"Keats/ and Light"
by Diane di Prima
pp 13-37, in Talking Poetics from Naropa Institute:
Annals of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodies Poetics,
Edited by Anne Waldman and Marilyn Webb
Shambhala, Boulder & London, 1978.)
Left: poet Diane di Prima
June 24, 1975, Boulder Colorado-- The actual stuff that poetry is made out of is light. There are poems where the light actually comes through the page, the same way that it comes through the canvas in certain Flemish paintings, so you're not seeing light reflected off the painting, but light that comes through, and I don't know the tricks that make this happen. But I know they're there and you can really tell when it's happening.and when it's not. So I've been rying to figure out what makes it happen.And I think it's not very different from the light of meditation. So that I'm beginning to suspect that what makes it happen is the way the sound moves in you, moving your spirit in a certainway to produce a certain effect which is like the effect of light.
And I want to read to you something about the way sound moves in you, the way the sound moves in the hearer. It's from the second book of Natural and Occult Philosophy by Cornelius Agrippa in the 1400's. In the second volume of this three-volume work, Agrippa gets a lot into numbers. When he gets into numbers, he gets into music. When he gets into music, he gets at one point into the fact that vocal music is the most effective of all musics for moving the hearer. And what he has to say about vocal music. And what he has to say about vocal music is not that very different from the effects of a well-read, well-chanted poem:
Singing can do more than the sound of an instrument, inasmuch as it, arising by an harmonial consent, from the conceit of the mind and by imperious affection of the fantasy and heart, easily penetrateth by motion, with the refracted and well-tempered Air, the Aerious spirit of the hearer, which is the bond of soul and body, and transferring the affection and mind of the Singer with it, it moveth the affection of the hearer by his affection, and the hearer's fantasy by his fantasy, and mind by his mind, and striketh the mind, and striketh the heart, and pierceth even to the inwards of the soul, and by little and little, infuseth even dispositions; moreover, it moveth and stoppeth the members and the humors of the body . . .
He goes on to say that breath is, of course, spirit, and that what happens is that the spirit, your spirit as a person singing or chanting or reading aloud, enters the ear and mingles in the body of the hearer, with his spirit, and so moves and changes the body's humors and dispositions. What we are is nothing but a physical instrument, not much different than a musical instrument in some ways, and the effect that we produce--or perceive--of light or other really high energy--meditative high--comes only out of changes in this physical instrument.
And so there is a way, to me, is that the most high aim of poetry is to create that sense of light. There are passages in the Cantos that do that. There are poems in every language that do it, and it's a question of some real subtle juxtapositions of vowels. Pound tried to track it down when he talked about the tone leading of vowels and harmonizing the different vowels, and Duncan is into that when he talks about assonance and "rhyme". Like picking up the same vowel over and over for a long time, and then changing it. Or paced--spaced--repetition of sound. Pound tried earlier to get at it when he wrote--in his critical essays-that we've always in recent centuries had a stressed beat in English verse, whereas the older, quantitative verse, where some syllables are more drawn out than others, gives more the sense of music. It also gives more the space for that phenomenon of light to occur.
One thing that I have just a glimmer, have a handle on, that I really think may be worth thinking about, is this phenomenon of light, in all, maybe in all arts. How it could suddenly burst into light in you body, if it does.
Another really separate thing that I wanted to do today is to share some passages of the letters of John Keats with you. Passages about the writing of poetry. They were maybe my earliest information on what poetry was about. Just like the most recent information I have is this of the breath and light, for me the earliest information was this that I want to read to you next. When I was a youngster, I had been reading a lot of Western philosophy and novels and came upon in a book, a novel by Somerset Maugham, a quotation from Keats. And then I pursued finding Keats and discovered there was poetry and wondered why anybody did it with philosophy when they could do it in a poem. And you can do it different in a poem every day, you can make a different construct. You can make a different reality every day instead of sticking to your system for the rest of your life, like poor Schopenhauer. So at that point I fell totally completely passionately endlessley eternally in love with John Keats. And mainly the information that was in his letters.
Keats was born in 1795 and died in 1821 at the age of 26. These letters were written between 1817 and 1820, so Keats is in his early 20's, 23 or 24. This first quote gives you some sense of his sense of commitment to poetry:
April 17, 1817-- I find I cannot exist without Poetry--eternal Poetry--half the day will not do--the whole of it--I began with a little, but habit has made me a Leviathan. I had become all in a Tremble from not having written anything of late--the Sonnet overleaf did me good. I slept the better las tnight for it--this Morning, however, I am nearly as bad again.
Less than a month later, he begins to really get into it--get led by the pursuit:
May 10, 1817--I've asked myself so often why I should be a poet more than other men, seeing how great a thing it is--how great things are to be gained by it--what a thing to be in the mouth of Fame--that at last the idea has grown . . . monstrously beyond my seeming power of attainment . . . Yet 'tis a disgrace to fail, even in a huge attempt; and at this moment I drive the thought from me . . . However I must think that difficulties nerve the Spirit of a man--they make our prime objects a refuge as well as a passion . . . the looking upon the Sun, the Moon, the Stars, the Earth and its contents, as materials to form greater things--that is to say, ethereal things . . .
At this point, he's climbing, in some sense, out--really climbing out of the matter universe, and there's a flicker, kind of a flicker, of a real gnostic consciousness: how we have to climb back through all the realms, all the concentric spheres of matter, like the planetary spheres, the zodiacal spheres, back into the immaterial. And one way to do that-- use it all up-- every minute. Let's go on. Here's a quote about the long poem.
October 8, 1817-- Why endeavor after a long poem? To which I should answer, do not the lovers of Poetry like to have a little Region to wander in, where they may pick and choose, and in which the images are so numerous that many are forgotten and found new in a second reading: which may be food for a week's stroll in the Summer? . . . Besides, a long poem is a test of invention, which I take to be the Polar star of Poetry, as Fancy is the Sails--and Imagination the Rudder.
|Amira Baraka and Diane di Prima
I find myself very often when I'm reading something someone gives me, I find myself saying, "you sound like you're just getting started." You know, at the point where the poem finishes. Why not go on for twenty, fifty more pages? "Cause what we tend to kind of like to do is put our toe in?--or like peek in through the door and stay on the threshold. And if you go past the point where you know what you're talking about and then thru all the blather that goes after that, you might come out in an inner chamber, you know? You just might. You might blather for the rest of your life--a lot of us do--but that's a chance you gotta take. Anyway . . .
Here's a take he did on genius, a take on what "a man of genius" is:
November 22, 1817 -- Men of Genius are great as certain ethereal chemicals operating on the Mass of neutral intellet--abut they have not any individuality, any detrmined Characer--I would call the top and head of those who have a proper self Men of Power . . . I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections, and the truth of Imagination.What the Imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth--whether it existed before or not,--flr I have teh same idea of all our passions as of Love: they are all, in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty . . . The Imagination may be compared to Adam's dream,--he awoke and found it truth:--I am more zealous in this affair, because I have never yet been able to perceive how anything can be known for truth by consecutive reasoning--and yet it must be. Can it be that even the greatest Philosopher ever arrived at his Goal without putting aside numerous objections? However it may be, O for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts! . . . I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness--I took not for it if it be not in the present hour,--nothing startles me beyond the moment. The Setting Sun will always set me to rights, or if a Sparrow come before my Window, I take part iin its existence and pick about the gravel.
This quote, for me, has three different nuggets. First, the thing he goes back to often and later about having--here he says the man of Genius and later he says the poetic character--having no individuality. Later, he goes into it in more detail and talks about partaking in the life of every creature. Really, what he's trying to get at, or describe, seems to be some kind of egoless state. There wasn't that kind of vocabulary in England, thank God, in 1817--thank God, because otherwise he might have said: "Hey man, I just reached a far-out ego-less state the other day, watching this sparrow," and we wouldn't have what we have got.
Then Keats' idea of the imagination, which is really not that different from Blake's--the imagination creates worlds. It brings into being whatever it can vividly and completely conceive. "The imagination may be compared to Adam's dream, he awoke and found it truth." Creative imagination: that idea keeps growing with him all through his life. Somebody, a little old lady in Phoenix--it was one of those question and answer periods after a reading--asked me what I thought the function of the poet was in this society. And I said that if you could imagine anything clearly enough, and tell it precisely enough, that you could bring it about. Anyway, the theory of imagination as creative principle keeps growing for Keats. It is for him--as for Blake--a cornerstone.
And the third thing here--for me, one of the guiding sentences of twenty years of my life, or maybe still, maybe always--is, "I am cerain of nothing baut the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of the imagination." That about says it.
Okay, this next is a paragraph that relly got Olsoon off, he quotes it a lot--it's the passage on negative capability. It's very interesting, and these things: imagination, genius as a kind of egolessness, are all part of it. There is a system here, if you wanted to sytemize it. There is a growing system of thought that Keats is evolving, but systemetizing it would be simplistic--it would do him an injustice.
As Keats said, "I have never yet been able to perceive how anything can be known for truth by consecutive reasoning." I want to just take the quotes and look at them--follow him chronologically through the process.
December 22, 1817--[The winter solstice, by the way.] The excellence of evry art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth . . . several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, , especialy in Literature, and which Shakespear possessed so enormously--I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.
So, at this point what Keats is calling "a sense of beauty," what obliterates all consideration or all thinking process, is that same experience that we have whenever it all drops away. A kind of satori. My friend Katagiri Roshi, who's a Zen master in Minneapolis, gave six lectures once on the word WOW. WOW, as the complete American Zen experience. When it all drops away, when the sense of beauty obliterates all consideration, or the sense of the overwhelmingness of it, WOW, that's all we said for the lat three days, me and my two friends, as we drove here from California, through all this incredible country, and we kept saying . . . they were asleep one night and I'm driving, and saying WOW! WOW!
Negative capability. Now you see how that idea, first of the man of genius not partaking of any inidividual character, becomes a bigger ormore universal idea, which is that idea of negative cpability, of not pursuing any viewpoint. It's kind of a real Eastern idea. Except that it happened fresh from nothing at this point in this kid in some dumpy English suburb. "When a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." And to get that state, clearly enough focused to make it the matter of poetry, so taht you don't try to "make sense," but become this receiving tube, become this focusing point.
I have been asked, "how does the artist function in society?" I'm not saying that the high role of the artist is to function in society at all. But the way that your art does function socially is that when you can visualize clearly any possible human state, or social state for that matter, or universe, and focus it clearly and precisely enough, and then bring it into being either verbally in a poem, or in a painting--you bring that world into existence. And it's permanently here, it doesn't go away. Doesn't even go away when the book gets burned, look at Sappho. Those worlds don't go away.
Question: Do you see any contradiction between that and a statement by Picasso that one should have an idea of what one wants but not too precise an idea.
Oh, no! I don't see any contradiction. Because, you see, the idea of what you want, it's just your launching pad, just what you start off from, it has nothing to do with what you make. When you get through that threshold and you enter the chambeer, that's where you start to see clearly. If your idea is too precise, you might be at that door forever. You know, 'cause you might have the wrong combination for the lock. For example, I might say I know this next part of this poem has to have that feeling of line that they had in paintings in Sienna. I don't mean anything but that I have a feel of something about to happen there. That's a non-precise idea, and at that point, that's all you have. And then when you enter into the act of composing, at that point you have nothing--everything drops away, and you have only what you're receiving. Your whole purpose as an artist is to make yourself a fine enough organism to most precisely receive, and most precisely transmit. And at that point--total attentiion to total detail, total suspension of everything but that vision, whatever it is, and gain, at that point, no idea at all, no idea. The idea was just your first--the idea is what made you get up that morning and put your shoes on. And when you find yourself in an incredible grove, it's not because you had an idea you were gonna get there. But when you get to the grove, you damn well better open your eyes. It's two different parts of the process. More Keats . . .
February 3, 1818. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one's soul and does nt startle it or amaze it with itself--but with its subject . . . we need not be teased with grandeur and merit: when we can have them uncontaminated and unobtrusive.
|Poet Diane di Prima
Note: more text of Diane di Prima's lecture
on Keats/Light and his notion of
to be uploaded by maryclaire
this weekend . . .
I will do my best, it's a lot of typing.
March 7, 2003
an excerpt from her book Between Lives by
'Thus I have come one morning to the studio, into the litter and debris of last week and the day before. Tables hold fast under their load of tubes and brushes, cans and bottles interspersed with hair roller pins, that view of Delft, a stapler, a plastic tub of gypsum powder, a Polaroid of two dogs, green flashbulbs for eyes, a postcard picturing the retreating backs of six nudists on a eucalyptus-shaded path, a nibless pen, an episcope (an optical projector). On the floor or on the wall or on the easel, a new surface waits whitely.
Battle green, blood geranium, rubbed bloody black, drop of old rain. The canvas lies under my liquid hand. Explosia, a new planet invented with its name. That's what we paint for, invention. Unheard-of news, flowers, or flesh. "Not a procedure," I say to the room. "Nothing to do with twenty-four hours: just an admixture for all five senses, the sixth one to be dealt with separately."
Because this is only the beginning. A long flashed life, as they say, before dying. I am a fish swimming upstream. At the very top I deposit my pictures; then I die as they ripen and hatch and swim down, very playfully, because they are young and full of big ideas. Down and down, and finally, among the people who like to fish pictures, they are caught and devoured by millions of eyes.
In this artist's dream-plot there are only artist-scales, iridescent though they may be. And the rest? For thirty-five years, life was love, a second skin. Authoritative, instinctual love. Now life is life, sybaritic, an absolutely polished structure of skeletal simplicity. Uninvolved, uncommitted, underworn, deeply and evenly breathed. Its second plot, not life but art, unfolds painty wings each day to try the air, pushing out perhaps reluctant visions, uninvolved, yes, unaware of their public category.
It is one of those days and it is time to reconsider. Time to turn inside out before the first gesture. You have drawn up a stool and sit gazing at the first whiteness, feeling suddenly vulnerable and panic-stricken before your light-hearted intention. What has happened, where is the euphoria, the confidence of five minutes ago? Why is certainty receding like distance, eluding you, paling out to leave the whiteness as no more than a pitiless color? Is a canvass defiant, sullen? Something must be done.
Ambivalent feelings, then, for the blank rectangle. On one hand the innocent space, possibilities at your mercy, a conspiracy shaping up. You and the canvass are in this together. Or are you? For, seen the other way, there is something queerly hostile, a void as full of resistance as the trackless sky, as mocking as heat lightning. If it invites to conspiracy it also coldly challenges to battle.
Quite mechanically during these first moments - hours? - the little bowl has been filled with things like turpentine and varnish; tubes of colour have been chosen, Like jewels on a tray, and squeezed, snaky blobs, onto a paper palette. The beautiful colors give heart. Soon they will explode. A shaft of cobalt violet. With echoes from alizarin and titanium and purple - which is really red. There is orange from Mars, mars orange. The sound of their names, like planets: cerulean and earthshadow, raw or burnt; ultramarine out of the sea, barite and monacal and vermillion. Siren sounds of cochineal and dragon's blood, and gamboge and the lake from blackthorn berries that draw you after them; they sing in your ear, promising that merely to dip a brush in their suavities will produce a miracle.
What does it matter that more often not the artist is dashed against the rocks and the miracle recedes, a dim phosphorescence? Something has remained: the picture that has taken possession of the cloth, the board, the wall. No longer a blind surface, it is an event, it will mark a day in a chaotic world and will become order. Calm in its commotion, clear in its purpose, voluptuous in its space.
Here it is, seduction taking the place of awe. After a quick decision - was it not planned in the middle of the night along with your subject and its thrust? - a thin brush is chosen, is dipped and dipped again - madder, violet, gold ocher. A last stare at the grim whiteness before taking the plunge, made at last with the abandon "of divers," said Henry James, speaking of birds, "not expecting to rise again." Now, after only seconds, blankness and nothingness are routed forever.
A hundred forms loom in charming mock dimensions to lure you from your subject, the one that demands to be painted; with each stroke (now there are five brushes in two hands) a thousand other pictures solicit permanence. Somewhere the buzzer buzzes faintly. Sounds from the street drift up, the drone of a plane drifts down. The phone may have rung. A lunchless lunch hour came and went.
The beleaguered canvass is on the floor. Colors are merging. Cobalt and chrome bridge a gap with their knowing nuances. Where is the cadmium red-orange? The tubes are in disorder, their caps lost, their labels smeared with wrong colours.
Oh, where is the red-orange, for it is at the moment the only color in the world and Dionysus the only deity.
Now there is no light at all in the studio. The day is packing up, but who cares? With a voice of its own the canvass hums a tune for the twilight hour, half heard, half seen. Outlines dance; sonic eyes bid you watch out for surprises that break all the rules: white on black making blue; space that deepens with clutter; best of all, the fierce, ambivalent human contour that catches sound and sight and makes me a slave. Ah, now the world will not be exactly as it was this morning! Intention has taken over and here in this room leans a picture that is at last in league with its painter, hostilities forgotten. For today.
As brushes are cleaned and windows opened to clear the turpentine air, the artist steals glances - do not look too long - at the living, breathing picture, for it is already a picture. Once again light-hearted, even light-headed, the mood is vaporous. There are blessed long hours before tomorrow...
Have I slept? Once again before the daubed canvas, which is now upright in the harsh morning light. I am aghast. How could anyone have found it good, even a good start.? Traitorous twilight, fostering those balloons of pride that had floated all over the studio! Yesterday ended in a festival, was positively buoyant. Syncopating with glances canvasward, brush-cleaning drudgery was a breeze (a hellish task after a failed day). Now you are bound. The canvas is to be reckoned with. It breathes, however feebly. It whispers a satanic suggestion for the fast, easy solution. "Others have done it, do it, why not you?" How to explain? There is no fast and easy for me.
Daily depths of depression, as familiar as a limp is to the war-wounded, are followed by momentary exhaltations, sometimes quiet certainties: Yeah, that's it... But if that is it, then the presence... on... the other side... all changed now, dark again... Must wait for tomorrow... Oh God... How awful...
Several days have left their gestural arabesques in the big room, adding up to clutter and despondency. Dust has been raised in the lens of the eye; intention has softened to vagary. Then an idea in the night brings its baggage to the morning. Welcome! Go ahead. Stare at the canvass already occupied by wrong paint, hangdog. But not for long. Not this time. Because you dive - with an intake of breath you dive, deep into your forest, your desert, your dream.
Now the doors are all open, the air is mother-of-pearl, and you know the way to tame a tiger. It will not elude you today, for you have grabbed a brush, you have dipped it almost at random, so high is you rage, into the amalgam of color, formless on a docile palette.
As you drag lines like ropes across one brink of reality after another, annihilating the world you made yesterday and hated today, a new world heaves into sight. Again the event progresses, without benefit of hours.
Before the emerging picture there is no longer panic to shake heart and hand, only a buzzing in your ears to mark rather unconvincingly the passage of time. You sit or stand, numb in either case, or step backward, bumping as often or not into forgotten objects dropped on the floor. You coax the picture out of its cage along with personae, essences, its fatidic suggestion, its insolence. Friend or enemy? Tinged with reference - alas, as outmoded these days as your easel - weighted as the drop of rain that slid on the window, it swims toward completion. Evening soaks in unnoticed until lengthening shadows have caressed every surface in the room, every hair on your head, and every shape in your painted picture.
The application of color to a support, something to talk about when it's all over, now hold you in thrall. The act is your accomplice. So are the tools, beakers, bottles, knives, glues, solubles, insolubles, tubes, plasters, cans; there is no end...
Time to sit down. Time to clean the brushes, now become a kindly interlude. Time to gaze and gaze; you can't get enough of it because you are now on the outside looking in. You are merely the visitor, grandly invited: "Step in."
"Oh, I accept." Even though the twilight has faded to black and blur, making sooty phantoms of your new companions, you accept. Feeling rather than seeing, you share exuberance. You are surprised and uneasy when you seem to hear the rather conspiratorial reminder that it was, after all, your hand, your will, your turmoil that has produced it all, this brand new event in a very old world. Thus, you may think:" "Have I brought a little order out of the chaos? Or have I merely added to the general confusion? Either way a mutation has taken place. You have not painted in a vacuum. You have been bold, working for change. To overturn values. The whirling thought: change the world. It directs the artist's daily act. Yes, modesty forbids saying it. But say it secretly. You risk nothing.'
--Excerpt from 'Between Lives'
by Dorothea Tanning, 2001, Norton.
In 1975, Tanning spent eleven months trying to cope with the stroke-smitten, powerless, angrily powerful Max Ernst. Her husband and soul-mate of so many years and so many homes survived a head wound in the Great War, survived the Nazi invasion of France, escaping Paris, then Marseilles by the skin of his teeth and in 1942 met the much younger Dorothea, a struggling illustrator, at her New York apartment. Seeing her painting, 'Birthday', seeing that she played chess, seeing her... he never left.
"The Struggle" was written in her solitary state, returned to New York, refinding her own voice without her Max's dominating fame and presence. All her contemporaries were gone: the Belgian and Parisian Surrealists, free-spirited American women: Kay Sage, Lee Miller, great friends, John Cage, Marcel and Teeny Duchamp, Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine, Julien Levy, Dylan Thomas, Truman Capote... She continues to work at the age of 92.
below: "Birthday" by Dorothea Tanning, 1942
'Surrealism: Desire Unbound' at the Tate Modern
A Review by Borin Van Loon
Not a 'blockbuster' exhibition, if such a thing exists, and probably all the better for it. As one of the most important, turbulent and, it must be admitted, inherently flawed movements in art, poetry and revolutionary politics of the last century, Surrealism explores and uncovers that which is 'above the real', a dimension of meaning which transcends bourgeois 'common sense'. Given their positioning in history (born out of the unbridled nihilism of Dada, itself a product of the horrors of the Great War) the founding fathers of Surrealism (and it was mainly men at the start: women were seen as muses for the males) didn't have much time for that dominant and dreaded class dubbed by Marx 'the bourgeoisie'. Uneasy off-and-on relations with the official Communist Party throughout the Stalinist era didn't really help; it's clear that the hard left in France couldn't cope with these semi-anarchic, strange young men and their passionate, disturbing attitudes towards the stifling mediocrity of the European middle class.
At the centre of Surrealism's agenda was the pursuit and examination of desire. The word 'desire', as it appears in the title of this exhibition, applies to all areas of human activity which are suppressed by bourgeois values. Adopting the spirit and vocabulary of the Russian Revolution and Freudian psychoanalysis (two unlikely bedfellows) led the early practitioners to experiment with pure psycic automatism, often to the exclusion of other forms of expression. These factors conspired to destabilise a movement which was remarkably long-lived, eventually being shattered only by the invasion of France by the Nazis. As a coherent movement Surrealism found a figurehead (and he did have a remarkably large, leonine head) in Andre Breton. Breton himself embodied a revolutionary spirit with a questionable attitude towards women and extreme homophobia. During the 'Discussions on Sexuality' which were transcribed in the thirties and published in full only recently, Breton threatened to terminate discussions which wandered into same-sex practices on several occasions. Given the free-ranging and openly frank intentions of these group discussions, his impulses mark him out against many of the more liberal participants. Needless to say, any women present remained largely silent or were busy acting as secretary.
Many of the prejudices and contradictions inherent in society as a whole were embodied by the Surrealists. Successive expulsions from the group were often followed by tacit reacceptance into the fold, in typical French counter-cultural mode (see also: Situationists whose leader Guy Debord eventually expelled everyone from the inner core except himself). The group were destined to drag their remnants back together after the war and find Breton at the centre of a new generation of followers in Paris, though with diminished influence. Jean-Paul Sartre had a very existential and jaundiced view of Surrealism, but I wonder what Simone de Beauvoir would have had to say about the bundle of Maoist contradictions which was Sartre.
Slavish adherence to automatism, even though it had contributed notable work such as the prose-poem 'Magnetic Fields' by Breton and Paul Eluard and the automatic drawings and paintings of Andre Masson, led to freer expressions. Salvador Dali, whose extreme posturing shocked even the Surrealists, invented the Paranoic-Critical Method of capturing dreams and nightmares on minutely detailed canvasses. The dazzling vision and technique of these paintings from the thirties, as well as his 'symbolically-functioning objects' and poems comprise major works of the movement.
The Tate Modern offers us all the usual suspects from its own collections and many rarities from around the world. Magritte is here only sparingly ('The Lovers' 1928), some major Ernsts ('The Robing of the Bride' 1940), fine sculptures by Giacometti ('Woman With Her Throat Cut' 1932, shown left) , great photography by Man Ray and Lee Miller ('Anatomies' 1929), and good selections from the man-child paintings of Miro. Meret Oppenheims 'Object', which set American society alight when it was first shown at the Museum of Modern Art, demonstrates the characteristic paradox of object and material: a cup and saucer covered in fur. Man Ray's flat-iron which has a row of nails welded down the centre of its pressing surface, 'Gift', embodies the same feeling of unease: an object which destroys that which it is intended to improve. On the ironing theme, Marcel Duchamp proposed his own version of the surrealist object: the Old Master painting which is used as an ironing board.
An extensive selection of documents, photographs and letters lies at the heart of this exhibition. Not spectacular in itself, this gallery contains much of the restless spirit of Surrealism. The star of the show for me was the painting 'Gradiva' by Andre Masson (shown above). Based on its own borrowed myths and references it contains - quite literally - volcanic sexuality and a part human, part stonework female figure bisected by a joint of meat (shades of Stanley Spencer here), with a conch shell instead of genitalia.
In the words of the Comte de Lautremont: it's as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of an umbrella and a sewing machine. At its best, it quite takes the breath away. We all know that Surrealism continues to be the currency of much of today's advertising. One only has to look at some of the slightly repellant television advertisments on our screens (BBC internet: walking fingers with little human heads; a monstrous computer-generated baby which rampages through a hospital like Ridley Scott's alien: some make of car or other) to see its dominance. Meanwhile it reverberates in the stand-up comedy of Eddie Izzard and Emo Philips and the film-making of David Lynch, David Cronenberg and Jan Svankmajer. It informs comic strips (modesty forbids...) and situation comedy ('Fast Show', 'Big Train', 'Smack the Pony'). "It's quite surreal" has become a commonplace amongst people who have no idea what surrealism is; quite often the situation so described isn't really surreal at all (see also 'Kafkaesque').
Finally, one of my favourite artists, Dorothea Tanning, soul-mate of Max Ernst and a superb painter to boot, leaves me with the most memorable of images. 'Birthday' (1942, shown left) is a full length selfportrait of the artist at the age of thirty, bare breasted and standing in front of an endless succession of open doors. At her feet a grotesque succubus crawls. In the specialist shop afterwards I spend 45 minutes and loadsamoney on my choices. Tanning's autobiography, a book of automatic texts (including 'Les Champs Magnetique') and Michel Foucault on that most equivocal Magritte work: 'Ceci n'est pas une Pipe'. A crystal paperweight with the enlarged eye of Lee Miller at its heart and a few postcards and I am done. Disappointingly no t-shirts (I didn't really want one of the extortionate 'TATE' ones with the lettering composed of three dimensional Dalinian ants). But, all in all, an exhilarating show.
As I walk into the huge halls of the Tate's main exhibition area, I'm drawn by a crowd huddled into one of the mini-cinema areas where once the full-frontal film of a naked artist disporting himself was shown. There, transfixed, visitors stare at the projected animations of Jan Svankmajer. 'Dimensions of Dialogue' explores two clay-sculpted heads on a table top as they stare with glass eyes at each other in an unnerving manner and fence with a variety of objects which issue from their mouths. One of the finest pieces of film making in the history of cinema.
--Borin Van Loon, January 2002
The Surrealism exhibition ran from 20 September 2001 to 1 January 2002 at the Tate Modern in London. Our Chairman Borin Van Loon went along and sent us this review.
Yoko Ono: Yes
MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge
Many people know Yoko Ono only as John Lennon's widow, the woman who staged high-profile protests with the former Beatle during the height of the Vietnam War, and later witnessed his murder at the hands of a deranged fan.
Detractors condemned her as the dragon lady responsible for the Beatles' breakup and a social climber who garnered publicity on the back of her world-famous husband.
But few know Ono the artist, who left Japan with her parents to settle in New York, and later played a vital role in the artistic avant-garde. The survey of her work from the 1960s to the present currently on display at MIT List Visual Arts Center may change all of that.
From the start of her career, Ono was on the front lines with New York's most accomplished creative minds.
She aligned herself with Fluxus, a late 1950s-early '60s group of artists in southern Manhattan who sought to erase the boundaries between music, poetry, visual art and performance. Trained as a classical pianist, Ono's association with the group brought her in contact with multidisciplinary artists, such as underground composer La Monte Young and video artist Nam June Paik, who also began his career as a composer.
Many of Ono's seminal pieces are in the List Center's survey of her work. These include her "instructions paintings" texts that suggest actions the viewer should take, or ideas that one could visualize and sculptures, films, drawings, as well as posters, photographs and videos that document "happenings" and "events" that she staged through her career.
Short films that she made, including "Fly," which features close-ups of a house fly walking on the recumbent body of a nude woman, and "Cut Piece," which documents a performance in which Ono sat motionless on a stage and invited audience members to cut her clothing away, are given continuous screenings in the exhibit.
Greeting visitors to the List Center is "Sky TV," a TV monitor displaying a closed-circuit live video feed of the sky above the gallery. The piece is typical Ono, circa 1966 groundbreaking, as video art was in the mid-1960s, seeking out beauty in the frequently overlooked fabric of everyday life, and presenting that beauty in an unexpected context.
Much of Ono's work has been defined as conceptual in nature, that is art made with an emphasis on the idea behind the work and a deliberate effort to de-emphasize craftsmanship. In most instances, Ono commissions others to fabricate her art objects an act that puts the artist at a physical distance from her work and divides her artistic decision making and the hand labor that goes into making it into two distinct categories.
"Yes," the piece from which the exhibition takes its name, was the work that she exhibited at her now famous 1966 exhibition at the Indica Gallery in London. The piece consisted of a white stepladder that viewers were invited to climb. Hanging on a chain from the ceiling was a magnifying glass. Viewers could use the magnifying glass to read a tiny piece of text on the ceiling. The text merely read "Yes."
As Beatles aficionados may recall, it was at that exhibition she met John Lennon. Lennon said in later interviews that he felt relieved that "Yes"'s message revealed something affirmative, as opposed to what he thought was the negativism of the avant-garde in that era. Lennon and Ono married in 1969.
The List Center is exhibiting the ladder that was used in the 1966 exhibit.
But if you're hoping to climb the same rungs that Lennon once scaled, you're in for a disappointment. The ladder, and the platform on which it rests, are off limits to visitors. Not for safety reasons, as one might assume, but because the ladder must be kept in archival condition understandable, yet that changes the piece markedly. Ono's work blurs the distinction between artist and spectator, allowing the spectator to complete the piece through an activity." In its current installation, "Yes"'s true message is only hearsay.
Had non-historic objects been used in place of the original ones, "Yes" may have sacrificed some of its nostalgic kick but paradoxically gained a great deal in authenticity.
This is a small complaint, however. The outstanding quality of works presented, and the breadth of Ono's artistic achievement offers much to consider and debate. Her reputation will undoubtedly be bolstered wherever this exhibition travels. Paul Parcellin
Bringing La Bohème to Broadway
Part I - Becoming Part of the Cast
My journey with the "Broadway Bohème," as it has come to be called by cast and crew, began in autumn of 2000. I was in my last year of graduate school as a voice major at Boston University. I saw an ad on a music department bulletin board that said something like, "Baz Luhrmann, Director of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Strictly Ballroom, is casting for a production of La Bohème, to be mounted on Broadway."
The ad caught my eye, but I was skeptical. I love Strictly Ballroom, a great movie, but La Bohème on Broadway? Would they perform the actual Puccini score, or would it, like the show Rent, be a new score loosely based on the same story, but having nothing at all to do with "opera" singing? Would the show be in Italian, like the opera? I blew off the ad. I thought it was an interesting idea, but would never get off the ground, so I forgot about it.
Fast forward to ten months later. I graduated with my Master's degree and moved to New York City. I was lucky enough to be signed with a manager right away, Martha Wade, who mentioned to me that the "Broadway Bohème" was still not cast, and that she could get me an audition. Several things piqued my interest. First of all, I discovered that this Bohème would indeed be the Puccini score, and that it would be in Italian. Also, since I had first seen the ad, the movie Moulin Rouge, directed by Baz Luhrmann, had been released. I thought it was incredible.
I went to my first audition full of trepidation. What on earth would these people be looking for? The other singers in the waiting room definitely did not look like the people I usually see at opera auditions. Opera singers, unlike actors, usually dress pretty conservatively, and aren't well, um... hip. Clearly the singers had seen Moulin Rouge and were trying to look as colorful as possible to impress Mr. Luhrmann! I guess I had the same motive, but I went about it in a different way. Instead of the simple but slightly sophisticated red dress I usually wear to auditions to make me look older and more experienced, I wore a little black dress that I wear to go out for cocktails with my friends. (Opera audiences, generally focusing on the voices rather than the acting, will accept singers who are much older than the characters they are playing, or even one who weighs in at 300 lbs. playing a pretty young thing, but Broadway audiences are much more visually oriented. I figured it couldn't hurt to show off the fact that I am young - about the same age as the bohemians in La Bohème!)
This first round of auditions (the first of many, but we'll get to that later) was judged by two women from the casting agency. I decided to sing the aria Quando m'en vo from Puccini's opera. I was in really good voice and gave what I thought was a persuasive dramatic interpretation, but once I finished, the women on the panel wanted to hear it again. This time they gave me some directions - "make eye contact with us, use the whole room," etc. I sang the whole aria again, and I heard the very next day that I had been called back!
Over the next ten months I was called back eight times! I sang for the producers. I sang for the musical director. I sang for Baz, but it seemed there was always another round to make it through. In February, 2002, I was in Tampa, Florida under contract to sing with the opera there. Word came that Baz was about to make his final selection, but I would have to be in New York City for just one more audition! Groan! After much negotiating, begging and pleading, the conductor agreed to release me from one day of rehearsal in Tampa so I could fly back to NYC. This meant waking up at 4 am, getting on a plane at 6:30 am, and singing for Baz at noon. This would be tough!
At my audition, Baz and his assistant followed me around with a hand-held video camera, sometimes putting it right up in my face while I was singing. In all my training no one had ever prepared me for anything like this audition! I also had my picture taken in all sorts of poses. "What was THAT??!!" I thought as I ran to catch my flight back to Tampa, where a message was waiting for me: I was in the original cast of La Bohème!
I have heard varying reports of how many singers were auditioned for this La Bohème, anywhere from 3,000 to 20,000 from all over the world. It took over two years to assemble a cast of 50, which includes some singers who don't speak a word of English.
|Part II - From Costume Fittings to California|
|After hearing I would be a member of the original cast of Baz Luhrmann's La Bohème on Broadway, things seemed to start happening at lightning speed. The contract came in the mail, and I learned that the rehearsals would be occurring in San Francisco, California. We would also be doing six weeks of shows in San Francisco at the Curran Theatre, before moving to Broadway in November. Baz said he would attend every single performance in California (8 per week!) to make sure Bohème would be everything he dreamed it could be, before moving it to NYC where it will be scrutinized by critics from all around the world.
While in New York, I was instructed to go to a wig fitting at a loft apartment in an unfamiliar neighborhood in downtown Manhattan. It was rainy, cold, and miserable, and I got lost trying to find the address. When I rang the buzzer, I was not in the best mood. What happened next was like magic. The door opened, and inside this unassuming and unmarked building was an enormous and blindingly colorful world of artists, designers, and craftsmen, all busily running around with sketches, model sets, and fabrics. The woman who answered the door was none other than Catherine Martin - Baz's wife and creative partner, and Academy Award winner for her costume designs in Baz's movie Moulin Rouge. Although I had never met her before, she greeted me by name. "Baz would love to say hello as well, but CBS is here interviewing him," she said.
I saw that there were pictures on the wall of all the cast members with sketches of costumes taped beside them. There were beautiful and intricate models of the sets for Bohème, and what seemed like a hundred people gathered around Catherine, or bent over desks with colored pencils. I saw Baz giving a tour to the news crew from CBS. He was speaking so excitedly about the work being done, and explaining to the crew that he and Catherine live in the back of the design studio. It was in their bedroom that I had my wig fitting! Two Italian men who also did the wigs for Moulin Rouge, Romeo and Juliet, and Strictly Ballroom put a wig cap on me and traced the outline of my natural hair. This is so when the wig is made, it will match my real hairline so precisely that the audience won't be able to tell I'm not using my own hair.
On a later date I had a costume fitting with Catherine Martin and her incredible team. Catherine and Baz are Australian, as are most of their assistants. Five good-natured Australians pulled and pinned my costume until it met Catherine's approval. All costumes in Bohème were made from scratch to the exact measurements of the cast.
In the next few weeks I made plans to move to San Francisco for nine weeks - three weeks of rehearsal, and six weeks of performances. As I prepared to leave New York, the buzz about Bohème began to be palpable. There were articles in Time Out magazine and The New York Times, and the full-page color ads and commercials began to run daily. It dawned on me just how enormous and ambitious this project really is, and that's when the nerves set in!
The entire cast traveled together on September 8th. We met in front of the Broadway Theatre at 53rd street (where we will be performing), took chartered buses to JFK Airport, and flew on a Continental jet to San Francisco. I couldn't believe how friendly the other people were, and how darn good looking!
Once in California, we settled into our different residences and prepared to start rehearsals first thing the very next morning.
|Part III - Rehearsing with Baz Luhrmann|
The day after the cast of the Broadway Bohème descended on San Francisco, we all boarded vans and were taken to a section of town called the Presidio, where we would be rehearsing for the next two weeks in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. (Most Broadway-bound shows have their out-of-town trial runs in Peoria; how nice it is that ours is in San Francisco, one of America's great cities!)
That first day was a very exciting one, with so many new people to meet,
and a dramatic presentation by director Baz Luhrmann and his wife Catherine Martin about their vision for the project. Baz and Catherine are the brains and heart behind this Broadway Bohème. We got a sneak preview of the promotional ads that would be running on television, took a virtual tour of the stage sets still under construction, and marveled at the sketches of Catherine's gorgeous costumes.
Baz's plan is a simple but courageous one. He wants to bring opera back to the masses (Wasn't Giacomo Puccini the Stephen Sondheim of the Nineteenth Century, and even more popular, at least in Europe, than his 20th-Century colleague?), but not by watering it down. This Bohème is completely intact musically, just as Puccini wrote it, and will be performed in Italian. Baz says he wants to bring back the excitement and feeling of spontaneity that traditional opera often lacks. He wants every moment to be believable. What a concept!
Rehearsals were run with this idea in mind. All of us were given direction from Baz, but were encouraged to fill in the details of the lives of our characters with our own creative visions. We imagined what a street on Christmas Eve in Paris in 1957 would look and feel like, and we made it a reality. We spent days and days on what seemed like the smallest of adjustments, put those changes into our Parisian street, and the results were magical. A detailed and individual journey exists for every single person onstage, not just the principal characters as is almost always the case in opera.
After a couple of weeks in our temporary rehearsal space in the Presidio, we moved into the Curran Theatre just off Union Square. At the first viewing of the stage set, the cast was speechless. It is a breathtaking work of art. The setting itself, predictably, was applauded by our audience every night. But once we started rehearsing on it, we felt like we were starting our staging all over again. Nothing happened the way we had rehearsed it, and people were running into each other and tripping over platforms and other pieces of the scenery. It took another week to work out the kinks and get the show running smoothly. How quickly that week in the theater raced by! And how the enthusiasm was growing in all of us!
Now it was time for the first invited audience to savor the show. We had two weeks of previews in San Francisco. (Previews are presented prior to the official Press Opening. No reviews can be written at these performances.) I was very nervous. Would they love it? Would they boo us off the stage? The preview audiences, I am pleased to report, loved the production! Every time the curtain fell we got cheers and standing ovations. However, even with the adulation of the audience, the two weeks of previews were very stressful. Baz was still changing details of staging right up to moments before we went onstage. We tried new things every night in front of a live audience, and continued to make changes until Opening Night.
Opening Night in San Francisco was a star-studded affair, with many celebrities in attendance. From the stage I spotted Nicole Kidman, Kevin Spacey, Andy Garcia and George Lucas. The cast tried to go about its predetermined stage business, but we were all secretly trying to get glimpses of the stars in the audience. After the performance the entire cast was invited to a bash at the famous Ruby Skye nightclub. The celebrities were all there congratulating Baz, Catherine and the singers. It was an extravagant feast with mountains of food. All of us danced until the sun came up!
There was still one more test: what would the San Francisco critics say? I dashed to the store the next morning to pick up the local newspapers, which I shredded in my exuberance to find the critiques. Aha! The headlines said it all: "Simply Sensational - Luhrmann's Broadway-style 'Boheme' sets a new standard for musical theater," according to the Chronicle, and The Examiner said "Brilliant Bohème - Baz Luhrmann's take on the Puccini classic, at the Curran Theatre, perfectly balances tradition and innovation."
That we were really a hit was apparent as I walked past the theater later that afternoon and observed the box office line wrapped all the way around the block! Within days every ticket to the six-week run in San Francisco was gone. Friends from high school and college called me desparately in need of tickets, but there was nothing I could do. There wasn't a single ticket available.
On the date this article was written, there were two more weeks of performances in San Francisco still to go. On November 11th the cast flies back to New York City for a week of rest before beginning another sequence of rehearsals with Baz in the Broadway Theatre at Broadway and 53rd Street.
Will this spectacular and moving operatic production be a success on the Great White Way? If so, history will be made and the risk will have been worth taking. There have been other operas on Broadway, but nothing like Baz Luhrmann's production of Puccini's La Bohème.
|Part IV - Back in New York|
On November 11th, the very next day after our last performance in San Francisco, the cast of Baz Luhrmann's La Bohème boarded buses at 6:00 am, drove to the airport, and flew home to New York City. We had spent nine weeks in San Francisco rehearsing and performing La Bohème eight times a week to critical acclaim. The cast and crew had worked incredibly hard on the show under Baz's direction. We were rewarded with six weeks of sold-out performances and reviews so good they could have been written by Baz's mother. I felt so proud to be a part of the show. I was also completely exhausted!
While I enjoyed being on the West Coast, I was definitely ready to get back to my own apartment in New York, and very much looking forward to our week off. The week flew by in a blur of unpacking and catching up with friends, and before I knew it, I was walking into the Ford Center at 43rd and Broadway where La Bohème was rehearsing. Even though the week off passed quickly, I felt as though I hadn't seen my friends in the cast for months. We became so close in San Francisco that we are now one big family. It is amazing to me that any group of performers can get along so beautifully, but we truly do. It is a very special group of people onstage at The Broadway Theatre every night!
Rehearsals at the Ford Center lasted for only one week. There was still work being done on the sets and lights at our real home, the Broadway Theatre, at 53rd and Broadway, that made it impossible to conduct rehearsals on the actual stage. Our rehearsals were spent on intensive detail work. I was impressed with the new ideas Baz had formed since we had last seen him. He refined, cut, polished and obsessed over every moment onstage. I am continually amazed at how many things he has running around in his head at any given moment, and how he can keep them all straight.
There were many new challenges in New York. The Broadway Theatre is much larger than the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. Baz insists on only "true life" onstage, meaning no excess gesturing or "indicating." We worked hard for many days to figure out how to play to a much larger audience without losing the intimacy and the reality. Another challenge was that we have a new set of kids in the cast. The children in San Francisco were all local kids, so we started from scratch staging the New York kids into the opera.
After a week at the Ford Center, we moved into the Broadway Theatre to rehearse on the set. We had less than a week to rehearse before the first preview performance on November 29th.
Although we were received far better than our wildest dreams in San Francisco, New York audiences are much tougher. I felt excited because it was my first performance on Broadway, but very nervous about the audience reaction. At all of the preview performances, Baz talks to the audience from the stage before the start of the opera. Before he even started talking, the audience went crazy - screaming his name, cheering, and applauding. Backstage we looked at one another with huge smiles on our faces. Clearly this audience would be open to Baz's big risk - opera on Broadway.
The audience responded enthusiastically all night and gave us a raucous standing ovation at the conclusion. We got the same positive reaction at all of the preview performances. Does this mean we will be a hit?
The official opening night is December 3rd. Until then we are still called to rehearsals even if we have a performance on that day.
Part V - Opening Night in New York
Baz Luhrmann's production of La Bohème on Broadway officially opened on December 8th. The show had already been in previews for two weeks at the Broadway Theatre on 53rd Street. The audiences during previews seemed to love the show. We received standing ovations at every preview, but no one can predict how the New York critics will respond, so the cast was on pins and needles.
Ben Davis as Marcello and Chlöe Wright as Musetta
in Act II of Baz Luhrmanns production of Puccinis La Bohème.
Photo by Sue Adler. Image courtesy Boneau/Bryan-Brown.
On December 8th, the Broadway Theatre could easily have been mistaken for a ritzy Hollywood award show. There was a red carpet surrounded by paparazzi with flashbulbs going off right and left. The list of celebrities in attendance was incredible - Leonardo Di Caprio, Sandra Bullock, Hugh Grant, Cameron Diaz, James Gandolfini, Katie Couric, and Regis Philbin, just to name a few. Baz was there with his wife and artistic partner, Catherine Martin, who looked incredible!
The first two acts of the show, which are performed with just a short pause in between, went beautifully, so the cast was already feeling pretty good, but nothing could have prepared us for the news we received at intermission. Ben Brantley, theater critic for the New York Times, had seen La Bohème during previews and written a rave review which would be in the paper the next day!
After the show, the producers threw a huge bash for the cast, audience and invited guests at the luxurious Hudson Hotel on 58th Street. It was a beautiful party, but so crowded that it was hard to find any other cast members. There were news crews circling the party, trying to get quotes from the celebrities. I went home very late, but woke up early to read the New York Times review.
In the New York Times, Mr. Brantley wrote, "Baz Luhrmann's rapturous reimagining of Puccini's opera of love in a garret turns out to be the coolest and warmest show in town, and enchanted mixture of self-conscious artistry and emotional richness......Opera critics should know that this production is no slice of wise-guy revisionism. What Mr. Luhrmann and his extraordinary production designer, Catherine Martin, have done is find the visual equivalent for the sensual beauty and vigor of the score."
The day that Ben Brantley's review appeared in the paper, La Bohème did one million dollars in ticket sales. Later in the week, that number would grow to four million.
One of the really fun perks that comes with being in La Bohème is seeing and sometimes meeting celebrities who come to see the show. Since Opening Night, the list of stars in attendance has included Michelle Pfeiffer, David E. Kelley, Steven Spielberg, Bruce Springsteen, Drew Barrymore, Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
La Bohème is currently taking ticket orders through June 2003. The next big event to look forward to is the Tony Awards. We are hoping to be nominated in many different categories and hoping to perform in the ceremony which occurs every year during the first week of June.
|Part VI - Behind the Scenes|
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine how hard it would be to perform the same show eight times a week for an entire year. Although La Bohème is an exciting and fun show, sometimes it is difficult to find enthusiasm in performing the same action and music over and over.
My pre-show activities are always the same. I am required to sign in at the theater at one half hour before the curtain time, at the latest. After I sign in, I walk upstairs to the ladies' dressing room, where I have a portion of the room reserved for me. My costume is waiting there for me, courtesy of the Wardrobe Department. On the way upstairs I pick up my microphone, which is tiny and on a long cord attached to a small transmitter. The transmitter goes in a special pocket hidden inside my costume, and the microphone will get hidden in my wig by the Hair and Makeup Department. In La Bohème we do our own makeup. We were given the makeup and instructed on how to apply it. Doing my makeup usually takes about twenty or thirty minutes. I am not in the first act, so my hair appointment is at the "places" call, which means at eight o'clock pm for an evening show, or two pm for a matinee. I go to the hair and makeup room wearing a bathrobe and have my wig pinned to my head. After that I go back to the dressing room, put on my costume, and wait for the stage managers to call the ensemble to the stage. When I hear the stage managers call "places" over the backstage loudspeaker, I go downstairs to the stage.
Jessica Comeau as Musetta with the Company
in Act II of Baz Luhrmanns production of Puccinis La Bohème.
Photo by Sue Adler. Image courtesy Boneau/Bryan-Brown.
When the show is over, I give my microphone back to the Sound Department, have my wig taken off, and take off my own costume and makeup. As I exit the stage door, there is usually a big crowd waiting to get autographs from the stars of the show.
If I am running late getting to the theater, I have to call the stage managers and tell them the situation. The stage managers have to keep track of the cast, because if somebody is absent, they must have a cover or "swing" go onstage instead. A "swing" is a person who knows many different roles in the show, who may have to step in at a moment's notice. The stage managers understand, and take into account that sometimes people are unavoidably late, through no fault of their own. However, a cast member who is consistently late runs the risk of getting fired.
Flu season in New York has caused many cast members to miss performances. There has barely been a single performance since December with the entire original cast present. Members of the ensemble accrue one sick day for every month of work. If we miss more than one performance a month, we have one-eighth of our weekly pay deducted from our paycheck. I was sick and unable to come to work on a Wednesday, which means I used two sick days because we have two performances on Wednesdays.
As an ensemble member, I cannot take a vacation for the first six months. After six months we each can take a week off, but it is on a first-come, first-served basis for requesting time off, as only one woman and one man can be away at the same time. If I don't take my vacation week, at the end of my contract in September, I will get an extra check.
The mood of the audience always makes a difference in the energy of the performers. When we can tell that an audience is enthusiastic, it makes us more energetic and excited. When an audience is quiet, we still give them our best, but it is much harder work and much less fun. Sometimes an audience will surprise us by being very subdued during the show, and then giving us a huge ovation at the curtain call.
Part VII - Intermission
The backstage of the Broadway Theatre goes straight up and down. The women's dressing room is on the fourth floor. In the course of one show I have to go to the stage and back to the dressing room several times, which means I probably climb about 30 flights every show! On two-show days I feel like I have been on the Stairmaster. The cast has all been commenting that after all those flights of stairs, we look pretty good from behind!
On Wednesdays and Saturdays we have a matinee and an evening show. Most of the principals are double- or triple-cast, so they never have to do more than one show a day. The exceptions are Daniel Webb, who plays Colline, and Daniel Okulitch, who plays Schaunard. Those two guys do all eight shows a week, unless by chance they are sick. Daniel Webb did over one hundred performances before he finally caught the "Bohème Bug," and was too sick to perform. The "Bohème Bug" is a twenty-four hour stomach flu that has struck the majority of the cast at some point over the last month. Just when we think we have finally beaten the Bug, somebody else comes down with it and has to stay home from the show.
It is always a dilemma how to spend the three hours between shows on Wednesdays and Saturdays. I am lucky that I live on the Upper West Side, so I can go home and make dinner or even take a nap, but some of the cast commutes in from New Jersey or Upstate New York, and have to find a way to fill the time. Many people have a leisurely dinner in the Theater District, go to the gym, shop, or lie down on the floor in the dressing room to try and get a little sleep.
Almost everyone in the cast has some free time backstage while the performance is in progress. I like to read or study some music that I am working on at my voice lessons, although sometimes it is fun just to gossip with the other women in the dressing room. Many people catch up on calls on their cell phones, and there is usually a fierce card game in the hallway. Sometimes on Saturday afternoons we listen to the radio in the men's dressing room if there is a broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera.
We do not have the luxury of a lot of space backstage. There isn't really a Green Room. What we call the Green Room is just a table with some folding chairs in the basement. In spite of the small space, the cast keeps the "Green Room" stocked with chocolate and fruit. Usually around once a week someone will bake some cookies to share. It is forbidden to eat while we are in costume, although a cookie now and then sometimes slips by unnoticed!
On any given night there are usually a handful of Bohème cast members who go out together for a beer or margarita. Sometimes there is a large group if someone is celebrating a birthday. Recently, some of us went salsa dancing down in the East Village to celebrate the birthday of the assistant director, Heidi Marshall, but mostly we stay in the Theater District. After attending a Sunday matinee in January, movie star Jim Carrey came backstage to meet the cast and then came out for beers with us!
Every once in a while there is a Question and Answer session with the audience after the show. February 4th was Kids Night at La Bohème, complete with an autograph signing for the children and an early curtain time. In general, the cast is very generous about donating their time to special events. Many of us have participated in benefit concerts for various organizations on our own time, and as a cast, we performed a benefit for the Robin Hood Foundation. Sometime in the next few months we will do an extra performance to benefit The Actors' Fund. I recently attended The Actors' Fund performance of Hairspray. It was a fantastic performance, with an especially enthusiastic audience, as many of us watching are members of other Broadway shows.
January was a particularly tough month for Broadway. The months following Christmas are always difficult because tourism is down after the holidays and many Broadway shows are forced to close. Even though Bohème is surviving the audience slowdown, there are nights when we have several empty rows of seats in the balcony. One would be surprised how easy it is to get a seat this time of year at any of the hit shows. In February, on a Wednesday matinee or a Tuesday or Wednesday night, it is possible to walk up to the box office and immediately buy a ticket. This won't be the case for much longer, however! Tourism picks up in the spring, and with the Tony Awards coming up, I predict it will be nearly impossible to get a ticket for La Bohème until at least September 2003.
Paintings by Maria Sibylla Merian, artist and scientist (1641-1712).
Besides creating visual images of great beauty, Maria Sibylla Merian made observations that revolutionized both botany and zoology. This extraordinary artist-scientist was born in Frankfurt, Germany. Her father, Matthäus Merian the Elder, was a Swiss printmaker and publisher who died when she was three. One year later her mother married Jacob Marell, a Flemish flower painter and one of Merian's first teachers.
From early childhood, Merian was interested in drawing the animals and plants she saw around her. In 1670, five years after her marriage to the painter Johann Andreas Graff, the family moved to Nuremberg, where Merian published her first illustrated books. In preparation for a catalogue of European moths, butterflies, and other insects, Merian collected, raised, and observed the living insects, rather than working from preserved specimens, as was the norm.
In 1685 Merian left Nuremberg and her husband to live with her two daughters and her mother in the Dutch province of West Friesland. After her mother's death, Merian moved to Amsterdam. Eight years later, at the age of 52, Merian took the astonishing step of embarking-with her younger daughter-on a dangerous, three-month trip to the Dutch colony of Surinam. Having seen some of the dried specimens of animals and plants that were popular with European collectors, Merian wanted to study them in their natural habitat. She spent the next two years studying and drawing the indigenous flora and fauna. Forced home by malaria, Merian published her most significant book in 1705 - Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam, which established her international reputation.
The Many Voices of the Poet Ai
by Pat Harrison
The Radcliff Quarterly, Spring 2000
In this age of multiculturalism, when so many writers are exploring their ethnic identity, the poet Ai B '76--who is half Japanese, as well as African American and Native American--defies the times by assuming a myriad of other identities and voices, none expressly her own. Ai's six volumes of poetry, which began appearing in 1973 and culminated last year in a major collection of new and selected poems, feature dramatic monologues by people whose voices don't usually make it into literature: a child-beater, a rapist, a self-abortionist. She has also written in the persona of public figures as diverse as J. Edgar Hoover, Marilyn Monroe, and Mary Jo Kopechne. But until recently, when Ai began work on a memoir, she had not written directly about her own background in what she's described as a "half-breed culture" in Tucson.
"I like making up characters," Ai told the Quarterly in a recent phone interview. "Writing the monologue has afforded me that opportunity, but I really kind of fell into it. My first poetry teacher said that the first person is often the strongest, and that seemed to be my gift. I just did it so well that every poem I wrote in the first person seemed to be a success, whereas others weren't. So I did it over and over, and by the second year of graduate school, I was firmly on that path. I find it very exciting to become other people. I don't think of them as masks for myself. Some people say that, but to me they're not. They're my characters; they're not me."
Inspiration for her monologues comes from diverse sources, including late-night television. "For my Jimmy Hoffa poem," Ai said, "I was watching Johnny Carson one night and he told a joke. 'Who did they find under Tammy Fay Baker's makeup?' The answer was Jimmy Hoffa. And I said to myself, 'I want to write a poem about Jimmy Hoffa.'"
More recently, she's been writing a cycle of poems about the race riot that occurred in Tulsa in 1921, when the Greenwood section of the city, known as the black Wall Street, was set afire by white men and boys. "I was watching Nightline," Ai reported, "and one of the survivors said there was so much smoke and fire that his sister said, 'Brother, is the world on fire?' That line got me into my poems."
From the beginning of her career, publication has come easily to Ai, perhaps in part because her poetry is so accessible. As an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, she met her mentor, New York University Professor Galway Kinnell, when he came to campus to read. After the reading, Ai began sending her poetry to Kinnell for his comments, and he encouraged her to apply to the writing program at the University of California at Irvine. During her second year at Irvine, Kinnell took a copy of Ai's thesis to an editor at Houghton Mifflin, and in 1973, her first book, Cruelty, appeared. It was after Cruelty came out that Ai was awarded her Bunting fellowship, which she held in 1975-76. Five additional books followed: Killing Floor (1979), Sin (1986), Fate (1991), Greed (1993), and Vice (1999), all published by Houghton Mifflin except the last two, which Norton brought out.
The titles of Ai's books indicate the gritty content of her poems. Listen, for example, to the opening lines of "The Cockfighter's Daughter," from her book Fate: "I found my father,/face down, in his homemade chili /and had to hit the bowl/with a hammer to get it off,/then scrape the pinto beans/and chunks of ground beef/off his face with a knife." Some critics have accused the poet of sensationalism, while others have lauded her risk-taking. Whatever the critics think, though, Ai's books have always done well with readers, selling better than poetry usually does.
"I decided to go the Wordsworthian way when I was in grad school," Ai said, "and write in the language of the common man. I don't know if I succeeded, but that was one of my goals. I made my work as accessible as I could, without compromising my intelligence."
Ai's plain speaking has certainly earned her a share of prizes. In addition to her Bunting fellowship, she has won a Guggenheim fellowship, the Lamont Prize, an American Book Award, and, most recently, for Vice: New and Selected Poems (Norton, 1999), the life-changing National Book Award. Before this latest award, Ai was a visiting professor at Oklahoma State University, a position similar to the many teaching appointments she's held throughout her career. But last fall, on her return to Stillwater from accepting the award in New York, OSU offered her tenure as a full professor. "The financial security that I have wanted my whole career I now have. It was almost too much for me. I had wanted it for so long."
Now comfortably ensconced at OSU, Ai is conducting research for her memoir, looking up relatives who were members of the Choctaw and Southern Cheyenne tribes in Oklahoma. One of the next voices we hear from the poet Ai will likely reflect her own rich history, including details about that Tucson "half-breed" culture.
Ai's first book, Cruelty, received critical acclaim when it was published in 1973. Her second book, Killing Floor, was the 1978 Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets. Her next book, Sin (1987), won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and was followed by Fate in 1991. In 1999 Vice was the winner of the National Book Award for Poetry. Ai is a native of the American Southwest and lives in Tucson, Arizona. In the year 2002-2003 she will hold the Mitte Chair in Creative Writing at Southwest Texas State University.
JIM LEHRER: The National Book awards were announced last night in New York. Awards were given for poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and children's literature. Elizabeth Farnsworth begins a series of conversations with the winning authors.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The winner for poetry this year is known as Ai, a Japanese word meaning "love." She won the award for Vice, a book of new and selected poems, many of them dramatic monologues. Born in 1947 in Albany, Texas, Ai published her first book in 1973. She currently teaches poetry and fiction at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. Thanks for being with us, and congratulations.
AI, National Book Award, Poetry: Oh, thank you, and you're welcome.
Tough topics for poetry
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I'm struck by the tough topics you take on. You deal with child abuse, murder, necrophilia, torture. What draws you to these topics?
AI: Well, it's really the characters, because I write monologues. So when I find an interesting character, I usually start that way. I'll think of somebody who interests me, and then fill in the blanks, so to speak. So it's sort of happenstance in a weird way, you know. It's just sort of... I'm sort of constructing these lives. But I tend to like scoundrels. I like to write about scoundrels because they are more rounded characters in some respects than a really good person. You know, there's a lot more to talk about with the scoundrels.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, why the dramatic monologue form?
AI: I'm very comfortable in that form. My first poetry teacher said that when you wrote in the first person, that your work was often stronger. And I discovered over the years that that was... my poems that were written in the first person were the strongest. And I sort of kind of fell into that, so by grad school, that's all I wrote. And I love it, because it's so interesting. Every time I write a poem, I'm someone else without actually being that person, you know? It's really great.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And I may have missed something in looking at your poetry, but as far as I can tell, you're almost always someone else. It's not about yourself, even though it's in the first person.
AI: There will be, like, little things in poems sometimes. But if I don't tell you, you'd never know that I was dealing with something from my own life.
|Jimmy Hoffa's Odyssey
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right, let's read one. Let's read the one about Jimmy Hoffa.
AI: Okay. One night I was watching Johnny Carson, and he told this joke. And he said, "Who did they find under Tammy Faye Bakker's makeup?" And the answer was Jimmy Hoffa. And it was just like that, snap my fingers, "I want to write about Jimmy Hoffa." I usually read biographies when I write about historical figures, so I got a biography, and I was stuck for a while. I had a great opening and then was stuck. Then when I hit on Hoffa having been abducted by an alien, I had my poem. Unfortunately, we won't hear that part of the poem.
"Jimmy Hoffa's Odyssey": I remember summers when the ice man used to come, a hunk of winter caught between his iron tongs and in the kitchen, my ma with the rag, wiping the floor when he'd gone. Sweet song of the vegetable man, like the music a million silver dollars make as they jingle-jangle in that big pocket of your dreams. Dreams, yes, and lies. When I was a boy, I hauled ashes in a wagon pulled by a bony horse, not even good enough for soap. So later, when they called me a stocky little dock worker with my slicked-back black hair, my two-toned shoes, cheap suits and fat, smelly cigars, I didn't care. I had my compensation. Bobby Kennedy didn't want to understand. But to the Teamsters back in '58, I had 'em all in my pockets then: Statesmen, lawyers, movie stars, Joe Lewis for God's sake. For a time, I won spin after spin on the tin wheel of fate. But in the end, like those glory boys Jack and Bobby, I was only icing on the sucker cake."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How did you get into his head? You've been in Trotsky's head and a lot of other people in your poems. How do you do it?
AI: Well, it's almost as if, you know, I'm an actor. I feel all the roles. Like, I'm the actor, I'm the writer, the director and everything. Sort of like a method actor. Sort of like De Niro, but I don't gain weight as De Niro did in "Raging Bull." It's all in my mind. I really didn't have the Hoffa character until I read that he always referred to himself in the third person. Once I had that and my alien abduction, I was on the road to completion, so to speak.
|The name: Ai
|ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now about you personally just a little bit: How did you get the name Ai?
AI: Ai is my middle name. My father was Japanese. And my mother is Choctaw Indian, southern Cheyenne, black, Dutch and Irish. They love the Irish part. They never talk much about the Dutch part. So I'm truly all American, you know.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Did getting the book award surprise you?
AI: Yes, because I convinced myself I wasn't going to win. And I was full of self-pity yesterday. I couldn't get a taxi. I was down on West 17th. I couldn't get a taxi. I said, "They're torturing me. I'm not going to win this thing anyway."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why were you so sure you wouldn't win?
AI: I don't know -- you know -- because I had been optimistic the night before. But I think partly, when I'm realistic about my work, it's rather edgy and very dark in many respects. And I was worried that someone whose work was a bit safer than mine might win.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why do you think your work is so edgy and dark, aside from the fact you love scoundrels? You're very interested in violence.
AI: Well, I think violence is an integral part of American culture, and I set out to deal with it, actually, you know. I felt that when I was an undergrad, I was not able to deal with violence in my work, so I made it a point to be able to do that. I've always preferred tragedy. For instance, Shakespeare's tragedies are my favorites. I rarely go to comedies. But I do have a sense of humor. It's warped, but it is a sense of humor.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I thank you very much. Congratulations again.
AI: Oh, thank you. Take care.
Ai is the only name by which I wish, and indeed, should be known. Since I am the child of a scandalous affair my mother had with a Japanese man she met at a streetcar stop, and I was forced to live a lie for so many years, while my mother concealed my natural father's identity from me, I feel that I should not have to be identified with a man, who was only my stepfather, for all eternity.
My writing of dramatic monologues was a happy accident, because I took so much to heart the opinion of my first poetry teacher, Richard Shelton, the fact that the first person voice was always the stronger voice to use when writing. What began as an experiment in that voice became the only voice in which I wrote for about twenty years. Lately, though, I've been writing poems and short stories using the second person, without, it seems to me, any diminution in the power of my work. Still, I feel that the dramatic monologue was the form in which I was born to write and I love it as passionately, or perhaps more passionately, than I have ever loved a man.
A. Robert Lee
Born in Tucson, Arizona, the poet AI, pseudonym of Florence Anthony, looks to a complex American multicultural ancestry--a Japanese father and a mother part black, Choctaw, and Irish. Raised also in Las Vegas and San Francisco, she majored in Japanese at the University of Arizona and immersed herself in Buddhism. Currently based in Tempe, she has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and various universities; she has also been a frequent reader-performer of her work.
So eclectic, not to say peaceable, an upbringing makes a striking contrast with the kind of poetry that has won her ongoing attention. Her particular forte has been to adapt Robert Browning's dramatic monologue to her own purposes, poems whose different voices speak of fracture, violence, revenge, sexual hunger, as if to emphasize the human disorder both beneath (and often enough at the surface of) society.
Cruelty (1973) offers a run of soliloquies, dealing with, among other things, suicide, abortion, female masturbation, hanging, child-beating, and the unpredictability of desire. AIs style of poetic utterance has from the outset rarely been other than tough-edged, in the words of an early critic, "as if she made her poem(s) with a knife." Little wonder that the title poem in Cruelty begins with an image of a dead wildcat. In Killing Floor (1978), a poem like "The Kid" assumes the voice of a boy-murderer, a natural-born killer, who methodically and pathologically destroys his entire family only to emerge sweet-faced and apparently unperturbed.
Sin (1986) attempts yet more complex personae--ruminations, for the most part, of men of power, Joe McCarthy to the Kennedy brothers. In "The Testament of J. Robert Oppenheimer" the note is transcendental, millennial, that of the Manhattan Project leader eventually troubled by the possibilities of nuclear mass-destruction. In 'The Good Shepherd," however, the voice, more locally but no less chillingly, belongs to the anonymous mass-murderer of Atlanta's black youth. "Saturn. . . devours its children," says the killer. Fate: New Poems (1991) offers a further gallery, equally dark, a speaking dead that includes General George Custer, Mary Jo Kopechne (now the bitter, retrospective party-girl), Elvis Presley, Lenny Bruce, and President Lyndon Johnson.
AI opens her fifth collection, Greed (1993), with "Riot Act, April 29, 1992," a poem spoken as if by an unnamed black rioter taken into police custody in South Central Los Angeles, who ruefully construes the looting and fires in the aftermath of Rodney King's beating as "the day the wealth finally trickled down." A similar bittersweet note runs through "Self Defense." Washington, D.C.'s mayor Marion Barry, sentenced for crack possession after an FBI setup, is forced to conclude, 'That is how you hold the nigger down." In "Hoover, Edgar J.," law enforcement as paranoia has its say, the meanness at once racist, homophobic, class-loaded. The diatribe ends boastingly and bullyingly: "J. Edgar Hoover rules." Other monologue-poems equally offer markers for the times--whether in the voice of Jack Ruby, or of a witness to the Marcos regime in Manila, or of a street girl contemplating Mike Tyson and the Desiree Washington rape.
As always this amounts to a slightly stylized ventriloquy, creating an effect of distance, things seen at one remove. All has not by any means been praise; critics have on occasion thought the poetry monotone, close to mannerism, too determinedly dour or black-humored. But AI is not to be denied her own kind of verse Gothic, an America, a world, seen as though through disembodied witness and nothing if not at one with her slightly maverick status in contemporary African American poetry.
From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Copyright © Oxford University Press
Les Femmes Surrealistes
A paper by Julie Byrd
presented at the Interdisciplinary Cross-Cultural Conference
University of Illinois on March 3, 1995.
Sincere thanks to Ms. Byrd for her work
Leonora Carrington was a revolutionary before she ever encountered the Surrealists. Born into an upper class family in Lancashire, England, Leonora learned at a very early age the injustice of society. Since her parents were both very strict Catholics, they sent her away from convent to convent and then to boarding school. Finally after many rebellious acts and expulsions from school, she succeeded in convincing her parents to let her study art at the Amédée Ozenfant Academy in London. There she lived on a modest pension from her family and established herself as a painter and a writer.
In 1937, Carrington met Max Ernst in London. He left his wife for Carrington, his "Bride of the Wind". The couple lived together until the outbreak of W.W.II when Ernst was taken prisoner as an enemy alien. Carrington's work during this period moves from themes of childhood filled with magical birds and animals, to a mature art based on Celtic mythology and alchemical transformation. It is an art of sensibility rather than hallucination, one in which animal guides lead the way out of a world of men who don't know magic, fear the night, and have no mental powers except intellect.
One can clearly see this in Leonora Carrington's self-portrait where animals reveal themselves to be forces of nature.
"The source of Carringtion's magical white horse lies not in Freud's use of the horse as a symbol of male power but in the Celtic legends that nourished her childhood...the horse is sacred to the ancient tribe of the Tuatha de Danaan...the hyena belongs to the fertile world of night; the horse becomes an image of rebirth into the light of day and the world beyond the looking glass. As symbolic intermediaries between the unconscious and the natural world, they replace male Surrealists' reliance on the image of woman as the mediating link between man and the "marvelous" and suggest the powerful role played by Nature as a source of creative power for the woman artist (Chadwick, p. 79)."
Thus Carrington suggests a redefines the image of the femme-enfant - the child who plays the role of innocence, seduction and dependence on man, and transforms this woman into a being who, through childhood worlds of fantasy and magic, is capable of creative transformation through intellectual power rather than sexual power.
During the years of World War II, Carrington suffered enormously due to her lover Max Ernst's imprisonment in a concentration camp. In fact she had several mental breakdowns. On one occasion she was institutionalized (by the intervention of her family in England) and given cardiazol, a powerful shock inducing drug. This drug was administered to many female patients from what doctors diagnosed or rather coined the term "hysteria". In an article she wrote in 1944 published in Down Below, Carrington describes her experiences of having a mental breakdown and the rupture of the world around her:
I begin therefore when Max was taken away to a concentration camp...I wept for several hours, down in the village; then I went up again to my house, where for 24 hours, I indulged in voluntary vomiting induced by drinking orange blossom water and interrupted by a short nap. I hoped that my sorrow would be allayed by those violent spasms which tore my stomach apart like so many earthquakes...I had realized that injustice of society...My stomach was the seat of that society, but also the place in which I was united with all the elements of the earth. It was...the mirror of the earth, the reflection of which is just as real as the person reflected. (Chadwick, p. 84).
In 1940, Carrington was reunited with Max Ernst, but he was now in the company of Peggy Guggenheim. Alas the loss of a loved one, and the reverberations of these events, left an indelible mark on Carrington's work between 1940-1944.
Carrington lived in New York after the war, and then moved to Mexico. It was in Mexico that she developed a mature body of work heavily influenced by magic, alchemy, and a lot more of the Celtic tradition. Her female protagonists are like the Sibyls, sorceresses, and priestesses of some ancient religion: their journeys are mythic voyages that unravel like fairy tales. But in life as well as art Carrington grounded her pursuit of the arcane and the hermetic in images of woman's everyday life: cooking, knitting, and tending children.
In 1946, she married Chiqui Weisz, a Hungarian immigrant. Her paintings Night Nursery Everything, Kitchen Garden of the Eyot, and Amor que move il sole e l'altra stella, celebrate the birth of her son and contain references to a female creative spirit.
Leonora Carrington has written a myriad of articles, novels, essays, and poems. She has produced thousands of paintings, sculptures, collages, and a number of tapestries. She has also made many public appearances. On in particular, was the women's movement in the early 1970's, where she spoke about women's legendary powers and the need for women to take back the rights that belonged to them all along. Carrington, just as Kahlo and Fini, is truly a remarkable human being and artist.
"To possess a telescope without its other essential half --
the microscope --
seems to me a symbol of the darkest incomprehension.
The task of the right eye is to peer into the telescope,
while the left eye peers into the microscope."
Leonora Carrington, 1939 (photo by Lee Miller)
BY CELIA WRENLeonora Carrington's 'The Hearing Trumpet'
f C.S. Lewis had been a Woman Who Runs With the Wolves, his fiction might have resembled The Hearing Trumpet, the fantasy novel by surrealist painter Leonora Carrington. Published in English in 1976, The Hearing Trumpet (recently reprinted by Exact Change Press) boasts the kind of whimsically eclectic stage dressing that decks The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Carrington's senior-citizen heroines plunge from reality to a magical world as suddenly as Lucy and her siblings do in Lewis's Narnia series. But while Lewis roped his fantasy series to Christianity, Carrington tethered The Hearing Trumpet to a more eccentric mythology smelted from dream imagery, Celtic legend, alchemical literature, surrealist rebellion, and goddess lore. By her novel's end, six old ladies have helped defeat an Angry Father God, delivering the worldnewly in the grips of a second Ice Ageto a redemptive female spirit incarnated as a swarm of bumblebees.
Buoying the novel up against such weighty feminist themes, fortunately, is its quirky humor, which takes its tone from Marian Leatherby, the irrepressible 92-year-old narrator. So spunky and opinionated she could be a mascot for the Gray Panthers, Marian isno kiddingone of literature's most endearing and colorful characters, all the more remarkable for belonging to a demographic category novelists usually slight. She is a gregarious, nearly deaf, toothless grandmother who is a fanatical cat lover and a vegetarian"I think it is wrong to deprive animals of their life when they are so difficult to chew anyway," she remarks. She's no youth-culture victim either: "I do have a short gray beard which conventional people would find repulsive," she observes in the opening pages. "Personally I find it rather gallant."
But Marian's son, a British diplomat in an unnamed South American country, is not so enamored of his mother, whom he packs off to a local nursing home. This curious place, where residents live in oddly shaped bungalowsone like a cuckoo clock, others like a birthday cake or a toadstoolturns out to be a nest of supernatural intrigue. After one elderly occupant dies from poisoned chocolate fudge, Marian leads a hunger strike against the home's priggish administrators, Dr. and Mrs. Gambit. In doing so, she unwittingly precipitates a cataclysm that involves werewolves, an atom-powered ark, a uranium mine, an aphrodisiac discovered near the mummy of Mary Magdalene, and the Holy Grail.
At the core of the adventure is the story of an evil 18th-century abbess who is eventually canonized, despite having infested her convent with orgies and black magic. "She must have been a most remarkable woman," Marian optimistically concludes after reading the saint's secret history. Carrington's gleeful willingness to take swipes at the church is also evident in her portrait of the Gambits, who practice a kind of pretentious Christian gymnastics (a parody, perhaps, of the philosophy espoused by G.I. Gurdjieff, which Carrington encountered in the '50s).
The Hearing Trumpet's blasphemous strains are, of course, classic surrealist shock tactics, but they also reflect Carrington's personal rebellion. Born in 1917 into a wealthy British Catholic family, she was repeatedly thrown out of convent schools, and when older she scandalized her family by opting to study art. In London in 1937 she met one of the surrealist movement's founding members, the painter and sculptor Max Ernst, who left his wife for her. Living with Ernst in France, Carrington began crafting stories and spooky paintings like her 1939 Portrait of Max Ernst, which poses a man with a furry fish's body in an eerie arctic landscape.
In 1940 the German Ernst was interned by the French as an enemy alien, and Carrington had a nervous breakdown. After fleeing France, she turned up at the British Embassy in Madrid, threatening and delusional, and was committed to an insane asylum. Eventually, her family, intending to hospitalize her further, attempted to return her to England, but en route Carrington escaped from her escort. She sought refuge in Lisbon with a Mexican diplomat acquaintance, who married her as a way to help her travel to New York. In subsequent years she continued to write and paint, in New Yorka magnet for émigré surrealistsand in Mexico, where she lives now.
During her first decades in the Americas, Carrington wrote The Hearing Trumpet, but the manuscript was lost, and she had to re-create it from a rough draft that turned up in 1973. The book was published to favorable notice; Luis Buñuel marveled, "Reading The Hearing Trumpet liberates us from the miserable reality of our days."
The novel's audaciously bizarre story line has often earned it comparison to Alice in Wonderland, but the analogy is, perhaps, too easy. Carrington's tale lacks the ruthlessly tight weave, and the underlying puzzle logic, of Carroll's. Its vision is more like a collage, that medium admired by the surrealists. Encountering references over the course of two or three pages, for example, to Lapland, nuclear science, and an embalmed cuckoo, one thinks of the surrealist aesthetic of jarring juxtapositionsa style summed up in Comte de Lautréamont's simile, seized upon by surrealist kingpin André Breton: "Beautiful as the unexpected meeting, on a dissection table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella."
At the same time, the images in The Hearing Trumpet are more psychological than those in Alice. When Marian Leatherby plunges down the equivalent of a rabbit hole, she meets a shamanic version of herselfa witch who scoffs at the question "Which of us is really me?" The scene practically invites readers to be armchair shrinks: Analyze the novel through a biographical lens, after all, and the Gambits' nursing home appears to be Carrington's therapeutically comic rewriting of her Spanish hospital stay.
The real common denominator between Alice and The Hearing Trumpet is the unflappability of the two heroines. The intrepid Marian views old age, levitating abbesses, and other alarming occurrences with the calm self-confidence Alice directs at the Mad Hatter and Cheshire Cat. And both heroines scrutinize the marvelous with the same hilariously deadpan logic. "We are thinking of teaching them to draw a sledge," Marian reports of a werewolf litter born into the new Ice Age.
Carrington's zany novel challenges us to rethink stereotypes about old age, and old women in particular. Marian's elderly female pals are as resourceful as a Bruce Willis hero in a tight spotfor example, Carmella, a cigar-smoking octogenarian who likes to discuss machine guns, pulls off a blackmailing scheme. In fact, it is tempting to read the book as a sort of belated protest against the male surrealists' idealization of fragile young women. As Whitney Chadwick points out in Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, André Breton & Co. cast women, and particularly naive, mentally unstable women, as museshaunting, enigmatic creatures who maintained a direct line to the Irrational. This patronizing vision had little room for women who were strong and worldly-wise, or who aimed to be artists in their own right, instead of simply channeling inspiration to men.
Chadwick reports that, when asked her opinion of the surrealists' Woman-as-Muse mythology, Leonora Carrington answered, succinctly: "Bullshit." The Hearing Trumpet elaborates with comic genius on this response, conjuring up a world of geriatric heroines spirited enough to explode the patriarchyteeth or no teeth.
Celia Wren is the managing editor of the magazine American Theatre.
is a genuine phenomenon.
Now in her mid-fifties, and with two teenaged kids, Smith has lost nary an ounce of the unequaled intensity and passion that's been on display since her classic 1975 debut, Horses, made her a rock n roll legend. She has a new album, Land that will be released this spring, and her previous album, Gung Ho, is right up there with the best of her seventies work. The fervor in songs like "Lo and Beholden" and "Glitter in Their Eyes" would be astonishing for someone 30 years her junior.
Though Smiths energy and presence are ageless, they don't come from having traveled an easy road. If anything, Smith has undergone more hardships than any mere mortal could be expected to handle. In the span of a few years, she lost her best friend (photographer Robert Mapplethorpe), her husband (Fred "Sonic" Smith of the MC5), her brother, and close friends Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Yet through it all she fights on, even maintaining some semblance of optimism. In the beautiful acoustic number "Farewell Reel," the song that closes 1996's Gone Again, Smith sings, "And God only knows / We're only given / As much as the heart can endure." The song, dedicated to Fred, shows the heart of a fighter and philosopher.
Forgive me if I gush a little, but there are very few heroes left in the world, and even fewer in rock n roll. Patti Smith is one of the most inspiring people most of us could ever hope to come in contact with. And yet her most impressive feat is that though she has associated with the likes of Ginsberg, Burroughs, Dylan and the Dalai Lama, she puts on no airs. You're more likely to find her doing laundry than riding in a limo.
You did a live Webcast recently. What was that like from your perspective?
It was unnatural. (Well, not that performing is ever really natural.) Part of what we do as a band is to break as many barriers as possible: I'll never ignore what's going on; I'll never try to pretend things aren't happening. We were in an unnatural setup. There were five huge TV cameras, all these bright lights, I could see all of the audience there's no mood-setting thing. We were trying to do a little video at one point. Clive Davis was in the audience. It was not your normal meeting at the Bowery Ballroom. There were a lot of unnatural elements. But they're still human elements. So it was interesting to see where these new invaders would take us. It's just like another episode of The X-Files or something. I thought it was a very interesting world; a sense of humor was absolutely essential.
Did you get a chance to see what the Webcast looked like afterwards?
Yeah. I thought it was pretty cool. It was funny. It looked like what it was. I only saw bits of it on a laptop, and it looked pretty raw, as it was. What did you think?
It was a really good show. It was different. From the audience perspective it's hard to get into a show with all the lights on the same way you would without all the lights on. When you're at a rock show the house lights aren't supposed to be on.
But I still believe all things are interesting, even the fact that our band and our people were entering into this (in some ways) self-consciously moving event. We stuck together and we spar together. And I think it was okay. I mean a lot of things in life are humiliating. Everybody has times in their life where they feel like a jerk, where they feel uncomfortable, where they're forced to perform in a really unnatural situation. And I think it's sometimes important to let people see that, because I want people to see what it's like to go through a lot of the same things from my perspective. Because I do go through them. I have a lot of confidence. I have certain gifts. I have a lot of vision. But sometimes I'm on stage and I feel really stupid or I'll feel really awkward. Or I just don't feel good and I can't move right, or the sound is really bad and I can't sing very good or I just get, like, weirded out by some spirit or something. But it's just human stuff.
I've never really liked how within the rock n roll arena they sort of canonize people, not because of their work but because of the externals. But I think the rawness and all of the human aspects of performance have to be preserved. And I think that we've gotten so technical and we have the ability to use tapes, to lip sync in a supposedly real live performance, or have so many costume changes, or so many lights, or so many effects that the actual human core of things is sometimes lost. Some of the really street revolutionary energy is sometimes lost.
If this is not too personal, could you talk about how much having writing and music and your art has really helped you overcome all the losses in your life?
Well I think work on any level helps people when they're going through a grieving process. It's good to work. I just think that work is important for human beings. It's good to be productive, whether it's gardening, writing or whatever one pursues as their work. But I think really the most important thing is, again, human interaction friends reaching out to help you, saying one's prayer, staying in communication, because it's very easy to go into some really dark, unhealthy cocoon. And unless one wants to have a Victorian death, if one loses a loved one and sort of expires in the wake of one's loved one, it's important to get back on your feet and accept the help of others.
When I've had difficult times...only a couple of months after I had lost my husband and my brother, Allen Ginsberg came out of the blue. I hadn't seen him in a while and he said, "Come out and work. Get up out of bed and come out and work, work for others. Do something charitable." So he got me involved in the Tibetan situation, which I had always been concerned about. He got me on my feet.
I met Oliver Ray and he got me working. Lenny Kaye pursued me to work. And even Bob Dylan, who I didn't really know that well, called upon me to go on a tour with him. I spoke to him privately and he said, "Come back to work, the people need you. I think really accepting the help of others is a very important thing. It's sometimes more of an effort to accept help than not. But if you're gonna give help, you have to learn to accept it as well.
How much influence does your environment have on your writing?
When I was in Michigan for 16 years, my principal duty as a human being was as a wife and mother. And so a lot of my time went into my daily tasks as a wife and mother. So the way that I worked was very specific, instead of indulging myself in any writing at like four in the morning if I felt like it or sitting around with books all day. I found more specific time frames, like when the children were sleeping.
For me it's a matter of work ethic. I think that if one is given a gift, one has a responsibility to the gift. And it's fun to sort of live a bohemian lifestyle. Which I'm always sort of a bohemian, it's just the way that I am. But it's not necessary to creation. What's necessary to creation is motivating one's self, acknowledging your responsibility to your gift, and developing a work ethic.
Artists have the same responsibility as a person who has to work a nine-to-five job or any kind of person that has to do their work. An artist has a responsibility to himself and should be able to draw from himself and do his work regardless of his environment.
Genet had to write his books in prison on toilet paper and had to hide it. Anne Frank writing her diary in hiding there's all different ways that people have had [to] create. And I found really that it doesn't come from living a romantic lifestyle and smoking pot all day. It just comes from within and it comes from a lot of practice. Being a performer and doing a record is work. It's hard work
Kimberly Akimbo Review From NY1
David Lindsay Abaire is an up and coming playwright known for dark comedies like "Fuddy Meers" and "Wonder of the World." His latest quirky creation is KIMBERLY AKIMBO, a piece about a girl who's 16 going on 70. NY1's Roma Torre filed this review.
KIMBERLY AKIMBO is one weird show, but I was bowled over by the singular theatricality of David Lindsay Abaire's new play at the Manhattan Theatre Club. The way this harrowing and hilarious work continuously shifts from satire to black comedy to realism could never work anywhere else but the stage. And blessed with a first-rate production featuring an exceptional acting ensemble, it is theatre at its most original.
Kimberly Levaco is about to turn 16. She's met her first boyfriend, and is soon to experience her first kiss. Though her dad worries about the boyfriend's intentions, there's no fear of accidental pregnancy. That's because Kimberly went through menopause four years ago.
Kimberly was born with a degenerative disease that causes her to age four and a half times the normal rate. Betrayed by her body, she's staring squarely at her own mortality, with a life expectancy that's just about up.
But Kimberly, as played and written, is no maudlin, self-obsessed teen. In fact, she's the normal one. And we discover she's suffering something even worse than her terminal illness - her family.
The family includes a pregnant, uncaring hypochondriac mother. Bandaged from carpal tunnel surgery, she's convinced that she's the one who's about to die. Her father is a spineless alcoholic with brief flashes of affection, and Jake Webber is outstanding in the part.
Both parents, in a chronic state of denial, manage to forget Kimberly's birthday, which statistically should be her last.
There's also her reckless aunt - a vulgar ex-con who ironically seems to have more feeling for Kimberly than her own parents.
It's a tricky play to produce because it requires the perfect balance between quirky and sincere. And this company, expertly directed by David Petrarca, pulls it off with exceptional flair.
Then there's Marylouise Burke. This 62-year-old actress' convincing performance as a teenager is a revelation. She's so believable that at one point, when she dresses like an elderly woman, the startling image takes your breath away. She provides the heartbreaking sanity to Lindsay Abaire's nightmarish world, where family dysfunction thrives amid a cultural wasteland. It's exaggerated to be sure, but rooted in reality just enough to make us all squirm from recognition.
The play's power comes from its ability to comment on so many profound issues in our lives: family neglect, aging, morality, love and innocence. It's painful to watch, but also enlightening. And if you stick with it, you may find yourself laughing through tears. Now that's theatre.
- Roma Torre
Manhattan Theatre Club's production of KIMBERLY AKIMBO, by David Lindsay-Abaire, directed by David Petrarca, is playing at City Center Stage I (131 West 55th Street). The performance schedule is: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 PM. Sunday evening performances are at 7 PM. Tickets are $60 and can be reserved by calling CityTix at (212) 581-1212. Group and student rates are available. For group ticket information, call (212) 399-3000 X 132. $20 student tickets are on sale for all performances based on availability on the day of the performance, up to one hour before showtime (limit 4 per student with valid identification). Call (212) 581-1212 for further information. MTC at City Center is accessible to people with disabilities and is equipped with a hearing augmentation system.
Flute in the Storm
Filmmaker Jocelyn Glatzer discusses her upcoming film "Flute in the Storm," a portrayal of activist Arn Chorn Pond and his struggle to revive Cambodias dying musical heritage.
By Evelyn Adams Carrigan
An Interview Provided by the Boston Film/Video Foundation
| Arn Chorn Pond at age 16.
Cambodian refugees in this country are somewhat of an enigma to most Americans. Few are aware of the devastation caused by the Cambodian holocaust during the 1970s Khmer Rouge uprising. In part, this is the power of Jocelyn Glatzers film, "Flute in the Storm."
The story documents internationally acclaimed human rights activist Arn Chorn Pond -- his amazing feat of escaping death several times; his courage to live on despite the pain; and his attempts to revive Cambodias dying musical heritage.
In 1975 the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pots peasant Communist regime, systematically decimated 90 percent of Cambodias musicians, dancers, teachers, artists, monks and anyone else suspected of being educated. Those who were captured were sent to labor camps to work 18-hour days. The prisoners were eventually killed or forced into military duty to fight the sudden Vietnamese invasion.
But a 10-year-old boy, Arn Chorn, managed to keep himself alive. During his internment, Arn learned from a master performer the ancient music of his country. The master was killed for the deed, but Arn was spared so that he could play military tunes on his flute for the officers at the camp. Later, while fighting the Vietnamese, Arn managed to escape his company, winding his way through the jungle for days until he found a refugee camp. There he met Reverend Peter Pond, a Cambodian relief worker, who adopted Arn and two other boys, and brought them back to America two years later.
"Flute in the Storm" tells a compelling story of healing, hope and the struggle to revive a cultural tradition on the brink of extinction. Knowing that he survived after having watched so many die has been a painful cross to bear for Arn Chorn Pond. But at 34, he has reached out to his Cambodian-American community in Lowell and in his native country. Arn is passionately and successfully implementing programs that are bringing the music back to its people. His Cambodia Master Performers Project is a valiant attempt to restore dignity and power to the few surviving masters by coordinating paid teaching positions for them.
The filmmaker, Jocelyn Glatzer has worked for Maysles Films and WNETs Great Performances series as well as various feature films. She started her own production company, Over the Moon Productions, after working in the documentary business for 10 years. She is a recent recipient of an LEF Foundation grant and director of "Flute in the Storm."
EAC: How do you know Arn Chorn Pond?
Glatzer: I met Arn in my senior year at Northfield Mt. Hermon School in western Massachussetts. It was obvious to me that he was not your ordinary prep-school kid. We started having dinners together and he told me his incredible story. Weve been friends ever since.
EAC: What prompted you to make this documentary?
Glatzer: Over the years weve kept in touch. We have both worked with an organization called Facing History and Ourselves so we ran into each other at workshops and conferences. I knew that someday I would work on a project with Arn. It was just a matter of when.
When I moved to Boston last year from New York, I contacted Arn to see what he was working on. Last September he spoke at Simmons College, and I videotaped the event. We had lunch and he told me about his work to revive Cambodian music. I knew immediately that Arns story and his important work should be documented. Arn mentioned that he was going to Cambodia in November, and he willingly agreed to let me follow him. I was ready to be engaged in something challenging and I knew that working with Arn would be an adventure. The film is about personal recovery and cultural survival in the aftermath of war -- music is the vehicle used to explore these issues.
EAC: How did you prepare for the trip?
Glatzer: I only had two months to get ready. Fortunately, I had some money in the bank from previous commercial work, and I went ahead with the faith that funding would appear sometime in the future. I hired a cameraperson and a sound engineer only, because I didnt want to have a huge crew. Arn had his itinerary set for the trip so I could plan a strong shoot schedule around the work he had mapped out for himself.
EAC: What was it like to travel around Cambodia?
Glatzer: Its tough because the countrys infrastructure is in such disrepair. The roads are a series of ditches, and it takes three hours to travel 50 miles. The option of taking a boat from Phnom Penh to Angkor Wat was no less inviting because the walkway was too narrow for us to carry our equipment and the boat was in rough shape. We chose not to go, but the next time Im there Im definitely going to try it.
For me personally, the toughest aspect of travelling in Cambodia was navigating the emotional terrain of the people who live there. Theres still so much pain because every single person has lost at least one family member and many people have seen the darkest side of human nature. The pain is palpable. It definitely had an impact on how we worked.
Arn is trying to make a dent by rebuilding the framework of his cultural heritage. He feels that the arts are the heart and soul of the country. He is really trying to save peoples' lives -- and doing this work heals him as well.
It was a very intense shoot. Very emotional. But I was driven by the fact that that its important for Cambodia to have world attention. The country is still very unstable. War crime tribunals are supposed to begin soon and they could severely impact the already precarious political climate.
EAC: Given the extant fear in Cambodia, how are people receiving the Cambodia Master Performers Project?
Glatzer: In Cambodia, the younger people dont know the music because it is never played. There is no music in the elevators, office buildings, or stores. They listen to Thai music and pop music. In America, Arn is helping the kids find a way to incorporate the traditional music with hip-hop and rap, which has worked well. Cambodian music has an incredibly unique sound that Westerners havent heard much. Ill be interested to hear how people will receive it.
"Flute in the Storm" will be completed in early 2002. For more information about "Flute in the Storm," contact Jocelyn Glatzer at Over the Moon Productions, Inc. 617-971-9497 or email@example.com. Also visit www.cambodianmasters.org.
Same old song
Though times and topics have changed since the '60s, the soundtrack of protest remains much the same
By Louise Kennedy, Globe Staff, 3/9/2003
ow many times must they sing the same song before there's a new song to sing?
Go to a peace rally and you'll hear ''Blowin' in the Wind,'' 41 years after Bob Dylan wrote it. You'll also hear ''The Times They Are A-Changin','' ''We Shall Overcome,'' and ''This Land Is Your Land.'' All great songs - and all decades old. Are there any new songs of protest out there?
The answer, my friends, is not many, not yet. Ask people in the music business for examples of songs that protest the US buildup toward war in Iraq, and there's a thoughtful pause. Steve Earle gets mentioned for his song about John Walker Lindh, the ''American Taliban'' (who, of course, was in Afghanistan, not Iraq); Billy Bragg's ''The Price of Oil'' comes into several conversations, too. This week, John Mellencamp announced he will make the antiwar song ''From Washington'' available on his website. That's about it.
Musicians are organizing antiwar efforts - from the Code Pink rally at the White House that singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked planned for this weekend to the full-page ads in The New York Times in which a long list of artists urges the administration not to invade Iraq. So far, though, most seem to be expressing themselves in the media, not in their music.
Some mutter darkly that there are more songs out there but corporate radio is keeping them off the air. The notorious list of ''banned'' songs - everything from John Lennon's ''Imagine'' to the entire oeuvre of Rage Against the Machine - the radio conglomerate Clear Channel issued after Sept. 11 only adds fuel to such suspicions. But no one names a great song that's not getting played. Joanne Doody, program director of Haverhill's WXRV (''The River'') notes with ''surprise'' that she hasn't heard any, and WBCN program director Oedipus says he hasn't either. (Neither of those is a Clear Channel station.) ''There's not much yet. There's going to be more,'' says Oedipus. ''We will have a new generation of protest songs.''
It may just be too early to be looking for great new songs. Maybe this is 1962, when Dylan was singing Woody Guthrie, just as today's artists are singing Dylan. ''The great songs come out of great movements,'' says singer Barbara Dane - who should know, because she's been singing since the civil-rights and Vietnam protests. ''It's not just an antiwar movement anymore; I think it's a movement of ordinary people everywhere toward life. ''And they'll be singing,'' Dane says. ''They always do.''
Shocked - who noted wryly that she was planning to sing ''We Shall Overlap'' as a way of encouraging the peace and antiglobalization movements to come together at Code Pink - also isn't surprised that new songs haven't yet joined the old. ''These things take time to distill and digest,'' she says. ''The kind of art that I like to create takes time.''
There may be other reasons, too, that we hear so much from the '60s. ''The '60s as a whole exercises this potent mystique on the imagination of youth today,'' says Nicholas Bromell, an English professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the author of ''Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s.''
''Their music produces very little in the way of hope,'' Bromell says. ''It's very smart, very sharp, very edgy, very cynical about everything. The kids are very wised up; they're very shrewd. You need to be more than wised up when you decide to protest something. You need to believe that your protest is going to change something.''
Newer not always better
It's hard to tell yet whether that kind of protest is building, though the flurry of events that are getting organized via this generation's answer to college radio, the Internet, makes it feel as if, yes, something's changing. But at the protest in New York last month, at various events over the past few days, and at yesterday's Washington rally, you could still count on the singers turning to the old songs for that little jolt of hope.
Oedipus has a simple explanation for the boom in Dylan songs. ''They're played because they're good,'' he says. And, unfortunately, a lot of new music isn't. Right after the Sept. 11 attacks, there was a flood of, as Oedipus puts it, ''really bad'' music. ''I have heard some horrific 9/11 songs,'' says James O'Brien, publicity coordinator at Cambridge's legendary folk venue, Club Passim. ''This antiwar beast is a different beast. ... I haven't seen anything groaningly bad.''
But there's not much that's groaningly good, either. And what is good, O'Brien says, is coming from less famous artists. He cites the Chicago folk artist Michael McDermott, for example, as someone who's writing ''new stuff that sounds very fresh and familiar at the same time. ... You're getting something that's poetically sound and not just a topical narrative.''
Elsewhere, though, O'Brien sees some artists who haven't been writing politically but are suddenly jumping on the bandwagon. ''You have to keep a very careful eye on who actually writes useful protest music,'' he says, ''and who is trying to take advantage of this trend.''
Just as ''roots'' was the buzzword last year, O'Brien says, ''protest'' is now becoming the folk label du jour. Still, he says, he's glad to see it. ''That's something that's been sorely missing from folk music for about 20 years,'' he says, ''and you can't look a gift horse in the mouth.''
There's been a small but steady thread of political folk songs for years, O'Brien notes, and it continued long after its heyday - the '60s of Dylan and Joan Baez (who both played Passim in its earlier life as Club 47) and pre-''Let's Roll'' Neil Young. ''But they aren't getting played on the radio and they aren't getting noticed at the festivals, because they aren't family fare,'' he says.
''It's an aesthetic choice that was made by the singer-songwriter folk community sometime in the late '70s. The idea of protest singing was deemphasized because that's confrontational, that's challenging,'' O'Brien says. ''The environment has never percolated the way that it did in the '60s.''
`Tired of bling-bling'
There's a particular irony, perhaps, to the idea of an apolitical folk scene - something that would have sounded like a contradiction in terms in 1968. But folk is hardly the only genre that has shifted uneasily in trying to define its relationship to politics. In hip-hop, to name another, there's been everything from the outspoken political statements of Chuck D to the bedazzled materialism of many current acts. But here, too, the times may be a-changin'.
''People are getting a little tired of bling-bling and `I'm in the club,''' says Tim Linberg, whose Boston-based MetroConcepts manages the Perceptionists (Mr. Lif and Akrobatik) and other hip-hop artists. ''People are craving some content.''
Rap artist EDO.G sees the desire to engage more with political issues, both in his own music and in others'. ''I have kids, so I'm thinking about their future,'' he says. He's been making political references for a while - Osama bin Laden, he says, cropped up in his rhymes as far back as 1998 - but ''I really started getting into politics over the last couple of years. The 9/11 thing really opened my eyes.'' On his next album, EDO.G says, there's a whole song (as yet untitled) that deals with the threat of war in Iraq.
''A lot of the underground and indie cats are talking about it in their music,'' EDO.G says. ''I don't know as far as the commercial artists - a lot of them are kind of touching on the subject. But not in the music, more through the media.''
Indeed, even politically minded musicians like Tom Morello, formerly of Rage Against the Machine and now with Audioslave, have been expressing themselves more in interviews or ads or on the Web than in song. Morello runs an activist website, axisofjustice. com, and also distributes political materials at concerts, but Audioslave's recent Avalon gig was strikingly devoid of political songs.
And, of course, music stars' attempts to make a statement can end up seeming simple-minded. Madonna's impending video for her single ''American Life,'' featuring models in camouflage, comes to mind. Or look at Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit on the Grammy awards show, saying we're all in ''agreeance'' against war. Durst got howled at for that one - almost overshadowing the controversy over whether artists were told not to make any political statements at the Grammys. (Sheryl Crow said she was told to keep quiet; the show's organizers insisted she wasn't. She ended up just wearing a guitar strap that said ''No War.'')
Then there's Musicians United to Win Without War, the almost absurdly diverse coalition that has been taking out full-page antiwar ads in the Times. Founded by Russell Simmons of hip-hop powerhouse Def Jam Records and David Byrne, Musicians United includes acts as varied as Jay-Z, Wilco, George Clinton, and Lou Reed.
''Some people were real surprises,'' says Byrne, the musician who's best known as the founder of Talking Heads. On reflection, though, he says it's not a surprise that so many musicians signed up so quickly. ''I think they feel like we're being rushed into something that isn't necessary at this point,'' he says.
''From my side, I just reached a point where I felt that I personally had to do something,'' Byrne says. ''I had to feel that I had spoken my mind about this for my own conscience.''
So far it's just an ad, with more to follow in Rolling Stone and elsewhere. What may be more significant about Musicians United is simply the broad swath it cuts across the culture - the way it brings together performers (and, perhaps, fans) who move in different worlds. But Byrne says there are no plans to perform together or make some other kind of musical statement. And he's not sure that any musical statement will come together quickly over Iraq.
''I myself can't imagine a simple song that makes it all cut and dried and black and white,'' Byrne says. ''The issue is a lot more complex than that.''
Louise Kennedy, of the Boston Globe newspaper, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
|Legal Challenges to Artistic Expression|
by Donna M. Hart
At the symposium on "Arts Legal Challenge," presented by The Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School on 6 November 2002, the presenters illustrated how the courts in the US have become the new "salons" for discussion of the arts and aesthetics. Judges at the state and federal level have the power to distinguish expressions of artistic merit (speech that is protected by the First Amendment) from obscenity (speech that is not protected by the Constitution). The panelists question whether courts are the appropriate venue for defining art and whether lawyers and judges are adequately equipped with the intellectual capacity to make such determinations. The definition of art has traditionally been discussed in the art community and marketplace. One intellectually accurate definition of art is "whatever people call art," and this definition, among others, is currently at odds with the legal definition of art.
The recent ban on nude images in public places illustrates the conservative climate. Earlier this year, for instance, the Department of Justice hung drapes to cover a semi-nude art deco statute of "Spirit of Justice" that has stood in the Great Hall since the 1930's. The Department reported that the blue curtain was a better backdrop for Attorney General John Ashcroft when he delivered speeches on camera.
Censorship laws have controlled artistic expression for the last century, particularly in the area of sexual and religious content. Violations of these laws have resulted in bans on art exhibits or public funding, fines or imprisonment. The following paragraphs highlight some noteworthy developments discussed at the symposium.
In 1921, a motion picture commission was established in New York and was directed to deny exhibition licenses to any film it considered "obscene, indecent, immoral, inhuman, sacrilegious, or of such character that its exhibition would tend to corrupt morals or incite to crime." Under this law, The Miracle was banned in the US in 1951. This short film by Roberto Rossellini is a religious parable featuring a peasant woman who was seduced by a vagabond whom she mistakes in her drunken stupor for St. Joseph. She discovers she is pregnant and decides it is an immaculate conception, a "miracle."
Although criticized in Italy for its objectionable religious viewpoint, the Vatican declined to ban the film. Pointing to "scenes of undoubted screen value," the Vatican concluded, "we still believe in Rossellinis art." Yet in New York, public officials were not so broadminded. The City License Commissioner Edward McCaffrey announced that he found The Miracle "officially and personally blasphemous" and ordered the movie theater to stop showing it. The next day, the Catholic Churchs Legion of Decency called The Miracle a "blasphemous mockery of Christian-religious truth," and McCaffrey suspended the theaters license. The film distributor, Joseph Burstyn, filed a lawsuit to challenge McCaffrey, and at a preliminary hearing, the judge questioned McCaffreys power to censor movies. Film censorship was well entrenched in New York City, but it was vested in the state Board of Regents, not the municipal license commissioner. McCaffey backed off and lifted his ban.
After controversy erupted, including picketing, in New York City, the Board of Regents convened and declared the film "sacrilegious" and ruled that it violated the thirty-year-old film censorship law, but in 1952, the Supreme Court declared in Burstyn v. Wilson that "sacrilege" was far too vague a censorship standard to be permitted under the First Amendment. Justice Tom Clark opined that trying to decide what qualifies as sacrilege sets the censor "adrift upon a boundless sea amid a myriad of conflicting currents of religious views, with no charts but those provided by the most vocal and powerful orthodoxies." He added, "it is not the business of governmentto suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine."
Almost forty years later, in 1989, the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) was severely criticized for funding a museum that displayed Andres Serranos photograph Piss Christ in a show of contemporary art. Serranos work was referred to as "shocking, abhorrent, and completely undeserving of any recognition whatsoever" by a group of senators who then called for a review of the NEAs procedures used in allocating grants to artists. Similarly, members of Congress criticized NEA support for the Robert Maplethorpe retrospective, The Perfect Moment, organized by the institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania.
Funds appropriated by the NEA for the Arts or Humanities were banned from being used to support "materials which in the judgment of the NEAmay be considered obscene," including depictions of sadomasochism, homo-eroticism, the sexual exploitation of children, or of individuals engaged in sex acts which taken as a whole, do not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value." In 1990 a federal court invalidated that appropriations amendment, saying it was unconstitutionally vague and chilled the exercise of First Amendment rights.
In that same year, Congress passed an amendment requiring that all NEA grants take into account, "general standards of decency and respect of the diverse beliefs and values of the American public." In 1998, in NEA v. Finley, the US Supreme Court upheld the "decency" standard for federal grants to the arts. The majority decision holds that the "decency" standard cannot be used to mandate the censorship of controversial art or ideas, but this decision is tenuous because it turned on the fact that the standard is not mandatory; it is merely advisory.
Congressional threats to de-fund the NEA combined with new legislation requiring the agency to consider "respect for the diverse beliefs of the American people" in awarding grants, forced changes that now make it unlikely that any work, artist, or show that uses religious imagery in ways likely to offend religious authorities will receive support. As the Supreme Court said in Burstyn, government "has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them." Arts funding decisions that are driven by fear of offending religious beliefs not only violate this principle but also inevitably squelch expression disapproved by the dominant hierarchies of the dominant religion.
In 1957, in Roth v. US, Supreme Court Justice Brennan narrowed the definition of obscenity and held that material had to have "no redeeming social importance" for it to be considered obscene and thus unprotected by the First Amendment. Under this compromise standard, it would be up to the court to determine the meaning of "redeeming social importance."
Under the current standard of obscenity as established in Miller v. California, the court applies a three-part test: (1) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; (2) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (3) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
In the case of Skyywalker Records, Broward County, Florida, banned the sale of 2 Live Crew's musical recording "As Nasty As They Wanna Be." Applying the Miller test, a federal judge deemed the music obscene because it appealed to the prurient interest and was patently offensive where lyrics and titles of songs were replete with references to genitalia, excretion, oral-anal contact, fellatio, group sex, sadomasochism, other sexual activities and sounds of moaning, and commercial exploitation of the work was done in a manner calculated to make a salacious appeal. The Eleventh Circuit reversed the lower court's ruling for violating the First Amendment.
Only "serious" art is considered "good" art worthy of constitutional protection and it is up to the courts to decide what "serious" art is. In reaction to this legal determination, some works of modern and post-modern art are self-critical and question the distinction between art and non-art, as in the display of pornography in art galleries. In Jeff Koons sculpture of a porn star hugging a pink panther and the depiction of a porn star as a member of Parliament in another work, Koons trashes "serious" art and accentuates the line between art and obscenity.
Billy Boggs, an internationally acclaimed artist who creates images of money, appeared as one of the guest speakers. He recounted some of the travails he encountered after he released drawings that resembled $1,000 bills into the stream of commerce. Even though it would be unlikely to mistake the drawings as real currency because the reverse side of the drawing are blank, and real $1,000 bills are rare and have been out of print since the 1930s, and even though the drawings are worth more than the $1,000 face value, Boggs was investigated for allegedly violating counterfeit laws. Secret service agents raided his home, seized over 1,300 items and threatened him with arrest. A comparison of art and currency were explored at a hearing, and although Boggs prevailed in the legal dispute, his confiscated works were never returned.
This writer left the symposium able only to conclude that it is virtually impossible to protect both art and censorship laws simultaneously, as freedom of artistic expression and the censorship laws are at odds with one another. In the end, artists will continue to create art regardless of these roadblocks.
|About the Author:|
Donna M. Hart is a regular contributor to the Newsletter. Other articles by her can be found in the Newsletter's complete Archives.
For an article on the ban of nudity in public buildings, see "No nudes is good nudes: The great Federal coverup," Washington Post, October 24, 2002, by Nicole Miller at http://chblue.com/artman/publish/printer_846.shtml.
For a discussion of the controversy surrounding The Miracle and a history of film censorship, read "The Miracle: Film Censorship and the Entanglement of Church and State, University of Virginia Forum for Contemporary Thought," Oct. 28, 2002, by Marjorie Heins at http://www.fepproject.org/commentaries/themiracle.html
For a timeline of censorship, see "A Selective Timeline of Censorship in the U.S.A." prepared by the National Coalition Against Censorship at http://www.ncac.org/timeline/2002.htm
Burstyn v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495 (1952) http://supct.law.cornell.edu:8080/supct/historic_idx/343_495.htm
NEA v. Finley, 524 U.S. 569 (1998) http://supct.law.cornell.edu:8080/supct/historic_idx/524_569.htm
Roth v. US, 354 U.S. 476 (1957) http://supct.law.cornell.edu:8080/supct/historic_idx/354_476.htm
Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973) http://supct.law.cornell.edu:8080/supct/historic_idx/413_15.htm
Skyywalker Records, Inc. v. Navarro, 739 F. Supp. 578, 58 USLW 2744 (S.D. Fla. 1990); reversed by Luke Records, Inc. v. Navarro, 960 F. 2d 134, 60 USLW 2724 (11th Cir. 1992); Cert. denied by Navarro v. Luke Records, Inc., 506 U.S. 1022, 113 S. Ct. 659 (1992).
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