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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 416

ground of the serious-minded objection. Because we are all going to die,
it is vain
to promote a sense of well-being; because in life we generally lose, it is
pernicious to
pretend that we can win. The only comic art now taken seriously is the kind
that
borders on nightmare and finally falls into it; the happy ending is only
seen on
Broadway, never Off. Even within our company people argue that happy endings
are
dangerous. Reality is grim, and the artist's job is to make us confront it.
I mean to argue that this view of art serves the established order, and that
more
fantasy, not more realism, is what we need to change it. Comedy, which in
its basic
action always measures an unsatisfactory reality against its corresponding
ideal, and
whose form demands that solutions be invented for problems raised, may be
the
revolutionary art form par excellence.
There is no disputing the grimness of the reality our collective consciousness
recognizes: no God, an empty universe, brutality unleashed upon the earth.
Most
of our art reflects this consciousness and in fact is dominated by an aesthetic
of pain: the value of the work is proportionate to the amount of pain it
makes us feel;
the more pain we feel, the more we are sure we are being made to face reality.
The profoundest art is that which sees deepest into the abyss; the most reverenced
artist
the one who suffers most. Everybody loves Matisse, but no hush falls when
his name
is mentioned; speak of Giacometti and breaths are held in tribute. But if
we were
asked according to whose vision we would want to remake reality, most of
us
would choose Matisse.
Most Western art since the war at least has borne a single message: this
is how
bad it is. A few great figures are giants of metaphysical despair; the rest
communicate
more or less horror according to their measure: the intention even of those
who
disclaim intention is to expose the cruelty, horror, perversion, finally
senselessness
of (modern) life. Although settings are often strictly historical the essential
direction of
416        our art is metaphysical. Pinter's plays are not set on the edge
of the void, like
Beckett's: on the contrary, they are stuffed with local color; but it is
all completely
incidental, the plays are about irremediable solitude and the disintegration
of the
universe. We all agree that our world is sick, and the artist, regarded by
himself and
others as a superior instrument, busies himself finding symptoms.
It is easy to mistake this activity for political action. The "socially
conscious"
artist generally considers that he is making a contribution each time he
describes
an aberration. But it is not enough to face reality: we have to change it.
Once we admit this we are obliged to demand that our art help us do it, and
to
ask what the ostensibly politically conscious works of, say, Heller and Rauschenberg
have given us that the apolitical works of Bellow and DeKooning have not.
The
Vietnam war has given nearly everyone a conscience, and inspired a million
works
of art; but how many have said more than "war is bad"? Many, to
be fair, have implied the question "What are you going to do about it?"
Few got as
far as VIET ROCK, which told us something to do about draft boards. Most
of the
so-called "arts of activism" have not gotten past "It's bad."
There have been changes
of format: poets have read on the steps of the Pentagon, and paintings have
been
carried around New York on trucks. But the poems have mainly been laments,
the
paintings scenes of flames and butchery, the message endlessly reiterated:
it's terrible,
what are you going to do about it?
This art has undeniably raised awareness and helped spread the protest movement.
So did the "alienated" art which preceded it crystallize disaffection
and help
create a community of the aware: Arthur Miller's plays probably spared thousands
the
necessity of becoming Unitarians during the lonely 1950's. Now the population
of
the aware numbers into the millions, some of whom have known how bad it is
for a
good many years, and it is presumptuous to take up more time until you have
something
to say that will make a difference. Once we are exercised about "militarism,
racism,


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