Friday, October 28, 2011

Inside and Outside of Art Forms

We watched a very strong production of Macbeth this summer, done by teenagers in an Advanced Shakespeare workshop of the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival.  It was clever and creative and made good use of its players, stretching them to live in Shakespeare's language and the world he creates.

I had not seen Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, from 1957, a film based on Macbeth, and began to watch it, in Japanese with subtitles. There are some changes (the three witches become one singing, wispy spirit, for example) but the storyline remains. I found that as I watched, I grew increasingly worried and restless and upset, and later I had nightmares. I could not figure out why. This is a play I know well.  So I started to try to figure out what was different. The early mists, where the characters are lost, and see the spirit, are poetic, as in the versions I know. But the discussions of the Macbeth character, Washizu, with his wife, Asaji, are more disturbing in this version, I think. She is relentless in her inventing of reasons to kill "His Lordship." She sits there, faintly smiling, whispering encouragements. And he believes her and begins to think as she does.

And what I realized was that the fact that this is all couched in another language, and I cannot hear its poetry, means that the human heart is frighteningly un-wrapped, and somehow, even though the play is set in feudal Japan, it feels more real to me than the story as written in iambic pentameter.

So I thought to myself that this is the reverse of what I ought to feel. Isn't it? So I began to consult my usual suspects about the consolations of art. Here is Wallace Stevens, the full text of the poem "Solitaire Under the Oaks":

In the oblivion of cards
One exists among pure principles

Neither as the cards nor the trees nor the air
Persist as facts. This is an escape.

To principium, to meditation.
One knows at last what to think about

And thinks about it without consciousness,
Under the oak trees, completely released.

So to me, this means that some ways of thinking about art (here the metaphor for art is "cards") push away any "facts," that art can be an "escape."  And we can lose ourselves in the reading of a book, for example, or the watching of a play, or gazing at a painting, where everything is concentrated purely into that moment, that work of art, and "One knows at last what to think about," because the work of art brings the mind into a (momentary) focus. And, feeling that unity of "purpose" (not really purpose, because that's not what we have sought out here, but it feels like that at the time), we are "released."

Then I went to Iris Murdoch's essay, "The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts."  She says that "Good art reveals what we are usually too selfish and too timid to recognize, the minute and absolutely random detail of the world, and reveals it together with a sense of unity and form" (p. 84, The Sovereignty of Good,  London: Routledge Classics, 2001).  So we have, together, the "random" -- which, in Macbeth, would be the accumulation of thoughts in the characters' minds, the way they coalesce, almost randomly, but terribly, to form the plan for murder -- and the "unity and form" which Shakespeare gives us by way of the poetry and the familiar arc of the tragic play. This combination is comforting to us. Tragedy, in this guise, is comforting.

Jane Hamilton, writing in Ancient Art and Ritual, back in 1913,  says that "when we say art is unpractical, we say it is cut loose from immediate action." In our daily lives, or in our rituals, we eat cherries. In art, we paint our vision of or our emotions about the cherries; the artist and the viewer become spectators, apart from the action.  "The artist renounces doing in order to practise seeing."

So ... I am capable of sitting back and listening to the anguished, but eloquent, poetry of Macbeth because it is "impractical." But when I watch Throne of Blood, I am not immersed in an art form that I recognize. I cannot cope with the terrible human pictures in the film. Everything I do, everything and everyone I care about, will lead me to a need for an art that offers at least a momentary consolation. Kurosawa feels immediate and real, because the unity for me in this work of art is still elusive. It is unfamiliar; it wakes me up, the way Richard Foreman and Gertrude Stein would want audiences waked up. But is is difficult, very difficult, to come into an art that demands that we see it as "immediate action." But is is good to come into this art. It must be like moving from a perfect Ingres nude to the naked bodies of Degas and Van Gogh and Matisse (see yesterday's post).

So I leave you with my version of Kurosawa, "Van Gogh's Reclining Nude Sleeps in an Alpine Meadow," finished yesterday:

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