The Artist Plays God

Phil’s fascinating Near-Life Experience post brings to the fore one of the most valuable functions of Art: to focus immediate awareness, to intensify the vividness of not only a particular experience, but also of simply being.  My favorite expression of this sense is the Richard Thompson song “Wall of Death,” here given some very apposite accompanying footage.

The descriptions of Andy Kaufman’s disturbing, disorienting onstage and in situ acts—forcing an audience to watch him “bomb,” at artificially extended length, and staging a psychological freak-out in claustrophobic circumstances before a scary carnival ride—testify to something that difficult to call “entertainment,” because entertainment is generally speaking not something that causes discomfort.  A friend who studied stand-up comedy recently described for me how hard it is to watch someone bomb (I cannot agree with this strongly enough, which made watching the film Sleepwalk With Me an agonizing experience); my personal resonance with this was that Lesson One in musical performance is that you never, ever make the audience uncomfortable, either with resentment or pity.  A hard lesson for student pianists walking the tightrope of performing from memory!  Put the audience at ease; the last thing you want is for them to head for the door.  Yet this is an oversimplification; people are “entertained” by being scared out of their wits, for example, and by being put in an extreme state of suspense.  People gladly attend violent, gory films, either with artistic justification or without.  (Debbie can’t stand such films, and I’ve been married to her for I-don’t-care-enough-to-go-alone-Dear years.  Still, the fact that acute discomfort is not entertainment for me, at my advanced age, does not mean it’s not entertainment per se.)

Lurking behind this entertainment-or-not? dualism is an even more troubling issue, I think.  Commenting on Kaufman’s harvesting terror in the collective pre-Roto-Whirl apprehension, Phil observes, “From one point of view, this was a colossal jerk move, and Kaufman deserved to get punched in his stupid smug artsy face.”  Such would be a typical and wholly reasonable reaction; it would be my reaction, given the American Common Law Principle(TM) that free speech doesn’t extend to yelling “FIRE!” in a crowded theater.  In this case, it is unacceptable for an artist, the real thing or soi-disant, to take on the God-like right to do to me—to my psyche, to my conscious life, to the moments of my day—as he will, particularly when it’s something this disturbing.  No one has that right, a smug, condescending artist included.  Right?  I mean, right?

Unfortunately for me, I can’t make that case either.  It is a fact that in the good old U.S. of A., and I’m going to say everywhere else in the world, we humans cede such “rights” all the time, most often by simply being reluctant or disinclined to confront those bold enough to seize them.  I don’t even mean the oft-decried self-playing internet banners and pop-ups, television and billboard advertisements, and so on—chump change, if you’re totting up the percentage of my attention you get with that stuff, and in any case I choose to watch TV, use “free” (puh-leeze) internet services, and so on, thus putting myself in the figurative line of fire.  What about the Westboro types who, on free speech grounds, yell and carry signs of the most insulting, cruel, incendiary, and provocational nature at military funerals and the like?  What about those trucks that drive around with large pictures of aborted fetuses on them?  (Wichita was one locale, a student told me, where such repulsive agitprop is tolerated, or perhaps encouraged.)  Frankly, I’d include the toxin-spewing blonde-bots and suits on Fox News, because that channel is often on in places of business, hotel dining rooms, etc.  Sometimes it’s worth objection, but gosh, y’know, there’s only fifteen more minutes of breakfast left and the bagels are almost gone…

The question becomes “Why should Andy Kaufman not have the right to discomfit me, as he sees fit, but Fox News and the Westboro Baptist Church—so-called—do?”  No good answer here.  Because they have lawyers?  Because you can’t fight The Corporation?  Because Corporations Are People?  Or simply because I don’t have the baytzim to figure out how to confront and ultimately defeat (don’t give me “defeat with love,” please; I’m not constituted that way) such profound disturbers of the civic peace once and for all, but I think I’m man enough to punch a performance artist or comic, and feel justified in doing so?

I might fall back to the American Common Law Principle(TM) that your freedom extends only to the proverbial End Of My Nose—anything that does me physical damage is over the line and you’re legally responsible.  But if I have PTSD, I might react unpredictably to anything—hate speech, fighting words, a blinking light, a loud noise; for such a person, Andy Kaufman’s Roto-Whirl gambit might represent a real psychological assault, with horrific consequences to innocent bystanders.  But could I not justify that just the way toxic-waste-producing corporations and governments engaged in various covert domestic and international activities do…by calling it collateral damage?  Look, folks, walking out your door is a risk.  It’s a dangerous world, know what I’m sayin’?  Now, our representatives will be contacting the family within, hopefully, not much more than a week…

We’ve pissed away major parts of the social contract as it is, so I can’t convince myself that a performance artist who at least doesn’t harm me is somehow entitled to fewer rights than, y’know, the CIA, Monsanto, etc.

I’m deep in this hole now; it’s dark, I see no way out, but I’m at least going to stop digging.  Thanks to Phil for a really provocative post.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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