Regular CultureCrash guest columnist Lawrence Christon has a new piece about an incident in St. Louis that brings together a number of tendencies in the arts. Of course, the situation he writes about echoes both forward and backward in time; cultural appropriation has become one of the most contested issues lately and seems likely to remain that way. I don’t concur 100 percent with the pieces my guests write here, this one included, but am glad to kick off a discussion here.
By Lawrence Christon
The arts in general, and particularly the theater, can ill-afford the kind of disruption a bunch of Theatre Communications Group observers visited on St. Louis’ Muny Theater earlier in June, when they booed a scene from The King and I and objected to elements in the theater’s staging of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. Not only was it disrespectful to other theater pros (not to mention the audience) in the name of being disrespected, it was yet another grim example of art in America becoming hammered into timid mediocrity by the forces of political righteousness on both the left and the right, and even the liberal center.
In case you missed the news, here’s what happened:
A sub-group of TCG conferees went to a Muny staging of segments from American musicals and booed both a scene from On the Town, which included the depiction of a Native American headdress, and yelled “No yellowface!” at a white actress playing the part of Tuptim. (‘Yellowface’ refers to the practice of casting white performers in Asian roles.) The protesters were led out of the theater without further incident and later released a statement that read, “representatives of theaters of color nationwide demonstrated the power of collective resistance to systemic oppression of people of color. When those who benefit from systems fail to acknowledge the ways in which those systems oppress others, it limits our ability to live up to the promises of who we say we are as a nation.”
Mike Isaacson, artistic director and executive producer of the Muny, was sitting in front of the protesters and felt both blindsided and offended.
“That piece,” he said, referring to The King and I scene, “was led by two extraordinary Asian-American dancers, and the director of the show is an Asian-American woman. What’s very painful to us is that this is a theater of inclusion…our history with diversity on our stage, and Asian-Americans and African-Americans, I stand behind very strongly and very proudly.”
Later, Isaacson cancelled his appearance at an awards ceremony for fear of being further heckled, and later issued an apologia for causing hurt and offense.
While the incursion of public anger and protest into the private spaces of politicians has been making the news lately, stuff like this has been going on in the arts for as long as there have been people on the lookout for offense.
The first wave of this crested in the Reagan ‘80s, in tandem with the closing of a Corcoran Gallery exhibit of the gay sadomasochistic photos of Robert Mapplethorpe, in Washington, D.C., and, in a separate category, outrage over the 1987 Andres Serrano photograph “Piss Christ.” Though not specifically related to questions of race and ethnicity, these dovetailed with culture-war arguments over multiculturalism. They pointed to how, almost overnight, the Reagan presidency had brought The Moral Majority and other eruptions of far right assertions into public life, and with them, vehement counter-assertions challenging the whiteness of the western Canon.
Multiculturalism, while timely and inevitable—the centuries-old growth of international transportation, trade and dialogue has guaranteed a widening layer of cultural sophistication among disparate societies—became a vehement counter-reaction. Protesters gathered outside The Broadway Theater to protest the casting of Jonathan Pryce as a Eurasian in Miss Saigon, among many other kids of demonstrations, and the entire movement took on an intensity described by Robert Hughes in Culture of Complaint, The Fraying of America:
“[Multiculturalism] in fact means separation. It alleges that European institutions and mental structures are inherently oppressive, and that non-Eurocentric ones are not—a dubious idea, to say the least. The sense of disappointment and frustration with formal politics has gone down into culture, stuck there and festered. It has caused many people to view the arts mainly as a field of power, since they have so little power elsewhere. Thus they also become an arena about rights.”
In a society saturated with the debasing values of mass media, Hughes adds, the arts have less and less power to inform human experience. And in the clash between left and right, as Robert Brustein observed, there’s been no one left to speak for the autonomy of art. Television and the screen are ubiquitous now, deleting history, vanquishing thought in favor of clickbait’s narcotic hit, and the liberal center seems incapable of defending the arts without calling up data-driven reports on its educational and therapeutic benefits.
In a culture of narcissism, the personal and the political indeed become interchangeable. The question is, should they? Is the person who holds different political views your mortal enemy?
There are larger implications of the Muny disturbance, the most obvious being contempt toward the magical ability of a performer to convince an audience of anything. Must art always be literal, factual, quota-driven? Is there a quantitative way to insure that every minority, disabled, gender-nuanced and ethnically specific group be proportionately represented in a performance? Who decides? Who enforces? What are the fascist implications here? Which group is empowered to judge?
And what, pray, does it mean for the freedom of any artist or group of artists to shove off into the hazardous unknown in conceiving new work and bringing it to fruition without looking over their shoulders at a spectral censor?
In the meantime, critic Bill Marx, in Arts Fuse, wonders why, since the debut of Angels in America, “we have not had any successful American play (non-musical) that approaches its inspiring size, ambition, imaginative breadth and political provocation. Why the 25 years or relative modesty? And where are the complaints? Why the pervading sense of smug self-satisfaction among our critics and theater-makers?”
Is there a link? Big question, with many replies. Economics. Increasing unfamiliarity with the human scale. Discomfort with intimacy. Impatience with the complications of experience. Politicization has to be one of them.
One thing is certain: the modern classic liberalism of the post-war era, which insisted that the life of the artist and the life of the art are distinctly different entities, is dead. Intellectuals like Lionel Trilling. Irving Howe and Edmund Wilson instinctively saw literature and the arts altogether as inherently moral critiques of society that went far deeper than racial and gender representation and their deadly accompanying cant.
All this is a lot to load onto a couple of musical numbers, but it says something about where we are in our historical moment, where it’s easier for us to shout each other down rather than stop to mourn the damage we do.