In addition to writing my own stuff, part of creating my own is having a discussion with other artists about the role of theater & film artists with regard to social issues.
My frustration is that the level of the discussion has sometimes been limited to off-the-cuff comments such as “political plays can be boring” or “no political rally is as moving as an O’Neill play.” Yeah, Dario Fo can be dreary. Yeah, plays about alcoholic families can be intensely moving. Both of these statements are probably true. Both these statements are a valid part of the discussion.
But both these statements are only part of the discussion. In addition to the above comments, I would like to hear what people think their social role as artists is and how to accomplish that role. I’m trying to solicit some “to-do” or “how can we” in addition to the “here’s why we can’t.”
So, here’s how I can explain myself most succinctly: I believe that all artists take a position, or choose sides, in all their work, consciously or not. They cannot help but choose sides, since art is created to be observed by the audience and therefore imparts a message of some sort to the audience. Artists take into themselves—channel, if you will–the human /societal fears and uncertainties. Then the artists distill these fears and uncertainties, feeding hopes and dreams back to the audience. However, the message within those hopes and dreams can either be supportive of the status quo, or it can challenge the status quo and project a better future for humanity. The message we give back to our audience, though often made via the individual and the individual’s struggle with life, always has an underlying assumption about society. Our art will take one position or other even if we don’t intend it to do so.
The examples I love to use–the paintings of the of the old Dutch masters—have the underlying societal assumption that life is peaceful and beautiful: that the rich burghers own all this lovely fertile land and they own this lovely ripe young wife and you folks should just enjoy the peaceful beauty of the land and the lovely depiction of the burgher’s wealth, even though you don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever having a peaceful, beauty-filled life yourself (you crummy peasants.) You should just appreciate abstract beauty, and, indeed, continue to support–by not questioning–the culture that created this so-called beauty. The painting says that this society is a good society, that it creates beauty and harmony. The paintings say that this society is as god intended it to be and it will be this way forever. “Just accept it; god is good.” Of course, the paintings were lying. Most members of that society toiled miserably and died young. And society ended up not being that way for more than a few hundred years…so the “always was and always will” presumption in those paintings was a lie.
On the other hand, “The Laramie Project” is an example of art that takes the other position. It presents a picture of a human being who has been abandoned and destroyed by society. That piece of work takes the position that our society is not all-good, all beautiful, all harmonious, but, indeed, that significant changes need to be made. That piece of art challenges the status quo and asks the audience to be Dissatisfied with the world in which they live.
“Vagina Monologues” and “Trojan Women” are all good examples. They are all projects where performing artists are engaging themselves in the community in positive, forward-looking ways. “Syriana” is an example. “Oceans” (the documentary) is an example. These are films that ask people to think beyond their current thinking. Michael Moore’s an example.
These messages are imparted in art works regardless of the quality of the craft, or the artistic excellence of the performance. Those are separate though related issues. Nevertheless, the message is imparted. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and La Pieta and ”Oklahoma” on one hand and “We Are The World” and The Vietnam War Memorial and “Rhinoceros” on the other. These works all have artistic excellence in their execution (none of them are the heavy-handed San Francisco boring-ass Mime Troup), but they have distinctly different messages.
So, we all recognize that there exist works of performing arts which challenge the assumption that society will “always be this way.” There are works of performing arts which challenge the notion that “only individuals can change; society never can.” There are works of performing arts that challenge the assumption that this is the “best of all possible worlds.” Some of you, my readers, participate in these works of performing arts because you do want to challenge societal assumptions.
I am asking you guys what you feel your obligation is as performing artists. Do you have an obligation to create new art for the new times we’re in? Do you think that what is happening in the world today is dangerous and could destroy humanity permanently in a way that was not possible before? If you think that, do you think that artists can contribute to preventing that? If you think that artists can play a role, what do you feel is your own role within that? Do you feel that it’s a purely personal choice whether to do a classic play or to do a current work in any particular season? Do you think as an artist, you should choose work to by your own personal preferences or do you think as an artist you have an obligation to choose work that will have an impact? Do you feel artists are simply individuals who decide their own career paths, or are artists answerable to the times, the morays, the societies within which they operate? Do artists play a social role? If so, do they have certain obligations?
I think it’s a similar question any profession must ask itself. Do doctors play a social role? Or are they just doing it because they love to play with knives? Must they operate on a patient, even if the patient has no money? Must they perform unnecessary operations just because the patient demands it? Should they perpetuate the notions of female beauty by doing cosmetic surgery? Should they save the life of a terrible dictator? Do computer scientists have a social role? Should they work on software which will conduct secret surveillance on all Arab-American teenagers? Do auto designers have a social role? Should they keep safety innovations out of next year’s model because it would raise the cost? Or should they just design a pretty, artistic car that gives them a hard-on without regard for safety?