out is real, and a point in need of care--but I don't see the solution being to chop them in half. I don't think you educate people by telling them what they need or by pandering to the shallowest definition of what they want. I think you change people's minds when you can reach deep enough inside their wants and needs to find the tangled knot where they are nested together, and then you ramify those tangles and threads out into the whole fucking universe.

Wow. This is why I'm friends with you. Nobody else is making me say this stuff. Let's pick it apart together in person soon. Love and respect, R.

At 10:06 AM, Anonymous tyromaven said...

p.s. I think art uses a kind of reasoning that is different than rationalized logics, and I think that all the pitfalls and venomous deceptions that exist in the realm of any other social meaning-making apparatus also exist for art. I think we have to hold art as a practice (as distinguished from art as a private hobby) up to the same standards of accountability as we do politics, science, education, community organizing, civilizations--because it is both shapes and is shaped by these things. So be careful with art like you're careful with Ann Coulter or Darfur or Israel.


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