Wednesday, September 27, 2006

From Moment to Moment

And by "tomorrow," I clearly meant "Wednesday."

A couple of months ago I got into a bar argument over Dale Wasserman's theatrical and cinematic adaptations of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. (Yes, I actually *do* get into bar arguments like that.) Now, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is one of my favorite novels in the world, but its adaptations are, in my view, miserable failures, making the novel into a simple martyr tale without the added, necessary distortion of Chief Bromden's schizophrenic narration, which not only generates incredible imagery and perspective but also calls the values in the narrative into question, skillfully and necessarily so. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is an incredibly misogynistic novel, in that it identifies as despotic all forms of female power not consisting solely of sex, believes somehow that despotic power is indeed at the helm of the world for all those who deviate even slightly from the beaten path of masculinity, and shows that it is that masculinity itself that can save us. And yes, it's also my favorite book. I addressed the topic of misogynism with an individual who's planning to direct Wasserman's play come spring, and he asked, "Well, what if at one point that's just your experience of women, though? I know I've had times in my life where that was my experience." Putting aside for a moment the absurdity of that statement, since we were both drunk enough at the time that I didn't notice it, my counter-argument was that theater has to be more than the truth of the moment. He asked me why, and I spent the rest of the night desperate for an answer, then, naturally, haven't seen the guy since. Still the question has remained.

So why does theater, or art in general, need to be more than the truth of the moment?

William Wordsworth described poetry as "emotion recollected in tranquility"; Gwendolyn Brooks defined it as "life distilled." I would expand these definitions to apply to all art of a non-improvisatory nature. My training's not in improv, so I can't speak to the amount of distillation that does or does not occur in performing it, except to say that a good improvisation is rarely either solo or completely extempore: it, too, requires training, requires chemistry among performers—a rapport often developed over time—and knowledge and experience in relating to audiences. That is to say, what you know in the moment is by no means the extent of one's knowledge. Does the extent of your knowledge have to go into your art? No, but the extent of your knowledge of the art you are doing has to go into your art. It's tautological, but it's also true. As creatures of memory, art in particular being something that builds upon and by its nature integrates memory, theater all the more so, our knowledge includes what goes back beyond where we are now, and good art takes some kind of stretch into what will be.

I'm not sure if the distinction between "good art" and "art" is necessary here. As far as I'm concerned, everyone doing art owes it to themselves to make it good art. The problem in many cases is that their definition of good art doesn't fit with mine, something I'm still struggling and will continue struggling to reconcile. Obviously, you can do art that is simply the truth of your moment—Jonathan Larson, for example, did that, and it's different from and not as bad as something that's straight-out dishonest. Unexamined and dishonest are different and distinguishable things. And many people get away with unexamined, because so much of their audience won't examine the art or themselves. I'm talking about being pretty stringent here. But I think it's form/content; it's knowing that the examination really is part of the art, that that's on some level why you're doing it.

Fundamentally, if art *didn't* need to be more than the truth of the moment, why would we rehearse? Or edit, or rewrite, or sketch? What differentiates art from the simple sharing of emotion or relation of a narrative is craft. Craft takes time, takes tranquility and distillation. And if you're going to take time to work on it, the truth(s) you're seeking to interact with through that work must be hardy enough to survive through that time.

Works of art often become dated, and I'm wary of making a statement like "the best works of art are universal" or "the best works of art can outlast the constraints of time." I'm not sure it's true. It is true that I can see a work of art and like it very much and then encounter it later in life, as with Patrick Marber's unfortunate play and even more unfortunate screenplay Closer, and be consumed with contempt not only for the piece as I encounter it now, but for the fact that I ever liked it. Which is not really a productive line of thought; it matters where a piece arrives in your life as an audience member too. If I had read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for the first time as an adult feminist, rather than as an eighth-grader desparate for independence, I might not have felt the same, and the truth was I didn't have anywhere near the problems I now have with Rent when I first saw it—though companions in my high school musical theater class did. The best works of art are not universal; however, the best works of art have considered their own universe, have in some ways created and defined their own universe. Creation being the truth of the moment, definition being the contextualization. When a work of art becomes dated, it's because it didn't feel the need to define its universe, assuming we all—its audience—knew it. In its use of the schizophrenic narrator, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, I feel, defined its universe, allowed the journey of the piece to be, in part, Chief Bromden's journey out of his own labyrinthine head. Lose that, and you've got a very cliched journey and have to consider, in a different way, why that journey matters in this context.


At 4:18 PM, Anonymous tyromaven said...

In support of your arguments, I'd like to offer that truth is not the same thing as insight. Most of the time, I hear people making this distinction casually by talking about whether some one really had something to say. In order for art not to just be masturbatory, it has to be more than just expressionist--it has to be communicative, and significant communication probably involves some transformation.

As a more palatable alternative to the author of this blog, I'd like to offer the terms "intersubjective" and "interobjective" as ways to address something that might otherwise get mistaken for Universalist (Faster GemmaKat! Kill! Kill!). There are ways of communicating what are one's individual experiences in a way that encompasses the roles and experiences of others that border on and interact with your experience. And I think these two terms are part of what it take to accomplish a transformative experience through significant communication.

And I think I still like Closer, not because its characters are people who are not capable of being happy--but because I experienced moments watching the film where I thought "people can understand brokenness without being able to fix it, and that can still be ok. there can be peace in brokenness that doesn't have to be hyper about being fixed."

Look at me, always with the words. I jes like your topics of converse. Next week: shoes!

At 3:09 PM, Blogger Mikey said...

I can understand why you don't like the stage adaptation of Cuckoo's Nest. It's simply because you never had a chance to see my high school's production of it. If you had, you'd have seen my masterly portrayal of Chief Bromden, in what was my second foray into ethnopomorphism. It shall never live up to my black-face portrayal of "The Black Cowboy" in my 4th grade production of "How the West was Really Won."

At 10:42 AM, Blogger Ammegg said...

Tyromaven: This from the woman who didn't learn anything she needed to know in schooling. :>)

I like the distinction between truth and insight, but I'm still a little lost on "intersubjective" and "interobjective." Can you explain them a little more? How do they preclude the "universal" problem?

And on Closer, I'm still troubled. I see what you're saying, but those characters all struck me as either so miserable with themselves or so forcefully committed to their misery that I saw them neither finding peace in their brokenness nor as examples of how I'd want to live with mine, or want people I care for or about to live with theirs.

Mikey: I don't think I have anything to say. Sweet Lawd.

At 1:37 PM, Blogger Lawrence said...

well, in response, i'm going to link you to what's probably my most political poem that i've ever written, which i wrote a couple months ago but didn't decide to post until i decided it might be a worthwhile response to our conversation on Monday:

as a whole, though, responding to all this is tricky. sometimes i think that this land of knife-edge discourse isn't where i belong, and that i just do / have to relate to a different side of you than what comes through in this blog; and other times, i think that those times i might actually have been right. but then i remember back to when i commented that i didn't see how things like what "geek" meant had anything to do with politics, and you encouraged me and told me i really did have something to say. so maybe i still do. but then again --

"if i'm a man of desire, if i'm a son of the struggle, born to a fight who'll strive higher, bury these feet in your jungle."

the problem with our argument on Monday i think is that it was just getting too personal. i suppose in the end if one person wants to improve their world by changing their attitude towards what surrounds them, and the other by changing what actually does surround them, that's fine. it all goes back to personal history, i suppose. for me, it'd be important to know that when i was 12, i decided i couldn't be seen to *enjoy* anything at the risk of being shunned when the knowledge was discovered, by such personages as Tavet G., that what i enjoyed was *very uncool*. (this is forever known to me now as the "seventh-grade ethos".) i rationalized it to myself by arguing mentally that if you had more stringent standards, you were a more noble person, and closer in touch with actual, eternal truth. in reaction to this, then, of course, as well as to a period in my life (centered around when i was at MIT, i suppose) when i was stridently unable to enjoy anything, this "seventh-grade ethos" appears to me as nothing other than HIGH BULLSHIT. and this isn't to say that in my deepest heart i believe it isn't, either. but it's just a way for someone's personal history to arrive at a truth that's right for them. but i worry that my personal history might seem ridiculous to you.

but... but... maybe this is the relativism you're talking about when you say you managed to go through the argument with your relation to me intact; maybe this is the relativism that keeps you, in your professed quality-of-art (where *art* of course is your religion) objectivism, from devolving into solipsism. i came out of it with the feeling that you had, throughout our friendship, always been constantly *judging* me, and i felt incredibly sad and disappointed, and wondering if i could ever see you the same way again. now of course i'm pretty sure i can, that it was all some momentary fallout from what, on my side at least, was really a knock-down drag-out argument, but then that's only because i don't believe that you really act to the fullest extent according to what you say your own beliefs are. and the reason for this...

... is that you say "everyone doing art owes it to themselves to make it good art", and i claim that it's simply impossible to put up a wall like that between art and non-art -- that is, between things that should be treated as art, and things that shouldn't be treated as art. from other conversations i've had with you, i'd expect you to agree. but in that case, the conclusion is that everyone owes it to themselves to constantly put the pressure on themselves of living in a "good art" way. i remember, in fact, when i myself tried to live like this (during the summer between highschool and college, the idea, i suppose, being to refine my artistic sensibilities) and it ended up just being *torture*. i don't think a life lived that way is worth living -- least of all if attempted to be lived by the disadvantaged people whom socially conscious art by those in positions of wealth and power is supposed to benefit.

but then again, maybe you do have some political statement or other about where it's important to draw the line between (what should be interpreted as) art and (what should be interpreted as) non-art. if you do, i have no knowledge of it. but the reason why i've been forgiving you (because it does seem to me that hardcore anti-subjectivism is something that requires forgiving) is that i suspect that even for you, life comes at such a speed that it's simply impossible to apply your hardcore criterion to just about everything that comes along, and that the hardcore criterion just doesn't match the way you are instinctively and intuitively, which is to be open and forgiving and kind and seriously wonderfully respectful of other people's views... and all that. and that's the level at this point at which i feel i can best relate to you, not at the level of philosophical arguments; it makes me think we should move our friendship seriously out of the way of being based exclusively on *talking*. but then, i guess, talking is the way to unknot it all too....

it could be that i'm just too strongly attached to the idea that all relationships between people, of any variety, have to have a philosophical underpinning at their bedrock. saying that "we can be friends despite having completely incompatible philosophical wellsprings" just seems like an invitation to form relationships that are far too surface for me to be comfortable with. but then, i think what i call "philosophy" is far-reaching, and i think most people aren't even conscious of what their own philosophies are: the way that, all unbeknownst to their conscious minds, they draw conclusions and form logical leaps.

so arguments end up being something i don't really, in the end, like to engage in, unless they make sure to feature the subtleties that can be probably best received by means of sufficiently considerate and thoughtful voice modulation, which maybe on Monday you were taking as a given, and whose absence I was taking likewise. somehow you had me convinced that i didn't believe in social change, but of course, that's ridiculous, and i think i believe in it really for just about the same reason you do (and... revolution junkies of the world unite!) but express it differently. if i say i want there to be art/life which gives the delightfully non-omnipotent citizens of the world, including of course those downtrodden and excluded ones on whom the greatest effects are designed to come from something other than experience of (socially conscious) art directly, greater access to enjoyment on the highest levels possible, is that really so different from what you've been saying all this time?

in the end i don't think i really know where i'm going with all of this. i suppose it was because it seemed for several hours on Monday that the absolute fabric of our friendship, from my end at least, was in serious danger. and by criminey, i don't want to even think of that happening. so please, if you do respond to this comment... be so kind as to give me a heads-up.

At 7:04 PM, Blogger Ammegg said...


Ooooohhhh my goodness. I don't know where to begin here, except to say, again, that as far as I'm
concerned our friendship isn't in danger. However, I
said that on Monday, so I'm thinking this may be
coming from your end.

Obviously, you know me in ways that aren't this blog, and if a blog could reflect every facet of who I am and how I live in the world it would be a very
different medium. However, I don't think you get to
disconnect it from the person you know, either. I've
taken care not to invent a persona here. There are
aspects of me that don't get on here, either because
they don't feel relevant to the project of this space
or because I simply don't know how to express them in the medium, but I haven't invented anything that isn't connected to me here. Which is to say, I'm not willing to dismiss the argument as being "too personal." Nor, honestly, do I see the woman who's harsh as being separated from the woman who's "open and forgiving and kind and seriously wonderfully respectful of other people's views..." I deeply appreciate that assessment, don't get me wrong. But for me the one depends on the other. For my respect to be *worth* anything, there has to be substance, critical engagement, to it. I apologize if critical engagement came across as unkindness. *That* was not at all my intention.

It should be added, though, that I thrive on argument. As in, it helps me understand people better, even when it's difficult. I too believe that friendships have philosophical underpinnings, and I think I use "philosophy" much as you do, in that if someone's values are inimical to mine it's hard to be friends. I don't think ours are. But I think we disagree. And I want to look at the ways we disagree. But I think there's some misrepresentation/misunderstanding involved here too.

First of all, I do not and cannot, nor will not,
conflate the distinction between "art" and "non-art"
with the distinction between "good art" and "bad art." I don't have the power to define the former, even casually; I do have the power to define the latter, the same as I can define good politics and bad politics, or a good thing to do and a bad thing to do. Obviously, no polarity is really limited to that,
hence the need for, for example, a Supreme Court, or different denominations of Christianity, and the
disparities that exist even within those. I'm not
putting up a wall of things that should and shouldn't
be treated as art, any more than I'm saying Bush
should not be treated as a politician, or not be
treated as a leader. He should be, because he's both. He's bad at both, as far as I'm concerned. Okay.

Nor do I claim that my standards are objective. I
don't have the ability to do that, given that I'm, you
know, not omniscient. The question, then, is were I
omnipotent, would I demand a universal imposition of my standards? That's the question I have to answer for myself that I haven't yet. However, the standards do a lot to define and determine the way I live in the world. And that is perfectly okay with me as well.

I do, however, believe my standards exist outside of myself, in that I am capable of naming my postulates, acknowledging that I take them as postulates where not everyone does, and explain based on my postulates the trajectory of my logic, how I came to believe that something was bad art. Which does not, again, make my views absolute, but it does put me a step ahead of "Yeah, the Bible [or A.O. Scott, or Antonin Scalia] says so."

I would offer, too, that hardcore pro-subjectivism is at least as dangerous as the hardcore anti-subjectivism you've attributed to me. And while I recognize that you don't embrace that per se, it does seem to me that's the argumentum ad absurdum of a "pro-subjectivism" position. I mean, yes, subjectivism is tough, as in it's something used to fight colonialist mentalities and useful in that sense, and it's also inevitable, which makes the "hardcore anti-subjectivism" position fundamentally illogical. But individuals should be held not only to opinions, but to reasons, or else we'll just be a bunch of bumbling individuals unable to share or communicate in any substantive way. (*That* is the way that subjectivism devolves, in my view, into Xtreme Capitalism.) There are things we have to agree on. We just have to know that we've agreed on them and why and how and who doesn't agree and why not. In other words, I get to define whatever I want as long as I acknowledge that I'm not neutral, i.e. I share my definitions and know what they are and leave room for disagreement equally substantiated.

Art matters to me as much as politics, or ethics, or religion, and given that I will treat it with the rigor and vociferousness that those topics command in a contemporary society. For me, that is a measure of respec; that is to say, art wields at least as much power as those other worldframes. The standards to which I hold them are not exactly the same, but once I've defined those standards I will use them. And I (yes, "I" and not "the universe") am (not "is") offended by the "That's Sarah's opinion, so you can't argue with it" school of doing or critiquing art. The fact that it is Sarah's opinion, which I *am* required to accept, does not by any means preclude my argument. My dismissal, yes, but not my argument. Art can make and be magic, as love can, or understanding; in my opinion (do I serioiusly have to keep using that disclaimer? isn't it obvious?) the best art does and is. But even wizards have their Hogwarts; even mages gain their skills through time and thought and wisdom. It's that that I was attempting to argue in the post. I'm not about to reward or honor what I see as sloppy thinking or socially irresponsible behavior—on the part of artists or anyone—and no one will make me feel obligated to do so. Now if you want to persuade me that what I see as sloppy thinking or socially irresponsible behavior actually isn't, that's another matter; that's kickin' me in the postulates, and that's worth my time. But you (and this is you-one, not just you-Lorenzo) owe me the acknowledgment of my logic as logic.


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