Scene4 Magazine-inView

october 2006

by Michael Bettencourt

Of a Saturday, I will take myself gallery hopping.  Much of the industrial and warehouse space on the far west side of the Chelsea section of Manhattan (between, say, 19th and 27th Streets) has been transformed into a warren of galleries of art, open to the public and free to pinch-pennies like me.  Sometimes I go with a purpose, having selected something in that week's New Yorker (gallery-hoppers like me carry it around the way some people carry around their subway maps), or I just wander, stopping on whims generated by excellently graphic'd posters or a crowd that looks interested in what it's looking at.

Before the art in the galleries, though, is the architecture of the galleries themselves.  Because these places are, in essence, black box theatres: places of performance with minimal lighting, sparse comforts for the audience (I'm astounded by the number of these galleries that do not offer their patrons a bench on which to sit), and scaled-down production values (maybe a hand/out program, maybe on-wall placards describing what's there -- maybe), and the expectation that the audience is pretty much on its own to figure out what is being offered to them.

And the spaces exist in an uneasy conjugation with the buildings that house them, the clean-lined antiseptic viewing rooms next to the iron-staircase in the stairwell that still bears the divots in its steps from the workers who used to inhabit the buildings.  Much like the city in which these galleries exist, constantly working to cover over its working-class and industrial origins with a style that its monied gentry can abide.

And the art offerings?  Well, I'm glad in a democracy that there can be a democracy of artistic production, but, really, oftentimes my first thought as I enter is, "How do you people stay in business?"  Yes, I suppose, people should be encouraged and allowed to express themselves, but can -- should -- all of these expressions be considered art?  Or is such a definitional question really just pointless and art is simply whatever people say it is, and if you can get a gallery to display you, then you have art, and that's the end of the discussion? In a capitalist culture, the latter is probably the only definition that makes any sense, even if the art itself doesn't.

Speaking of capitalist culture, the whole set-up of the galleries is about consuming the product.  Objects get displayed and observers comes to observe them; you make your spin about the gallery then move on to the next one.  So it's really more like a bazaar or a souk (but without the colorful haggling and density of bodies), and the art is what the bazaar-goers consume, either visually or by actually buying the object.

That's part of what makes the gallery-going such a strained dialectic for me. In some of the works there is that human touch that touches me, and I feel myself drawn into what must have drawn the artist into making the art.  But then I'm behaving and feeling in this way in a context that feels completely disengaged from an organic sense of process and accomplishment, from the artistic process itself: a clean room, hush-hush, the place often cerberus'd by some functionary behind a high-walled cubicle which only allows the top of his or her head to be seen, all done in an etiquette of disinvitation.  The experience is about consumption, and I am a consumer, an isolated unit from which value can be extracted.

All of this put me in mind of a comment by Tennessee Williams from his soon-to-be published "Notebooks" (excerpted in the October 2006 issue of Harper's).  He recounts a conversation with one Oliver Evans (described as a poet and writer that Williams befriended), where Evans is quoted as saying that a healthy society does not need artists.  Is that true? If we lived in a society less atomized by capitalism, more organically composed, would we have art and artists as we now have them?  Who would they be, what would they do, how would we do it with them?  And what would it be like to live in a healthy society? (The ache of that question can make one weep.)

So, at the end of my gallery jaunt, I come out partly pleased, partly bemused, glad to have made the cultural safari, not sure of the use of the effort (like the good puritan I am, pleasure for its own sake is a hard row for me to hoe). This mirrors my own prickly relationship with playwriting and the theatre and my life, where oftentimes I find myself delighting in the act of writing while, at the simultaneous moment, wondering what use can be made of anything I produce, half-believing (and sometimes more than half) that a good compost or a well-baked loaf of bread is better for the world than anything I have to say or do.

©2006 Michael Bettencourt
©2006 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt has had his plays produced in New York, Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles, among others.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate" and wife, Maria-Beatriz

For more of his commentary and articles, check the


by Nathan Thomas

Love can be very hard.  The demands of love can pull us in hard directions.  We know this.  The greatest pain comes from those we love most.  If we didn't love them, we could walk away.  Leave the pain behind.  Jump on a train with our dog and sing a low country tune and forget.  But love stays with us.

As I write this, it appears a Canadian computer-code guy got picked up on some "faulty intel," carried to Jordan, and dropped off in Syria for some torture beyond the reach of pesky things like solid evidence, lawyers, or a phone call. Likewise, the president of the U.S.A. seems to be arguing for a 'clarification' of the Geneva Conventions that will allow interrogators to subject people to treatment you wouldn't want to happen to a dog.

"We're at war," we're told.  This is war.  This is an on-going battle.  Stand resolute.  And whatever you do, don't cut and run.

OK.  So, I'm not for cutting-and-running.  What's next? I mean it – what's next?  Do we just stick with the same-ol', same-ol' in a desperate hope that the slogging mire we're currently in is magically going to improve?   

What is this war?  Who are we fighting?  Are there still connections to the tragic events of 2001?  Or is this something else?

When the current action in Iraq started several years and several thousand casualties ago, American theatres loosely banded together in something called the "Lysistrata Project."  Theatre folk across the country staged readings, performances, projects based on Aristophanes' great comic yawp for peace. Where is that theatre now?

I have here the projected season for 2006-07 across the USA.  What do we see for the season ahead?  On Broadway we get the insightful drama of a Brit super-nanny as Marry Poppins finally flies to the Great White Way.  In my own community we'll see road productions of On Golden Pond and the never-ceasing color of the Blue Man Group. Oh, yes. . . . and yet another production of Waiting for Godot.

I'm certain all of these productions are fine.  They'll be wonderful, and many fine people will enjoy this fine entertainment.  And everything will be fine.

Except it isn't fine.  I fear for my country.  We dislike the war in Iraq, so we act as if it doesn't exist.  We go to the mall, we go to the movies, we go see Drowsy Chaperone or Wicked, and we can have a fine evening.  Yet, every minute of every day, brave young men and women put their lives on the line in an increasingly chaotic world.

I'm just another theatre guy.  I don't claim to possess a rational and elegant solution to all our problems (including a cure for neuralgia and bad breath).  But we need to talk about it.

I love my country.  Even at our worst, there remains outstanding and unexpected goodness (and sometimes greatness) in the people of this country.  We sometimes even allow ourselves to strike into territory of genuine nobility.

I love the theatre.  Deep in my heart, I'm only truly comfortable around show people.  Where are they?

What I long for, though, is a raising of the conversation.  What is this war?  Do we have more than one war?  Who are we fighting?  Are there still connections to the tragic events of 2001?  Or is this something else?   And, what can we do for the veteran, the spouses left behind, their children?

I love.  But sometimes my love hurts.  I wish I lived in a land where a leadership serious about war would ask for national sacrifice, not the sacrifice of the few and the financing of windfalls for those already rich.  I wish I lived in a land where theatre would take the responsibilities of its art seriously. I wish I lived in a place where we would seriously talk about what we want as a nation, and how that might differ from what we need.   

There are a lot of questions for us.  I don't know that we have to answer the questions.  But it might be worth it to ask them.






©2006 Nathan Thomas
©2006 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas has earned his
living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in Theatre and is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College.

For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives


Cover Painting by S.S. Burrus

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Scene4 Magazine-International Magazine of Performing Arts and Media

october 2006

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