The Art of Identity

Xaro

There have been a number of discussions I have come across, recently, about this term privilege’ (or really, the privilege theory) and also about class, and both, to a degree, in relationship with art. Before getting into these debates, I wanted to quote some extracts from a piece on Art and Class, written by Ben Davis. But even before I do that, I wanted to put this discussion, the discussion of art, culture, and U.S. society, capitalist society, in the proper light.(see link.)
The US is a nation which recently implemented a drastic cut in food stamps. This is a nation where almost fifty million people go to bed hungry and of that number probably over a quarter are children. There has been a drastic spike in people and families that meet the criteria for ‘food insecurity’. And yet, there are now laws in several cities, including New York and Los Angeles, making it illegal to distribute food to the hungry. Ponder that a moment.
The reason for this, of course, are property values. That is capitalism. This is not the neatest segue to the topic of art, although,in a sense, perhaps its more logical than one thinks.
1.0 Class is an issue of fundamental importance for art
1.1 Inasmuch as art is part of and not independent from society, and society is marked by class divisions, these will also affect the functioning and character of the sphere of the visual arts
1.2 Since different classes have different interests, and “art” is affected by these different interests, art has different values depending on from which class standpoint it is approached
1.3 Understanding art means understanding class relations outside the sphere of the visual arts and how they affect that sphere, as well as understanding class relations within the sphere of the visual arts itself
1.4 In general, the idea of the “art world” serves as a way to deflect consideration of both these sets of relations
1.5 The notion of an “art world” implies a sphere that is separate or set aside from the issues of the non-art world (and so separates it from class issues outside that sphere)
1.6 The notion of an “art world” also visualizes the sphere of the visual arts not as a set of conflicting interests, but as a harmonious confluence of professionals with a common interest: “art” (and so denies class relations within that sphere).”
I think it is hard to argue with any of this, although I am sure there are people who will. The problem with Davis’ piece, and I don’t really find many problems with it overall, but one issue is the idea that, as he says:
“Middle class” in this context does not indicate income level. It indicates a mode of relating to labor and means of production. “Middle class” here indicates having an individual, self-directed relationship to production, rather than administering and maximizing the profit produced by the labor of others (capitalist class), or selling abstract labor power (working class)
3.2 The position of the professional artist is archetypically middle-class in relation to labor: the dream of being an artist is the dream of making a living off the products of one’s own mental or physical labor while fully being able to control and identify with that labor
3.3 The specific characteristic of the visual arts sphere, therefore, is that it is a sphere in which ruling-class ideology dominates, and yet it is allowed to have an unusually middle-class character (in fact, it is definitionally middle class—the “art world” is defined as the sphere which trades in individual products of creativity rather than mass-produced creativity).”
My personal experience is that very few artists I know, either in visual arts, or theatre, or even with young filmmakers, ever dream of making a living from what they create. I remember I was shocked the first time someone paid me for one of my plays. Everyone might ‘dream’ about it, sure, but nobody I know expects it. Everyone I know recognizes those dreams as closer to fantasy. You have to live in very special circumstances to make money from the making of art.
Davis is aware of this, though:

Pieter_Janssens Elinga, Reading Woman

“The second contradiction is internal to the middle-class definition of “art” itself, which is split between notions of art as profession and as vocation, and therefore comes into contradiction with itself at every moment where what an artist wants to express comes into contradiction with the demands of making a living…”
Davis is focusing on, primarily, the visual fine arts. But he raises fascinating questions. I think part of the problem with some of his answers is that he doesn’t fully explore the areas of creative self expression, or even collective self expression, that cannot be adequately explained by a Marxist theory of labor value. Let me quote Davis one more time:
“7.0 Art criticism, to be relevant, should be based on an analysis of the actual situation of art, and the different values at play, which are related to different class forces [this point simply draws the conclusion, for criticism, of 1.9] 7.1 Art criticism is itself a middle-class discipline, based on norms of individual intellectual expression; since relevant art criticism involves analysis of the actual class situation of art, it involves transcending purely subjective, individual, professional opinion
7.2 However, transcending purely subjective” criticism does not imply the “objectivity” of art criticism that imposes a philosophical or political program on art; this sort of scholastic art criticism equally implies a middle-class perspective (often one based in the academy), insofar as it advances a purely abstract, intellectual program, and fails to address the actual material situation of the visual arts (e.g. simply insisting that art “be political” without concretely analyzing for whom or to what ends “political art” is directed actually reinforces the framework of individualistic, professional expression).”
This is both right, and not right. Art has no purpose. Its radical potential, or emancipatory potential, is attached to its autonomy. And why is art criticism a middle class discipline? I suppose Davis means “professional art critic”, meaning one who is paid. But very few good criticism or cultural analysis is paid work. I don’t get paid, god knows. Assuming I am any good in writing about culture. But the issue here is really about the “meaning” of art. Of all art. The meanings of culture. And the problem with all this (and to his credit Davis suggests he is well aware of this) is that it ends up being impossible to justify this artificial set of categories that places this thing called “art” as separate from drawing breath to keep alive. There are certainly conventional middle class definitions of art, and these are usually the ones taught in schools, and I worry Davis doesn’t quite understand this. And there are the countless old debates about (for example) ‘is cooking an art’? Probably at some point one does have to at least partially demarcate an area of cultural production that is separate from, say, cooking. Good cooking can be artistic, but it’s not art. Why is it not art? The answer is because culture might include food preparation, but eating does not trigger that mimetic process of engagement by which an individual, and perhaps even a group, a collective, a society even, awakens and questions the world around it. Food, I don’t think anyway, can be allegorical.
Davis is correct that art never has just one meaning. It is not only, however, because of class differences, but also because of historical perspectives. And more significantly, it is art’s very purposelessness that grants it a liberatory capacity. Art’s autonomy is in the creation of something without purpose or social function. It is in precisely in the mimesis of the alienated untruth of capitalist society, of a system of social domination, that a dialectical relationship is established. Adorno believed only in the negation of synthesis could artwork step outside the commodity form…even if only partially. The point here is art is not about message. It is also important to note, per Adorno, that artworks have a double character, they are both autonomous and social fact (or commodity, often). None of this is to say that class is not vitally important in discussions of culture and it is in this way that Davis makes some very important points. Art is always working with the materials of society. In that sense, the double character is inescapable.
Davis writes:
“To state that every contemporary work of art will by definition be a product of contemporary society, and thus bear the marks of the contradictions of its actual material situation, does not imply that all art can be reduced to the same problem. Effective art criticism implies having a dynamic analysis of how specific aesthetic values are related to the present balance of class forces, and making a judgment with regard to what factors are playing the most crucial role at any given moment with any given work.”
This is quite correct. I wrote last posting that different classes, different histories, will approach artworks from different perspectives. The difficulty for the left, it seems to me, is in remembering the problems of autonomy, and of mimesis. In a sense, the bare minimum required of an artwork is that the audience might find enough there to provide a mimetic process. From that process comes a self examination, a reclamation of the individual’s own story, and a social re-narration.

Jigsaw

Now, again, Davis writes mostly about the visual arts. In Shakespeare’s time people spoke of going to “hear” a play. Audio, or audience. For TV, you have viewers. The rise of visual privilege (that word again) has informed the reception to art and narrative. The failure to listen. Text becomes ignored. It is simply, often, literally not heard. What is SEEN however is rarely ignored. When I suggested that Hollywood cares little for text, I was only stating the obvious. If one cared about text, about the spoken word, one would never have formula at all. McKee and Blake Snyder wouldn’t have carved careers out of jotting down the kitsch formulae of the culture industry.
In one obvious way, the inclusion of class is pertinent to the stuff cranked out by big studios and major networks. It goes without saying that the economic realities of film and TV play a considerable role in how these films need to be evaluated. The trap in this is, however,that a monolithic judgment is inadequate to the subject. There is a wide spectrum of circumstances and history behind, say, every five million dollar film. The fact that a film costing five million dollars is considered, officially, ‘low budget’ speaks volumes all by itself. As one goes up the budgetary ladder, the narrower those circumstances become. A eighty million dollar film, or rather every eighty million dollar film, is likely going to more resemble other eighty million dollar films than not. This is a risk averse industry. Conversely, every micro budget film, say of five hundred thousand dollars, probably is the product of comparatively unique factors in its development and making. The movie industry today is predicated on a monopoly of distribution. The big chain cineplex franchises are locked into showing the product that the studios give them to show. This is the equivalent of Pepsi buying up shelf space at the local supermarket. There are plenty of independent soft drink makers, but the big chain stores won’t sell them, because Pepsi or Coke has bought up the shelf space. There are a lot of interesting small budget films made today, and the technology behind film making continues to allow for films to be shot and edited and scored for a fraction of the cost of twenty years ago. But say, in theatre, as a first example, this problem is not so obvious. Theatre doesn’t make the same amount of money as film or TV. The audience is a fraction of that which goes to see movies. In New York, the self appointed center of theatre (sigh), there are dozens of small theatres putting up new work, and even, on occasion, older plays, but these spaces are a contested area. By which I mean, small theatres devoted to theatre art, to new work usually, are appealing to a very tiny audience base. A good part of that audience are other people involved in the making of theatre. In terms of media, they are simply ignored. There are several results to this reality. One result is that many small spaces choose to pander (what they perceive as pandering) to this minuscule target audience. They do cabaret, or comedy sketch evenings, or satire of some sort. They do a lot of “one character” (i.e. cost effective) productions, and they promote what they do as ‘fun’ and ‘entertaining’. Another tactic is to “develop” new work with the intention of getting this play picked up by a larger theatre, usually a “mid size” house. The entire psychic structure for small theatre exists largely in the shadow of the ordained big theatre or regional theatre system. The work of contemporary playwrights is mostly middle brow conformist ‘message’ oriented and non threatening material. At least those desiring financial help from the larger theatres and theatre institutions, which means often, University theatre organizations. Grants have all but disappeared, so the economics of an art form like theatre is faced with harsh realities. You cant make money doing theatre unless you are locked into the system. And the system today, judging from the work on Broadway, or more relevantly, to mid size theatres, is stunningly forgettable. And it is forgettable in very particular ways. It is the work of writers, often, who sustain themselves writing for TV, and it is work that cannot allow any possibility for offending those financial assets.
Now, the class perception of big studio film as opposed to regional or mid size theatres, differs greatly. I think so pervasive is the influence, across the culture, of film and TV, that the educated twenty percent that self identifies as interested in art, is going to see theatre according to the aesthetic norm of studio film and TV. There has also been a rather profound conditioning over the last thirty years that has had the result of making the experience of attending a play a very problematic experience for most. The working class perception is based on an aesthetics of populist solidarity. Since art in general is taught as frivolous, and since most educated in public schools have had no arts education at all, the approach to theatre is shaped by a perception of failure. Its failed to be as good as TV. I hasten to add, my experience has often been that the very ‘least’ educated, the most completely outside the educational apparatus, are the most perceptive and deepest audience for theatre. In the same way the San Quentin audience for Beckett was almost preternaturally attentive and insightful.
The ideological backdrop is both recognized, I think, generally speaking, by all classes, but it is not really understood. Or, rather, I think with few exceptions that audiences in the U.S. tend to automatically distance film reality from daily reality. At least abstractly. In reality most people have come to see daily life as a movie. The deep attachment fans develop for their favorite shows would is perhaps more acute in that layer of the working class that isn’t on the verge of catastrophe. Identification requires a degree of leisure security.

Buster Keaton in The General

Davis writes:
“8.6 Contemporary art suffers from a narrow audience, and access to art education is largely (and increasingly) determined by income-level and privilege; art education should be defended and made universal (this point itself involves a critique of the notion that art is a luxury)
8.7 There is no reason why the immense quantity of artistic talent that currently exists, unable to find purchase within the cramped confines of the professional “art world,” could not be put to work generalizing art education, thereby providing itself with a future audience
8.8 This kind of common identity could form the basis for organizing artists as something more than individual agents, each working on a separate project; it therefore would also lay the foundation for a more organically political character for contemporary art
8.9 Creative expression needs to be redefined: It should not be thought of as a privilege, but as a basic human need. Because creative expression is a basic human need, it should be treated as a right to which everyone is entitled.”
Now, again, this is basically correct, and its about visual arts per se. The problem is that because arts are no longer taught, or taught badly, there is the difficulty of finding radical arts instructors. The community level programs I know of have almost always retained a linkage and psychological dependence on the very institutions that have marginalized them to begin with. What I often call the “bad community arts center mural” phenomenon. Arts at this level becomes, understandably, an exercise in solidarity. Criticism is seen as elitist, and hostile. The result is bad art. And this is exactly what the ruling class is happy to have happen. Solidarity, shaped by bad teachers who learned from bad institutional teachers, and a distrust of rigor (also a product of conditioning) and a basic default approach that has no awareness of the actual roles culture and the arts can play in shaping all thought, but specifically political thought. A bad play about the Zapatistas is still a bad play. And a bad play, a regressive conformist structured play negates the radical potential.
A bad mural is still a bad mural, and there is a colonialist dimension to this entire phenomenon. The paternalistic liberal (white) institutional funders, and educators, patronize the underclass by applauding junk work, because, after all, it’s all they can be expected to create. So that if a working class woman playwright that resembled, say, a Sarah Kane, came along, her chances of being supported would be next to zero. If a young woman playwright came along writing a kitsch coming of age “naturalistic’ play, her chances would be far greater to gain support and backing. The only future for change at this level is to absolutely sever all linkage with the establishment system of patronage. This is, needless to say, risky and difficult. The loss of the avaunt garde has left a gaping hole at the community level, culturally.
There has also occurred, over the last thirty years, a coinciding impulse toward identity based movements. This runs alongside the balkanizing of aesthetic sub communities that colonize various mediums. So in theatre, in poetry, in prose, in painting and dance, one can find, without much effort, the various mafias that staked out their territories. The white establishment, mostly liberal, have served to reinforce these practices, and again for the same reason, that this is a way to silence genuinely radical voices. If one favors message narratives, or message based realism, the result is that writers and painters are going to instinctively look for the support they need by catering to the messages most favored at that moment. Liberal condescension. Again, a bad anti racist play or short film is still a bad play or film. And more importantly, the intended message ends up its opposite. This was clear sixty years ago, as Marcuse and others pointed out. And because of this privileging of theme and message, and the idea of art as communication, the majority of young writers look no further than their officially sanctioned form of suffering (I’ve not noted a lot of Latino playwrights, say, writing plays about Ancient Japanese feudalism, etc.). It is an arts culture of identity victim-hood, narratives of identity suffering. The reality is that a deeper layer of suffering would emerge from that play on Japanese feudalism — or whatever– then occurs with plays of direct confession and biography. And here we can bring the discussion back to the whole ‘privilege’ debate. One of the problems with the privilege debate is that it contains its own contradiction; a purported anti hierarchical theory for social change goes out and creates new hierarchies of suffering, and sort of forgets who the victimizer is. I often feel the beneficiary of the privilege debate is the Justice and prison system.
Of course some people are drastically more targeted by police (black teenage men for example) but the white working poor are targets, too, and more to the point, they are not the police. The police as the organ of the ruling class property owners are the problem. So privilege is a useful term and important topic even, but it must be examined. And it must be examined from within some sort of deeper class analysis. And it is here that one has to be careful not to confuse the intersectionality hissy fits of white male leftists, with insisting on class. And I am insisting on a rather qualified definition of class. There is a lot of recent sort of white racism surfacing as part of the attack on intersectionality. Now, intersectionality was born of Kimberle Crenshaw’s analysis that black women were being written out of certain narratives. It reconfigured discourse about oppression. In a sense, its like those world maps that always had the United States in the center and northern hemisphere given more scope….when in reality the world looks very different if the southern hemisphere is privileged (sic) and if Asia were centered, or the Mercator projection that distorts and increases size as one moves away from the equator. {http://www.petersmap.com/}.
That is what correctives like intersectionality were doing in principle. Today, intersectionality is used as shorthand for multiculturalism in a sense…code for “blacks are so resentful”. Today, privilege is being debated in a way, by all sides, that obscures the actual victimizer. The police, the justice system and the courts and legal apparatus. Now, privilege certainly plays a role in the new University educated left. For most of this debate seems to be written in the prose of the University.

17th Travailleurs Sergent, Indochinois

I think instinctively I am coming to be suspicious of a prose so tortured and a syntax so unnatural that, really, self parody is too kind a description. Additionally, I am reminded of the trans community, which my son worked with twelve or so years ago. These were people who had to be their own advocates. And they were. It is a tad ironic to see trannie sex workers suddenly have such cache within the new left. I hope the point I am making is that an awful large chunk of the leftist writing I read today is the work of those in the business of NOT wanting change. They now have a vested interest in defending their small-ish citadels of influence in various publications (some mainstream even) where they can play the role of honorary leftist voice. Revolution would change that. The white male racial coding, which seems to use “privilege”, and “intersectional” as part of the latest version of “PC gone mad” tropes in media, are simply resorting to old white male rights. However, the petulance and invective of many University educated feminists, the entire check your privilege order, is difficult for anyone to react to positively. Listening rarely happens when someone is ordering you to do so. And this authoritarianism and puritanism is deeply ingrained in the U.S. It is there in the UK as well, and in fact may be one of those borrowed stylistic presentations that travel the other way across the Atlantic. Russell Brand’s appearance on the BBC has certainly engendered a lot of commentary. Brad Evans and Julian Reid commented on this class issue in their piece on the Brand attacks..
“So how does one authenticate as being from below? What qualities do you need to possess in order to qualify as a valid member of this inverted vanguard? What does one need to renounce about oneself before being able to speak with an authentic voice? Are there degrees for instance of “belowness” that create levels of subaltern verification? Does this invalidate the voices of all white men, especially those who garner a public profile? Does this preclude ourselves who, although from working-class backgrounds, now find ourselves part of well-established academic institutions? Indeed, does having a presence in the corporate media world necessarily disqualify the quality of the criticism and the political intervention? “
Evans and Reid touch on the contradiction I have pointed out before. The contempt for the underclass runs up against a romanticizing and near fetishizing of the underclass as the repository of “authenticity”. There is a curious erotic frisson connected to the perception of this ‘other’, the usually invisible underclass. It is worth pointing out that again, these contradictions seem to take place in a highly gendered way. The male underclass is usually the object of fetishizing, not the underclass woman. But here the question is very relevant, what does class mean in terms of legitimacy?
The question is, will Brand use his wealth as an activist, or just fuck off to the South Pacific or Cote D’Azur for his next vacation? Malcolm X. said, don’t beat up people for their past if they are changing. Remember when you didn’t know certain things. Don’t forget people can wake up. And this is exactly my problem with the puritanism of the Laurie Penny and Natasha Lennard pieces on Brand.
*side note: Lennard (left) and Perry (right) are both English, and oddly, seem to be working the same “look”. I draw no conclusions from this. I don’t think.
A note on class: this is a big topic and one much argued. At the end of Vol.2 of Capital, Marx asked “What makes wage laborers, capitalists, and landowners the three great social classes?” He left only an unfinished answer for the work was never completed. “At first glance—the identity of revenues and sources of revenues. There are three great social groups whose numbers, the individuals forming them, live on wages, profit, and ground rent, respectively, on the realization of their labor-power, their capital, and their landed property”. The direct operating control of the means of production is what separates, say, lawyers and other professionals from owners of industry. Still, it’s good to think in terms of class interests. What this ends up suggesting, for our purposes here, is that there are ideological classes as well as economic, and they on occasion overlap. But as Big Bill Haywood said, there are only two kinds of people in the world, those who work and those who don’t. My point here, echoing Marx, is ‘Who is the enemy’? Who is working FOR the man, and who is being oppressed by the man.
Privilege and class. Class is not homogeneous. There are ideological differences and material and psychological differences. So yes, in the U.S. where class consciousness has been erased, it is important to promote class awareness, but not as if there weren’t divisions within each class. But again, I cannot but keep returning to the role of academia in all these debates (if thats what they are). There is a subtle confusion here about identity, and it has to do with how life in the Spectacle, in a world of hyper branded hyperrealism, it is difficult to tweeze apart self branding from “identity”. The reflexive mental actions that constitute ‘shopping’ are hard to suppress.
I suspect the embrace of ‘identity’ has a good deal of progressive or even radical aspects, but clearly it is also fraught with pitfalls, with owning the brand you shopped for. Identity shopping is pretty much the daily pastime of most youth in Western society. It was for me. Even into my twenties I can remember trying on points of view, playing with that voice, that appearance, the drives and movements of unfamiliar roles and appearances… and opinions. For the underclass, those without University education, the problems of learning are compounded. Community and traditional teachers are gone. Community itself is gone. For the underclass, the poor or all races, the struggle to find authentic guidance, to verify suspicions, or explain intellectual fraud, must be sorted out on one’s own. The exceptional degree of assistance that colleges and University provides, at least the elite schools, cannot be over emphasized. This is directly connected to class. I remember not knowing what a bank account was until I was over eighteen. I didn’t come from a place that used banks. Cash baby. I remember the embarrassment of not knowing. And I feel often, reading the prose stylings of graduate poli-sci majors, a subliminal sense of superiority. I have noted this blind spot before among the educated (expensively educated). So, the confusion of intellectual roles, or finding one’s way politically, is far more complex for the poor. Just as a basic fact. Hence my distrust of anyone bullying people for past mistakes. Testing out new models of identity isn’t bad per se, it seems more like a natural process of maturation. And it is here, again, where I feel an awful lot of leftist critique on all sides has tended toward a pathologizing of everyday life. Again, not for the victimizer, but among the victims.

Paris

Divisions need to be examined. Class however doesn’t go away because you make a lot of money. One can adopt ruling class values, but the ruling class can smell your background. These are things that need to be clarified. Oprah comes from a very impoverished background. She has managed to absorb ruling class values, largely, but she can never really become one. Russell Brand is a millionaire and dates rich odious women, but the upper class will never tolerate him. And now his spouting of leftist politics ensures he will remain a target for hectoring and moralizing lectures. Attending the right schools, knowing the right code words, knowing the right people, the right family interrelationships, and on and on. The accumulative portrait is what makes up class. One can be broke, and still be a member of the ruling class (they will help you out anyway). One can become rich and still be a pretender to the upper class.
Now, to return this to art; the problem is that the approach to narrative and film from an audience that has lost the capacity to hear or respond mimetically, has meant a reliance on simplistic notions of message. And this is because of not just training, but because of the literal inability to hear the text. Good writing goes largely unrecognized these days. A script as good as The Hustler, by Robert Rosen, is experienced as just a movie about pool players and revenge. Or about a quest for individual excellence or some other chestnut. Or is a reflection of Rosen’s own guilt for snitching. And that’s partly true, but in fact its a film about love under a repressive system of domination, about identity, and more, about redemption. Failure is success sometimes. Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner is another example. You must lose to win. In both of these cases, the metaphoric meaning is clearly lodged in the secondary level of the script. But when I screened the Richardson at the film school, I was surprised at the inability of students to hear what was going on. Or in films like Shout (Skolomowski), or Losey’s Accident (screenplay by Pinter), where the sub text of the sub text is operative. Where the surface seems oddly disjointed. Not just disjointed, but surreal. The tendency is to think it is a sub genre of fantasy.
But of course, for narrative, it goes even deeper. It is literally the language speaking itself. I used to tell writing classes, the character comes out of the dialogue, not the dialogue out of the character. This is primary. Words conjure, they speak, and finally a performative body emerges that can recite those words. Ah!! A play!
The recent Greek language film, Dogtooth (Kynodontos), by director Yorgos Lanthimos is a singular exercise in dismantling satire. Is it satiric? The text, in translation, is literally unnerving. The violence of the film is visceral, and yet… is it satiric? Ironic?

Is this in any way a naturalistic film? There is no correct answer.
“Among the dangers faced by new art, the worst is the absence of danger.”
Class awareness is probably what is missing, or the first of many things that are missing, in how the mass audience reads films like Thor, or Dark Knight, or TV shows featuring cops.
There are poetics to dialogue, if we stick to theatre here to conclude. One can read an opening scene from one of Kane’s plays, or the opening page of any Pinter play, or Beckett. What you don’t hear is as important as what you hear.

Here is the opening of 448:Psychosis …

(A very long silence.)
– But you have friends.
(A long silence.)
You have a lot of friends.
What do you offer your friends to make them so supportive?
(A long silence.)
What do you offer your friends to make them so supportive?
(A long silence.)
What do you offer?
(Silence.)
a consolidated consciousness resides in a darkened banqueting hall near the ceiling of a mind whose floor shifts as ten thousand cockroaches when a shaft of light enters as all thoughts unite in an instant of accord body no longer expellent as the cockroaches comprise a truth which no one ever utters
I had a night in which everything was revealed to me.
How can I speak again?
the broken hermaphrodite who trusted hermself alone finds the room in reality teeming and begs never to wake from the nightmare
and they were all there
every last one of them
and they knew my name
as I scuttled like a beetle along the backs of their chairs
Remember the light and believe the light
An instant of clarity before eternal night
don’t let me forget.

One is not really sure who is speaking. Productions since Kane’s death have let directors decide. So how does that work? The answer is that with Sarah Kane, by the time she wrote this, her last play, the poetics were everything. There are no more “characters”, there are no more sets, no more locations. There is only text. Spoken aloud. And from out of that comes something that is theatre, it is a form of thought, a form of knowledge and it is mysterious.
A playwright such as Michel De Ghelderode, whose work has never really found its place on world stages, is a case in point. Neglected, semi forgotten, and yet, there are few writers for theatre who possessed such a clarity of hallucination. A great many of De Ghelderode’s plays have yet to be translated into English. He wrote a lot of short pieces, he wrote marionette plays, and he wrote rituals for the theatre. That is what he did. Is he naturalistic? No. But what is he? I don’t know, honestly.
The point is that work that actually disrupts the facade of the bourgeois “real”, without resorting to innovation, or novelty, or to fantasy or to the manufacturing of the “weird” affect; these are, at least for theatre, the most forgotten of playwrights. They are forgotten, largely, for they resist the creating of profit. My few suspicions about Kane have to do with her posthumous popularity. Now, all things are relative, and she is by no means what one would describe as popular, and yet… her work is regularly produced. Is this good or bad? It is neither probably, and perhaps it is just too early to pass final judgment.
DeGhelderode was a major artist of the theatre, who remains too unfriendly, too prickly, and too opaque, finally. We don’t yet know what to do with Michel DeGhelderode.
If you can find any of his plays in English, and likely that will mean either Vol. 1 or Vol.2 of “Seven Plays”, published around 1960, I would say snatch it up. Most of his work is out of print, and I suspect these old translations (by George Hauger, and very good, really) are the only ones that exist. Fame is a strange ghost that haunts some with affection, and others with malice.
I am not ever really sure which is which, however.

John Steppling

John Steppling is a founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, a two-time NEA recipient, Rockefeller Fellow in theatre, and PEN-West winner for playwrighting. Taught screenwriting and curated the cinematheque for five years at the Polish National Film School in Lodz, Poland. A collection of his plays was published in 1999 by Sun & Moon Press as Sea of Cortez and Other Plays. He is artistic director of the theatre collective Gunfighter Nation.

Volume 30 number 3 January / February 2016 p 6-15

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