Thursday, July 22nd, 2010...8:16 pm
Morality, the Crucible of Art
A reading group I participate in recently considered a play by Nicholas Kazan, called, “Blood Moon.”
In the first act, a young woman is subjected to a series of humiliations, and she is then brutally raped. In the second act, she invites the rapist for dinner and verbally enlightens him on the horrendous reality of his act as she tricks him into eating his own child–a mature fetus she self-aborted. (I guess this is why the author made the character a pre-med student.)
The play is about as sophisticated as scrambled eggs. It is important to note its context, though, as it was released in 1983, when rape had not been yet fully digested as a social issue, when it’s popular presentation was limited to action movies (like that year’s Dirty Harry flick, “Sudden Impact,”) in which rapist crooks were always destroyed (and often tortured) in the final scene by the mansome tough guy. This was way back in the prehistoric days when the New York Times would actually assign the review of a play by a male playwright about the rape of a female to a male reviewer (as they did with this one.) Notably, this play premiered a couple of months before the New Bedford, Mass., barroom gang rape that would eventually inspire legislation nationwide to protect victims of rape.
The play is a novel but naive (not to mention outrageously and unnecessarily graphic) attempt to compare the victim’s strength favorably to the rapist’s–an attempt to regain from her what she lost. Its glaring failure, though, is that there is nothing enlightening to be gained from comparing a rape victim to a rapist. Though a rape victim clearly suffers “loss,” a rape is not a contest that the woman has lost. It is a putrid anomaly in society’s psychological stew, like any child molestation or murder. The perpetrator can offer the victim no avenue for understanding what has happened or how to go forth. Her problem does not reside in her social relation with the perpetrator–she has no relation to him, as he has committed an inhuman act, and should be, then, surely to her, no more human than a rabid dog. Sure, she might hate the guy and want to see him tortured, but that is not a revealing insight into the theme of rape. It is, rather, an impulsive emotional response to being victimized.
Some of the group’s members liked this play. One young woman, I’ll call her Kay, objected to my critique, telling me it helped dramatize the horror of rape–how the victim feels, what has been taken from her, and how it affects her. Still, the way Kay stammered over them, I got the feeling these polemic assets were not at the heart of Kay’s response. It seemed that she had a positive emotional reaction to the play that her comments didn’t explore—something that I was not interested in.
We look for different things from art.
Sometimes we turn to what I will call “assertion art,” which seems to speak like us and say the things we want to say. Assertion art can be positive, such as when Beyonce sang “At Last” at President Obama’s inaugural ball; and other times it might instead be negative, such as when a guy who was raised in an abusive home in a crummy and violent neighborhood seeks escape with a nasty flick like “Saw” at his local theater. These are emotions we already yearn to express. The art gives us an avenue. The enjoyment of the art is not enlightening, but reinforcing.
Check out this assertion tattoo artwork I recently noticed on a woman’s shoulder at my kindergartener’s graduation…
On its least sophisticated level, assertion art, though, can be more masturbatory. As in a Dirty Harry flick, the tension might be raised only for the thrill of the release, without any prior yearning involved. Maybe Kay has no particular need to express issues with rape, but just passively allows the play to get her to hate the rapist, and then she thrills in seeing him get his comeuppance. “Yeah!” she feels. Or, rather than her hatred for the rapist, her empathy for the fictional rape victim may be her greatest source of enjoyment; the same mournful thrill people get exercising their emotions by leaving a Teddy bear beside the lake where a disturbed stranger drove her car full of children all strapped into their seats.
Assertion art expresses the good and bad of ourselves whether it is real or fabricated for the thrill. It can make us stronger, but we don’t grow.
I have another invented term to try out here, a counterpart to assertion art. I will call it “scaffolding art.” Rather than reinforcing our stand, scaffolding art creates a space between the artist and us. This space is the difference between what we are aware of and what we are not aware of. A play might get us to think in a way we never did before. Kay may have felt the play bridged a space for her, allowing her to explore the feelings of a rape victim more fully than she ever had imagined.
It is important to note the relativity of awareness in understanding how awareness functions in scaffolding art. The awareness being scaffolded on the pages of the New Yorker, for instance, is entirely different than that in, say, Sports Illustrated or in that of Star Trekker, or UFO Monthly, for that matter. An expert reader of one of these magazines forced to read one of the others would be challenged to appreciate what the magazine succeeds in satisfying its usual readers with. The more esteemed reader, the New Yorker reader, could not be expected to be better at understanding the UFO magazine than could the Sports Illustrated reader. In this relation, the New Yorker has been stripped of esteem. The New Yorker, after all, does not display any objectively superior traits. It does not use an objectively better vocabulary, as one might very well call it worse because so many fewer people can appreciate it. Truly objectively, we’d have to call it novel, at best. Its writers specialize in communicating with a certain narrow group of people, people who have never read the original script to The Wrath of Khan. Your average Joe, picking up a New Yorker, will read the cartoons, maybe half a movie review, and maybe a few paragraphs of a short story before leaving it on the subway bench where he found it. And this is because the writing is not accessible to him—it does not overtly demonstrate some value worthy of the average Joe’s esteem.
Writing found in the New Yorker seeks to reach a sophistication that might be seen, from a Star Trekker’s point of view, worthy of the same humored disparagement with which a New Yorker reader might regard the quite sophisticated fold-out Romulus battle plans featured in Star Trekker’s December issue.
Scaffolding art bridges awareness, but its value can be relative. Your scaffolding art may be irrelevant to me. More perplexingly, though, nowadays, you may find your scaffolding art is irrelevant to you.
Consider the exponential expansion of artistic expression that occurred first with mass popular culture and now driven to a near–infinite expanse with the Internet. We have crossed into a world where knowledge can no longer reasonably be said to be mastered, even if we limit ourselves to an artistic category, like poetry, to use a particularly useful example. Where there was once thought to be a limited stream of published poetry that one might monitor, now there exists an endless sea.
Where once a poet could write with authority, secure in their educational grounding of what they were building on, today they just cannot. More and more, that grounding is shifting to include more ends of the universe that were never before considered. Where once a professor might mock a student for failing to catch a reference, today the same professor won’t dare for fear the student will draw out his own corner of the universe in riposte. I will see your Ovid, and raise you an Osho and a Chrystos.
No edge of artistic expression that is safe now will be safe come tomorrow. No artist will be an expert or even an authority. The nature of art, when the floodgates to human expression are truly open, is as endless as the ether.
In this view, scaffolding art, then, just like assertion art, is limited in value to a time or place, or perhaps a type of person or experience. The romantic notion of greatness, then, is just a romantic notion.
Stepping out of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” another play my course featured, one might feel hyperaware of the shallowness of the human constructs practiced by Mamet’s characters. That awareness, it can be argued, has the ability to improve us. It involves a judgment between what is right and what is wrong, a moral judgment.
Morality is a tricky tool to handle. We do not all agree on what we call morality. Some people use the term loosely, including all sorts of superstitious nonsense in what they refer to as their morality. Just about everything to distinguish one from the majority has been seen as immoral at some point in history to some culture. Skin tone, religious preference, sexual preference, marital arrangements, eating with a particular hand, wearing or failing to wear particular garments, having a particular physical deformity, whispering, opposing authority, hairstyle, left-handedness….
My first wife’s mother once confided to me: “You know, they’re the kind of people who put mustard on their cheese sandwiches.”
Still—and this is the crux of what I have to say—I am quite certain that all people share a basic common morality. There is in the nursing mother’s loving, nurturing exchange with her baby, and in the father’s protective embrace of his child to his own chest, a passing of some distinct and very complicated lesson that is true in every far corner of the human universe, that every decently-nurtured person in every culture across our planet can assert. There is a universal. I’ll call it love.
When art asserts or scaffolds the loving ideal it becomes something with a universal grounding, and, unlike other expressions, that art’s value has the ability to claim true objective prowess. Since I was a child, this is what I have looked for in art, from my pre-school thrill with Adam West’s devoted valiance in the Batman shows to my teenaged swoon over Van Gogh’s tenderly loving portrayal of fields and skies and faces as they hung there on the wall of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to my young adulthood realization at Ralph Ellison’s “King of the Bingo Game,” standing there on stage, his thumb on the control, yearning for the love that he is due, but that is far beyond his grasp.
The universal ideal of love is the key to truly, objectively great artwork.