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Kamarck, Edward (ed.) / Arts in society: the arts of activism
(1969)

Holden, Joan
Part VI: guerilla theatre: comedy and revolution,   pp. [415]-[420] PDF (5.6 MB)


Page 417

bureaucracy, and the dehumanizing effects of technology" (the list of
what youth
is in revolt against, in the prospectus provided by this journal, notably
omits private
property) there is nothing left to say except how to change them. Artists
who
consider themselves in the vanguard, and most do, must assume the responsibility
of the vanguard, which is to lead. This most will find impossible to do without
radical
changes in their ideas about art. They will have to abandon objectivity in
favor of
morality and metaphysics in favor of history. Granted that too few of us
know what
politics we want, that most of the New Left does not know what it wants,
there is a
general extreme aversion to direct statement in art that prevents most artists
from even
asking themselves the question, and a preference for metaphysical concerns
that
relieves them of historical responsibility.
The twin pillars of our high culture are positivism and relativism. If there
is anything
at all we can be sure of, it is only the isolated messages our senses receive:
all larger truths are provisional. "What does 'what does it mean' mean?"
replied
Pinter to a questioner. The work of art should not interpret: it should transmit,
or re-create, or be experience. Statements of direction and value are intrusions
on art:
Martin Esslin treats Brecht's Marxism as a vision impediment. The history
of modern
art can be outlined as a series of attempts to destroy rational constructions
and
break through to raw experience. Think of thousands of symbolists, surrealists,
abstract expressionists, alone in their studies and studios like so many
alchemists,
breaking experience down into its parts, all searching for the ultimate concreteness.
This
mass purist quest has brought tremendous results: revealed, explored, and
invented
rich forms of expression for huge previously forbidden tracts of consciousness;
neither
art nor consciousness will ever be the same. Many people will never be the
same
since acid; in either case we arrive with consciousness enriched, after long
trips and many
changes, at the question, "All right, my mind's blown - now what?"
Awareness is a
means that has so far been mistaken for an end; without an end it becomes
inversion.
Who can profit from seeing more than one play of Beckett's or lonesco's?
(Who can
profit from seeing one play of Albee's?) To refuse to interpret, to judge
and to direct,  417
is to confer the sanction of inevitability on the world as we know it, by
conveying
pieces of it as the ultimate reality.
The same effect of implicit sanction is produced by focussing, as our playwrights
and novelists prefer to, on the metaphysical situation rather than the historical
one:
our oarticular troubles are seen as symptoms of irreparable flaws in the
eternal fabric,
and made to seem trivial, anyway, by comparison. Who cares who owns the factories,
when Sam Shephard, Thomas Pynchon, Claude Van Itallie -all the bright young
men,
as well as the somber old ones - are announcing that entropy is about to
take over?
We have few books about curable evils: CATCH-22, probably the solidest, best
sustained satire of our period, is a model for the way the specific evil,
in our fiction,
eludes resolution by opening onto the general uncertainty. The unrelieved
accumulation
of terrible details gradually makes the insanity of the army appear as the
insanity of the
universe, in the light of which there is no point in trying to do anything,
except
maybe find a comfortable hole. (Carl Oglesby pointed out in a 1967 lecture,
"The
Deserter, or the Contemporary Defeat of Fiction" that Heller "cops
out to despair" by
sending Yossarian to Sweden instead of having him assassinate General Cathcart,
a
possibility entertained at several points in the book.) Similarly, in Burrough's
satire,
addiction and buggery accumulate meanings and swell until they swallow the
universe. To have a blacker vision than Burroughs is a widespread ambition.
With
God dead, the metaphysical outlook is naturally bleak; on the historical
plane, however,
there are a few things left to try, and the reluctance of most artists to
promote them
invites the suspicion that they prefer the evil which guarantees them a subject
to the revolution which might leave them without one.
To rejoin history art must become didactic, moralistic, propagandistic: all
bad words to
the sophomore English major but assumed motives of art at most times other
than
our own. It must also be visionary. It must also be good, or it will fail
as propaganda.


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