Sunday, June 12, 2005

When Criticism Becomes Propaganda

I have been reading a little left wing go-go juice as of late. In particular, I have been reading George Lakoff's Moral Politics and Jim Wallis. Please blame the New Republic for the fetish as they had several articles in the last issue concerning Wallis, Lakoff, Democrats and Evangelicals.

So, for the past weeks I have left Eca De Queiros’ Theodorico in a state of suspension in Alexandria on his quest for The Relic. And Eric Bentley is waiting for me to finish his fascinating defense of Flat Characters in The Life of the Drama.

I have been in a political "frame" of mind, which is why I immediately pounced on and devoured Terry Teachout’s article about political theatre for InCharacter. For those of you unfamiliar, Mr. Teachout runs one of the best Art Blogsaround, ( About Last Night ,) and his posting frequency is superhuman.

Mr. Teachout, unlike most critics, does well to start off the article praising successes before descending into evisceration. He liked the production of Nine Parts of Desire, but hated Sam Shepard’s the God of Hell. He was not alone in his thinking.

Although he tries to stick to the important topic of Truth and Beauty in Art, his whole thesis seems to be closely echoing the Conservative rallying cry of "Fair and Balanced," which gets my shields up a little bit. More than likely this is because it seems as if Mr. Teachout, whom I believe is a conservative, is coopting his critical space to fight back a little in terms of the ongoing culture war.

"Turning messy fact into orderly fiction necessarily entails simplification; turning it into artful fiction demands as well that this simplification acknowledge the full complexity of human nature and human experience. These seemingly contradictory requirements can easily be fumbled by the artist whose principal goal is to persuade the audience of the rectitude of his cause. Yet propagandists are rarely prepared to tell the whole truth and nothing but. They alter reality not in order to make "everything more beautiful," but to stack the deck."

This is a dead on accurate quote, but what puzzles me is the toss off line right before this paragraph. Teachout says, "No matter how artful a play like The Exonerated may be, its effect as art will dissipate if its claims to truthfulness can be significantly and successfully challenged, (as those of The Exonerated have been). " Mr. Teachout, please provide a footnote or a link of some sort, because I follow theatre news relatively closely and I don’t remember reading anything like that.

Now, The Exonerated seems to have been the most successful and entertaining of the docudrama types of plays that have been produced recently. It presents a challenging obstacle for conservatives, conservative critics, and critics of this type of theatre. While I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Teachout regarding most all of these plays, I think the Exonerated has been a somewhat of a triumph for that type of theatre. I suspect that he does as well, so it is strange that rather than engaging with it, he needs to toss it off with an unsupported attack on its truthfulness.

The mantra of most Right Wing media criticism has been the Liberal Dominance of the creative and news realm. And this whole essay appears to be somewhat of a template of the same issue. In fact, at one point Mr. Teachout appears to be using the same exact arguments that we saw in Right Wing attacks on the Dixie Chicks and others. Basically the argument goes: "Look, after they stated their Liberal Views, their album sales declined."

Strangely, Mr. Teachout, who I know knows better, appears to be linking quality or truthfulness to box office appeal:

"Not to mention the fact that the highly publicized Embedded, even though it was written and directed by a movie star, failed to transfer to a Broadway theatre. Nor should it be overlooked that the two most stringently politicized musicals of last season, Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change and Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, failed to please a sufficiently large number of Playgoers and had their runs cut short as a result."

After reading the article, the overall impression I hope one will come away with (and the point I think Teachout is really trying to make,) is that the plays which are held up to ridicule in his essay are bad not because they are POLITICAL, but because they are BAD. However, some of the tilt of Teachout’s argument is, like most of the political discourse these days, guilty of the same thing it condemns.

For instance, Jim Wallis in his recent book God’s Politics, kind of lashes out at the Right for coopting religion, but the thesis of his book would appear to be that Democrats should start framing things spiritually as well. Mmmm. What’s not good for the goose, is not good for the gander either, Mr. Wallis.

Terry Teachout and Mark Steyn are right to use their reviewing space to challenge artists who specifically present political arguments as the thesis of their work. But I am not so sure that Keats’ negative capability is a fair way to present a good template for politically inclined writers. After all when conservative critics start using their spaces to present a political worldview aren't they boring people just the same? And to continue in that vein, who is reading them?

I am finishing niggling on what I am sure most of you think are small points. On the whole, the core of these types of arguments should always go to the idea that Power is the Enemy of Truth and Teachout believes and writes of this.

*(I could go into a whole posting explaining why his characterization of Tony Kushner’s Angel’s in America is wrong. But suffice to say Mr. Teachout and I have much different takes. While Roy Cohn does end up in Hell, I felt that Joe Pitt destroyed his wife, who thankfully is getting a fresh start and Louis Ironson cheated on his partner. And I see no reading of the text that would indicate that Mr. Kushner thinks anything differently about these characters. Assassins was a bold experiment which failed way back in the early 90's, and constant revivals of it, without any serious reworking, are misguided.)

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