East West

What I said at the conference: or: The universal opera mind, the experience of aesthetic rapture, the leading role of the audience, and how economic advancement can kill a perfectly good art

Thai Khon

[Our current art theories are fundamentally flawed. This is important because art theories both inspire artists’ endeavors and determine official arts policy; and false theories of art lead to failure just like false theory of rocket science leads to crashes and false medical theory leads to the patient’s death: art stagnates, artists are frustrated, grant money is misspent, and the public, unserved, loses interest.

That our art theories are false ought to be apparent to anyone with but a modicum of education and experience – a little modern logic, a little modern economics, a little modern psychology, a little travel, a little business experience in the private sector; the trouble is that those who formulate and teach our art theories, and those who attempt to put them into practice, lack precisely that modicum.

It is worse, in fact: our current art theories have evolved a phalange of special interests: professors who teach it, bureaucrats who administer it, several generations of artists who have been raised on it, and a whole tribe of consultants, managers, dealers, and impresarios who live off the economic systems put in place to implement precisely those theories. Any new theory of art which challenges the economic standing of all these people is therefore resisted. And thus, our false theory of art has become a kind of scholastic Aristotelianism, an unassailable dogma, a powerful group-think, and, generally speaking, no genuine debate of it is possible.

At a recent conference I presented an aspect of a dissident point of view. Below is the text of my presentation with marginal annotations in yellow.]

1. Comparing East and West

The idea that one could learn something useful about one’s own culture by comparing it to other cultures is very old in Europe, but it has never been well implemented, mainly because most attempts to do so set out form the assumption that other cultures are so foreign that we could not begin to understand them, let alone find any similarities. Comparisons, when they are made, are focused on differences rather than similarities. Voltaire gave a perfect expression of this view; he wrote: what is in in Peking, in Paris is right out. In other words, all cultural standards are merely conventional, including our own.

In fact, the truth is precisely the opposite: there are lots of similarities and standards are strikingly alike. That Voltaire did not see this is curious: it’s almost certain that as he wrote those words, he had before his eyes somewhere in his office several pieces of Chinese porcelain: it was at the time, very much in both in Peking and in Paris.

And it was only one of many such things which Voltaire – we – should have noticed.

Balinese Gambuh

2.  Asian dance-drama

Here is another one: my learned predecessor has just expressed the view, quite common, that European opera is a unique art form in the world. I believe it is not. I believe other ancient civilizations have evolved very similar art forms – similar both aesthetically and socioeconomically – and that it is both possible and useful to compare them and their fates. I propose to do just that today and my topic will be one such art form: Asian dance-drama.

I came in contact with it for the first time in my middle age, having been formed intellectually in the European cultural tradition: I was a great fan of baroque opera already; but, though I had by then spent a lot of time in Asia, I was not at all familiar with Asian theater. My reaction was at first that of wonder at the strangeness of the drama I was watching – the people looked different, they wore flowers in their hair, the musicians sat on the floor and played gongs, the singers ornamented their songs in unfamiliar ways, and I have never seen such dance figures before. But as the play went on, I was struck by a powerful sense of recognition: it was like meeting a masked stranger during the carnival in Venice and suddenly recognizing that the stranger behind the mask is in fact our old and familiar friend. This experience is not unique to me: it has happened repeatedly to cultured Westerners: Walter Spies, Beryl de Zoete, Collin McPhee. It continues to happen every year at the Bali Dance Festival. It happens too frequently to be an accident: it happens frequently because there is really is a very strong similarity there.

I will discuss the similarities next, but first I have to tell you what I mean by Asian dance-drama. I mean by it a dramatic form invented as a temple art in South India sometime around the year 0. It tells classical stories, usually taken from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, in the form of dance accompanied by an orchestra and a singing narrator, frequently backed by a choir. As Hinduism, and later Buddhism, spread from South India to South East Asia, the dance drama followed, sometimes – oddly – in opposition to the ruling religion (it is almost as if one imported the religion along with its sins). By the 9th century AD, dance drama became an essential part of royal ceremonial throughout South East Asia. The art form has evolved three distinct styles – South Indian, Indonesian, and Thai-Cambodian. All three are still practiced today.

Cambodian lkhaon kbach boran

3.  Asian dance-drama and European opera:  two branches of the same art?

So, what are the striking similarities between European opera and Asian dance-drama?

I have divided the similarities into three categories.

(1) First, aesthetically speaking, both European opera and Asian dance-drama resort to the same trick for their emotional effect: first, both art forms induce a strong sense of unreality, or otherworldliness, by staging the performances at night, with dim lights, in incomprehensible languages (Venetian dialect in Europe, for instance, or Kawi in Java); by playing music; by singing and dancing rather than acting; by telling well known and often unbelievable stories, frequently in fragmentary form. All these procedures allow the audience to suspend their sense of reality and engage in appreciating the abstract complexities of the performers’ technique: singing or dancing (or both). The complex technique lies at the heart of the art form. It takes years for the performers to master and years for the audience to learn to appreciate. Its appreciation appeals to our visceral, animal nature: we are naturally very sensitive to the sound of the human voice and the movements of the human body. When we are presented with certain aspects of these phenomena, under certain conditions, we can experience rapture. Both art forms seek to induce the experience of rapture through the procedure described.

(2) Although I believe that the central point of both arts is the attainment of aesthetic rapture, there are important similarities between the two art forms as far as their intellectual frame-work is concerned. For instance: the story does not matter in either art form: the stories are told in incomprehensible languages, they are often silly, and they are invariably familiar: there is no sense of suspense of “what happened then?” In both art forms, the libretti are either classical (Greek and Roman gods in opera, Indian epics in dance-drama), or somehow imitate the classics: there is a sense of a loyalty or adherence to the past on the scenario level. Further, on the ideological level, the stories typically concern themselves with the “old virtues” – virtues appropriate to the feudal society: chivalry, courage, loyalty and decorum. Issues of religious observance, ordinary morals, and utilitarian considerations are studiously avoided. The feudal virtues are deemed to be appropriate to, or possessed by, the aristocratic heroes, who are often contrasted with – but not opposed to – the lower classes. The principal concern is with high and low and the contrast is seen as one expressive of quality, or virtue.

(3) Both art forms have played very similar socio-economic function in their respective societies. For instance, both have always been of very narrow social appeal – a minority art form. (Even in the best of times no more than 10% of the population has ever attended opera in France). In both, core users predominate – people who are avid and frequent consumers of the art form and who devote vast amounts of time and money to its consumption, are capable of watching it every night, often the same production several nights in a row, travel long distances to see special performances, and usually sit in the first rows. Both art forms are characterized by repeat consumption: no opera lover would ever say “Oh, I have seen Cosi Fan Tutte already”. Both art forms are very expensive to put on, both in terms of time and money. Both are connected in the popular mind with the national identity: they are thought to be a kind of epitome, or perhaps even, a kind of zenith of their respective cultures. This gives them both the power to legitimize authority: kings and governments have traditionally used them to establish their authority and shore up their prestige. Finally, both art forms stimulate the same kinds of response from non-users: the first, critical, often lampoons the art form because of its unrealistic representation of life (“fat ladies singing”): popular art’s attitude to these art forms is often subversive; the second common attitude of non-users is admiration and aspiration: “I wish I could appreciate it”.

Cambodian lkhaon kbach boran

And now, allow me to engage in a spot of speculation:

4.  Is there such a thing as the opera mind?

Are there enough similarities between opera and Asian dance-drama for us to suggest that they represent a single genre – in fact, the same art form with only minor, cosmetic differences? And if so, can we say that the two art forms have arisen in such similar ways because their particular “trick” fits somehow some aspects of the human mind? If so, it certainly does not fit, as audience participation shows, all human minds: it appeals to a minority of minds in each society where it is present, but, significantly such a minority seems to exist in many different societies. It is possible to take Italian opera to Warsaw in the year 1628 and stage it there without any audience training whatsoever and find that the art form appeals to some of these unprepared minds. Similarly, Indian dance drama can be taken to far away places like Laos and Bali and – be liked by some people there. I am reminded of the Parable of the Sower:

At that time, when a very great crowd was gathering together and men from every town were resorting to Jesus, he said in a parable: “The sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside and was trodden under foot, and the birds of the air ate it up. And other seed fell upon the rock, and as soon as it had sprung up it withered away, because it had no moisture. And other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. And other seed fell upon good ground, and sprang up and yielded fruit a hundredfold.” As he said these things he cried out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”  (St Luke, 8:4-15)

We know from experience that different people have different personalities; and we know from Evolutionary theory that a limited variety of different cognitive skills can be expected to co-exist in any human population. Ergo, perhaps there is such a thing as an Opera Mind: a mind especially suited to this type of art form? (“The good ground”). If so, then the invention of the art form was not so much an invention as it was a discovery: a discovery of a certain kind of mind. The fact that the rules of the Italian opera genre established themselves within just twenty years and have remained largely stable since seems to support the thesis: this is the nature of all discoveries which suit underlying reality: the general outline of the invention comes into being quickly and once it does, it remains remarkably stable: think of automobiles: within two decades, automobiles already looked a lot like today’s cars because that was the form that suited the human body. Similarly, the rules of Asian dance-drama have remained, as far as we can tell, largely constant over the last thousand years — perhaps because they suit the dance-drama/opera mind?

I cannot resist counter-factual speculation: if the dance-drama mind is in fact the opera-mind, would staging Venetian opera during the dance festival in Bali meet with the same sense of recognition among the Balinese which I experienced upon my first viewing of Balinese dance-drama? We don’t know that, but, luckily, it is not too late to perform that experiment. But the reverse experiment has been performed: the Royal Cambodian Theater performed in Paris in 1906 and the performance was a huge success with the Parisian cultivated classes.  (For some reason it was never repeated).

[So here are some unorthodox ideas for you, such as:

a) that there may exist different kids of minds and that different kinds of art may be designed to fit these different kinds of minds;
b) that these arts may therefore not be fungible – i.e. that arts designed for a certain kind of mind will never fit another other kind of mind, and vice versa;
c) that the distinctions between different kinds of minds – and therefore different kinds of art – can cut across different societies and manifest themselves in many different civilizations; and therefore
d) that certain kinds of minds in Europe and in Asia may be more similar to each other than they are to some of their own peers.

These ideas are strongly resisted by the Art Theory Establishment which holds, in direct opposition, that the mind at the time of birth is a blank slate and that any kind of art can be inscribed upon it. (With the necessary corollaries that the task of inscribing upon it should be paid for by the state and entrusted to the guardians of Art Theory who shall then inscribe upon this very blank slate a kind of art which will benefit the whole society, make it happier, richer, more harmonious and more virtuous).

But if true, these ideas would have many far-ranging consequences, one of them being rendering wholly impossible any utilitarian (“greatest good of greatest number”) arguments in favor of public support for opera. This may not necessarily be bad – opera can survive – even thrive – on its own – it did on 17th century Venice, in Warsaw ca. 1800, in Paris between the wars; indeed, it may be good: freed of any further need to broaden its appeal beyond its core users, to educate the broad public and satisfy indifferent bureaucrats, it just might deliver better the one thing that makes it a great art: the experience of aesthetic rapture.

Which, of course, is another unorthodox idea. The established art theory does not recognize the aesthetic experience at all: it is thought to be “just an emotion”, and “socially constructed” (and therefore arbitrary). Establishment art theorists like to credit the importance of opera to its function as civil liturgy (?), its ability to manipulate signs and symbols (??), it’s education value (all those half-baked ideological messages, I suppose, such as “love is most important” and “love your country”), etc.  This makes me often wonder whether the people who write this kind of stuff have in fact ever experienced aesthetic rapture, and if they have not, then, what business do they have to tell us what opera is about?]

Javanese Wayang Orang

5.  The Fate of Asian dance-drama in Bali and in Thailand: the role of the educated audience

Now I would like to devote a few words to the modern fate of Asian dance-drama as I think it contains some important clues to understanding what makes an art thrive. There is a tremendous difference between Bali, where Asian dance-drama thrives, where nearly everyone is involved in its performance and consumption, and where the artistic level is very high, and Thailand where it is, quite literally, on its last legs and the one National Theater cannot be filled even for four performances a year.

Indeed, one of the saddest experiences during my study of Asian dance-drama was to see a performance of Thai dance-drama (khon) in Bangkok in 2005. It took place at the National Theater, a grand building founded by the state, and was performed by the Royal Thai khon troupe, which is fully supported by the state. The audience consisted of perhaps two thousand high school kids herded in by their school who had no interest in the performance and talked and played with their mobile phones throughout. The performance was absolutely terrible: the orchestra played with all the oomph and gusto of ripe Camembert, and the dancers could not be troubled to lift their legs so that it was impossible to say whether they could dance at all. I thought I’d just seen the death of khon.

And then, only two years later, I saw the same troupe perform in Bali. The difference between the two performances was night and day – and the explanation for the difference seemed… the audience. The audience in Bali is knowledgeable and experienced and it gives ready expression to its likes and dislikes. This leads to a special rapport between the audience and performers and motivates the performers to try harder; and they do.  On that night, the Thai khon dancers appeared to be gods come down to earth: they did not move, they floated.

The existence of knowledgeable audience probably explains the excellent condition of dance-drama in Bali where a very large number of amateur troupes (nearly every village has its own theater troupe) performs it throughout the year and where the annual dance festival features several simultaneous performances – to packed audiences – throughout the day for a whole month. The difference in the audience is probably explained by the education: growing up in Bali obliges one to dance and play music since childhood. Dance education begins around the age of 3 and continues till death:  nearly every adult participates in some artistic ensemble in some capacity. By contrast, classical dance drama education, which had once been part of any upper-class child’s curriculum, has ceased in Thailand nearly 40 years ago.

[This, by the way, is another view in direct disagreement with the established theory of art. The notion that a knowledgeable audience motivates artists to a better performance, that it spurs them to greater efforts and guides them in their search for new forms of expression runs wholly against the current and general belief that a true artists is someone who leads and teaches his audience, guides it out of its ignorance – indeed, yanks it out of its ignorance and complacency, often against its will, at the cost of tremendous self-sacrifice and professional failure in his lifetime. (i.e. only future generations can appreciate the work of a genius working today who must, by definition, be “ahead of his time” and therefore misunderstood).]

Keralan Kathakali

6.  Is Europe going Thailand’s way?

Incidentally, this is what is happening in Europe: the generation of our grandparents was taught to sing and play the piano – and not just at a rudimentary level: a reasonable level of expertise was required — enough to perform Beethoven and Schubert piano sonatas. This level of expertise made it easy for that generation to learn to appreciate opera and assured a steady audience for operatic productions. Today hardly anyone receives any musical education, and if they do, it is at best elementary. Appreciation of classical arts requires cultivation:  not hours, but months and years of training the eye and the ear and today we do not devote that kind of time to cultivating ourselves. Is it any surprise that the popularity and commercial viability of European opera is going the way of Thai dance-drama?

7.  The economic decline of the upper-middle class the death of art:  can we even hope to have great opera for long?

And this is a good moment to ask ourselves a philosophical question: given the way our society has changed in the last century, and in particular the way the life of the middle and upper-middle classes has changed, can we even hope to foster a broad, educated audience for our opera? Only a hundred years ago a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer would leave for work at 10 and come back home by 3. Within those short five hours he would have earned (and kept) enough income to support a large household with servants. This allowed him and his family not only the financial resources, but also the time necessary to cultivate themselves, to learn how to play the piano and sing, and to amuse themselves by giving amateur ad hoc opera performances at home (such as took place at my grandparents’ house). In today’s middle and upper-middle households, both spouses work and, being professionals, probably work 60- or 70-hour weeks; then they return home to perform household chores themselves. There is no time to become culturally cultivated today. Perhaps we have to accept that opera is an art of a bygone era: an era when we had time for it.


Advertisements

Overpainting, conspiratorial thinking, and mystery as the spice of love

Pieter De Hooch is perhaps best known for this painting.  But the National Gallery show entitled Close Examination — a show dedicated to identification of forgeries and alterations — discusses an interesting case of another painting of his, one otherwise easy to miss perhaps in the mass of Dutch genre scenes at the gallery:  this one, dated to about 1655:

It’s dull, nearly monochrome colors, undistinguished interior, and indifferent subject matter — A Man with Dead Birds, and Other Figures, in a Stable — serve as a kind of…  camouflage.  Only a custodian’s eye could be expected to dwell upon it at any length; but when doing so, it just might notice that the game have been painted in a manner somewhat different from the rest of the painting.  Inspired by precisely this observation, an x-ray of the picture revealed a mystery:  a ghostly image of an underpainting of a wounded man, lying parallel to the surface of the painting, with his knee bent:  in the original design, the man in the center of the picture was in fact dressing the wounded man’s knee.  At some later time, the wounded man was painted out; and covered up by game.

The exhibition notes suggest that the overpainting may have been done by Ignatius Van Regemorter, who purchased this painting at an auction in 1825.  Van Regemorter was a picture dealer and he is known to have thus “corrected” a number of old paintings in his possession in order to make them more marketable.

The mystery, to me, is how this particular change could have been expected to have done so:  the presence of the wounded man explains everything:  both the woman’s intense stare (his wife?  his sister?) and the menacing figure in the back (his co-conspirator?  his second?  a man at arms here to carry out an arrest?):  there is a tense drama here — rare — and striking — in a Dutch painting.  On the contrary, the change from wounded man to dead animals made the painting dull and — difficult to understand.  (What is the woman doing here?  And the man in the back?)  Was Van Regemorter seeking to dullify the picture in expectation of better sales as a result?

This mystery made a big impression on me.  One half of my brain — the Anglo-Saxon half — thought of the painting as a possible motif in some sort of crime mystery, the overpainting hiding a vital clue to solving the crime.  But my mind’s other half — the East European one — thought instantly of revolutions, assassins, anarchist plots.  In fact, several similar objects have once existed in my family’s archive:  portraits of armed men whose uniforms and insignia have been carefully painted out so as not to offend the victorious enemies; photographs of revolutionaries of 1863 cropped to cut off the flags so that the men might appear an ordinary hunting party.  Etc. We all knew just what was missing.  And, of course, the missing part was what the object in question was all about.

Raised in conspiracy, I am forever smelling hidden meanings and dark plots.  This frame of mind is useful:  I can for example decipher messages in modern Chinese art my Anglo-Saxon friends cannot.  I remember discussing Yellow Earth with some Anglo-Saxon Chinese scholars.  In it, there is a scene in which a man bicycles through a forest, hears strange, menacing noises, comes to a stop and looks around him in terror.  “What a superb scene”, gushed my Anglo-Saxon friends.  “Existential fears.  Mystery of the forest!”  “Nonsense”, I told them.  “Gulgag”.  (I.e. the noise was that of political-prisoner-slaves felling trees in the forest).  Raised on free speech and tell-it-how it is films, my interlocutors did not realize that under dictatorship some touchy subjects can only be talked about by way of metaphor; let alone know how to identify and interpret such a metaphor.

It could be said, perhaps, that bad government sharpens your wits; and that a couple centuries of fairly benign government has, on the contrary, dulled — simplified — the Anglo-Saxon mind.  Or, perhaps, I should say, it has made it virtuous: “Let your speech be yes, yes; no, no”, says the Gospel, and my Anglo-Saxon friends are, by and large, yes-yes-no-no people.  That is good for business and makes for a relatively problem free life.

But it makes for a damn boring love life:  how does one fall in love with a woman who does not know how to send sufficiently mixed messages so as to appear — mysterious?  Mysteries are really the great spice of life:  they make life interesting.  And unmysterious life obliges us to resort to lousy, flat substitutes — crime novels and crossword puzzles.

Check out the exhibition site for other examples of art mysteries:  a great play-ground for suspicious, convoluted minds.