Nov. 5th, 2004

Only Us

Nov. 5th, 2004 07:45 am
jakebe: (Default)
Last night, I had the pleasure of watching Edward Albee speak at the Walton Arts Center. He was giving a free lecture there (as part of the Free Fall Festival, which is bringing the Kronos Quartet to NW Arkansas next Tuesday) about the state of creative arts and free thinking in America.

I had never actually *read* an Edward Albee play, but I hear they're very good, and according to those folks who hand out awards and stuff he's not just good but great -- he's responsible for taking home three Pulitzer Prizes and two Tony Awards. So this is a fellow who knows his craft, I guess. :) I have to admit the tiniest bit of egotism in going; what initially piqued my interest in the lecture is the rumor that Albee is gay and adopted (he confirmed the adopted part last night), and he had no formal training in writing plays, which also turns out to be true. He is, however, horrifically educated, and despite his best attempts to avoid book-learning he's pretty smart. :) He even managed to hoodwink the audience into asking him questions about the recent election, though he promised not to talk about it unless it was brought up. ;)

The parallels between his upbringing and mine (I'm not nearly as formally educated) served as pretty big inspiration, and what he had to say about the state of theatrical arts and their importance struck a chord with me. He brought up a few very good points about how the artistic situation of the old Soviet Union is beginning to look a lot like the United States today. People aren't being shot for speaking out against the State (yet ;)), and we aren't bull-dozing painting from illegal art shows into the Moscow Mississippi River, but we *are* experiencing what Albee calls a "semantic dissonance". The methodology is different, but the aim is true.

Just like the Soviet Union of the 50's and 60's, art is rapidly becoming the realm of a few 'intellectuals' who 'get it' and the rest of the populace who are more into lowest common denominator stuff. Unlike the S.U., however, this shift isn't caused by the State -- it's caused by us. More and more we don't want to see stuff that's challenging (and possibly offensive by any means), because as Albee puts it "art might teach us too much about ourselves." It sounds kind of hokey and needlessly simple, but a lot of truths are -- and the simplicity is necessary, damnit. :) But the things that we cringe most at are the very things that force us not to flinch when we're looking at an aspect of ourselves.

I'm not quite sure why we've gotten so used to looking at ourselves in nothing but the most superficial manners. SO-called "reality television" is really often nothing more than a series of improvised plays, with people who may knowingly be reduced down into archetypes through clever editing and the like. Anything that has the potential to really dig deep and serve a useful purpose as a societal mirror usually becomes a very shallow reflection. Debate shows on social issues like "Crossfire," "Hardball," and "The O'Reilly Factor" are really nothing more than shouting matches and pissing contests on who can come up with the best one-liner for the 30-second ad that has to air on all the offending network's sister stations. Shows like "Survivor" or "The Apprentice," while they are addictive and rather well put-together, tell us nothing new about ourselves as a society...well, perhaps except telling us what we accept as entertainment and social commentary these days.

There's nothing wrong with the shows in and of themselves. The sheer glut of them, however, crowds out the opportunity for any meaningful exchange and presentation of ideas. These days, anyone who tries to push the envelope in terms of art is usually almost universally reviled and anyone who earnestly wants to explore a certain facet of our society or consciousness tends to be ignored...perhaps not their work, but their *intentions*. [ profile] toob opened my eyes to one or two of them: most people *adore* movies like "Fight Club" or "American Psycho," but who's actually tried to have a conversation about what those movies (or perhaps the books they were based on) are *really* about? What's attempting to be said?

Hmm. This is turning into a "You are shallow assholes" post. <:) Albee brought up the proposition that the only two things that really seperate humanity as a species from other animals is 1) our preference for cooked food and 2) our capacity to explore, define and recognize consciousness. The ability to look at ourselves and our world through art is distinctly human, and probably the most important thing to set us apart. Albee, from my understanding, views it as an offense of the highest order that by and large we've accepted the abuse of this awesome distinction for things like "The Real World." I, personally, think that meaning can be gleaned from almost anything. Reality shows have a lot to tell us if we listen just right. Andy Warhol and his much-maligned 'pop art' had something to say, too. Perhaps what's being said isn't what the artist originally spoke, but there is still communication happening, as long as we're willing to listen. The trouble is, I think, we've become willfully deaf to most things art of all kinds can teach us. The 'intellectual' artists refuse to gain anything from something that doesn't obvious, pre-determined intent, and they're missing out on half the puzzle. The 'common man' refuses to gain anything from something that is actively speaking to its audience in an open and honest way, and I think that's tragic. It's always bugged me that poetry is seen as this province of only poets; I wish the artform would open up to be embraced and used by *everyone*. People *can* 'get' poetry, if only they would try. It's also our responsibility as artists, I think, to make sure that what we're saying can be heard; couching it in a bunch of pseudo-profundity-that-really-is-just-mental-masturbation serves no one. Sometimes artists have this bad habit of only talking to themselves with their work, and that is more useless than any single one episode of "Wife Swap." It turns off the audience to listening to anything like it next time, which does us all a gross disservice. So how do we fix this semantic dissonance? That, I don't know, but more and more it's something I want to try and address. I want my art to *say* something meaningful, but to be entertaining and actively engaging at the same time. That's why I look up to writing like Whedon, Gaiman, Morrisson and (now) Vonnegut so much -- it's intelligent, thoughtful and *fun*. It's something people *want* to read and discuss, something they're actively affected by on not only a logical, critical level but an emotional one as well. It's vulgar art, and that's this amazing fine line I want to walk. So, I think now I might have enough direction to pursue items I've had on the backburner for a while: the comic book "Bird," and the comic strip "Salvation's Chorus." I want to get into playwrighting again -- I'd love to see them performed at conventions and the like. I think this is the first time I've had the confidence *and* desire to say things that have been on my mind, and I plan on using that fully. :) But only after I finish MUCKing.

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