Thursday, October 26, 2006

Where Have All the Artists Gone?

I expect that artists like to consider themselves free thinkers unrestricted by society’s latent hypocrisy and pressure to conform. Yet, in New York City -- the most provincial community in the United States -- artists are trampling each other to add their unique hollering to the echo chamber that passes for political theatre in the Naked City.

In the two weeks preceding Election Day, New York first-nighters can choose from a selection of cutting-edge theatrical commentary that ranges from liberal-progressive to progressive-liberal and everything in between. It’s an immovable feast!

How do freethinking New York artists hate Bush? Let me count the ways:

At the Actor’s Playhouse in Greenwich Village you can catch “Bush Wars,” a scathing indictment of George W. Bush and American foreign policy.

Or how about heading over to the East Village to see “Dumya’s Rapture,” a scathing indictment of George W. Bush and American domestic policy.

Too subtle and nuanced for you? Then boogie on up to West 72nd Street and the Triad Theater to see less telling titles that appear to promise a reassuring evening of BushHate® but I’m not going to waste my time finding out for sure.

What exactly goes through the minds of the fragile individualists who go to these plays, much less the obedient rebels who stage them? Fortunately, I have no idea. But challenging conventional wisdom seems to be the least of these mavericks’ considerations.

I mean, if I was a playwright, just how tired would the “Bush is dumb” storyline appear to be? Would I want to invest more than an afternoon’s effort in committing my take to paper? Would anyone in the audience be able to muster a moment’s worth of suspense about the direction of this play?

Clearly, the purpose of these theatrical productions, and most art that deals with politics nowadays, is not to speak truth to power but to recite comforting affirmations to the true believers.

Not only is that boring, but it’s an enormous lost opportunity.

How difficult would it be for a perceptive artist to take a truly unorthodox and dissenting position on Bush et al? After all, what would any self-respecting artist rather be, the courageous lancer of boils or the boil itself?

You’d almost think that New York’s latter day satirists are afraid to break from the herd.

I’m no artist myself but I would guess that the art world is a pretty small and land-locked society populated by insecure poseurs who crave the affirmation of their peers. In other words, they’re just like everyone else . . . uniquely so.

In retrospect, the “conformist” 1950s look like a rich broth of courage and creativity. Think of the breadth of artistic expression – jazz, abstract expressionism, international style, beat poets – all contributing the esthetic backdrop to the stirrings of the civil rights, feminist, and environmental movements and joining in the political discourse on the role of government, the meaning of freedom, the existential threat of nuclear war.

Here's a taste of what we're missing:

We have little of that excitement and originality today. In fact, originality seems to have been patented in the 1960s and none are allowed to infringe upon it now.

Rock and Roll? What could it possibly mean now that it surrounds us like water in an aquarium? When was the last time some kid experienced the clandestine pleasure of finding a distant AM station playing forbidden music? The only possible equivalent would be a teenager listening to a Christian pop station in his parents’ Tribeca loft.

Jazz? A seedy neighborhood long since gentrified by the Sting corporation.

Graphic art? Years of abuse and overuse has blunted its ability to shock and challenge.

Architecture? After completing the Luftwaffe’s unfinished work, what could modern architecture possibly have to offer except for the same mindless conformity that modernism was meant to confront?

Poetry? Sophomoric boasting set to rhyme.

Here's a typically safe pose:

Today we don’t have artistic courage; we have fear. Not fear of censorship from an imperial government . . . if only. That’s the straw man today’s artists fight in bitter hand to hay combat every day. Real censorship occurs when an artist contemplates a critique of medieval, misogynist Islamofascism and hesitates because of his fear of physical pain.

The censorship the BushHaters fear is in the form of exclusion . . . exclusion from their friends and fellow "artists." That's a very real fear.

Mounting an off-Broadway play insulting George W. Bush is the opposite of courageous. It’s undemanding and crushingly dull.

Yet there are words that long to be written, images that yearn to be shown, and beliefs that struggle to be understood.

Where are all the artists when you need them?

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