Ethics and aesthetics in the news

It’s an odd week to be sure, as the Political keeps pushing its chin into the picture, rearing its handsome & long-haired head.

The biggest controversy I’m currently hearing about is the fortunate convergence of Putin with Tchaikowsky…more on that in a moment.

Yesterday I reviewed Nicholas Mathew’s Political Beethoven. The book has left its mark in my head as surely as if I’d listened to a few sonatas or symphonies.

I have other books I am reading, particularly Kirsty Johnston’s fascinating book Stage Turns: Canadian Disability Theatre.   I have only peeked at it (and will eventually review it), but can’t help thinking of parallel struggles.

  • At one time there were no women onstage except played by men. Then women came to the stage.
  • At one time there were no persons of colour onstage, although for a time people would play them in black-face; and then eventually that changed.  We’re talking about a kind of travesty, whether in the women played by men, or the black-faced actors.
  • So too with disability….
  • And the content of the stories gradually changes from something using travesty for mere exoticism, into something getting closer and closer to real life.

And so I’m thinking of something negotiated, a dialectic of change & normalization. Sounds political to me.

Last week I watched the Lepage Ring cycle.  The political element is surprising underplayed in the production, but backstage? That’s another story, in the alleged refusal of some singers to appear in future incarnations of the production. There’s also the dismissive responses of some in the audience.

Tomorrow I’ll be at the media preview for Ai Weiwei’s show at the Art Gallery of Ontario. He’s been in the back of my head since I saw Never Sorry, his documentary.  Two installations are already in Toronto, namely the zodiac animals (Nathan Philips Square) and Snake Ceiling, a provocative snake made of back-packs already at AGO.  Provocative? If you have children, you understand that a backpack is like a symbol of the trust with which parents send their kids off to school.  I was shaken by the images of crying mothers and piles of unclaimed backpacks after the great earthquake that destroyed many shoddily built schools.  Weiwei has brought attention to something the government sought to conceal.  Most people are happy to appease the Chinese government, conveniently forgetting that their fake smiles are a mask for fascist thuggery.  Ai Weiwei won’t let us forget.  I’ll write a great deal more about this tomorrow.

Three men, not two

The Metropolitan Opera’s opening gala performance of Eugene Onegin will star two Putin supporters, namely conductor Valery Gergiev & soprano Anna Netrebko, at the very time that the Russians have come out of the closet with an overt nasty policy of official state-sanctioned homophobia to make a Hitler smile in approval.  As Russia gears up for the Olympics the International Olympic Committee seem intent again on a kind of appeasement, just like what we see with China.  The IOC seem as cowardly now as they were in Mexico City 1968, when three protesting athletes were sanctioned.  Considering that opera is known at least anecdotally to have a disproportionately high proportion of gay men in the audience, it’s no wonder that there’s an online petition, a call for the Metropolitan Opera to take a strong stand.  It seems particularly fitting that the opera is by Tchaikowsky, the gay skeleton in the closet of the Russian soul.

The Met’s response was respectful but unhelpful:

“The Met is proud of its history as a creative base for LGBT singers, conductors, directors, designers, and choreographers. We also stand behind all of our artists, regardless of whether or not they wish to publicly express their personal political opinions. As an institution, the Met deplores the suppression of equal rights here or abroad. But since our mission is artistic, it is not appropriate for our performances to be used by us for political purposes, no matter how noble or right the cause.”

And so I’m pondering this question, what is the relationship between ideology and art, between the ethical and the aesthetical.

Are we fooling ourselves? One of the biggest successes this past year was Identity Theft, a film whose chief laugh throughout is at the fat woman who steals the identity of an average guy.  Fat people have not yet figured on the sensitivity radar, and so this kind of comedy doesn’t generate boycotts or petitions.  Maybe this is progress: that other groups are no longer acceptable targets for humour.  Is humanity progressing?  I am not sure, but we can’t really use Hollywood as our only bellwether, not when gays and women are still treated so horribly in most of the world.

For the record?  While I am happy that Melissa McCarthy made money on this film, one of the first fat women in a long time to have a starring role, I don’t think she advanced the cause of large people (and I suspect were she to read this I hope she’d get a laugh out of the thought…I am not seeking to call her a traitor or a sell-out.  Or am I?  In comparison, Jay Silverheels –the original Tonto—brought a great deal more dignity to his work, stopping short of being a complete buffoon.  I hope she invests her 30 pieces of silver, and maybe someday she’ll get to play a plus-sized heroine in Ibsen or Chekhov).  McCarthy didn’t really have much choice.  I admire the work of John Goodman and Jonah Hill, two great actors who look reassuringly genuine: which is to say, without the kind of ripped muscular definition or breast & lip implants that Hollywood often requires of its talent to get you past the door.

There are other excluded groups who are considered acceptable targets.  I quite enjoyed Sweet Home Alabama, a romantic comedy that played with the predictable optics, mocking southerners, and following a character arc that seemed destined to hang the southerners out to dry (sorry if that’s a spoiler).

Pardon me if i sound cynical.  The Met did exactly as i expected in their appropriate but minimal response. Yet I thought the Olympics were supposed to be a kind of enactment of our ideals, not a fake party where the host country could ride rough-shod over human rights.   Silly idealistic me.

Can you imagine an inclusive world where no one is the butt of a joke?  I can’t. At one time I dared to dream that swords would really be beaten into ploughshares.  Maybe Hillary Clinton will be the next American President.  And we’ll read about more atrocities of girls prevented from being allowed to read or uncover their faces. With every passing year, with every new transgression of the Geneva conventions, with every report of regional disparities of wealth & human rights, I see less reason to believe arms dealers will be put out of business anytime soon.  The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and so we’ll continue to need our utopian fantasies.  So long as people continue to hate we’ll have our romantic dreams of universal love.

And the creativity of political artists will never run dry.

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