Theatre from the cracks in the psyche of culture

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No. 62: May 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hans Sachs' 16th century inspired
public sculpture by Jurgen Weber in 
Nuremberg, Germany

 

Theatre and Art:
the sideshow of distraction?
post modernism and the myth of normal balance

Like a clever underachiever who was ostracized at school and now has the opportunity get back at society with unique visions of paradoxes and emptiness through bazaar Art products that fascinate while claiming high prices for their sales . . . Postmodernism provides golden opportunities to defy the once seemingly ordered universe  . . . Postmodernism attacks the Atheist while dismissing religion; but avoiding discussion on the matter of cultural / religious sensibilities. Postmodernism creates from the God Particle of nascent imagination in a seemingly uncontested void through which nothing has ever gravitated . . . while knowing god is a fiction and the particle a metaphor! Post Modernism defends cultural and political positions antagonistic to dominant western hegemony; while believing in none and feigning outrage when challenged.

The upside for the post modern artist is that one doesn't get trapped into the dogma and mind-set of particular religious and belief systems with their sacred books. The downside of Postmodern approaches is that everything is suspect; so the artist acknowledges his/her own cynicism and creates works that carefully avoid any universal suggestion while being filled with irony. Even the nature of Art itself is seen as an ironic interplay with only a specific life and time context; or even a joke on the artist / audience relationship! A cultivated attitude of cool . . . or coolness!

Ultimately, Art cannot exist in a postmodern world; it must implode into decoration and cluttering noise or "public Art" further emphasizing the discordant nature of human inhabitation on a romanticized planet. It cannot be anything more than a sideshow with an in-built fear and skepticism about its very existence and reason for being. So without the possibility to thrill or shock or create awe, it has no value; yet huge sums are paid for conceptual Art with no actual crafted substance at all. Consider the huge success of Damien Hirst an artist who's wealth is now valued at over a billion dollars.

But postmodernism cannot be seen as solely an artistic phenomena when its real and more wide ranging effect is in public administration, politics and social organization and discourse.

Postmodernism exalts the statistician because there is no supposed subjectivity in statistical unchallenged conclusions. The political policy maker, being the client of the statistician, feels confident of decisions made on facts, evidence and not intuition, ideology and supposition. The postmodern rejection of ideology, artistic insight and even the possibility of any freedom of thought makes decision making a managerial and technocratic problem solvable with constant application of solutions based on statistical evidence. What might have appeared as the artists friend and ally, has become its source of destruction and relegation to the sideshow of human and cultural discourse.

The result is a giant chasing of one's tail; the great social entity of the state is a dog chasing its tail as it wags evidence causing a reaction. The more it reacts, the more exhausted it becomes and the more it seeks ways to adjust to the wagging tail. But the analogy with the dog isn't quite accurate as the policy maker actually constructs the dog and then keeps trying to alter it's strange behaviours. Not only is reality constructed within tightly constrained parameters but so too is knowledge managed by statistical realities that dominate the knowledge managers. Ironically, knowledge itself is suspect! The problem for management of anything in a postmodern framework is about containing and restraining those with real knowledge and skills within a particular area. It is about semantic games to quell and keep in place the potential of knowledgeable people to subvert the system.

The education system is a good example of this dog. In Australia, the distrust of those with specific knowledge (ie. the teachers) is so great that an elaborate statistical distancing is used to dismantle judgements based on individual's knowledge within a given domain. This is done under the auspices of the community need for "fairness" and "accountability". The knowledge managers rely on statistical circles within circles to produce approximations of results based on statistical likelihoods rather than teacher judgements. These likelihoods are based on the notion of cohort ecosystems where a statistical balance is imagined to exist. The worth of the ecosystem is constructed via some moderating tests with scores to be standardized. Once established, all subsequent scores achieved by the average of the cohort must be scaled to the same average.

The belief is that a balanced and static universe of statistically valid data can give a more accurate indication of students' value in relation to other students than any teacher can attempt. The problem is that if a cohort increases or decreases its net statistical value it will still be scaled back to the initial determination. The statistics are not used to suit reality and define it; rather reality is manipulated to simulate and confirm statistical constructions of reality.

This doesn't even consider the question of WHY it is so important to find statistical and numerical representations of student work in the first place? Why? Why, apart from the need to quantify and commodify student comparative abilities! Even if such comparison is useless! The teacher meanwhile is caught between statistical determinations and having to actually converse with and engage with real students. Because of the clouding of a direct interface between the two, the result is a strange ennui and alienation that leads to a potential disintegration of the very nature of teaching and learning into irrelevance. All knowledge gradually being subsumed by corporate culture for specific measurable outcomes that bear little resemblance to the real values and needs of individuals and communities.

This idea is not unique to education. The reductionist concept of reducing all human action, emotion and dynamism to statistical data and thus to manageable machine-like operations is part of a wider conceptual paradigm that has dominated Western thinking for the past forty years. We see it thriving in the political domain with policy framed by focus groups and polling to establish the construction of political reality. Political reality is one where the politician attempts to be at one with the constituent by learning details of that constituent and then framing all communication in terms of statistically gathered concerns and semantics.

For any artist, writer or creator of anything caught in this process of constant abstraction and reductionism, the difficulty is going to be in breaking through the boxes so neatly being ticked to ensure compliance. These are the reductionist boxes that attempt to order and control perception. Reliance on any form of state or corporate funding for artistic endeavour runs the risk of succumbing to the self censoring and constraining effort that accompanies the resultant self consciousness.

It isn't ironic that state agencies tend to fund "post modern Art" alongside traditional multi-cultural offerings. Both provide safe options politically and culturally. Postmodern artistic operation and aspiration runs comfortably with big business, big money and government bureaucracy. It ticks the right boxes for innovation, partnerships, equity and various other domains that appeal to bureaucracies, business and government. The true postmodern artist is actually more comfortable around big money and power than with "alternative" arts scenes and presentation . . . "Cool" is an important ingredient.

And who really wants to be a hungry Kafka, crazy Artaud, dead van Gogh or that delusional writer or musician who just won't stop in spite of everything going against them? Cormac McCarthy must have been crazy to keep writing for next to nothing until he was an old man when he finally found success. Nothing very postmodern there! Steven Berkoff achieved great artistic success and acclaim in the theatre yet he was constantly savagely attacked by postmodernist critics attacking his personality as much as his artistic achievements. More than this, postmodernism abstracts all discourse into semantics and statistics.

If there were no other role for Art and theatre in the twenty-first century it would be to expand human vision from the hemmed-in tightly controlled and limiting ways of viewing the world and experience that are the unexpected bi-products of post-modernism. Rather than expanding the possibilities for new vision that resulted from the loosening the grip of medieval religious dogmas through the advent of the "Enlightenment", postmodernism has had the opposite effect.

When allied with technology, postmodernism has partially eradicated aspects of language as a process of carriage for ambiguity, mystery and discovery. By being so overly concerned with avoiding cultural bias, practitioners from within a postmodern arena have bled so much of communication from its richness while claiming to defend cultural differences as cultural equality. In theatre, the Absurdist approach can be a useful tool for cutting across the boxes; while still working from a post-postmodern attitude. Artaud's "shock treatment" as articulated in his Theatre Of Cruelty writings is still a valid tool for such working. The possibilities for live performance are still open . . . it is more than possible that to be effective, artistic endeavour may need to become illegal and outside any sanctioned and ticked box. Or, as in the case of Charlie Brooker's "Black Mirror", create narratives that push the abstraction, reductionism and dehumanizing effects to their extremes so as to reveal and make evident those forces that are essentially invisible yet so prevalent in what constructs our reality.

The relationship between Art, theatre and culture is such that while it can be suffocated by the overly cerebral processes and mindplay associated with postmodernism, it can have a direct bearing on cultural development. Unfortunately, it needs the courage of illegality on many levels. Have a look at this video from Iran and read the comments that follow on the Your Tube page (click the YouTube icon to view on YouTube):

Interesting that the young Iranians are dancing to Israeli trance music . . . in a situation where dancing and cultural participation could cost your life!

Post modernism's flirtation with the notion of human beings and indeed all the facets of the earth and the universe are in fact machines and so act like machines makes interesting viewing in Adam Curtis's documentary "All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace Part 2. Access here:

Adam Curtis documentary All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace Part 2

and

http://thoughtmaybe.com/all-watched-over-by-machines-of-loving-grace/#top

Curtis covers territory that is complimentary to Brooker's fictional work. Curtis shows how viewing human beings as machines has embraced the fatalistic theories of determinist selfish gene theories which take out the intervention of human will from explanations and possibilities of human progress.

In light of this, artistic endeavour can only be seen as a frill on the edge of societies without any credibility in the area of enlightening or revealing anything of substance about ourselves; a trivial exercise in the education and cultural spectrum. It might appear to occupy the same ground as religion;

Both regarded as practices in primitive expression and even as superstitious and irrelevant clutter! In the world being cautioned by Brooker and the world of thought to which Curtis is alerting, human decision making and judgement is hardly relevant. The politician and the educator are reliant on the computer to make the ultimate decisions regarding what it is to be human.


Trinculo a postmodern dead angel pontificating

As postmodernism rose on the debunking of all dogmas new forms of explanation for existence have risen. Human judgements needed removing from all power bases in relation to decision making. No philosophy, world view, religious thinking or culture is any better or worse than any other. Questions of beauty or the 'good' are culturally bound questions with no valid answers. Critical thinking means analytical and reductionist thinking that reduces concepts to core non-value based elements. Any Art that is valued must be judged within its own terms or must be unashamedly narcissistic. This naturally makes it dangerous for anyone to promote an idea or a position on ethical questions. At the same time, it becomes difficult to express views on anything relating to the position of others. So language itself begins a process of implosion.

Art and Theatre struggle in order to prove how far they have adopted the postmodern agenda. Each struggles with the corpse of the other to redefine itself and awaken lost spirits; though neither have realized their own death. As Academics control the flow of dramaturgy and institutions adopt the curriculums of bureaucrats and focus groups and the corporate world is the sole judge of success, Art and Theatre play out their horror in sequences of controlled reality, Art prizes, visual slight of hand amid an atmosphere of callous disregard.

It is no wonder some artists and arts advocates look back to a time more than thirty years ago when the arts seemed to have a priority of place in cultural esteem. Where once there was a correlation between healthy communities and societies and the quality of their Theatre and Art and the health of the nation, such focus on healthy communities has transferred to the medical sedation through interventions of drugs, laws on safety, community health programs of promotion, mental health empires, drug companies involvement with education . . . Certainly it isn't the core focus of community! Postmodernism has deconstructed the arts to such an extent that the short lived prominence of thirty years ago is being consigned back to the sideshow where it previously played. All this as the architecture of arts buildings has continued to expand.

Replacing Art and Theatre with perhaps something that looks like it, acts like it and defines itself as artistic . . . but is more its double. Action is needed if Artists still feel the need to create Art that has meaning and need within society. Look at the dancers from Iran in the video above. Look at the comments on the You Tube page. And whenever the test tube is presented for you to jump in ... RESIST!

And like the "soldiers" in Charlie Chaplin's great final speech in The Great Dicatator, one may implore the artists and theatre practitioners to stop being daunted by the Machine; move away from being ticks in a "partnership" with those who derive pleasure from performing monkies at the behest of insensitive and cruel masters!

Joe Woodward


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