Friday, November 27, 2009

Solutions V: Swerve + Collaboration

A while back, I decided to keep a list of arts solutions, different approaches people could take to reforming the arts. Very few of them are ideas I thought of myself--mostly, they're ideas I've seen that I think of as repeatable. Today, as I recover from an AMAZING meal at my brother's fiance's family, I'll add two more that I've thought of recently, and repost the list for the benefit of anyone who missed them the first time around.

Here's the two new ones--new to my list:

  • Swerve - When people travel from point A to point B, if they see something along the way that might have something they were looking for at point B, they'll swerve out of their way to see it. That's the principle behind malls, or areas like the Flower District. Arts organizations can do that themselves by ganging together and attracting interest in a group. Broadway is an example of that, but my favorite in the entire world is Fourth Arts Block.
  • Collaborator Subscription - What I've discovered in my arts training is this: many people feel a much stronger connection to a work if they've been connected to the art along its entire lifespan, rather than just at the moment of its presentation. There's a personal connection in watching an artist learn and practice, especially if you're in conversation with the artist the entire time. So why not offer, aside from one-off tickets or a subscription, something like a Collaborator Subscription: an interested audience member can pay a certain yearly fee, and then they have access not just to any performance, but to any rehearsal, workshop, etc. and they are entitled to give feedback like any professional who would be sitting in your rehearsal. It gives them a personal investment in your work, and you get some good audience-feedback before the big day.
And here are the old ones:

  • Soup-To-Nuts - Rather than approaching the cultural environment in a one-off fashion, approach cultural environment as a whole. This is difficult, and is one of the reasons people are working on developing a quantitative approach to arts cultures... Richard Florida's early work suggests a direction, but doesn't provide the answers yet. One example might be the Knight Foundation's Magic of Music Initiative.
  • Baby Conservatory - The Harlem's Children Zone is probably the current Overachieving Nonprofit du jour, but they're exploiting a very important principle in their Baby College approach to education: children are most influenced between the years 0-3. That may go for economic success, but I bet it works for the arts too. And that means we need a conveyor belt that tracks a child's artistic development, so that by the time they graduate, they have an artistic literacy. In some way, trying to "expand your audience" of 20 year olds is probably far, far too late.
  • Involving Social Bigwigs - At the League of Independent Theater's Get Lit with LIT event, the New York State Council of the Arts' Director of Theater Robert Zuckerman (a good person to know) talked about strategies for getting politicians to notice what we do. He talked about a group in the Bronx (I can't remember their names -- sorry!) that have a Politicians' Amateur Night, basically a talent show for politicians. No matter how terrible the politicians are, it gets them visibly involved in arts--and Zuckerman observed that it also gets their lobbyist friends butts in the seats. Stemming from that, I would suggest that arts groups try to get comp tickets into the hands of politicos and maybe other important social heads. After all, there's no better "application" for support than having them enjoy your work.
  • Instant Reviews - The post that used the phrase Guyyedwabian was actually about a South African group's attempt to start conversation in the immediate aftermath of a performance. Basically, they attended the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, and afterwards tried to engage the exiting audience in a review directly after the performance. The concept is outlined here, and an informative post-mortem is outlined here. (By the way, does your organization perform post-project post-mortems? You really should.)
  • The Less than 100k Project - Built to address the NY-centrism of the theater world (although the principle could apply to any art discipline), Scott Walters is developing a funding approach to cultivate community arts in small communities. The thrust of the idea is to allow theater groups in small communities that lack theaters to apply for a 3 year developmental process that will eventually wean them into independence.
  • Community Storytelling - A conversation I had with Scott about the aforementioned project asked "how do we make such a community theater actually part of the community?" My suggestion was that the theater focus on the stories and history within the community--go into the community, collect their stories, and present them. This invests the community in the product, and serves a needed social function. This idea was inspired by StoryCorps, the Laramie Project, and Anna Devere Smith's work, but as Scott pointed out, rather than having the stories leave the community (such as the way StoryCorps deposits the stories in the Library of Congress), the stories become a part of the community. Not everyone understands what "theater" is or could be, but everyone loves sharing stories.
  • Shared Measurement - The company I currently work for specializes in standardizing business processes for Information Techonology companies. As the aforementioned FSG report documents, there is a rise in non-profits standardizing their tools of self-analysis, and sharing the results. In the same way that these metrics allow the for-profit world to study impact, non-profits need to have a more methodical approach to their role in society, both instrumental and intrinsic. My personal belief is that public policy needs to take this up rather than trying to match the foundation's per-project or per-organization funding model... but more on that when my analysis comes out.
  • Healthcare Reform - We all want Healthcare Reform for a bigger, more universal reason than just the plight of artists. However, the current employer-based healthcare system discriminates against two groups: the unemployed, and free-lancers. Artists are, often, free-lancers (as opposed to the Arts Administrators who are often full-time employees). If a public option for healthcare were to support artists, it would ease the burden of artists attempting to support their healthcare--and might ease the bottom-line of small non-profits that have to spend a lot on healthcare for their employees. It might even help heal the divide between Administrators and Artists.
  • Creativity Education - The current arts education approach has been, in my experience, a largely instrumental one: music training, for instance, teaches you how to play an instrument, not how to listen to music or how to write music. This is a large failing in the arts, because it tells people that art = craft, not art = creativity. Granted, as Theresa Rebeck rightly points out in her discussion on the topic, these two concepts are not mutually opposed. However, our early arts education stresses craft and ignores creativity, which probably creates the anti-craft backlash later on. Augusto Boal describes some very interesting approaches to what he called "Arts Literacy" that were attempted in Peru at the time--my favorite was where he talks about asking children questions and asking them to answer the questions in photographs. One question was "Where do you live?" and the answer was a photograph of a young boy whose upper lip was chewed off by rats. The teacher asked "How is that photo 'where you live?'" And the boy answered "I live in a country where these things happen." A much better understanding of art than learning how to draw a human face properly.
  • Showcase Code - Create an easier and fairer showcase code to let independent theaters reap the successes of popular showcase codes without having a gigantic step up in costs. Also, allow recording of performances for non-commercial purposes.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Criticism: The Arbitrary Choice

Matthew Freeman at On Theater and Politics has been returning to the "On Theater" of his "On Theater and Politics" after a while of being, understandably, excited/disturbed about the "On Politics" half of his mission statement. Today's post was a short but interesting one:
You're watching a traditional play about something like politics. A politician is meeting with a journalist off-the record. The journalist agrees to call the prominent politician a "well positioned source" and commits to anonymity otherwise. Then, slowly it becomes clear that there's more than just fund-raising shenanigans involved in this story. This political champion appears to have done some truly terrible things.

Throughout the fun little scene, the actor playing the journalist keeps clicking her pen. It's looks like a nervous gesture at first, but the longer you watch, the more you realize it seems almost like a...signal? Or even something deeper. The actor is making a point of the pen's importance in the scene perhaps. You notice, with the clicks, what is written down and what, pointedly, is not.

What you don't know is why this is actually happening. Is it because the director believes that the pen of a journalist is symbolic of something or other? Or, did the director just say... "You know what would look cool? Click the pen. I dunno. Click it after each third word that you say."

Is it possible that an arbitrary decision by the creative team and a decision with some complex thought behind it...can look exactly the same? And does it make a difference, really, to the audience member? Does how a decision is arrived at inform what we see?

Can we sense the arbitrary? Or do we just assume that everything we see onstage was put there with a rigorous sense of purpose?

I've heard this come up a lot whenever there's analysis going on. We ask a lot, whether it's a book of poetry or a political speech or a theater play--what in here is what the creator intended, and what is a byproduct of the creation? (I suddenly want to take that as an analysis of the Bible... I wonder if anyone has ever looked at creation that way.... anyways...)

I'm also going to skate right on by the question of who made the decision. Did the Director say "Hey it'd be cool if you clicked your pen," or did the Playwright have a vivid image in his mind of the pen going click-click-click or was the Actor sitting with the script going "Holy Hell what am I going to be doing during this scene?"

One of my friends, who did an excellent production of Ibsen's A Doll's House, is one of the few people who is comfortable acknowledging how much of his direction he discovers through trust in the arbitrary. It's difficult for me to explain how, when he makes arbitrary decisions, it somehow pays off--he usually finds a way to very clearly relate it into everything that's going on, but if you tried to consciously tackle why one choice worked and another one did, you might have trouble.

If you buy a choice, you can explain why the director was being brilliant in that moment. If you don't buy a choice, you probably won't be able to defend it.

Once the artist's intentions become fixed in the work of art, the work of art is all we have to go by. It's not just about arbitrary vs. deliberate; it's also racist vs. understanding of race, reductionist vs. minimalist--any interpretation is drawn from the audience from the work regardless of the artist's intention.

The job of the artist is not to make brilliant choices in every moment. They should try, but it doesn't particularly matter to me whether or not they "meant" to do X or Y. A work of art is successful when it gives you room to create more, to expand. Whatever was the original intention of the work, a vibrant work sparks new ideas out of the audience, not just the transmission of original ideas.

For example. Take the Old Testament. When The Old Testament was written, did they imagine the creation of a New Testament? The Kaballah? The Hagadah? The Koran? The King James Bible? King James' Daemonology? Paradise Lost? Dante's Inferno? The Screwtape Letters? The Chronicles of Narnia?

In other words, the arbitrariness or deliberateness of individual moments really doesn't wind up being that important. If a choice doesn't work that's a different story--it doesn't matter if the choice doesn't work because the director didn't fix something, or doesn't work because the director made a deliberate mistake.

But to Matthew's last question: I don't think we can sense whether any individual choice was arbitrary or deliberate, but I think we can often get a sense of the show overall--if the show is a grab-bag of strange and hit-and-miss choices that don't seem to have patterns, we can safely assume that a lot of it was arbitrary (this is good shows as well as bad shows--The Lily's Revenge is doing quite well, and it seems to me to have so many arbitrary choices, most of which were AMAZING). And if the entire show works together like a well-oiled machine (like TEAM's Architecting or the work of Elevator Repair Service) then you can be confident in saying that the choices are very deliberate.


People are floating a lot of names for 2012. Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee. There isn't a lot of impact behind any of the names -- I happen to think Mitt Romney is going to emerge the victor as the conservative base splits amongst Palin and Huckabee.


This week there's been rumors about a Lou Dobbs run, and there's also this week Glenn Beck's continuing his 9/12 Project insanity by becoming a "Community Organizer" (har har it's so meta). If these folks enter the race, I'm willing to put all my money behind Lou Dobbs being the Republican Candidate. He comes across more genuine than Romney, smarter than Palin, more memorable than Pawlenty, more marketable than Huckabee, and more stable than Beck. He's still a very solid conservative without getting trapped in too many of the excessive crazy that all of the other candidates have on the record (except Pawlenty -- Palin's desire to be rid of witches, Romney's "double Guantanamo", Huckabee's HIV-Positive quarantine camps, and basically everything Glenn Beck says). Lou Dobbs can appear on The Daily Show or MSNBC and still be treated with a respect that very few of the other candidates can still muster.

I'm not going to make any forecasts until a year before the primaries, since I love forecasting and I love being wrong. But I will say that having to watch a Dobbs-Beck debate moderated by Brit Hume is the sort of thing that makes me think the Mayan Calendar thing might be right...

Conversation II: Feedback

This week, my company held a workshop production of a new movement work called Syzygy. Because the piece was a workshop, we held feedback sessions after each. Rather than being an artist-directed Q+A, it was a great experience of directing questions toward the audience and hearing surprisingly cogent, helpful feedback on design elements and movement choices.

But I started wondering about something, probably because I've been working on a report on The Search for Shining Eyes. That report includes an analysis of the research conducted by Audience Insight LLC about Americans' relationships to classical music. Specifically, the research was an in-depth look not at the audience that attends orchestra evenings, but at the audience that doesn't.

How do we reach the people who aren't coming to see our events without a market research staff behind our backs? Or even, how do we entice those who come to our shows and then sneak away. Our group has a Facebook Page and a twitter feed, and we always ask for feedback/reactions/discussion. Nobody does. Our Facebook page has the potential to be a conversation between our company and our audience, and I don't think it isn't happening because we aren't there--the moment we could get even one response to talk we'd have a discussion going. Instead, our Facebook is just another RSS feed to help you find out about events.

I'm going to keep stewing on this one. It seems very important. After all, we blab about "community" and etc. but if we can't get our audience to talk to us, then unless we pin them down and force them to speak we might lose opportunities to connect.

Monday, November 23, 2009


I was going to write a post about the concept of the "swerve" (I'll probably explain it soon) and I looked on Amazon to see if I remembered correctly that the was a book called "Swerve" (There apparently isn't -- I must be confusing it with Nudge).

Take a look at the search results. This, by the way, is for "Books - Nonfiction".

In case the results change, let me tell you that for the word "Swerve," the fourth most relevant ranked book is Going Rogue by Sarah Palin. The fifth? Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Conversation: Motives

99seats, who I sometimes disagree with but always appreciate listening to, has a post up about the quality of conversation in the theaterblogosphere, which mainly has to do with motives. Money quote:
When Theresa Rebeck writes about the lack of solid structure she sees in young playwrights, the conversation revolves around how it's really about why her plays aren't being well-received or something. When Roland Tec(o) accuses the O'Neill of being a rigged game, it's really about jealousy and sour grapes. When the O'Neill responds, it's really about covering their ass. When I write about the representation of black playwrights, it's really just a plea for more attention. Everyone's motives are questionable and we basically believe the absolute worst of each other. I'd say it's just out here in the blogosphere, but we all know how it is when we meet in the lobby, at the bar after the show, three blocks away from the theatre. (And that's even more gossip, isn't it?) The default is to not take anyone at face value. How do we build communities like that?
The conversation sparked by that piece was responded to by Isaac Butler here (basically, that the motives he's suspicious of are the motives of successful people, and usually he's not a suspicious guy) and by Spencer Ackerman here, who asks:

Would I have opened both barrels on a piece like that if a friend of mine hadn’t written it?

Well, in all honesty, probably, yeah. But that shouldn’t make me beat up on my friend. It should give me pause for when I go all-out on people who aren’t my friend. There should be one rigorous standard — no euphemism, no pulled punches, no intellectual sloppiness, but no unfairness either. Doesn’t mean I have to treat bad-faith arguments as good-faith ones, nor does it mean this blog can’t have fun. It certainly doesn’t mean this blog can’t have friends.

This is another reason I've not been happy about David Cote's "call to arms" for us to engage and enrage. When I look back at the blogosphere as I've been reading it, I haven't seen a reluctance for theater bloggers to spat over the things they feel like spatting over. I've seen all sorts of aspersions cast on the motives or standing of other bloggers--the insults I've seen thrown from Leonard Jacobs towards Isaac Butler or from just about anybody towards George Hunka haven't, in my opinion, served the conversation of theater much at all.

For me, it seems unproductive to question's people's motives when they make statements. For instance, in the example 99seats uses, Theresea Rebeck may be making her comments on the structure of plays because this is her personal belief, or because of her stature as a playwright. Does it matter? When it all boils down to it, even if she has the most corrupt reasoning in the world, if we can't dispute her points on their own weaknesses, then she is correct. If we can't find a cogent and persuasive counter-argument to her points about the structure of plays, then she is correct. If we can, then perhaps she is not. That's the "one rigorous standard" that Ackerman should be applying. That's something we can say to friends, right? "I love you, I respect you, but that last argument you just made has some faults in it."

This is one of the reasons the health-care debate has gone so awry. The Republicans are not debating the plan on its merits. They're simply railing about the "motives" behind the Obama administration. Why? Because it's so much easier! They don't have to make any substantive claims, or battle the Democrats in a forum where winning or losing is left up to the audience. They want to control the debate, so they aim for motives.

Now, I'm not saying we need to pretend that there are no motives. After all, sometimes motives can be part of the argument--if someone is interested in making profit and therefore their prescription for theater is profit-based, and you think that the prescription for theater shouldn't be profit based, then that's a legitimate debate about motives. It's very important to know what people's motives and biases are, as best as you can read them. That's why, for instance, I personally would prefer 99Seats not to be an anonymous blogger (although I can understand why he feels it to be necessary). It would help me understand where he's coming from.

But any argument can be reduced to its motives. If we didn't have motives, why would we speak? The argument itself, however, stands on its own. You can either engage it or ignore it. To fall back to character attacks rather than tackling the argument as put forward itself is not helpful. Liberals failed when they characterized Cheney as evil. When they stick to the rule of law, the systemic demonstration of how and where the law was violated, they can succeed.

In our own private domain, do we weigh other people's opinions based on our perspective on their motives? Sure. When I see a Ben Brantley review of a Richard Foreman piece, I can't help but think that he wants to feel "cool" and "with it" without really understanding the substance of the show at all, and when I see him cooing over a Broadway starlet I roll my eyes. But I still do read his reviews, because in context of his biases I do still often get something out of what he's saying. In fact, that's the power of Critic-o-meter, is that I can get a spread of different biases and imperfect reviews, get a senses to where they disagree and agree, and get a whole opinion.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Grassroots + Power IV: Corruption

I promised I'd get back to my thoughts about the relationship between the grassroots and power, which I started here and continued here and here. The point of those posts were to debunk anonymous comments of an extremely negative tone related to my approval of the 9/11 Day of Service collaboration between Americans for the Arts and (and, extremely indirectly, the National Endowment of the Arts).

To get onto the subject, I saw an article about Disney and the New Orleans Museum of Art from Real Clear Arts that was really a good look at the relationship between artists and corporate entities. The article takes a stance against their upcoming exhibit on the art of Disney animation. The heart of the allegation is here:

According to The Times-Picayune, "Lella Smith, the creative director of Disney's Animation Research Library...selected the art for the exhibit..."

And that was because? NOMA has no curators? (I see several listed on the website.)

NOMA appears to have suspended any critical involvement in the presentation of the exhibit, meaning that it really is a Disney exhibit, physically located in a museum. Will NOMA profit by it? Probably.

It reminded me of Lawrence Lessig's lecture on corruption (which if you haven't seen it, is here). One of the core points in Lessig's lecture is that the appearance of corruption to an institution can be as damaging to the institution as the existence of corruption itself.

So, say for instance, NOMA agreed to allow a Disney executive to curate the exhibit because, I don't know, she's a former NOMA curator herself, and they have a relationship bond that assures them that even though she works for a for-profit company, she'll select the right art for NOMA's exhibit while also satisfying her job for Disney. NOMA could stand by that, insist that although the appearance is corrupt, it isn't. It wouldn't matter. NOMA is an organization for the community, presumably (the first phrase on their website is "Your New Orleans Museum of Art"), so if they're trading their legitimacy even on the belief that their exhibit will be better, they're eroding their ability to reach out to their own audience.

So back to the 9/11 Day of Service. Some questions about the impact of collaborating with about the nature of the collaboration:

  1. To what degree does the government exert power over the grassroots? None at all. The government cannot force any decisions or choices on the grassroots organization.
  2. To what degree does the grassroots organization suspend its critical faculty? None explicitly. No leadership positions are replaced or made subordinate to government leadership (as opposed to NOMA allowing Disney to curate). It may be that starry-eyed liberal artists swallow Obama administration lines because of their belief in Obama's propaganda, and thus are suspending their critical faculties, but that's either happening already or it's not going to happen. Certainly, liberals are capable of criticizing the president. Obviously others aren't. But that has nothing to do with the 9/11 Day of Service.
  3. To what degree does the government influence the grassroots? Clearly, there is some minor degree of influence. The government is trying to maximize the impact of certain organizations it finds beneficial, and it will not exert that influence on organizations it doesn't want to be associated with. An artistic needle exchange project--I don't know, one that collects used needles from drug addicts for use in an art project and gives drug addicts clean needles--will probably not ever appear on Then again, that project probably won't find much private support either. It sounds like a bad idea. In a way, the government is really only competing in the free market, albeit the free not-for-profit market. The tools it is using are tools that a private foundation could use: a small amount of resources, a cloak of legitimacy, centralized promotion. FringeNYC uses the same tools.
  4. To what degree does the impression of corrupt influence exist? This is a much more complicated question, because it brings in the notion of an organization's audience. If your organization has a mission statement that says something like "Our purpose is to stand up to the power structures that be, to speak truth to power..." then you should not be working with But then again, you probably wouldn't be, and no one will make you. Remember that the 9/11 Day of Service is in the more limited realm of artistic community service organizations. It is typically thoroughly expected that an artistic community service organization would be working with government leaders to help organize their efforts, because their mission statements are aligned and the above questions can be easily answered with satisfaction.

    Now, I have seen productions that have failed this. For instance, one of my favorite theater companies, Witness Relocation, did a Passover show with a sizable grant from a Jewish organization (I wanted to look up the details but it's not in the "Shows" section of their website). I saw the show, and my first impression was, "Wow, they made this show because they could get money for it." It didn't seem to me that they knew why they wanted to do a show about Passover. The show failed, and it took a little bit of its legitimacy away. If I hadn't seen the show right before that, Bluebird (which also is not on the "Shows" section of their website), I might have written them off has having little-to-no integrity. Bluebird was an excellent show, and it felt like it was needed--even though it too had a cultural grant behind it (if I remember the information correctly).
So what I'm realizing is that a corrupt power relationship between a grassroots organization and a power organization is where:
  • The power organization (government or private) can exert power over the grassroots without the grassroots being able to defend against it
  • The grassroots organization cedes critical faculty or self-control to the power organization
  • The power organization exerts too much indirect influence over the grassroots organization
  • The two organizations have dissonance in their missions and/or audiences
Obviously, corruption is a sliding scale, and not all of these elements have to be present for corruption to begin. But if you're about to collaborate with a power organization, then those are the four points you should test your relationship by.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Americans for the Arts + Emerging Arts Leaders

Hi everyone,

As you may know, the incomparable Ian Moss over at Createquity (which I have and will continue to contributed to) is one of the sharpest arts policy bloggers on the blogosphere. For instance, his updates on arts councils fundings is required reading for those of us who actually want to know what's going on in the arts community.

Well, Americans for the Arts is holding an election for an Emerging Leaders Council, and Ian Moss is on the ballot. If you're an Americans for the Arts member (which at the moment, I am not, although I plan to be when I get the chance), you should go here and vote. Even if you decide not to vote for Ian, go make your voice heard.

By the way, the concept of "emerging arts leaders" is being talked about so often everywhere that it kind of feels like a trope at this point. I kind of like that. Kudos to Americans for the Arts for making them a key part of the discussion.

"What Is Art": Fixation in Art

So, there's that ugly question there, "What is art." Somehow, any time I hear that question, I instinctively flinch. For a while, I believed that art was an irrelevant label--people can decide for themselves how an act or an object impacts them.

Earlier this week, however, a classmate of mine showed us something in self-scripting that led to a pretty incisive discussion on what's appropriate to present to an audience. It wouldn't be appropriate for me to say what it was, but suffice it to say that it was a powerful and disturbing moment.

My self-scripting teacher started a discussion with the question "What is art" (which I hated) but then asked, "What does it do to relive such a moment? Why make an audience go through that sort of a moment? It's a powerful moment, but I wonder what the use is to watch it again and again."

That was on my mind when I saw this video:

I was with it with the first half. It's a really truly moving moment, there's no question about it. One of those few things that really warms your heart.

And then it is replayed again in slow motion.

For some reason, when I saw it again in slow motion, my stomach turned. Why were we watching this moment again? The moment, when stripped away of its spontaneity, suddenly became disturbing because the expression on the child's face is not one of joy, it is one of pain. We're watching a child dissolve into tears. When I see that child's face, I'm not thinking about his father being home, I'm thinking about all the pain that child has been carrying for not having his father there.

Then it suddenly struck me: who was filming this? My first thought was, oh, it was the soldier's wife or something. But if you look past the soldier, you see two different people taking flash photos. The moment feels staged. And that's what's somewhat disturbing about this.

Right after that, I saw a video of Susan Boyle singing on Dancing on the Stars. Now, I was one of those people who was deeply moved by that original moment when it happened. And I saw it more than once. But then I watched her singing the same song in a completely different context--noticing how much less the song moved me when it wasn't tearing out of her with the same passionate need--and I wondered why everyone was getting so excited.

The problem is this desperate need to relive highs. I think our culture is very good at that. When we have the memory of a joy, we want to relieve that joy--that same exact joy in the same exact way. Rather than learning from the Susan Boyle incident that there's surprising beauty in everyone, we instead clamor to hear from her again and again and again.

Now, I'm certainly guilty of this myself. I had such a cathartic experience at The Lily's Revenge that, the next day, I bought tickets to go again. Will it be the same? I don't know. I do hope I am moved to the same degree again. I have watched the movie I Heart Huckabees more times than I'd like to admit. I listened to the song In The Waiting Line after seeing the movie Garden State probably hundreds of times. After the Gnarls Barkley concert I went to, I listened to the music with increased zeal.

I'm not sure exactly what has become so troubling to me about the repetition of moments. I suppose repeating positive moments has less wrong with it. But watching a child run into his father's arms, collapsing into tears of pain, over and over again... I feel like that's the problem.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Quote of the Day

"You know that it's stealing when you don't give anything back."

One of my teachers said that. It doesn't need the words "transformative use" to make sense.

The Future of Culture V: War Memorial II

A brief note to append to my last post, about War Memorials: I was rather struck and flabbergasted by the idea that the steel from the World Trade Center was melted down and fashioned into the USS New York.

It's odd -- in the 21st Century, it seems like in general people tend to be bored with metaphor or allegory. There's one huge exception to all this, though, which is the military realm. The military tradition, with its poetic traditions towards the flag and memorials--the 21 gun salute, the language of patches and flags, etc. There's a clear need for this language of metaphor: war is one of the largest, most consuming, tearing experiences, and this intricate dance of metaphors creates a container in which we can place and understand this experience.

When we consumed war, culturally, we didn't used to consume it directly. We consumed war stories, tales of great adventure. Then, again around World War I, something changed. We started reading real short stories, about real soldiers. All Quiet on the Western Front and Heart of Darkness. Real fear, real agony, and a shocking lack of conventional morality--courage, morality and honor, which underpinned the metaphors we had previously relied on in our war stories. When Vietnam came around the cultural war was being fought between the ideological, metaphorical frames ("containment" and "police action" and "national determination") and this new, literal view of war--live coverage.

Which is a better memorial to Vietnam -- the Vietnam memorial, or the infamous photos of brutality in the field?

To return to where I started, we still haven't made that 9/11 memorial here in New York City. In a way, the USS New York is one of our first drafts of our attempts at memorial. Oliver Stone's World Trade Center is another early draft. Stone tries to place 9/11 firmly into the "heroism of man" camp (see also: Shaara's Killer Angels for Civil War). The USS New York invokes the phoenix myth (see also: Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars).

My two favorite memorials to the World Trade Center are both unintentional artifacts. The first, at left, is Fritz Koenig's The Sphere, which is now in Battery Park--it's a sculpture of a whole golden globe, which used to sit in the midst of the Trade Center plaza, symbolizing the globalization of wealth. Which is a pretty empty symbol, to me--simplistic, hearkening back to "In America the streets are paved with gold." On the day of the disaster, rubble fell onto the Sphere, punching holes into it, revealing it to be hollow (if you look at the pre-9/11 photos, it certainly looks solid). There, you have both sides of the equation--the whole golden globe, representing the unity of the world both in globalization and in the aftermath of the disaster, and the holes knocked into it by those who were in the gaps of that golden globe, countries like Afghanistan that were left behind. They were gaps in the globe before, but because we ignored them (pretended that they were part of it), they lashed out and knocked their own hole in the globe.

The other memorial, for me, is the Cortlandt Street subway station on the NQRW line. I sometimes ride past there on my way to Prospect Park. It's a ghost station, still lit, still visible, the name is still there, but with no people. And interestingly, on the digital stop-by-stop display, they still display CORTLANDT STREET - WILL NOT STOP. It would be so easy for them to not display that, and yet they leave it there. In a quiet way, they're saying, "There used to be something there. Now it's gone." It's the Pompeii version of memorial. Quiet and empty.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Future of Culture IV: War Memorial

In the Radiolab episode "New Normal" that I talked about in the last Future of Culture installment, the episode began with a discussion of changing cultural attitudes toward war. Specifically, it was about a man who was surveying people about whether they thought war would ever end, whether there would ever be World Peace. He says that in the early 1980s, the answer was overwhelmingly "Yes." And today, the answer is overwhelmingly "No."

This seems indicative of the modern cynicism about everything (although the early 1980s still exists in that post-Nixon, post-Vietnam era that I at least consider the modern cynical age), but what's interesting to me is that this mindset flies in the face of certain evidence.

Actually, before we go on, I want to quibble about the question -- the question should be more realistically phrased as "Will we ever reach the point where wars are rare, abnormal events." In other words, I don't know if we'll ever reach that asymptotic event, but I do think it is an asymptote--I think we will get closer and closer to having "no" wars.

Somewhere between 1900 and 2000, war left the cultural norm in Europe. In 1900, war was considered a measure of strength of nations. By the end of World War One, we were praying that this war was the "war to end all wars." It wasn't until World War Two that this seemed to be achieved in Europe. Now, World War Two is not the complete end of War in Europe -- there were some near-wars, such as the Soviet invasion of Hungary and of the Czech Republic, and two genuine wars (the last genocides of the former Yugoslavia), but those were considered to be abnormal, and in the case of the latter, Europe actually interceded and brought an end to the war.

I was thinking about this for a very specific reason. This Sunday, I walked through Grand Army Plaza at Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The centerpiece of the plaza, pictured above, is the grand triumph arch, topped with what I feel comfortable in assuming is Nike, goddess of Victory. I feel comfortable in assuming this because nearly identical arches can be seen at the Brandenburg Gate, in Brussels, and throughout New England and Europe. Every one is a memorial to victory, a triumphal memory of war.

And that's what gives me hope: we don't build those arches anymore.

If you compare post-WWI memorials to pre-WWI memorials, you'll note that they suddenly become not memorials to Victory, they become memorials to loss. Lists of names or headstones. Nearly universally in Europe. It's a sudden, 180 degree shift of our cultural conversation about war.

Even if we were to win in Iraq--win in the most unequivocal terms; a stable democracy, no car bombs, Al Qaeda surrendering in one moment "on the deck of a battleship," as they say, etc.--even the most incredibly fantastical of victory scenarios--there will be no arch of triumph. We will simply erect a memory of those we have lost.

This is just one aspect of our cultural conversation about war. There's also Rush Limbaugh, and Band of Brothers, and the Medal of Honor games, and the coverage out of Iraq. But I find it interesting that what once was a common, "cultural" expression of memory of war has suddenly shifted. It gives me hope.

Weak-Sense and Strong-Sense Atheism

In response to a discussion as to whether Atheism is a scientific or a philosophical position, Jerry Coyne says:

I’ll call “weak sense atheism” the position that, I think, most atheists hold. It is this: “There is no convincing evidence for God, so I withhold belief.”...Now I don’t know anyone who is a strong-sense atheist. Even Dawkins, as I recall, is a “70% probability” man — he thinks it pretty improbable that God exists, but adds that he can’t disprove the existence of some kinds of gods. I’m pretty much on board with him. You’d be a fool to say that you know absolutely that there is no being up there at all, including one that doesn’t interfere in the workings of the universe.

So let’s take weak-sense atheism (WSA) as the default stance. In its very weakest, “no-evidence-for-God” sense, WSA is absolutely scientific. After all, what is science but the claim that one needs empirical evidence before accepting something as a reality? When one says, “I see no evidence for a god, and therefore refuse to accept his/her/its reality,” one is saying nothing different from, “I see no evidence for the view that plants have feelings, and therefore I don’t accept the idea that they do.”

Now, I really enjoy this sort of article because it sharpens my thinking about things. Before I read that, I would have said that atheism is a philosophical position. But the distinction between WSA and strong-sense atheism (SSA) is a very good one, and I agree with Coyne that WSA is scientific and SSA is philosophical.

I agree with Coyne to say that you know absolutely that there is no being up there at all (we're looking at you, Hitchens). But that doesn't mean that there aren't SSAs like me out there who believe firmly that there is no being up there.

If you ask me what I believe (and that's the key word in that sentence), I'll say that I believe that there is no God. And I do mean that in a stronger sense than "I have seen no evidence, so I withhold belief."

Recently, the author of Why Does E=MC2 And Why Should I Care? was on the Colbert Report, and he said of Einstein that there's a high likelihood that Einstein was somewhat wrong, somewhere among his theories. He also said that this was okay, because Science was the story of slowly exchanging one model for another, making the models better and better as we go along. This fits nicely in line with the philosopher at the center of my heart, William James. Our world-view is a collection of suppositions based on our experiences and our reasoning faculties.

Do I know absolutely that there is no God? No. Would it be scientific for me to assert so? No. But on a philosophical level, the world-view with which I take a look at the world around me not only doesn't include a God or gods, but doesn't have room for one.

For instance, Coyne invokes the possibility of a "god" who does not interfere with the workings of the universe. From my philosophical perspective, what does "exist" mean if you do not interfere with the workings of the universe? After all, in order to be detected, you have to leave some footprint on the universe (we can't measure existence directly, we only measure existence by effect -- light emitted, heat emitted, spaced occupied). If there's a diffuse "god" that cannot be seen, cannot be felt, and does not affect the world, in what way could he be said to exist?

And then, if you have a god or gods who do affect the world, then not only have I not seen evidence for that (with the brief exception the uncanny choice of music my iPod makes when I put it on shuffle), but there is no room for it in my current philosophical model of the world. If evidence came along, my hope is that I would be open to it, but it would take a severe reconfiguring of the world as I currently see it. I would be, in other words, grievously wrong about my core assumptions of the universe.

This is what makes me a SSA and not a WSA. I recognize that this is a philosophical position and I would never confuse it for science. I would never use it as an opportunity to call other people's philosophical worldviews a dangerous virus threatening to poison our children (I'm looking at you, Dawkins).

And to make my pedantic point that I try to keep making, the more we make these sorts of distinctions, the more fruitful our discussions of the issue become.