On politics ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

On politics

In the comments below, Paul Martin asked about the politics of this blog. Here's something I prepared earlier for a 2003 Writers Symposium at the Melbourne Concert Hall, which basically covers what I think about art and politics, and which I post here because it might interest some of you.


Alison Croggon said...

A post emailed from Eileen:

Hello, new here- my heart skipped a beat or two when I discovered this site and that other bloggers too were deeply involved in a discourse about theatre as if it mattered.....I had all but given up hope that such strange folk existed given the abundance of those who claim the art form is dead and dont go or those who do go and so often seem content to stand vigil by its corpse.

Alison, I love this paper of yours. It addresses so many commonly held ideas about politics and art. Art that challenges the "truths" of the dominant culture and, as youve described so well, is seeking a morality that goes beyond the liberal humanism that dominates is not necessarily didactic,ideological, binary in its argument, or closed in its language and structure . It is also not of course inherently devoid of the sensory evocation and aesthetic dimensions we go to the theatre to be moved by(in fact the sensory engagement I seek at the theatre is nigh impossible for me without such a political/moral awareness as you have described). There is nothing that does a disservice to the possibility of a more deeply humane world than self-conscious moralising of whatever ilk in the theatre but often the spectre of agit-prop and neutered party-line performance is evoked to belittle and dismiss all work with a political consciousness.And this can come from people who consider themselves as innovators and part of a new wave of theatre makers as much as by conservatives. I dont know that we've ever had a theatre tradition of this kind (didactically political) of a size and potency that would warrant its myth.I do think that topical,liberal plays that leave us feeling civilised,possibly even pleased with ourselves are more common but I dont consider these plays to be political(and I've been in a couple unfortunately).

I wonder though whether the action that evoked Pauls response was your going to speak at a "Poets Against the War" gig. I feel that amongst my peers we talk about such questions as you have raised in your paper and try to integrate the ideas into our practice but to actually associate ourselves as an artist with an activist organisation or concept is not de rigeur.Maybe we are not truely "political" until we get down and dirty with other people who actually want to change things and have some ideas about where to start(though hopefully not too fixed on where we might go). Until we make that move we're not really any real threat are we?

Our theatre pieces will be tolerated in the way that corporate capitalism and its incumbent culture can tolerate much before it has to turn fascist to protect its interests.I dont mean to suggest that it is theatre or any arts' responsibility to come up with any answers but it does seem striking to me that there are relatively few theatre artists who have an association with activism and in fact many would wish to actively avoid an association even when they broadly share the views, and I wonder about that? Then again maybe thats just in my place.Cheers and thanks.


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Eileen - thanks so much for your wonderful post! And welcome to the conversation!

Just briefly (it's late and I'm tired): the Poets Against the War reading is a Writers Festival headline, rather than any kind of activism. I expect I was asked because - in the single act of sheerly political activism I have ever participated in - I organised the Australian end of the huge Poets Against the War protest before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I did so in the firm belief it would not stop the invasion of Iraq - I had read too much to think it wasn't going to happen. But it seemed to me loathsome to permit such a thing to happen with my assumed consent, my silence. In which is probably contained the whole contradictory nature of my personal attitude to direct political action.

Like very many artists, I think, I have fairly strong personal responses to political issues, and yet feel very ambivalent towards any personal activism. I admire the people who have the commitment to do so, but I guess in the end I know I am an writer, and that perhaps in the long terms I should best address those things that concern me by doing what I do best. Still, there are little naggings: is that simply being a hypocrite? There are certainly people who would claim so. And sometimes I'm not sure. It's a constant argument I've had with myself for many years now.

One makes art because one loves it. Love is difficult, laborious, complex and contradictory, of course, and so is art. To make it at all, to create the space for alternative possibilities beyond what is imposed by political or social power, seems to me a profoundly political act. I'm probably with Ionesco in his dislike of any kind of any kind of political conformism, anything that levels the possible realities open to an artist to the merely social, the limited definitions of power. We are all both what we are in relationship and what we are alone.

This has turned out a bit long. Bedtime!


Paul Martin said...

Alison, yes, I should also be in bed.

Still, there are little naggings: is that simply being a hypocrite?

I say emphatically, no. I will relate from my perspective.

Your timing correlates to my own political involvement. There were local meetings about David Hicks some time ago and I really wanted to go (but didn't, and I probably feel some guilt about that). I did attend some rallies in the city, and as I'd been feeling pretty down about where Australia was heading under the incumbents, it felt good to be among others who had a similar view. In fact it felt more than good, I felt sane. I'm not alone.

I've written on many social issues over the last decade or so, mostly in the form of letters to the editor, and usually to The Age. My success rate (in getting published) is about 60%, which I'm told is quite high as only a small percentage of letters make it into the paper. I felt this means, and attending a public rally are ways that I can have a voice, have some effect, but not be involved in a group. I have been involved in groups in the past, and don't wish to again (in general, as there are exceptions).

My blog is not overtly political, but all my writing is infused with my world view. Occasionally, if I think it appropriate, I will place something like the recent GetUp video clip of Louise Barry, partly because I can justify it in the context of my blog, but mostly because the anti-war message is something I feel strongly about. Can I do more? Sure, but I'm not going to beat myself up over it. I'm bloody dying of exhaustion and sleep deprivation as it is. Whatever I'm doing is a whole lot more than most.

While I'm not a political activist, per se, I do relate to your comments about others. I wish people would be rioting in the streets in response to the outrageous actions and policies of this government. In another time, they would have. And in some parts of the world, they still are.

Pardon the rant, and I'm afraid it might not be as lucid as I would like it. Look at the time, I've got to get to bed.

Alison Croggon said...

Emailed from Eileen

I agree, creating spaces for dissent , dissonance and otherness is a political act in itself and may rampant subjectivity always shine in art.Also, I share your reasoning that writers write and should do so.Activists attend meetings,thrash out policy, work in campaigns,organize others. Maybe because I’m an actor-perhaps the most social of all theatre roles- I was thinking though more in terms of interaction and co-operation rather than political conformity. I’d make a differentiation there(though I know its not an easy one).To my shame my knowledge of Ionesco goes little beyond Drama 101 and a handful of productions but my impression is his world view has much in kin with a kind of radical individualism which I think is common among artists, but I’m quite prepared to be miles off?

It has always intrigued and sort of eluded me as to why the artists,particularly writers, whose work I admire most-other than Brecht- can often deconstruct our experiences of alienation, despair and denial and reveal the moral salt-marsh we’re currently experiencing with great insight and expression,even sometimes evoke momentary feelings/possibilities of liberation in us, and yet they often seem to firmly reject any actions which may seek to create a different reality in a social sense.Rejecting even the possibility of social change brought about by mass action, for example, as something rather soiled.(I know I’m generalising –Barker is an example of this for me). I understand the suspicion because the “grand narrative” social experiments of the last century led largely to heinous forms of totalitarianism-not enough can be said about this. But the general discourses and practices of many social activists and movements for social change, particularly those with a Marxist bent, have moved on (in small, hedge-school ways in Australia but in South America, say, quite substantially), not just influenced but transformed in many ways by feminist insights about power and subjectivity and also by anarchist concepts and experiments about social organisation.(Maybe there is more hope in that than reality but whats happening in Venezuela is very interesting…) There are many ideas afloat that dare to envisage what a world beyond global capitalism could look, feel and sound like and at the risk of being apocalyptic it seems we’re living on borrowed time in which to imagine them into action and stumble our way towards them . I’m not suggesting that artists need to be some kind of vanguard-eek!- in the creation of new ways and structures of living together and I realise that political art over the past couple of decades has tended to be more concerned with specific identity politics rather than a broader human project but I still think it would be interesting if there was more dialogue between artists and people that are involved in more direct political intervention. If we had , even, a social milieu were that was possible.

TimT said...

... whats happening in Venezuela is very interesting…

Yeah. Like Chavez's recent announcement that foreigners who criticised his government would be expelled from his country.

A democracy declining into a dictatorship. Not good. But interesting.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Eileen - You might be interested in my review of The Perjured City in connection with this discussion - French theatre has a long tradition of just this kind of intellectual/political/aesthetic engagement, as you know doubt know; we don't have quite the same tradition. (Just bang Helene Cixous in my label cloud and you'll find it.)

Melbourne Workers Theatre here fosters direct social and political engagement. I haven't seen as much of its work as I should have, but We Built This City was a pretty exciting example of political theatre emerging from specific communities - and really stunning visual theatre. I've seen other things there that haven't impressed me so much. I guess a big part of the problem with the political thing is that trying to get artists to agree on anything is like herding cats.

Lots more to say on all this, but I fear my brain has seized up!

Abe Pogos said...

From Lee Sustar's article about Venezuela on Znet


...President Hugo Ch├ívez’s government, which began in 1999...aims to build “socialism for the twenty-first century.”

Revenues from the state oil company, PDVSA, have funded vast increases in social spending. Targeted outreach to the poor via government “missions” have largely bypassed the old state structures and have achieved spectacular results.

These include a reduction of poverty from 55 percent of the population to 34 percent as the share of gross domestic product (GDP) on social spending has increased from 7.83 percent to 14.69 percent; the achievement of literacy for 1.5 million adults; the virtual elimination of hunger through subsidized grocery stores that service 13 million people; medical care provided by Cuban doctors via free clinics in slums, reaching 18 million people, nearly 70 percent of the population; access to higher education for the poor and working class; and special affirmative action programs for indigenous people.1 The minimum wage is now the highest in Latin America at $286 per month, and the workweek is to be shortened from forty to thirty-six hours by 2010.2 Land reform has shifted 8.8 million acres to impoverished families, more than half of that from private owners.3 Government seed money has increased the number of cooperative enterprises from fewer than 800 to 181,000 to try and provide more stable employment for the approximately half of Venezuelan workers who toil in the informal sector of the economy...

What's happening in Venezuela may not be perfect, but it is interesting.

TimT said...

Thanks for that neat recycling of internet propaganda, Abe. Meanwhile, Hugo Chavez, the man who first came to the attention as the leader of a failed military coup, has sent prices rocketing, censored dissenting media sources. Middle class Venezualans are queuing up to leave the country.

He's setting himself up to be a dictator: it's quite simple.

TimT said...

There's more I could dig up on this subject, but it's getting rather off topic.

Abe Pogos said...

Tim, at the risk of staying off topic, if you're going to dismiss a bunch of statistics as Internet propaganda then you should provide evidence as to why those statistics are wrong. That article is heavily referenced and it may well be that some of the sources are biased and ideologically driven. But one statistic I did check was this one:

"The minimum wage is now the highest in Latin America at $286 per month, and the workweek is to be shortened from forty to thirty-six hours by 2010."

The source of that figure is Bloomberg. This is what Wikipedia says about Bloomberg:

"Bloomberg L.P. is the largest financial news and data company in the world, controlling 33% of market share."

As far as I can tell they're not card carrying socialists.

As for people queuing up to leave the country, it's not surprising that predominantly upper and middle class citizens may want to leave a country when its government has an agenda to share the wealth.

TimT said...

I didn't dismiss it, but recognised the tone as similar to a lot of the propaganda that can be found on far left websites and in news sources such as Green Left Weekly (who are run by the Socialist Alliance and also have an ideological commitment to supporting the 'Cuban Revolution').

Meanwhile, Chavez is slowly removing existing restrictions on his power. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both have rather large files on the two countries.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Alison, your review shivered me timbers. Theatre Du Soleil is a great example.....and Mnouchkine never afraid to cross the boundary from making subversive art to civil disobedience and back again. I lament that we dont have a similar tradition here but it is wishful thinking. Recently read Marr's quarterly essay in which he disavows us good and proper of the idea we are anti-authoritarian larrikins-we are more accurately the great obeyers.
But it is always a thrill to hear of people throwing down the gauntlet aesthetically and poetically as well as in discourse.
Tim,I'm not sure if you are really interested in Human Rights or only when it suits your argument(theres a lot of that) but assuming its the former I think it imperative that independent agencies play watchdog roles in all countries.
With regards the "special powers" legislation Chavez has introduced, I agree that it needs close scrutiny as the article Abe quoted also said though if you read it the powers are much more limited than those implemented by our own Government and that of the US(the author declared quite clearly that he was critiquing the Venezuelan reforms from a classical marxist framework)As for the ,frankly,nonsense about closing the tv station-as is well documented it is a station which was actively involved-rally calls and prime-time given to generals among other things-in a coup ,sanctioned by Washington, to overthrow a democratically elected government-a 60% majority ,mostly the poor and disenfranchised. It didnt have its license renewed. Shock, horror its the end of freedom-of -speech.
The foreigners you refer to are oil and other industry execs and apparatchiks reeling from the reforms and actively organising against the government with the CIA sparing what little it has left over from Iraq to help things along.Its not a new scenario for South and Central Americans. In last years election the UN had its watchdogs there in considerable force and declared the results entirely legal.
What I was particularly referring to in bringing up Venezuela though was that the nature of the reforms have so far avoided creating a monolithic state which was the hallmark of the "socialist" experiments of last century-people are organising into local and smaller groups that are being given some real clout to take control of their lives.Since I was generally talking of dreaming up the future, this seemed like a significant step forward. I'm not naive enough to think it is the end of the story since I dont think history has an end....

TimT said...

I'm not sure how much it would take to convince you that Chavez and the people that he leads is ruining the country Eileen. But thanks for engaging with me.