This performance of Bad is helping me stave off the inevitable collectivist creep today. Of all the cloying republics, the art world, with its relentless social righteousness, is often the most suffocating. Just doing my best to lead the hearts of a few artists astray.
I thought it was the Pepsi ad. I thought, in the upside down world of progressivism, where fair is foul and foul is fair, this was the hierophantic moment. This was art doing the only thing they believe art is meant to do. This was art as savior, supremely confident in its own righteousness.
But the Pepsi ad turned out to be a mere harbinger––a voice crying in the wilderness. The real apotheosis of progressive art comes as a perfect mixture of millennial scientism and identity politics. It’s even on a show whose title includes the words “saves the world.” It’s so awful, so perfectly progressive, it makes me want to grab Bertolt Brecht by the chin and say, “Look at that, you sonofabitch! You did it! You finally did it!” (Netflix keeps taking the video down. No doubt they are horrified by it.)
Art must never be created to save the world. It must never try to convince Plato that it is worthy of inclusion in the Republic. Never.
To me, the progressive view of art is what Milosz called “dull unconscious power.” Like him, I am against that dull unconsciousness. Art––real art––is a calling up of consciousness.
Today I watched as a sixteen year old girl was untethered, loosed. I watched her become something wild.
I teach acting. This girl was giving her final performance of the iconic scene between Nina and Konstantin at the end of Chekhov’s The Seagull. I had encouraged the students to let go of the technique and let the creative energy flow. And she did. We saw her perform on a level above her own abilities. We saw her in the throes of something that cannot be fully defined.
Everyone watching knew it was happening. We had all seen peers tap into a nice well of emotion, but this was different. This was transcendence. This was, as Plato would have called it, possession. This was, as Coleridge would have called it, a manifestation of the primary imagination. This was, as Keats would have called it, the mystery.
She is young, so it was messy. She is young, so she didn’t know how to let go of it when the scene was over. She sat shaking and crying, elated and happy. “It’s ok,” she said. “I’m fine. It’s just Nina.”
Every honest person knows there is an intangible part of the human experience. It is larger––much larger––than the tangible, observable part. Of course, you are free to remain earthbound. But If, as an artist, you have never connected with the intangible, then you have never created art.
I saw a girl float away today. She is never coming back.
We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.
And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.
That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.
O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
Next week we will again perform This Bird of Dawning Singeth All Night Long. This is the show’s fifth year. It is a simple telling of the Nativity Story through poetry, mask, and music. I love it. And every year I love it more.
But there are always dangers in remounting a show. The dangers of comfort and complacency. It has to change and grow each time if it’s to stay alive. This year there are many new performers in the show, and you might think that would help it stay fresh. But the reality is that I’ve found myself relying more on past productions than ever.
Last week I woke with the distinct feeling that the piece was not happy with me. That sounds odd, but that’s just how I felt. I immediately began throwing out the old, playing with the new––leaving behind safety for the danger of the unknown. It’s difficult to do. It’s what Keats called “the burden of the mystery.” Nothing is more important in art.
In the current era, every piece of art must be an act of rebellion, and none more so than This Bird. As I have explained before, these must not be the common, insipid political and religious rebellions. No. These must be rebellions against the art world itself. And rebellions against the academy, which harbors the art world and continually tells it that safety is best. “Tell the world what is right and wrong,” says the academy. “Make sure they know you’re smarter than them, and that they should learn to think like you.” You see, the academy––and, by extension, what we have come to call “art”––hates Keats’ mystery. There is no better way to rebel as an artist than to take on the burden of the mystery.
This Bird opens with a fragment of Li-Young Lee’s poem, “Nativity.” (Perhaps no poet today is more rebellious than Lee.)
Each must make a safe place of his heart,
before so strange and wild a guest
as God approaches.
Here is the paradox: the most dangerous place for the heart is the protected place, the comfortable place, the place that is sure of itself. The safest place for the heart is the exposed, vulnerable place. Only there is it ready for the mystery, that strange and wild guest.
In the dark, a child might ask, What is the world?
just to hear his sister
promise, An unfinished wing of heaven,
just to hear his brother say, A house inside a house,
but most of all to hear his mother answer, One more song, then you go to sleep.
How could anyone in that bed guess
the question finds its beginning
in the answer long growing
inside the one who asked, that restless boy,
the night’s darling?
Later, a man lying awake,
he might ask it again,
just to hear the silence
charge him, This night
arching over your sleepless wondering,
this night, the near ground
every reaching-out-to overreaches,
just to remind himself
out of what little earth and duration,
out of what immense good-bye,
each must make a safe place of his heart,
before so strange and wild a guest
as God approaches.