Archive | January, 2013

What are museums for?

9 Jan

What are museums for, really? Applying for several jobs in the museum field, I find myself invited to have a vision about what museums are and could be. One thing I know: they are not just storage facilities for rare and valuable property. They are capable of so much more, more than the “cool” factor of royal jewels or curiosity-piquing antiquities.

In a way, they exist because if they did not exist, we would have to create them in order to store dinosaur skeletons.

But their potential to have an impact on thought, dialogue, and cultural action is not developed to anywhere near their potential. They are not just the aloof cousins of theatres, when in fact they can be as daring, as thought-provoking as the most insightful, challenging, and entertaining drama. They can present and discuss history in polyvocal ways and from myriad perspectives, can personalize science in a way that complements critical thinking, can contextualize the arts in such a way that they resonate more deeply and broadly. Museums can memorialize, and challenge historical narrative, memory, and the absence of same. They can visualize and envision, both the distant past and the potential for the future.

But everywhere I go, they are underfunded or, as in Europe, if well-funded and comfortable, then they are not hungry enough to deepen the level of inquiry into our own world. As long as they have to remain commercially viable – unlike libraries and archives, for the most part – their potential to be not just repositories, but theatres for social change and dynamic, collaborative workspaces for understanding the arts, history, culture, and science through visual, aural and artifactual media – even when that understanding emerges as a synthesis of conflicting views (or especially then) – will be dulled.

I’ll be coming back to this topic in the weeks ahead as I think through this with more specificity.

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A “Lincoln” for our times?

4 Jan

This morning I heard this interview on WNYC radio, about two new films, Django Unchained and Lincoln. Brian Lehrer was really on today, and he had on two guests, Tricia Rose of Brown University and Dana Stevens from slate.com, discussing not only the qualities of these films but their politics as well. I don’t always agree with him, but this was one of the best discussions I have ever heard on his program.

The discussion of Django Unchained reflected a lot of the discomfort I have felt about seeing it. Both guests asked pointed questions about whether Tarantino has thought through his film, and whether whites and Blacks would respond the same way to the violence, and whether in fact a Black director and writer would have handled the story differently. What struck me as the great unspoken was that Professor Rose had said she initially intended not to see the film, but eventually gave in out of curiosity and a desire to be able to discuss the film. This is not an insignificant point. Tarantino has, in a sense, won. He is a loudmouth who has built up such an influence, regardless of the morality of his films, that he has positioned himself and his work as must-sees, such that he always wins. Everyone, love him or hate him, has to pony up money into his wallet, because viewing his films, because of his loudness, has become de rigueur. Which strikes me as the proof of his commercial dominance, separate from any critical contribution he has to make. The quality doesn’t matter, what matters is that the consumers have to buy viewing rights to the spectacle, just to fit in to the conversation of the day. He grabs attention whether his film is worth seeing or not, whether you like him or not, whether he is moral or pornographic. The commercial industry has made him matter, whether or not he matters artistically, the market makes us listen. This is symptomatic of commercial control of the cinematic artform. Please go away.

On the other hand, Lehrer’s critique of Lincoln could not have been more similar to my own. He was especially critical of Tony Kushner’s screenplay, or ambivalent in much the same ways I am. At the level of dialogue, period accuracy, and character, it’s brilliant. But Lehrer finds the portrait of Lincoln to be hagiographic, and is disturbed by the lack of strong African American characters and Abolitionists. Was it historically true that all the movement towards ending slavery constitutionally was entirely a debate among white people?

When I saw the film, I was bothered by the lack of strong Abolitionists, and particularly by the absence of Frederick Douglass. It is true that the role of Thaddeus Stevens, brilliantly portrayed by Tommie Lee Jones, is pivotal and complex. But here’s the issue I have, and I haven’t seen this addressed anywhere yet. I did see an interview with Tony Kushner on Bill Moyers’ program. Now, I confess I have never seen nor read Angels in America, so I am not familiar with Kushner’s best work as America’s pre-eminent political playwright. But in his interview with Moyers, Kushner justifies his portrayal of Lincoln as the Great Compromiser, one who held to his principles while being able to compromise effectively to achieve what he wanted. Then Kushner draws parallels to President Obama as a brilliant compromiser, admitting that Obama doesn’t always get what we know he wants (e.g. the public option in the health care plan) but that through the art of compromise he is able to bring together the entire country, not just his progressive followers, in moving the country forward. Be sure to read the viewer comments on Bill Moyers’ website – I am not alone in my criticism!

We have the benefit of hindsight to know now that Lincoln’s approach worked, both in saving the Union and in amending the Constitution. Kushner’s implication in the screenplay and in his discussion of Obama is that compromise is an effective, mature approach by a President to achieve social change. Lincoln is a good liberal movie: it shows Lincoln’s effectiveness, his wisdom and judgment and progressive ideals, but it is not prophetic. The film is made to upset no one, or at least none of its white viewers. The ideal of egalitarianism, of truly equal justice under law – which in theory is not that radical an idea – is not part of Lincoln’s agenda. The Radical Republicans are still depicted as, well, radical, and Kushner chooses to promote the portrayal of them as radical, rather than a more prophetic, radical vision himself. And Frederick Douglass and Black Abolitionists are not depicted at all. I had the feeling after watching the film, and especially after watching Kushner’s interview, that as an artist he is saying the mature, even wise political choice is to learn to compromise, to move forward incrementally by bringing everyone along, not to be impetuous and immature.

It may be right and more effective for an elected politician to take this approach, especially in the executive role. And it may be right for a body of people, as the Quakers have shown, to use compromise effectively as a way of building consensus and promoting respect throughout the community for diversity of views, as they work towards social justice. But I’m not sure it’s right for our artists, like our activists, to abandon their responsibility to be prophetic, by which I mean to be the intellectual engines that not only promote change but act as innovators of idea and guardians of our higher conscience. In other words, Kushner is not constrained by the same political realities that Obama is. And leaders must also lead; not all leadership consists of synthesizing opposing views. We need prophetic voices especially in the arts, but also in the civic sphere; where would Abraham Lincoln have been if Frederick Douglass had advocated patience and compromise? And can we picture Arthur Miller, say, offering the sagacious position that compromise is mastery of social change? I look back at The Crucible, All My Sons, even Death of a Salesman, which is the least “political” of the three, and they are absolutely uncompromising, that’s part of their power.

The relationship between artists and leaders, and between artists and activists, are important and critical yet need not always be smooth for us to move together towards a more progressive vision.

It’s easy for me, who have never written anything worthwhile and could never write dialogue like Tony Kushner in a hundred years, to sit back and criticize him for making the thematic choice to offer wise compromise as a political ideal. Yet it seems to me that the role of the artist is not the role of the President. The artist’s role is to take risks, occasionally to be prophetic if the times call for it (or if the artist is trying to create that kind of work), but to be uncompromising, morally as well as artistically.

Our mainstream, well-compensated artists tell us we live in times when to be able to compromise is to be seen as wise and mature. That is a theme, and it is part of a legitimate theme. But it’s not the only way that social change happens, it’s not an insight that moves us forward. It’s an insight that reassures us and cements our national mythology. But isn’t one role of literature, of the arts, in this society to prompt us, to challenge us to move, well, forward?

The long arm of the law may bring justice for Victor Jara

3 Jan

Victim of an assassin’s bullet, Martin Luther King, Jr. famously echoed the words of the 19th Century Abolitionist Theodore Parker when he noted “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

Well, here’s another example of that long arc bending towards justice. After 39 years of investigation, Chilean authorities announced this week they had implicated eight men in the murder of singer-songwriter Victor Jara five days after the coup that overthrew elected President Salvador Allende in 1973. According to Reuters, after the case had been closed and reopened several times, four arrests were made, with others to come. One of the suspects, former Lieutenant Pedro Barrientos Núñez, now lives in Florida, in the United States, and may be extradited. (Interesting that despite his connection to the military dictatorship in Chile he still managed to get a visa to come here.) One of the other soldiers implicated in the killing, Edwin Dimter Bianchi, received training at the U.S.-funded School of the Americas, at the time located in Panama (and now in the U.S. state of Georgia).

Jara joined a list of famous artists who have been assassinated for political reasons, including Federico Garcia Lorca, and is possibly the most significant artist to be executed in my lifetime. Although thousands of people were killed under the Pinochet regime, Jara’s killing had symbolic significance throughout Latin America.

A great bibliography about him and his work, as well as his influence on other musicians around the world, can be found in his especially detailed Wikipedia entry.

Cassandra and the curse of prophecy

2 Jan

On seeing the Metropolitan Opera epic production of Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz last night (one of their best designed and directed productions, in my opinion, by the way), I was struck by a scene in the first act when Cassandra speaks about the curse of prophecy. If I understand the original libretto, by Berlioz himself, correctly (“Tu ne m’écoutes pas, tu ne veux rien comprendre/ Malheureux peuple, à l’horreur qui me suit!“), Cassandra laments that she has the gift of prophecy, of seeing the future, only no one believes her or wants to listen. This is the result of the curse of Apollo.

In Catholic social teaching, “prophetic” has come to refer to those who speak out against injustice, who are part of a tradition that is trying to build a better future by denouncing unjust practices rather than enduring them. Archbishop Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr. are considered to be leading lights in this prophetic intellectual tradition.

But what is made explicit in the Greek, and not in the Catholic, is that true prophets are ignored – at best – sometimes reviled or mocked. Cassandra’s curse is a case in point. She sees the bad that is going to happen, but no one believes her, no one wants to hear her, and they only realize she is right when it’s too late.

This too is the side of the prophetic tradition that we forget. We rally around prophets, especially in death, but when they are alive, there are few who want to listen and take what they say to heart. No one would want to hire them. If I am trying to develop a prophetic social science, for example, it is little wonder I will be unemployed – unless I am super-productive in ways that are valued in the industry. Are people willing to listen to – and hire – the prophetic voice in the classroom and the lecture hall, especially if it rallies against inaction?

Prophecy is a curse in all economic systems and educational environments. Nonetheless, it must be kept nourished.

First thoughts on “Cloud Atlas” and civilized narrative

1 Jan

For personal reasons, I haven’t been reading as much as I want to be or should be reading these days. Having said that, the book that lodged in my consciousness the most last year was David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I knew nothing about it when I was handed a copy at World Book Night in Cork, Ireland last year – coincidentally (or perhaps not) the city where Mitchell now resides. I was spurred to read it when the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and Roger Ebert, one of my favorite writers to follow on Facebook, wrote an enthusiastic review but urged readers to read the book before going to see the film, if only not to be confused by the multiple story lines. If you love literature, I think it’s always better to read the book first, although for me A Clockwork Orange is the exception that proves the rule. I still refuse to see any of the books based on Toelkien because I don’t want to cloud the image in my mind’s eye with someone else’s imaginary. I learned that from storytellers who decry the use of illustration in folklore books. The film of Cloud Atlas, while it has its own pleasures – especially the editing, the makeup, the acting, and some gorgeous cinematography – can only be disappointing to those who love the book, its rich characters, and distinct narrative voices. And for me the vision of some of the stories was so different from my own interior vision that what I remember from the screen is distinct from what exists in my mind’s eye. This is especially true of Zachry’s narrative that forms the exquisite middle novella at the heart of the book.

I’ve heard Mitchell interviewed – and by the way he could give lessons on how to be gracious with readers and call-ins – and much has been made of the master vs. slave dichotomies at the core of the six narratives. Like a lot about the book, though, it’s easy to oversimplify in that way. Far more significant, to my reading, than the master/slave conflict is the eternal conflict between the savage and the civilized, redefined across centuries in ways that are not immediately apparent. The master/slave dichotomy is there in some of the narratives, and it’s not exactly coterminous with the savage/civilized dichotomy that is also there, and that is more dynamic as well. Characters are faced with a stream of opportunities to show themselves as civilized, defined by Merilyne (I think), as those who think of the future generations and those who thing beyond their own individual gratification. It’s an easier reading of the book to see it as a reflection on the master/slave conflict, because we all want to see ourselves identifying with the noble slave, and there’s a feel-good quality to this reading. Who would identify with the masters? It’s more complicated and more painful to read the six stories through the lens of our own age which, like so many others, (perhaps all?), is dominated by savages and the savage urge to accumulate wealth. Mitchell doesn’t hold up a mirror as much as he places us in a hall of mirrors: we may think we see ourselves in the slave or anyone striving for freedom, but what we actually are are the proud descendants of generations of savages. Our relationship to the civilized is more ambivalent. Look at the treatment of Autua or Luisa Rey, for example, even Sixsmith. People, and the characters in the novel, can make choices about whether and when to think of others, think of the future, and be civilized, but we are all inconsistent, deeply flawed and ambivalent ourselves about the struggle to become civilized, before we all destroy one another in one way or another.

One of the things in the book that disturbed me, ironically enough, is the manifesto that ends the book (I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it but gets this far in my humble blog). It resonates, about the choices we make to construct a more moral world – issues that I am dealing with in my own life’s work and mission – but it’s also kind of comforting and feels a little like a bromide at the end of a long struggle which one would hope is more unsettling to one’s consciousness. I also think that would make for an oversimplified reading.

The book is not just about the sides we choose and the moral choices we make in our actions. It is equally about the sides we choose and our moral choice in our narratives, the way that our historical moment is not just constructed of the actions of generations that have come before, but also the narratives about those actions, real and fictitious, the ones that are told, the way they are told, and the ones that remain silenced histories. Read this way, there is significance in the selection of six different genres of narrative within the novel. The fact that the book is a compendium of genre fictions makes the stories go down much easier, but it is in the interstices, the way the narratives interlock – planned in the author’s mind but random in terms of actual probability (unless one believes in cosmic connections).

I am shaped equally by the actions of my great-grandfather coming to this country, by the actions of those European settlers before him who cleared the land of its Native inhabitants by killing them off, and by the narratives (and non-narrative morals) passed down in the family about who came here and why. We are shaped by the actions of those that came before, but also by the words about those actions, the self-reports and the third person accounts, by the masters and the slaves, by the savage and the civilized. To write, to narrate, to tell stories like a civilized person, speaking for the generations that come, this is a complementary mission to living a life that enslaves no one.

I’ll return to this later, but wanted to begin the New Year with some reflections on writing and storytelling in this vein.

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