Saturday, January 31, 2009

The difference between crap and art? Just ask Aristotle.

When suffering is caused by an essential defect in the characters, the absence of that central defect in our own lives is a cause for joy. Individual suffering in the theater drives us towards Maslovian stasis by motivating us to increase our own happiness -- a tale with a sad ending is two thirds of a story, with the final third to be improvised by the audience in their own lives. However, when a "sad ending" is not rooted in the subjectivity of its creator or its characters -- but is represented as a failure of humanity humanity in a neutral and objective way -- the art work fails its Aristotelain cathartic function. It suspends the audience at the two-thirds mark, telling them that the narrative is insoluble.
Which is to say I liked "Batman returns" but hated "The Dark Knight". "Let the right one in" was unsettling in the way that a violation of narrative convention is unsettling. It is both memorable and unsettling to go to the opera and then have someone dump a bucket of pigshit on you, but does that make it art?
Someone should start a foundation called the "Fuck the Elizabeth Cheney Foundation Foundation", and donate money to any group that is willing to forgo her money.

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Companhia Triptal shows at the Goodman have been a highlight of several decades of Chicago theater -- it is unlike any show that has ever been seen on a Chicago stage. How does a show like this come into being? For one, they spend time slowly organically growing their productions -- four months of ten hour days developing one hour of theater, while most local productions are lucky to spend one month of six hour days developing three hours of theater. The missing element in Companhia Triptal's formula for excellence -- other than being Brazilian and being Geniuses -- is that they are supported by government grants rather than by ticket sales and dishwater dull utility-maximizing charities.

So the stimulus package has a contested 50M for the NEA, and an eager 14B for the universities. But what is more stimulating than good theater?

It is a truism that our educational system was obsolete by the time Gutenberg invented the printing press -- the purpose of a "lecture" was to have the students copy a text by hand -- and that academics, by maintaining a monopoly of credentials, have installed themselves as a mandarin class. However, their grasping greed in inflating faculty salaries during the last economic expansion should leave them vulnerable during the downturn, and a truly transformational President would let the universities suffocate for lack of oxygen while creating an alternative credentialing system that allies itself more closely with post-medieval technologies.

So imagine a stimulus package that included money for continuing education theater workshops, where -- all over the country -- people were invited to contemplate and discuss the great books, and create pieces of community theater that encapsulate their percieved essences. Wouldn't that workforce be both more motivated and more intelligent and more optimistic about humanity?
What particularly galls me about the stimulus package is that our period of social transformation and chaos would be an excellent time to rethink the university, but Obama's 14B of Pell Grants shows that the best idea he can come up with is to tax the rest of our society in order to maintain faculty salaries at their current inflated levels.
An interesting implication of David Brooks' much discussed recent column is that the Ivy league educations favored by our elites have cultivated the sort of self-centered intellectual facility that allowed them to manipulate and destroy the financial system for their own benefit -- and it has the chilling implication that the Harvard-trained brainiacs filling the ranks of the Obama administration are exactly the wrong people to preside over our social and cultural transformation.
I recently saw a fifty seven minute long play at one of Chicago's great theaters, and the twenty-second minute, a woman got up from her seat, walked in between the forty person audience and the ten people on stage, and left the theater. Five minutes later, without waiting for a break in the one-act play, she returned, once again walking in front of the stage, and back to her seat.

At the point when she returned, a row of college kids who were watching the play started whispering to one another. The couple next to me glared at them, I glared at them, the person behind them glared at them, but they continued their conversation.

I blocked them out and focused on the play, but my attention returned when I heard a scuffling sound, followed by a queeny shriek from one of the college kids, who yelped "You SCRATCHED me, BITCH!" in a high-toned voice.

The kids were quiet for the rest of the performance, and bolted for the door when the lights came up. As we were all gathering ourselves and getting up, I approached the woman who had successfully silenced the kids, and congratulated her that on doing God's work. "I just wish God had spoken to me sooner", was her quotable reply.

Two decades of Chicago theater-going have exposed me to some pretty marvelous examples of audience rudeness -- for example, kids listening to rap on their Ipods while attending the CSO -- but now that the Obama era has officially started, people are using physical violence to enforce social norms. In the Laissez-Faire Bush years, we would have silently endured the kids' misbehavior -- but just in the last week there is enough optimism about the future of our country that people are literally willing to fight for what they believe in.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

I'm gonna miss those guys...

Remember the studies that showed that a person in a room with a photograph of Abraham Lincoln's glowering image was less likely to steal than a person in a room with an empty wall? The idea is that our deep psychological architecture is more likely to behave ethically when we feel we are being observed. Thus, it should not surprise that deeply unethical people (Foucault?) conflate surveillance with punishment. So maybe the Bush administration was watching out for us, by watching us, and we should not be so quick to abandon his utopian vision of an intrusive 24-hour government, watching our internet usage financial transactions, and telephone calls.

Bernie Madoff is not a refutation of this -- he succeeded because of a lack of surveillance rather than a surplus. And, the one unfortunate psychological byproduct of surveillance -- the squelching of creativity and independent thought (*) -- was apparent in excess among his customers.

(*) This, of course, is why certain philosophies of software project management, which look great on paper and seem compellingly logical, often completely destroy all productivity, and why -- even when they work -- dictatorships tend towards a toxic groupthink that dissociates from reality and ultimately collapses.