Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Niceness And The Artistic Process

From Parabasis, about niceness and art.

People don't usually take arguments about things personally. Arguments are simply a clash of ideas that people hold. Ideas are pretty dime a dozen and not particularly precious.

Art on the other hand is personal. Good art is, anyway. Therefore it can be a lot harder to subject this piece of yourself to public scrutiny and it means that conversations about someone's work of art with them can be a lot harder to do.

I left a comment:

I was once in a tough workshop where someone brought in a very close, personal set of emails which were very dear in their heart. After reading the emails to the group, there was a silence. Everyone was afraid to deal with the emails because, well, they were so personal and private.

Then one of the cast members decided to make some adjustments. He started out by asking the person who brought in the emails, "Can I treat these emails as a dramatic text?" From that point forward, we were able to work with the emails like we would work with Hamlet, or Macbeth.

I guess what I'm saying is that all of our art has to come from inside of us, but it has to go to the outside world, and once its out there, it has to be treated like dramatic text, like something for everyone. The artist doesn't have monopoly over their work--it's something they've given to the people who've paid to see it, to the community it's presented for.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Graham and Zimbardo

I am rather a TED Conference junkie, and I'm slowly working my way backwards through their archives. I listened recently to two speeches. The first was Zimbardo, on the scientific nature of evil (his so-called "Lucifer Effect"). The second was Rev. Billy Graham.

Now, Billy Graham is not a person I like very much. But I do have to grant that he's a very charming person--his speech begins with several jokes about himself. Then he focuses on the subject of his lecture: three questions that cannot be answered by science. I didn't listen all the way through, because the first supposedly unanswerable question, "Where does evil come from?"

It's unfortunate for the Reverend that I had just listened to Zimbardo. Because Zimbardo asks the question "Where does evil come from?" And he puts forward a very plausible answer: through systems that incentivize evil and deincentivize good.

I could use this to make a point about how religion asks us to stop short from answering the big questions--it asks us just to look to God. That's certainly Billy Graham's take on religion. But that would be a facile lesson to take from the situation. Because Zimbardo is clearly a religious man, in his own way. After all, he dubs it the Lucifer Effect--and his explanation is about how Lucifer was good but turned to evil. And Zimbardo's experiment is, at its core, a desire to understand that. A desire to understand what turns good into evil, and evil into good.

It became, for me, an interesting rumination on Billy Graham's model of knowledge (with certain bounded 'unknowables') and Zimbardo's model of knowledge (science pushing those boundaries as hard as it can). It is odd to me that the TED Conference would ask Billy Graham to preach a sermon on the limits of knowledge. But I can understand why he's welcome.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Do We Need Arts Reviewers?

Isaac Butler (Parabasis) asks:

What if the major newspapers and magazines didn't have critics at all? What if instead they printed excerpts of the art critics used to cover?

It's an interesting hypothetical. I responded in the comments section:

I believe excerpts would wind up hurting some forms of art. Sometimes its hard to understand the whole from the part (like a movie trailer that ruins a movie--I've heard good things about Revolutionary Road but I HATE the trailer so much that I'm never, ever going to see it).

Take a play, for instance. Sometimes its very hard to imagine a play on its feet. I wrote a mostly silent, movement based play recently. Clips from a film of the production might work(although expensive to do well and unilluminating if done cheap), but the script would have left out the contributions of the choreographer (which were extensive and crucial to the success of the play).

Some texts are very dead on the page, but when acted by the right actor can leap alive. Things that sound undynamic, things that might be awkward. Literary departments/agents or directors/actors might be good at reading a script and imagining it in its fully realized form, but the public may not have that.

Photography? That might work. After all, each image usually stands alone and speaks for itself, and it can do that in the newspaper (maybe not in Black and White if it's a color photo).

If you have an online publication, movie trailers are quite acceptable! But a critic still gives a lot of context outside of the trailer, about (for instance) whether it's too long or short (there's no such thing as a trailer that's too long or too short, since the length is standardized).

In short: you can get a good look at a bit of the work, but sometimes the critic is there to tell you how the whole works together. There might be an argument for this in fields like sculpture, photography, etc. I don't work in those fields so I hesitate to pass judgment.

This is all, of course, separate from the role that criticism plays within an industry--for investors, for other creators, for the future of the art as a form. But that's often more high-brow publications or theoretical journals, which are sometimes less threatened than the art correspondent on a big city paper.

Still, I do like the hypothetical. I like thinking about it.

Israeli Elections

Not much to say on the subject, except my worst fears are slowly becoming realized. In mounting degrees since the 2006 Lebanon War that crippled Ehud Olmert's political capital (which I would point to as the moment that Kadima ceded any possibility of following up the Gaza Withdrawal with a West Bank withdrawal), I've slowly started to fear that Israeli frustration with the lack of progress towards a two state solution would lead them towards more and more extreme reactions--a belief that if they could just hit them harder, do more damage, they'd break the Palestinian will to fight back.

My theory about terrorism is this: if you make the conditions for peace no violence, terrorism will always win. After all, if twenty angry Palestinians with rockets are enough to force the peace process to square one, there will never be peace. Because there will always be twenty angry Palestinians with rockets. Think about how poor arms control is throughout the world. And think about how few the number 20 is next to 1.5 million.

I've advocated Israel ignoring violence within reasonable limits (the death toll from the rockets being not even remotely comparable to car accidents). Of course, from an "honor" or "justice" perspective, this is a grossly unfair suggestion, and emotionally it's impossible to convince any Israelis (even my fairly moderate parents) of this fact.

So if violence must be met with violence, and violence fails to stop violence, clearly the cycle of violence will only increase. Palestinian violence, actually, has decreased since the height of carbombings, and the imposition of blockades and extreme security measures. But on the other hand, even maintaining this status quo is leading to an increase in frustration in Israel.

Israel says its attempting to minimize civillian casualties. That's a silly, hubristic thing to say, but it's probably accurate. But that sentiment is already slipping. Many government officials are saying things between the lines, around the edges, that start to indicate that they want an all-out war, no holds barred, where they can really hit the Palestinians until they win. Like Ariel Sharon did in Lebanon (by the way, that didn't work out--they did warcrimes on the level of mass murders, and it didn't create peace with Lebanon).

If the trend continues, each war will wreak more damage on the enemy. It will fail to break Hamas' wind. Slowly, a delusion will grow in the minds of Israelis. There will be no rest unless Palestinians are gone. All of them. I've heard it said amongst some Israelis (not representative of their nation) that Palestinians are animals and there can be no peace with them. That's the genocidal mindset. And Israel has the strength and position for genocide.

Certainly, Israel isn't in the position to actually wreak genocide. America's position as an independent arbiter is somewhat restored with the incoming Obama Administration, and Europe wields enough of a cudgel to protect Palestine against genocide.

But the desire is clearly there. And now we've reached the recent elections, in which the right wing coalition gained a slight majority over the left wing coalition, even though the centrist party Kadima won the most number of seats for a single party (which is in the left-wing coalition, despite being a thoroughly centrist party formed of as many ex-right-wingers as ex-left-wingers). Likud, the major right wing party, seems set to form the coalition, and its biggest partner is the party that sums up my fears: Yisrael Beiteinu.

Yisrael Beiteinu. They are a party founded out of fear of the "rising Arab demographic" that threatens to wipe out the Jewish majority. (Think Lou Dobbs, only insane).

I can't even bring myself to keep typing the things I've found out about them. Olmert wanted to put Avigdor Lieberman (their head) as Minister of Internal Security. The way that the Communists were given Internal Security portfolios in Eastern Europe, right before the coups. Lieberman thinks that Arab-Israeli ministers are traitors--he led the bill that passed that barred Israeli-Arabs from participating in the last election. It was overturned by the Supreme Court. Lieberman wants to end the power of judicial review in the courts--effectively ending the judicial branch of government as a separate branch. In other words, he wants to end representative, constitutional democracy.

And he thinks that the growing number of Muslims (Arabs/Palestinians) is a problem. I wonder what his ideal solution would be, if he could come up with a final solution to end the problem.

Geithner's Bank Plan... Or Lack Thereof?

A lot of debate on the blogosphere about the bank plan (or bank "plan") that Timothy Geithner rolled out. I'm giving the benefit of the doubt to the Administration. Mainly, it seems to me the hesitation of the Administration is belied by the debate between a "solvency crisis" and a "liquidity crisis," and how much of the banks fall into one or the other.

It's unfortunate, however, that Geithner didn't present that honestly and forthrightly, in a way that could still give some confidence to investors. Presenting both possibilities, for instance. Giving a window into their thought process. Leaving us in the cold, playing Treasury-ology, is not very productive. I have faith, as other bloggers do, that Obama and Geithner are privately contemplating nationalization in some places, recapitalization in other places (after all--banks that bust get nationalized whether we want to or not). But the strategy, the philosophy, is unclear.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Shepard Fairey And "Added Value"

Excuse me for a moment, but doesn't Shepard Fairey's poster prove its own added value by the fact that it became a historical and cultural symbol for our generation? I mean, I'm not talking about the work of art itself--let's put aside the art critic hat for long enough to just look on its impact. I have a button with Shepard Fairey's image on my hat (bootlegged, Mr. Fairey! I apologize! I'm one of the generation of criminals...). I would not have the AP photo on a button on my hat (bootlegged or otherwise). Would TIME have done its post-election cover in the style of that AP Photo? Probably. But they didn't. They wanted Mr. Fairey's image because it came to define that entire election. That's added value. Don't look at the photo, look at its impact. It took AP months to realize it was their photo that Fairey had used!

The whole notion is irritating.

Coburn Amendment

As an artist, the unified agreement around the Coburn Amendment, to guarantee that we greedy artists don't get a cent of the stimulus money, is a slap in the face to us. I mean, we're already a fairly disregarded and rudely treated bunch. Now that our industry is in trouble, don't we get any help? Parabasis has some excellent columns on the subject.

This morning, I took up a letter writing campaign. I wrote a short note to Obama (they have a 500 character limit, which is unfair). Then I wrote the following to Senator Feinstein:

Dear Senator Feinstein,

I'm a 20 year old student of theater in America. I've always had to struggle with the fact that we are not well supported in America. My hope was that, coming from college, I'd have the chance to change that. I knew it would be difficult: the Department of Labor forecasts that the average actor has poor job security and earns a medium pay of $23,400. This, despite the fact that non-profit arts create 5.7 million jobs and $9.1 billion in state tax revenues, according to HUD.

I saw in the paper that you decided to vote on behalf of the Coburn Amendment to the stimulus package bill. Reading the support for the vote, and listening to the rhetoric of its proponents, I became very afraid. I'm afraid for my future. Because if the leaders of this country treat our almost 6 million jobs and our 12 billion in Federal Tax revenues as nothing more than "pork," as a useless expenditure that's unimportant, then what chance am I or my friends going to have? The signal our Congress is sending to America is that the arts are a waste, the arts are useless.

I was not surprised, for instance, that the little bubbles in this submission form don't have a space for "Arts." It's barely a topic to begin with. But it's an important part of the economy. I work full-time, I pay taxes, and yet every week I hear another non-profit theater is going bankrupt, because the money that should be coming from the government to help support it is being cut, being diverted to more "important" job-creating ventures. Because clearly a job in alternative energies, or a job working on highways is far more important than the work I do.

I'm afraid. Are there any further cuts that are coming to the arts? Will you continue to advocate to cuts to the NEA, to state arts funding, to bailouts for museums and cultural organizations like theaters?

Your constituent,
Guy Yedwab

I will update you in a week when I get a response, I'm sure.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Burning Question of the Day

Is there ANYONE who pays their taxes correctly?

Seriously, can we do a study and see how many people in this country have unpaid or incorrectly filed taxes? How can it be that FOUR of Obama's nominees have tax problems? What the hell is this! Geithner, Daschle, that person from OPM, and Solis (well, her husband)? Come on people!

Then again, taxes are complicated as all hill-el. It's these darn TurboTax people.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Generation Of Criminals II: Shepard Fairey

Well, on my latest copyright bent, the Associated Press is gunning for Shepard Fairey for using a press photo without citation for his own profit. Oh wait, what? Shepard Fairey donated the image to the Obama campaign? Which means he hasn't made any money by it?

So the real infringer is... the Obama campaign! Why isn't the AP suing the Obama campaign! Maybe that might actually get politicians to think about the limits on intellectual property.

I would like to point out that, unlike Gone With The Wind or Streetcar Named Desire, the photo Shepard Fairey used would be under copyright even if it was under a Founder's Copyright (7+7). Of course, it would be nice if the AP gave CC-BY rights on their photos, or CC-BY-SA. You know, if they were interested in getting newsworthy photos out there, rather than just being interested in profit.

How Copyright Hurts Playwrights III: Blanche Survives Hurricane Katrina

Good lord. I could rewrite last night's post WORD FOR WORD and it would almost exactly apply to the one man show Blanche DuBois Survives Hurricane Katrina In A FEMA Trailer Named Desire. Because his show is also illegal theater: the University of the South is threatening to sue.

Now, there's a tiny glimmer of hope for this show, which is that (unlike Architecting) there's an argument that Blanche DuBois... falls under the fair use rights accorded to parody. I have a feeling that's an uphill battle.

And this is a classic example of what I talked about in my first post on How Copyright Hurts Playwrights. Tennessee Williams is one of the big, canonical writers of the 20th Century. And his estate (which, apparently, is the University of the South) is holding back one of the most acclaimed new plays of the 21st. This is a play that swept awards at the Fringe Fest, and got moved to off-Broadway (a rare fate for an off-off-Broadway play).

And it is illegal.

A new generation of criminals.

How Copyright Hurts Playwrights II: Architecting

Copyright breaks my heart sometimes.

I went to P.S. 122 to see a show from a company who I'd seen before. They blew my mind. Their work was up to a new caliber. The show was Architecting, and after glowing reviews from Ben Brantley at the New York Times and anyone else you could ever imagine, it was extended. I saw the wreath of light around it, the excitement, and I noted that the reviews were not merely saying "good show." They were predicting this to be the new wave of American theater.

They were not wrong. The show captured something that is so incredibly difficult to capture. The company is called "Theater of the Emerging American Moment," and I have to say, they did exactly that. They captured the new American Moment. The one of my generation. The George W. Bush world, but in a way that spoke overtly about the present but tied itself into the historical past and the universal future. It spoke specifically about Hurricane Katrina but it was about destruction and rebuilding, about memorials, about destroyed communities. The ravaged South, the Hurricane country, the post-Suburban world.

What a shame that the whole thing was illegal.

Yes! Illegal theater! Banned theater! Theater which, under the law, is not to be done! I was even afraid to name the company involved, afraid to name the theater that is housing them, for fear that the lawyers will swoop in and crush them before the end of their run (February 15th--catch it before then!).

Now, I know what you're thinking. I went to the Czech Republic to hear stories of actually banned theater--Vaclav Havel's plays, or Belarus Free Theater. And of course, the people who are doing this theater have no fear of arrest. They won't find themselves on a 1930s era blacklist.

But it doesn't change that what these people are doing is illegal.

They're pirates. Copyright infringers. The people who make the RIAA sad. Because their work, which taps into historical American moments. Including an iconic historical book. Gone with the Wind.

Woah slow down, man! Did they pay for that Gone With The Wind? Did they get the approval of the estate of the writer?

Well, would the estate of the writer have granted it, even if TEAM had the money to option the stage rights? (any rights on one of America's most iconic classics are an arm and a leg--after all, a Broadway producer might be able to create a full run on Broadway with a classic adaptation of the play) Probably not. It has some very specific and harsh criticisms of the author, the book, the movie. Nothing slanderous, but... well, unless you're a very openminded individual (and not an estate of a dead individual), you might think twice about risking people taking away very strong messages against you.

But whatever the reason, this theater was illegal. It won't go into the historic canon, because there's a very low chance that it'll get published. Plays that only live in performance only live in the minds of the people that saw it, and in reviews that no one reads. Shakespeare is the first great English Playwright partly because he's the first published English Playwright. We remember him today because we still have his words.

This is why copyright breaks my heart. It is unfair that a book written about seventy years ago should force the most amazing play I've seen in the last year to be illegal. It simply breaks my heart.

I am reminded of something that Lawrence Lessig, one of my heroes, says (he's not the only one, and probably not the first, but I got it from him): we've criminalized a generation of kids. At the time, I thought he meant a generation in which music and movie piracy was the norm. But no. He's talking about the future artist/creators, who are growing up in an age where all of the artistic influence is already owned, where an entire century of American Experience is difficult to reference.

To talk about the southern experience without discussing Gone With The Wind would be as difficult as discussing American Government without discussing the Constitution. It's necessary for the cultural dialogue. That's why copyright should only last 7 years, or 7+7 if it's still profitable after the first 7. But 95 years? 95 + life? That's an entire century.

And as I discussed in the previous post, it drives this generation to look further into the past, to try and renovate the old plays--like the illegal theaters of Eastern Europe performing works of Shakespeare because the Bard gave cover for rebellious theater (read Dogg's Hamlet/Cahout's Macbeth by Tom Stoppard to see what I mean). Or they simply break the law, like TEAM did, like I have done in my theater.

And, being illegal, they may vanish forever rather than be preserved. It breaks my heart.

Soviet Satellites And Their Military Force

One of those undiscussed morsels of news: apparently the former soviet Satellites are forming a new version of the Warsaw Pact. A joint security pact centered in Moscow. This on the heels of Kyrgyzstan's ousting of America's base, but also not long after Russia's invasion of Georgia.

It is, of course, merely Kreminology to speculate on what's going on. But ah, speculation is unfortunately what I'm here for. I would say that Putin has come up with a new way to extend control deeper into its neighboring countries. The mission to "combat terrorism" is what's interesting. Obviously, uprising against the authoritarian governments of Russia and its neighbors (none of the nations involved have a very good track record with democracy themselves) would be terrorism, and thus Putin has carte blanche to combat them directly with his own troops in neighboring nations. And if a government goes off the rails, he can intercede, citing terrorist-sponsoring nations.

Putin's greatest talent has been figuring out how to use former President George W. Bush's stances and policies for his own benefit. Putin has finally figured out how to combine the West's "War on Terror" with the old Warsaw Pact to be able to extend control into his neighbors autonomy.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Obaminet: Daschle

I didn't really like Daschle when he was a Senate Majority (and then Minority) leader, but I was looking forward to his presence in the Obaminet. Then tax issues were raised--which really put him on par with Timothy Geithner, and I didn't think it would derail it. But then his speaking engagements began to be an issue, and I was torn. I still believe he would have been the best man for the job of creating health care, but as Matthew Yglesias pointed out, it would have pitted Obama's promise of health care against Obama's promise to clean up Washington. And as Lawrence Lessig points out in his Change Congress campaign, it is not enough to get rid of undue influence--we must also clean out the appearance of undue influence. Whether or not Daschle actually made different positions due to his speaking engagements is not the issue--it is bad enough that such implications could exist. Government is to be structured without trust.

I wish Obama was stricter about not putting forward these candidates with taint in the first place, but he hasn't been attempting to shield them (although it sounds like if Daschle hadn't withdrawn he would have defended him). Careful, President Obama.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Coyne Defends Dawkins; I Dissent

Jeff Coyne on the attempt to reconcile science and religion.

Andrew Sullivan picks Coyne's the money quote:

[S]ome theologians with a deistic bent seem to think that they speak for all the faithful. These were the critics who denounced Dawkins and his colleagues for not grappling with every subtle theological argument for the existence of God, for not steeping themselves in the complex history of theology. Dawkins in particular was attacked for writing The God Delusion as a "middlebrow" book. But that misses the point. He did indeed produce a middlebrow book, but precisely because he was discussing religion as it is lived and practiced by real people. The reason that many liberal theologians see religion and evolution as harmonious is that they espouse a theology not only alien but unrecognizable as religion to most Americans.

Jeff Coyne is correct in stating that Richard Dawkins and other New Athiests write "middle-brow" books because of the common, uncultured religion (if you see Bill Maher's movie Religulous you'll see what sort of religious people are really the target). But those who argue on behalf of a more cultured, philosophical, "high-brow" religion are not arguing in vain. You see, if Dawkins was targeting only fundamentalists, or only the ignorant religious, or only a specific segment of religion, then Coyne's objection would be an adequate defense.

But in my readings of Dawkins (this is actually more true of Hitchens but still seems true of Dawkins) it seems to me that for Dawkins, religion is inherently destructive; that religion is always delusional, that it always fosters hatred and dischord. And if they are trying to argue that all religion is damaging, hateful, etc., then they will have to come to grips with the fact that there are some very smart, reasoned, subtle, liberal traditions of religion as well. Otherwise, what Dawkins is arguing against when he targets religion and religious education is not stupidity, closemindedness, and bigotry inherent in religion, but stupidity, closemindedness, and bigotry that is attached to religion by the human beings who interpret it. The same stupidity, closemindedness, and bigotry that can manifest itself in nationalism (again: Obama's nationalism is not the same as Bush's nationalism) or even economic theory (as Communism/Capitalism proved).

Either Dawkins is targeting religion as a whole, and therefore needs to defend his argument against the intellectual elite of religion, or else he is only targeting ignorant religion, and therefore the burden of proof lies on him to prove that it is religion, and not ignorance.

(I'll quote it again, from Albert Camus:)

The narrator is inclined to think that by attributing overimportance to the praiseworthy actions one may, by implication, be paying indirect but potent homage to the worse side of human nature. For this attitude implies that such actions shine out as rare exceptions, while callousness and apathy and the general rule. The narrator does not share this view. The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn't the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clearsightedness.

How Copyright Hurts Playwrights

I noticed, of late, that it seemed that the Greek playwrights (Sophocles and Euripedes mostly) were making a comeback. I know several friends who now love the Greeks and make it their area of focus. I wondered about that--why in this moment, when we have more writers than ever before, people are looking at plays that are increasingly dated for inspiration. Now, don't get me wrong--they're just as relevant and applicable, and there's no reason why they can't be the right choice--but I wondered why it feels like there's more and more.

I noticed, of late, that it seemed like Ibsen was making a comeback. Hedda Gabbler and Doll's House feel like they're everywhere. Again--no reason why not, but I wondered. Why Hedda Gabler. Why Doll's House.

And then I noticed it about Chekov. There's a high-profile Cherry Orchard and a high-profile Uncle Vanya.

I don't have a lot of statistics in front of me. I wish I could look up and see whether it's true that there's more Chekov, more Ibsen, and more Greek playwrights. More Shakespeare. Maybe even more Gertrude Stein.

Because if so, there's a very simple reason why this would be. Those playwrights are free--they're in the Public Domain.

It's not just about the fees, the royalties, the tracking down of estates. It's also the artistic direction that is becoming more and more a part of running an estate.

A few friends of mine attempted to put on a production of a big musical in which all the characters would be male. The playwright found out, and threatened to sue our school, and was only mollified with a letter of apology. Another playwright was in a similar situation, but no letter of apology would mollify him: only an instant pledge not to produce the play. Students find playwrights like Albee, Beckett, Sondheim, etc. off-limits, unless they can assure the playwrights that the production will be exact.

I go to the Experimental Theater Wing. Our job is to experiment. But for playwrights like Albee, Beckett, Sondheim, and others, there is no room for experimentation. If I want to take an established play and, well, play around with it, I have to go to the classics.

Eventually, many student directors and ensembles realize that it's simply not worth it. The struggle of getting a play that's in copyright onto the stage, fighting with the playwright's intentions, fighting to be able to play around with a text, is not worth it. And why should we, when we can do whatever we want with with Ibsen, Shakespeare, or Gertrude Stein?

There are some playwrights out there who aren't as fanatical as Albee, Beckett, or Sondheim about controlling the artistic production of their plays--who see the responsibility of the production being good as being of the people producing the play--but they wind up being hurt as well. Because we stop looking to fight with them.

It's a pity. But I think the director/ensemble needs leeway to try crazy things, to experiment with a play. Perhaps it's different for a first production, but when you have a play that's already out there? Why control the way the director interprets it? Interpretations reflect on the director, not on the playwright.