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Michael Bettencourt

Contra Dictions           


March 2014

I've been reading through Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation for the first time (I am such a late bloomer!), since for so many years I've seen it referenced and cited.  Much of it I've skipped, mostly the essays on individual artists whom I skimmingly know and don't have time now in my life to learn about.  But I have read the pieces on camp, style/stylization, religiosity, to name a few, which are very well-written but, for me, intellectually annoying.

In an afterword to the 1996 edition, Sontag, quizzing herself on whether the pieces still hold up thirty years later, agrees with herself that they are by and large substantial pieces that can be read with profit long after their historical time.  This means, for me, that the cultural exceptionality, even exclusivity, she attributes to the artist and the work of art is a foundation for how she viewed the world both in the book's original incarnation and its reincarnation a generation later.

But, really, are artists and their works (however those terms are defined) all that special, even extra-special?  Are they the cultural barometers, the makers of new sensibilities (a favorite Sontagian term) that both ripen people's perceptions and their understandings of these perceptions, nay, even social (if not political or economic) revolutionaries?

Hard to say, isn't it?  The answers greatly depend on who is allowed inside the pantheon.  A February 2014 Harper's article on romance fiction noted that that the $1.4 billion market for these books is $700 million ahead of the profits of the "inspirational" category and $1 billion ahead of "literary" (which would, presumably, include Sontag).  Fifty Shades of Grey was self-published by E.L. James and made $95 million in 2013, more than any other writer in the world.

If one wants to measure the "effect of written works on the sensibilities of readers," clearly James outstrips Sontag by several major-league miles.  But one wonders if Sontag would dub James an authentic artist, right up there with Albert Camus, Simone Weil, and the others she dissects in her essays.  Mostly likely not.  But why not?

Probably something about a lack of serious purpose, about writing to formula (the HEA, or "happily ever after," must always appear in the romance novel), about privileging content over style, a reliance on the pedestrian rather than the rarefied — Sontag would probably go on in that sort of vein.

But that critique would miss the point because what the romance novel does, outside of its techniques and formulae, is create in its readers sensation through spectacle rather than cogitation through argument, which places it squarely in the artistic mainstream these days (at least as how we live it here in New York).  Sensation through spectacle (which Sontag authenticates, in her essay on camp, as a legitimate artistic approach) is pretty much the reigning aesthetic in the Broadway houses these days, where people can exit the lobby moved in multiple ways but not necessarily motivated.

And even in the side-venues as well.  A Freakonomics radio podcast form September 2012 features commentary from people attending a production of Sleep No More, a multi-sensory mashup of Shakespeare and noir staged in an old warehouse in the Chelsea section of New York.  The audience put on masks and wandered through elaborately rigged actor-populated environments over six floors, told nothing more than they have to wear the mask, don't talk and don't use a cellphone, and that "fortune favors the bold."

The people interviewed about the show talked about how the masks freed them to do things they might not normally ever do in a theatrical setting, allowing them to be transgressive, and in being so, experiencing the amalgam of fear and thrill that comes with transgressing. 

But — let us not forget — fear and thrill in measured circumstances, sensation without real risk and alarm.  Felix Barrett, the artistic director of Punchdrunk and co-creator of Sleep No More, said it well: "It's completely safe, it just feels almost fictionalized. We fictionalize a state of tension that feels slightly unsettling and threatening when actually it's not."

Really, there's nothing wrong with any of this — really.  A woman interviewed for the piece said, "It just felt good. It was right, in the moment," and that's exactly what it was — what it was and nothing more than what it was, feeling good in the moment.  So, not wrong — but also probably not useful.

But it's not just the feeling but the context of the feeling that's important as well. And that context, looked at wholly and full-faced, is terrifying in a real, and not an aesthetic, way.

Enter an extensive piece by Richard Smith in Truthout, dated January 9, 2014, and titled "Green Capitalism: The God That Failed."  His thesis is pretty simple: "The results are in: No amount of 'green capitalism' will be able to ensure the profound changes we must urgently make to prevent the collapse of civilization from the catastrophic impacts of global warming."

Page after page of argumentation follows, and while there may be disagreements along the margins of this or that piece of evidence, it's pretty hard to deny that unless we change how we do human business on this planet, we are screwed.

A vital part of Smith's argument is that capitalism cannot be the savior of itself because it is not built to do that sort of work — salvation goes against capitalism's grain because the salvation would require an ethic of abstinence and restraint that directly contradicts the system's imperative to grow and expand.

He also offers suggestions for the changes that need to happen, but those specificities are not the important point here.  What undergirds the piece is the call for a new regime of sensation to meet the challenge of our species' imminent demise, one composed of an austerity shaped by a love of content and evidence, prompted by anger and logic, and focused beyond the gratification of the ego.

And so back to the start of this essay: artists and their work but now in the shadow of possible/probable collapse — what is it that they could do?  Or should we accept Oscar Wilde's dictum in The Picture of Dorian Grey that "All art is quite useless," and just allow artists to do whatever they want to do without expecting them to do anything of any instrumental value or consequence, except entertain us as the place goes up in flames?

(Wilde, in a letter to a correspondent, explained that "art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility.")

I want to end this essay with some sort of quippy conclusion that creates the sensation of profound pronouncement, but I can't come up with it because this course of thought seems to end only in questions without easy or actionable (or any) answers. I am very curious to know how others might come at these ideas — please write a response and share your thoughts about art and the end-times.

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Michael Bettencourt is a produced and published playwright and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4. Continued thanks to his "prime mate" and wife, Maria-Beatriz.
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Scene4 Magazine: Perspectives - Audio | Theatre Thoughts  | Michael Bettencourt | February 2014 |


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March 2014

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