Monday, March 03, 2014

What good is art?

Now that I'm getting serious about producing JULIA & BUDDY this year a recurring question has popped up in my mind - should I really be doing this?

Or rather, with all the good causes and people in need in this world, should I really be spending my time and money in such self indulgence?

But is it really self-indulgence? To a certain extent it must be - there is a certain amount of ego necessary for self-expression. But other people do get something out of one's art, in the best of cases. I've discussed the way that Shakespeare's sonnets have inspired me to write my own sonnets as a way to deal with emotional trauma. And listening to the Beatles music usually raises my spirits - music in general is the cheapest and least dangerous drug ever invented. Where would humans be without it?

It's music though that has set me off on pondering the usefulness of art and the perniciousness of post-modern art. In my music theory class last night we were discussing the uses of fugue-like patterns up to the 20th century and in particular focused on Waltzer by Schonberg. My teacher pointed out that Schonberg had a "eureka" moment when he developed his 12-tone technique and thought it would redirect the entire course of music. Obviously it didn't - it only made classical music audiences reject 20th century classical music. 

So why did 20th century composers persist in using the spasmodic rhythms and dissonant anti-melodies throughout that entire century?

I would suggest it has everything to do with science and its effects on human social hierarchy.

In 1905 Albert Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity, which is famous for its mass-energy equivalence equation E=mc2. The only physics formula, it is safe to say, known to popular culture. More importantly, Einstein won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1921.

Schonberg invented his 12-tone technique in 1921.

The early 20th century is notable for the dissemination of technological innovations, including the telephone, radio, automobile and airplanes. Science guys were the great heroes, not artsy guys. And you didn't have to risk your life to be a science guy like the Wright brothers, you could just create a theory of relativity and express it on paper. 

Schonberg's "invention" was an attempt to give art the intellectual cachet of the sciences. 

And of course it wasn't only limited to music. All the arts were infested with the social-status-grabbing theories that celebrated intelligence and innovation over sensation and emotion. This made the post-modernist artists famous and celebrated, while it destroyed the entire point of the arts. It made art into pure self-indulgence and pissing contests - who was the most avant-garde of all?

As I've blogged before, presenting art that creates an emotional response has no cachet to the post-modernists - unlike intelligence which can be tested to see who is the smartest, you can't do that with emotions. So reaching audiences emotionally can't demonstrate your personal superiority the way presenting new ideas - or even better, incoherent ideas - can. If you are incoherent enough many people will assume that your work is just too smart for them, like quadratic equations.

I think this review of the work of the dread Mac Wellman gives a good representation of the fear of being thought a dullard if one admits to not liking the work of the post-modernists:
To not "get" a play like this opens one up to feeling as if one's a Philistine, someone who lacks the intellect to wrestle with highly stylized "art." But it's also possible there really is nothing to get in Wellman's play. And that's fine. Plays that stubbornly refuse to give answers and are instead devoted to making the audience ask questions are absolutely worthwhile.
For decades critics of modern classical music have been derided as philistines for failing to grasp the subtleties of the chaotic sounding compositions, but there may now be an explanation for why many audiences find them so difficult to listen to.
It's the dread P word again - Philistine.

To admit to disliking postmodernist art is as good as saying you don't like art at all, according to this mindset.

I disagree. I think that art has two main values - empathy and beauty. Empathy is all about emotions of course. We feel what others are feeling, because we have gone through it ourselves. If you haven't gone through it yourself, it's sympathy, not empathy. Unless you've "gone through it" by watching it happen on stage. After you've seen a good production of KING LEAR you know, at least a little bit, the horror and regret of realizing someone loved you and you didn't appreciate it - and instead preferred people who did not love you and who betrayed you. And then the horror of losing your child. We can't experience everything everybody goes through, and probably couldn't stand it - but you get a sense of what it's like when a skilled playwrights makes you feel some of it.

And then there's beauty. This is partly emotion and partly something ineffable - but which most people need, I believe to "feed their soul" as my therapist says. A hallmark of post-modern art is ugliness. It's almost like a way to haze others - if you can stand to sit through THE PILLOW MAN or look at art made from roadkill or listen to any 20th century classical music, it demonstrates your true cultural worthiness. It's shows you are macho enough to be considered a true connoisseur.

I often think that one reason that ugly art is tolerated is because wealthy people have lives of luxury and ease and can afford to be surrounded by beauty. A little ugliness in a gallery or a museum provides a little frisson in their otherwise routinely pleasant existences.

I've never been that wealthy. So I do still enjoy beautiful art. I think that William Ball said it best in his book on directing, about belief in "the general beauty." He's talking about stage directors here but it extends to all participants in all arts.

The general beauty of a work is the way in which we talk about its worthiness to be seen. The general beauty contains the theme. The general beauty is the reason we feel passionately that an audience should see it. The general beauty is what excites the director and what makes him feel that other people should be excited. A director has to be a missionary. He must feel strongly about the theme of a play - to the extent that he feels it is important for other people to share or to witness that theme...

...the director must believe. We are makers of belief... he has to believe that he could stand on the corner and sell it, that he could market it, that he could convince people of the beauty, that he could stop passersby and say, "Did you ever wonder about the possibility of this? Isn't this beautiful? Doesn't this strike you as something important and marvelous and amazing and peculiar and wonderful?...

...When a director chooses the general beauty he is making a choice on behalf of the audience. The director agrees to represent the public. The identity of the director goes like this: "I am an audience, I am everyman, I am all, I am judge, I am servant, I am listener, I am moderator, I am synthesizer, I am seeker, I am helper, I am child, I am believer, I am maker of belief."