Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Morality Bites

Over at Arts Journal, Wendy Rosenfield is having a bit of a dilemma. She could possibly assigned to review a certain show at the Philadelphia Live Arts festival:

This performance, written and performed by Garcia, a former butcher, involves a duet between man and lobster, which as you might imagine, ends badly for the crustacean. The trouble is, I'm a vegan and recently wrote a feature for the Inquirer's food section about this gustatory transformation (but for some reason only the sidebar is still available online. Sorry.), and I just can't abide a performance that intentionally causes the death of another living creature in order to make its point.

She struggles over this because, well, she is intrigued and agrees with the themes of Garcia's piece as described in the pre-show materials.

She ends her piece this way: "But that, of course, is a moral judgement, isn't it? The question here is really this: do a critic's personal morals or ethical code have any place in a review? And conversely, humans being the way they are, how can one possibly pretend they don't?"

I remember at the time Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive was gathering rave reviews on its way to getting the Pulitzer, John Heilpern penned a review that I think was headlined, "Come and See the Safe Pedophilia!" It really threw a harsh moral light onto the proceedings and took the playwright up on her comparisons to Nabokov.

I am paraphrasing, but I think Heilpern said something along the lines of "Aren't some things just black and white, right and wrong." I'll dig out my copy of Heilpern's collection of reviews: "How Good is David Mamet Anyway?"

Louise Kennedy, the lead theatre critic for the Globe, has often expressed her skepticism and weariness in approaching plays that treat mental illness as metaphor.

Here in Boston, the Sondheim musical Assasins is playing at Company One. In one of the pre-show publicity pieces, an actor told of how his mother, (who happens to be Boston news celebrity, Liz Walker,) upon hearing that he was cast in the production expressed concern about the "energy" that the show would put out.

Liz Walker felt the production's timing exploited the real fears of many Obama voters, particularly in the black community, that harm could befall the candidate, she explained. Throughout his campaign, Obama's charisma and political style have been compared with those of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Lincoln, all transforming figures in American history and all targets of assassination. Obama has received death threats, so Liz Walker disliked raising the specter of assassination through a musical.

As audience we are not, (when we approach a work of art,) a tabula rasa. We approach the stage, which is the most interpersonallly focused of the dramatic arts, with the anticipation of the artist bringing his or her full being into the conversation. How strange to think the same thing should not be expected of the audience, right?

Now, there are those who would argue that a moral thesis in a review says more about the critic than it does the object of the review. I am not so sure.

The fear, in taking such things into consideration, is that all of this smells of a kind of censorship. How are artists to push the envelope? How are they to truly examine and push the boundaries if critics have moral defenses up? But if nobody is watching the watchmen, what can art become?

There is a group of delightful sculptures in the 14th Street Subway in New York City. They were created by the artist Tom Otterness, who collects commissions for his fun designs all over the country.

In talking about an New Museum of Arts show about the East Village, critic Gary Indiana, who had spent a few years in the mid-eighties covering the East Village scene for the Village Voice, expressed the following:

But I’m repulsed by this show’s inclusion of Tom Otterness, a sculptor of limitless nonentity despite his demonstrated skill at conning public-art commissions and taste-impaired collectors into making him rich. Mr. Otterness, once upon a time, adopted a dog and then shot it to death for the fun of recording his infantile, sadistic depravity on film. I’d like the New Museum’s visitors to keep that in mind while looking at this creep’s work. Mr. Otterness isn’t one of those special exceptions deserving the adage “Lousy person, terrific artist.” Lousy both.


Thomas Garvey said...

I don't see the dilemma. Wendy Rosenfield simply shouldn't see the show. Killing a living creature on stage is repugnant, period, and of course is totally immaterial to any kind of genuine artistic effect, which by consensus is usually contingent on some form of illusion. And of course moral judgment is central to aesthetic appreciation - it collapses without it.

Ian Thal said...

I agree with Thomas. If killing a living being on stage offends Rosenfield, she ought not feel guilty that her moral feelings prevent her from enjoying the death of a lobster as a theatrical event.

The fact is that even if one wishes to tell a story that involves the death of a lobster, there is no need to actually kill one on stage (just as one does not have to kill several teenagers on stage to tell the story of Romeo and Juliet.) One can just as easily use some combination of mime and puppetry to create the illusion of a cooked lobster on stage and the audience will still have an emotional response.