Baggy thoughts on money, faith, and art

Before the whole Times dance critic hullabalooza on Foot in Mouth, we were having a polite discussion about the ballet corps. One reason to stress the impersonality of Balanchine’s corps, I said, was that we live in an age that can’t remember what impersonality is worth:

With our reality TV- and memoir-craziness, the prevalent notion [is] that the closer one gets to the personal, the closer one gets to epiphany, the truth, yadda yadda.

Foot contributor Paul Parish concurred:

Keeping the consumer addicted to consuming can’t continue without constantly amping up the seduction by adding a sharper drug, which is the threat of status-loss if you DON’T take the kneejerk upgrade. SO we have to see celebrities taken down for anything they get caught at and blamed for not being perfect role models. Also, ordinary people get offered, Babylonian-lottery style, the chance to win A) the solid-gold Cadillac or B) the Blow on The Head.

Any culture that cannot moderate the operation of envy is heading to Hell in a handbasket.

The other and even larger factor — excuse me, you’re going to hate this, but I got it from George Orwell and he was right — is what happens to a basically Christian culture when the belief in the afterlife decays to the point that it no longer serves as a sustaining force in the polity.

In an email, New York choreographer Clare Byrne has written,

Hi Apollinaire, awhile back, you wrote,

Now let’s see–how does ballet fit into all this? Oh, yeah: We’ve collectively given up on delaying gratification. Art works by distillation and alienation–means more complicated than eating a piece of cake. And its ends are sublimated. So art is doomed–all of it, Paul, not just ballet!

Would love for you to talk about this more — particularly “distillation and alienation” and “sublimation.” Do you think all art works this way? Or all good art, or all true art?

I have a beef with capitalism, believe it’s aversely affecting art and me, but I’m trying to figure out why I feel this way. Deep down, I think making art is no nobler than making money; art isn’t inherently moral, though art that challenges current morality often affects or even supplants it over time. Likewise, a solitary delving into faith can become a collective morality over time, for better or worse, depending on your perspective.

Capitalism interacts with money; the faithful interact with God, or whatever they want to call that ultimate goal. Each puts each into flow: makes currency.

Christians are by no means all static, but Christians with a static version of God have a fixed end-goal. As for the market, maybe it’s the fixed value of money in capitalist exchange that makes it feel so trapping, so immovable. Maybe if we had a barter system rather than a static system of money, the whole exchange would feel much more flexible — more harmonious with my art-making and faith-making. In valuing changeablity above all, am I saying it’s a truth beyond any system of morality?

Maybe it’s a battle of my flexible morality-of-art against the morality of so much of the rest of the world. Feel like I’m missing something. Help! But the action to take does feel clear: Disappear and churn up a world in secret.

Apollinaire responds:

Wow, Clare, you ask such juicy, generous questions. (Be more small-minded, girl!)

Let’s see, about whether all art acts by alienation and sublimation: Art tends to elicit an immediate response, but that doesn’t mean it hands a piece of our life back to us “as is” (as the thriftstore tag puts it). To be art–good, bad, or indifferent–it needs to transform experience or radically depart from it. The exact shape it takes–the processes it deploys–does not make it more or less moral. That’s another issue, I think.

What does make it moral–i.e., makes us better people–is its courage: its refusal to be a good girl and do what is expected of it or a bad girl and do what’s expected of it; its refusal to shy away from the awkward or ugly or tragic or disconcertingly beautiful, nor simply to manufacture these things for reasons of chic; its unslavish curiosity about what presently counts as beautiful or ugly or tragic.

Art needs to take into account its genre’s history in truth-telling because, as you say, last year’s truth is this year’s platitude; forms change so that truth will remain (though this way of putting it probably imagines truth as too distinct from its occasion, even if it does extend beyond that occasion.)

Fiddling with the forms doesn’t guarantee insight, however, though it may exercise the audience’s mind in such a way that they grow patient honing their thoughts, which could only help!

Probably what is crucial is the artist’s rigor in examining and accepting. The scientist is perhaps a better model for the artist than the mystic. The scientist investigates and exposes. To show without judgment is an ethical act. It teaches us to see–the basis for any morality worth its salt.

A couple of dance examples:

There’s a scene in Jerome Robbins’ war-time short-story ballet, “Fancy Free” (1944), I’ve mentioned already in which a dame turns a corner to find three sailors waiting in front of a bar.

They flirt with her, then one sailor grabs her handbag and throws it to another. The men keep up this game until it’s no fun–not for her or for us. Eventually she raises her arm to strike the sailor that now has her purse and he catches that arm in his fist.

We all know the next move–that he’ll strike her for daring to retaliate. But instead, Robbins freezes the action. Bernstein’s agitated music disappears and the sailor grips the woman’s wrist for an unnervingly long time. We’ve arrived at the tipping point, where the violence could escalate or it could subside. (Paul and I both thought of “Fancy Free” in our mob mentality round up, though we didn’t mention it finally. The ballet is in the repertory of the New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, Miami City Ballet, among others.)

If Robbins had just wanted to make a point or avoid one, “Fancy Free” would have been more violent or less. By showing us the dangerous current coursing through these men, the ballet is less resolved, and more true. Robbins’ discipline is artistic and moral.

Tere O’Connor’s “Winter Belly” reveals not human action but winter: the sense we make of the wind through bare trees (the creak and groan and rush) and the low light.

I have only seen this half-hour dance once–when it premiered in 2002 at Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York–and still it has become for me how winter might feel if I yielded to it tree by tree. The humanity of the dance lies in its reflection of our humanity–our yearning to understand something other than ourselves: a tree, a rock, a nightingale, or the belly of winter.

“Winter Belly” may seem to argue against my comparison of artist and scientist: the dance is about feeling, not fact. But what’s powerful is its refusal to make that distinction. To create this dance, O’Connor must have had to think of each element separately–winter, feeling, self–before returning them to their mixed-up state. That’s how we get to feel they’re mixed up, anyway: he has created a little space between what we usually take together. It’s like the bar of light under the bedroom door when you are lying in the dark.

The common notion that analysis and intuition are at odds demonstrates an American bias against logic as an element of art or faith. Americans tend to be highly empirical, on the one hand, and utterly irrational, on the other. The idea that one might use empirical method to understand feeling does not naturally occur to us.

As for money, you say,

Maybe it’s the fixed value system of money in the capitalist exchange that makes it feel so trapping, so immovable — maybe if we had a barter system, the whole exchange would feel much more “flexible” — more harmonious with my art-making and faith-making.

Hmmm… money is by definition unfixed, which makes it both useful and dangerous. We can use it to buy anything, which is good. Because of its slipperiness and transparency, we forget the labor that it represents and how arbitrarily that labor is recompensed (the executive who makes 40 times that of the cafeteria worker), which is bad. Barter may remind us of the object’s origin in labor, but it also makes exchange inconvenient. If you want milk from one person and shoes from another and your currency is a mule, what do you do? This is why barter went out of fashion. (For details, see Marx.)

The virtue of leveling taxes a la Sweden! Sweden! (where they all want to kill themselves) is it forces people to recognize that food, shelter, and health care are not rewards but inalienable rights. As a result, what is beyond these basics becomes charged again with life and, on the other hand, money retains a moral neutrality.

In a rampantly capitalist system such as ours, money is easily mistaken for a virtue. The mere economic discrepancy between people–some can buy whole villas and others don’t have enough to eat–causes character to be ascribed to this necessarily empty unit of value. So when capital is a country’s driving force, it probably is immoral. I doubt we’d end up with a hideous world if art had such power–and has it ever? anywhere?–even if all the artwork sucked!

[Update: for more and better thoughts on the money-art connection, I discover Lewis Hyde and spread the Word here.]

As for your equating the flow of faith with that of money–how impish of you, Clare! God is not simply something your soul can interact with, but a specific direction it might take.

I should ‘fess up at this point: I’m a bred-in-the-bone atheist. I’m annoyed when people think atheism is simply a failure to take up the question of faith. I’ve taken it up and concluded that disbelief is the most ethical position I can adopt. But atheism is also a habit in my case. I was raised by two people who had fled their respective religions and wanted no sign of them. I couldn’t possibly kneel or daven or hallelujah without feeling that if God existed, He’d strike me down for sheer phoniness. But that doesn’t mean faith couldn’t guide a person to goodness–it has for my religious friends. Plus, where would art be without it?

Tolstoy seems to have written “Anna Karenina” as an exercise in Christian curiosity and compassion for an adulteress. He understood how complicated morality is–he wanted to know how you could have faith and embrace life, too, and Anna was one of his test cases: for her, the Commandments weren’t enough to guarantee a life worth living. (They weren’t enough for the book’s other protagonist, Levin, either, though he didn’t need to defy them to find a reason to live, he just needed to discover the Emersonian nature of God.)

Tolstoy likely wouldn’t have bothered to wonder about such a woman if there hadn’t been a solid foundation for it. Jesus couldn’t have defended the loose woman who cleaned his feet with her hair if “loose” had no powerful history in the Bible. He couldn’t have railed against the moneychangers in the temple if there had been no temple.

Traditional religious systems may have outlived their usefulness, but only because they’ve been thoroughly absorbed, as you point out. It’s just like art: religion advances by building on its past, not by witlessly discarding it or adhering to the letter without attending to the spirit.

To get back to your faith-money comparison, money has no spirit. While it can absorb our stories, desires, needs–anything we want–it really doesn’t have anything of its own. Of course, some would say the same for God: we invent Him for our purposes, and the stories that surround Him are no more durable than those about empires of wealth.

Finally, about “the action to take,” I think the model of “disappearing to churn up some world in secret” is obsolete. It’s that old schema of the Establishment versus the underground. The world is a more horizontal place now. Each pocket of power may still resemble a pyramid, but there are so many more pockets–almost nothing but pockets (and then the New York Times)–that each pyramid counts for less.

In the case of modern dance, the notion of a single canon isn’t very useful anymore–activity is too widespread, too eclectic. This is a very good thing, but it does make it hard to know what “matters.” Depending on who you asked, it used to be a mark of courage or irrelevance to have no audience. Now I’m not sure what it is.

Well, this was far-ranging–I have likely made a perfect fool of myself. Oh, well! I enjoyed thinking about your questions, Clare, however flinty my answers.


NOTE: From Sunday April 22 through Sunday May 6, Clare Byrne and her order of dancers will perform a “kneeling” on a different patch of New York sidewalk each day. Kneeling, she explains, “is a root-word in the grammar of movement: in wonder, solidarity, remembrance.” Go here for details. Foot contributor Eva Yaa Asantewaa has posted an evocative report on another of Clare’s liturgical dances here.

FYI: My email seems to be working again, and I have a new plan for preserving non-spam comments in the future. So fire away (politely, please).

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