The job of the artist
"If we are to change our world view, images have to change. The artist has a very important job to do. He's not a little peripheral figure entertaining rich people, he's really needed." Václav Havel
I sent this Václav Havel quote to some folks around town to get their responses. Here's what they wrote. What do you think?
"At the core of his work—artistically and politically—Václav Havel always kept the idea of dignity close. Individuals and nations must have dignity to thrive. Anything else is demoralizing and decadent (i.e., decaying, not "ooh, what a decadent chocolate cheesecake, Linda!" A usage which must end). For contemporary Americans in the arts, the lesson here isn't "images have to change." Our images change all the time, purposefully. And I fear American artists will take one look at that phrase, breathe a sigh of relief that the only work that's needed is a quick rebranding job, and go about making our inessential works that make predictable and precious jokes about, say, Michele Bachmann, thinking we're really exposing her. Which is profoundly unimportant work to do. That approach has been in full force in this country since the Boomers discovered boring French theater, and if it was capable of actually changing a damn thing, it would have by now. No, in order to become really needed and stop being little and peripheral, your teeth have to be sharper. If you want to go after Bachmann or whoever, revere her on her terms, and take it far. Don't throw glitter on her, don't draw her with crazy eyes. That's answering absurdity with more absurdity, and it may score a few points here and there, but you're still playing in the same world, the same system. If you really want to change the image, answer absurdity with dignity. Then you'll really have a weapon that can reveal who's little and peripheral."
"This is the reason I write. I never saw stories about myself growing up. Most of the time today, I still don't. A world in which gay and straight people live together. A world in which grappling with religion isn't black and white, either/or, but integrated into the way people live. Something positive, something funny, something intelligent. If people can see themselves in a story, their lives seem somehow more valid. Conversely, if people can see characters unlike the small circle of people around them every day, greater empathy and understanding is possible. If we all see each other as human, the world is a less scary place."
Matthew A. Everett, playwright, "Leave" and "But Not For Love"
"I have thought often about how I could make political theatre that will change minds and change votes. And everytime, I conclude that my style of political theater would be pretty “in-your-face” and present a clear agenda. The title of my show would probably have to be something like: How Gays And Lesbians Are Being Denied Civil Rights Now Let’s Knock It Off! (Don’t let the exclamation mark throw you. It wouldn’t be a musical.) And since my show would have a transparent agenda, I would not attract to my performance those minds that I want to change. I doubt that Joey Generally-Good-Natured-But-When-It-Comes-To-Gays-Is-A-Bigotski would be interested in sitting through 60-90 minutes (not a second longer because all shows should be 90 minutes or less) of being shown how guys like him are trying to stop friends of mine from life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He’d probably be worried that his friends would think him gay if he came out to see such a show. (“came out?” See what I did there?) Even if his wife tried to drag him out to see this show, he’d come up with any excuse to avoid going. What I really need to do is craft a more subtle political message. It needs to be a light, hilarious, accessible show that will have themes to which Joey can relate. But somewhere in the middle of this jolly tale of suburbanite ice-fishing, BBQing, watching football, and other Joey-relatable activities, one of the main characters with whom Joey has formed an emotional attachment will have to be gay and get persecuted for it. And then the other characters will rise to his defense and bring about a happy ending where the gay friend gets happily married, and it doesn’t ruin the marriages of his friends. And Joey will have to go home feeling conflicted because he liked the gay character before finding out he was gay. And Joey will feel conflicted that he liked these other guys before they rose to their gay friend’s defense. Not that Joey will have hated the play. Joey will say that he thought the play was hilarious except for the end when “all that gay crap happened”. But Joey will have to re-consider his feelings. Even if Joey’s mind isn’t changed right away, he will have had an emotional connection and he’ll have to deal with that. So there ya go. Gangler’s formula for political theatre 2.0: We trick people with an opposing viewpoint into seeing a play that they think they will like and which they love for 85% of it. And then we throw in a twist that forces audience members to face the consequences of their viewpoints."
"Havel for me has always been a hero to me, and I feel he's the definition of what a great artist should strive to become. A lot of people want you to believe that we go to the theater to escape. If they've been going to the theater to escape, I feel bad for them, because I believe they've been experiencing shitty theatre. Theater is suppose to grab you and not let go. People go to the theatre to connect. To be shaken, to be awakened. We as theater artists are the griots, the prophets, the preachers, and the teachers for our communities. We are the ones chosen to tell our stories, to document our civilization and our history, to make sense out of the chaos in our world, to start conversations about the things that matter deep in our souls. It is our duty to be the emissaries between the real world and the spiritual, and I can't imagine a better definition of a theater artist, and when we deny ourselves this truth and instead settle for a position as merely amusement for an old, withering, blue-haired subscriber base then we do ourselves a grave injustice. Havel is right, our job is a great one. We should not fear it, but embrace our calling."
"I read this and it smacks of artists trying to justify being artists, which makes me gassy. But then I think: this guy ended Soviet rule of Czechoslovakia using rock n roll and steamy looks. His name may be a failed palindrome, but I'd bookmark his blog."