Artists’ Politics

December 05, 2020

I received an email this morning from The Wales Millennium Centre; nothing out of the ordinary. And this ‘nothing out of the ordinary’ is my topic.

The email was a flyer listing upcoming live and streamed presentations coming over the course of the next year at and from WMC.

I get many such emails from a smattering of arts and theatre organisations; and anyone who notices these flyers will see, just as I have seen for many years now, how the productions being offered by them are more often than not, what may be termed, generously, ‘radical’ in their politics.

This ‘radical’ quality is usually leaning, often quite far, leftwards, towards social concern and concerns, groundswell counter-movements, calls to beholders to action and/or resistance; this sort of thing.

None of this that I have noted is at all earth-shatteringly original or perceptive stuff. It has been the case, in fact much more-so in the past, since I was first awakened to the world of the arts in the mid 1960s.

There has been for instance the movement of ‘agitprop’ (agitation and propaganda) in the theatre; there has been Joan Littlewood’s ‘Theatre Workshop’ with its splendid production of ‘Oh, What A Lovely War!”; there has been companies like ‘The Belt and Braces Theatre Company’; and in the visual arts, degenerated somewhat now today, there has been constant movement and pressure against the ‘status quo’ and The Establishment, displayed in manifold protestant forms and works. Dramatists themselves have taken a lead role in this radical effort: Howard Brenton; Harold Pinter; Sarah Kane; Trevor Phillips – all passionately outspoken and tending towards abrasive energetic criticism, condemnation of, and even incitement to change, the way things are.

As for the visual arts, their following this trend has of late been corrupted. One has always had ‘connoisseurs’ of visual art buying up for huge sums works by living artists which ostensibly condemn their buyers politically and morally. You have ‘prestigious’ art house dealers who are able to sit two ways on the fence and serve their ultra rich clientèle with securing for them such works, which try to ‘expose’ the corruptions’ of their buyers and the class from which they stem. At the same time these art houses negotiate with the radical ‘angry’ artists and associate with the clientèle so as to have a foot in either camp and so facilitate money to wilfully vocal creators, and artworks to the same would-be ‘oppressors’ of those artists.

Hence out of such a scenario has developed, degenerated, a world of art and of visual artists haunted by their own thirsts for riches and fame and glory and adulation; and they at the same time desire to hold onto intact their alleged artistic and moral ‘integrities’. These two faces then are double and the resultant débâcle is hollow and facile – everyone in it only ‘for the beer’. All principle sold and bought utterly, regardless of the assumed aesthetic values of the art productions themselves.

And I think principle, founded on a proper basis, and trying to do well and to live well (by ‘well’ I mean behaviour, and not pork pies) is the meaning of, and the only important thing in life.

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul”

The unexamined life is not worth living”

But back to the ‘true believers’ of the left who have been and remain active for the most part in the performing arts. All the performing arts excepting maybe movies; which I believe, when movies purports to have ‘a message’ have their own special ‘take’ on providing to audiences rallying points and calls.

Let’s talk about movies a little before we move on to the main discussion about radical performance arts and artists.

Movies ‘with a message’ perhaps fall into two main groups; and when looking into the approach of each of these groups we should remember always in our thoughts the important and guiding factor that they are almost to a whole made and financed by huge, hugely wealth, powerful, and pretty ruthless studios and producers and motion picture houses. This fact should be a basis for us using an alert scepticism when discussing any ‘messages and movements’ that movies might propound.

The first group of movies is that which contains movies which protest feelings and lovingkindness and goodwill and happy endings – perhaps old-fashioned stuff but still prevalent dressed in new sets of clothes and getups. Everyone can list in their heads a line of such ‘feelgood’ movies they have enjoyed – some better than others – some even being memorable for their anatomising of, and workings out of repercussions for moral situations and dilemmas. The few movies that fall into this latter type are perhaps getting to border on what might be termed ‘art movies’; but not in the debased sense of that term which that epithet too often is seen to display at Film Festivals, where what goes for art is for the most part self-indulgence.

Just as you have to sift through a lot of redundancy to be able at last to get to following a true Leader for Life; likewise much which passes for art has to be waded through so as to find something which is *‘the precious lifeblood of a master spirit’.*

The feelgood group of movies in one word are usually sops – they are all Hamlet without The Prince also. Sops because despite ostensibly being suggestive of being ‘calls to action’, they are but salves, therapies, palliatives; items from which, if one chooses, as most viewers will, one is able walk away having the feeling of having become more virtuous from simply having sympathised deeply with, maybe even wept a little for Harrison Ford or Cinderella.

Hamlet without The Prince because most such movies, despite the postmodernist current activist trends on gender, race, disability, ethnicity, colonialism, women, when all is said and done they come back to having followed in their plots simple Christian perspectives, values, and ethos. Yet were Christ himself to be portrayed or even named as a source for their action and dialogue, box office takings would plummet and the movie would be a flop. Hence Hamlet without The Prince.

It’s just another case of wanting all things to be hunky-dory but not willing to pay the simple price of obedience, so as to reap the rich harvest of love and purpose and mission into one’s life. Hence a sop, a therapy, a palliative. I’ve done my good deed for the day: I watched Pinnochio.

The other group of movies is also therapy and palliative but less, if at all, of a sop. If the first group took care of our supposed ‘spiritual’ needs, this group takes care of our secular and carnal ones. Into this group fall action movies, CGI movies, Marvel movies, Bond, Diehard, Jason Statham etc. They tend to represent whom we would be were we to daydream about ‘getting even’ or about ‘expressing ourselves’ or about ‘dealing finally with our oppressors’ and so on.

This group I am sure carry plots which for the most part have been ‘psychologically-profiled’. Their materials assessed for their value as moviemaking and at some pre-production stage in their realisation. Just as today’s advertising industry uses such profiling heavily, I cannot but believe that persons to whom money matters so much, like those at Movie Houses, have decided not to let that tool slide, and so not use it in this way. I suspect there’s some ‘Movies by numbers’ creativity going on in many cases.

Their no Prince (of Peace) in these movies unless one is invoking The Prince of Darkness. He has even appeared in several (e.g. Robert de Niro has played him). These movies are places where men and women viewers and unfortunately children also ‘blow off’ the frustrations of the day. They are a Freudian answer to ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’. Sit down and the movie begins and from shot one to shot ultimo many show themselves to betrue disciples of Spielberg’s idea to put the action comic strip onto film. Such movies over time are more and more heading towards being series short scenes, analogous to comedy sketches, as in old fashioned TV shows, and which are able to be strung together, often very loosely, around a broad narrative, but each short scene able almost to stand alone as a kind of ‘primal scream’ therapy akin to that which pounding at a punchbag can offer.

There are boosts of adrenalin-soaked spills and thrills, of kills and wills, fast short sequences lots of flashing lights and musical somersaults to match; then add to these potboiling excitements busy wild often vicious violence and verbal and physical abuse, and there’s the formula. Destressers. 90 minutes of imagination throwing caution to the wind…. and their collective message? One’s habit of indulging such enjoyments, their acceptance into one’s own set of outlooks as being, becoming, compatible, permissible, acceptable, behaviours; this seeps steadily towards its subtle inculcation. The sensitive self becomes more inured, and that otherness to be found withinthe actual catastrophes, horrors, sufferings, occurring to distant people, or to people remote from one’s own conceptions of life, are more-so happily dismissed and ignored by one’s psyche.

Just as in olden days crowds brought picnics to viewpoints to watch the day’s public executions; or visited the madhouse to view inmates for their entertainments; or considered the plight of the beggarly miserable was too commonplace and sullied to bother with noticing it; so our own case-hardening is being done onscreen by this fare of delight in ever-further ratcheted-up vigorous nastiness and disregard for caring, for generous manners, plain respect and quiet consideration. You are what you eat – literally speaking. You become (in your character) whom, what, you admire - also literally speaking.No great psychological theories needed. Just take a look around you and note the evidence. This is the message of the second mainstream group of movies

Look around us and we see that we have a sprawling quasi-fictional no-man’s-land of characters in movies and TV shows, being shadowed, mirrored, in their behaviours and outlooks by the actors who play them; actual lives mixing with the fictional ones those lives play out; which mixture has been for 30 years now the staple of our popular press. Glossy supplements and magazines which barely distinguish between actual and fictional rows, rivalries, upsets, love tangles, assaults, jealousies, hatreds. These items are immensely popular – hence there is no online threat to that part of the press which publishes the stuff.

The emergence of Reality TV, as I’ve commented before, is a to-be-expected emergence out of ‘high-octane’ fictional shows. The need to up-the-dose continually has been solved for a time by making the anger and venom and public shaming and so on, live and real, and no longer second-rate fantasy.

Places like ‘Love Island’ are fabricated but real environments where real people not roles enact quasi-fictional but of real consequence ‘games’ of betrayal, lust, anger, revenge and the rest – this would have been a sci-fi set 30 years ago, as like some scenes in say, ‘Escape from New York’ or in ‘Conan the Barbarian.’ We are not far from the Colosseum and the Arenas.

But that’s movies – now for movies’ poor relations, the theatre and other performance arts.

These areas of the arts possess their own sets of responsibilities to be faced; but indeed this fact of facing one’s responsibilities; of being held, or of holding oneself, to account, for what one says and does, this is the very thing which is at the nub of the problem in the performance arts.

Artists, and in particular artists in areas of the arts which represent shaped and usually finished, polished, narratives and their actions, enjoy all the advantages of abandon that there are in that supply of quasi-fictional hashes, the fare offered by the popular press to its readers. This is because these performance artists are able to say and do anything no matter how outrageous to the sensibilities of the plain person in the shopping mall, but at the same time are able to and often happily claim for this sense of outrage that it isnot merely fictional, and so unimpeachable, but also it is ‘relevant’ and ‘excoriating’ and ‘insightful’ etc, in its ‘anatomising’ of real and present, maybe difficult, issues and events.

There’s that old badgering taut said by some people who perhaps should know better; they say; “Don’t just talk the talk - you must also walk the walk.” It’s not easy to ‘walk’ any ‘walk’ which is honourable and just and resolutely kindly and gracious towards others; and no matter how many times I myself might say to you that this is what we are called to do as our purpose in life, still I know I will not be anywhere near 100% ‘walking that same walk’ from day to day.

But ‘by their fruits so shall ye know them’ saysThe Prince of Grace and Love, and as our old wiseacres like to put it ‘handsome is as handsome does’.

Now performance artmay in fact be a kind of doing, and maybe some of us will call it also ‘walking the walk’; yet there is one great corollary missing from walking such a walk- and this is that taking responsibility, being accountable for, the outcomes of one’s actions as a performance artist. The consideration is nicely worked out in the fate of Mary MacGregor in Muriel Sparks’ novel ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”. The little girl Mary is inspired by her teacher’s (Miss Brodie) stirring fervour for the ideals of the Marxist side of the fight in The Spanish Civil War. Mary lights off to Spain and is killed there; she having got things all wrong and having joined the Fascist side to fight.

Impressionable and idealistic, emotional and fervent, Mary was ‘carried away’ by the ardours of words that came from Miss Brodie. A terrible accountability falls upon the schoolmistress.

Seldom falls such weight of accountability on playwrights and actors, weights which have arisen out of theiracting out roles and making plays and productions. That set of performance artists who show, on and off stage, a glad willingness to propagate with a degree of certitude born of fervour, ideas and attitudes which – let’s be straightforward – aim to sow discord in the name of justice, and stir anger and violence in the name of self-righteous principle. Too often what is ‘the correct thing to do’ is merely ‘what I believe in’ - this in itself is not too bad, but add to it that word ‘uncritically’, and here you have entered now the dogmas of faith in a human form of resolution towards utopia.

My kingdom is not of this earth’ said Our Lord; at least not as this earth is in its present condition. Without God and without God’s intervention there is no kingdom, nor will there ever be. Men and women cannot make it happen on their own, and no matter what – we are too flawed – I am – you are – she is - throughout the whole declension. Our hope, our only and best and surest hope is, must be, can only be, Grace from Heaven.

For a person to think to cast the world in any image of his own espousal; and yet not aim in the first place to have cast his own image in the Image of The Maker of humanity, and to have this gifted to him by way of prayer and supplication to The Master asking Him for His assistance in it – this is and will always lead to a dead-end whereabouts more unfruitful misery and suffering are come out of wrong-headed actions and solutions

And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”

Such a citation of words, words which we have on record as having issued from Jesus’ mouth may perhaps raise a snigger in some of you – is it of scorn or of embarrassment? – certainly of disbelief. It is words like these that are huge stumbling blocks to present-day people who otherwise might consider committing their lives to Him.

Consider again. How should such a momentous event be ‘shown in words’ able to be a smidgen understood by those listeners who first heard their prophecy? Had Jesus said ‘I’ll be at the controls of a ‘Millennium Falcon’ beaming down to fix up the planet, etc etc” what would they have made of that? That approach might reverberate with us here and now, but back then enough people were already accusing him of being mad or possessed, without Him using such wild futuristic talk.

And one should note - because this is the most important thing - and it is also a crucial anchor to the arguments I have laid out above here - Here is The Man who stood by His words, every jot and tittle of them, every last one of them; accountable to them, and responsible for them, to the death, to perfection, and before God.

No man hath greater love than this; than to lay down his life for his friends”

And this He did too – and we are His friends – even you who scoffed and was scornful or embarrassed by His prophecy of End Times.

But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

So He stuck by every word He uttered, was accountable to the full; and without let or hindrance accepted what came out of those utterances for Him; but it was for you and me that He did so, for whom he laid down His life, for us, His friends, and did so whilst we were yet sinners, as we are now even. He chose even so to show God’s love towards us in its full measure.

Here then is the answer; not in demonstrations and rigmaroles of activist aggressions, and assured insistence on self-beliefs.

He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.”

This is The Lord’s saying, and it is true and profitable. Amen. Amen.