Sunday, March 31, 2013

What we worry about when we worry about Kitsch

Adorno, in a well known quote, said that Kitsch "is the beautiful minus its ugly counterpart," a kind of purified beauty without a vision of the other - what I suppose might be called the real world - with Hundeschei├če and all. Now there is nothing innately wrong with this, and if I were able to somehow tap into a stream of pure beauty in my own meager compositions, I would gladly make use of it, as whatever small respite one can give an audience in this brief life is worth grasping.

However, Kitsch, when loved in its unadulterated and unironic form, has become negatively associated, and has become a word used to deny the validity of whatever the speaker doesn't care much for. The most obvious examples of the genre, for example the twee Hummel figurines that my friends' parents collected so avidly, and that made me vaguely queasy even as a child, are easy targets for those of us who aspire to the world of ultra-high art. But the point here is more subtle. The notion of Kitsch has something to do with its commodification, packaging up a subject in a manner which is easily digested, gratifying the desires of the viewer-to-be. It is this aspect which I find the most troubling personally.

Adorno is famous for another comment as well, made in an interview which touched on the anti-war songs of the 60s:

And I have to say that when somebody sets himself up, and for whatever reason (accompanies) maudlin music by singing something or other about Vietnam being unbearable...I find, in fact, this song unbearable, in that by taking the horrendous and making it somehow consumable, it ends up wringing something like consumer qualities out of it."

I think this strikes at the heart of art-making whenever it seeks to be a commentary on the horrors of the real world. In a review of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Manohla Dargis comes up with one of my favorite lines: "[Kitsch...] tries to make us feel good, even virtuous, simply about feeling." Now this is a cornerstone of the Hollywood palace of culture, well-evidenced by the immeasurable collection of movies profiteering on all tragedies past and present, from personal misfortunes to those unimaginably horrific. I've often wondered why there is no outcry, given the various institutions dedicated to the preservation of the real memory of the Jewish Holocaust, to the massively vampiric way Hollywood fills its pockets with sweetly sentimental and boffo-at-the-box-office stories concerning it. Stanley Kubrick, who worked for years on treatments of a film about the Holocaust, decided that it simply couldn't be contained in a movie, and made the point that Schindler's List and the others really weren't about the Holocaust at all.

But, fundamentally, I fail to see how any digestibly evening-length piece, created for purposes mercenary or self-aggrandizing or otherwise, can contain any tragedy. If my own Certitude and Joy attempts to do that, then in that regard it is a failure. At best, it's an essay, one more bit of ink spilled, one more personal comment on the fringes on the subject and subjects related to it. At worst, it is insidious, a piece that pretends to be real, that plays on the emotions, that allows an audience to believe that the artist has conveyed to them something of the truth, but that sets them outside an hour later on their way to buy another donut. Maybe the middle ground is somewhere in between, a show of light and spectacle and music that uses some tricks to make some points, some of which are interesting; and which is enjoyable sensorially, and which may, if it is lucky, make one think about one's own life.

The curious reality of Sister Hummel is that, even though the figures given her name are labeled as shining examples of Kitsch, they capture more of the truth of tragedy through their existence than any artwork looking back from our comfortable present is able to. The figurine pictured is based on her watercolor - The Volunteers - which enraged Hitler, who banned her art, an SA mouthpiece writing "There is no place in the ranks of German artists for the likes of her. No, the 'beloved Fatherland' cannot remain calm when Germany's youth are portrayed as brainless sissies." But even after this, and under Nazi persecution, she continued to produce her works under terrible conditions in an unheated cell with little food, covertly placing in them Stars of David, menorahs and other subversive imagery, dying of tuberculosis before the end of the war.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Toward a theory of the breakdown of the separation between audience and action

When in the presence of live sex, it is hard to keep an intellectual distance. Stephen Dedalus, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, explains by way of Aquinas and Aristotle the aesthetic view that art is Art that holds one in awe, that does not move one to action. The esthetic emotion is therefore static. The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing. This state is that in which understanding and insight is achieved, the state of aesthetic arrest, and in this view, the polemical and the pornographic are therefore not Art.

But here we are interested in just this, the difficult boundary between awe and motion. When presented with sex at close range and with intimacy, lust is facilitated, and lust encourages motion to the object. I felt this first when I saw Shaffer's Equus as a boy, when I happened to have a seat on the stage, so close that I could smell the actors' sweat, and when the boy and the girl undressed and prepared for sex in the stable, I was overcome with a feeling of unease, although still I looked, and later, thinking on the image of the two together, I was impelled to action.

Equus is a play addressed much to the same topic as my own Certitude and Joy. The removal of the boy's religion by society is necessitated by his violence, as the removal in real life of LaShaun's intimate religion is necessitated by her violence. In both stories there is hesitation to do so, as both protagonists are in direct communication with their gods, gods both terrifying and powerful, and in the boy's case, sexually powerful as well. His sacrament is the religious ecstasy of riding the horse in an exultation of sexual bliss, and when his little death is experienced, the cum sprays - we imagine - across the sweaty frothing bare back of the horse. To achieve our purposes, we must see something of this directly on the stage: intercourse in all its varieties, raw and direct; orgasm.

For the last 10 years, I have worked with James Bisso off and on, and more off than on, on a picaresque and fictitiously autobiographical piece titled 24x7, initially our own version of My Secret Life, but now hard to pin down exactly as it has become a sprawling epic containing a series of internal sub-operas. But I feel like I need a text more interesting than My Secret Life, maybe a story of lusty adventure, possibly a new Moll Flanders set on a boy not unlike myself. Or maybe the text should be an attempt to unfluff Shortbus, a film which caught to some extent - strangely transporting it to Manhattan from San Francisco - a world I know too well, but a film which does not have the intellectual rigor of one of my own theatrical works, although it could be argued that I have missed the point that sex can be fun and simple and not necessarily dark and deep and complicated and dangerous.

If, in addition to being pornographic, I wished to commit the sin of being polemical as well, one argument I would like to make by way of this work is how closeted so many of us all still are, and a goal is to reveal those secrets that still exist in our lives, even post our modern culture's supposed sexual emancipation. And thus we attend: (1) the idea of transparency (2) how there is no sin in sex (3) and especially how Die Gedanken Sind Frei and how fantasies, of all one's thoughts, should be the most unfettered and free. The live sex should be free as well, and range from the mundane to the violent, from the passionate to the perfunctory.

Once there is an actual concept, say even a story, casting is an issue. Who would be in it? I suppose porn actors would, or sex workers of a broader variety, or sex worker advocates, or those that are old enough to not care anymore, or those that are already out in any of a variety of perversions and inversions which take them beyond this simple task. The actors cannot be individuals who are closed or closeted, like the actors in old stag film loops wearing masks as they grunt silently across the screen, as this would defeat the purpose, that of intimacy and connection and motion beyond the aesthetic. And can they sing?  Or, more to the point, can they sing while discussing said aesthetics and also attending to the more athletic demands of the role, where breath and hair and tongue and taste intermix?
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