Thursday, December 31, 2015

How to Shock the Bourgeoisie

The urban elite has seen everything. You can barely disturb them anymore from a stage, which is a problem for anyone who thinks that you go to the theater to be disturbed. (I’ve always thought this is a curious belief. The outside world is grotesque and cold; can’t at least the theater be comfortable?)

Nevertheless, if shocking the bourgeoisie is your goal, there are still three ways of doing it. One, even this deep into modernity, is extreme indecency. Don Giovanni won’t shock anyone anymore just for being a womanizer, but surround him with naked prostitutes in Act II’s finale, and you’ll still draw gasps from the crowd. (Alternatively, stage the Dance of the Seven Veils the way it’s meant to be done.) And there’s always incest: the climax of Act I in Die Walküre, in which Siegmund pledges himself to his twin sister, is only just old enough for its shock to have worn off. Horrible violence can be harrowing too. But thanks to Hollywood, it’s pretty hard in this century to make anyone blush except the most naïve.

An easier way to shock the bourgeoisie is to offend its principles—but the liberal principles which are alive in 2015, not some imagined Victorian prudery. A hundred years ago, you could be edgy by portraying anarchism or irreligion. Now that the establishment has swung heavily to the left, edginess means showing off the godliness of kings or the kingliness of God. Racism, of course, is the one principle that today’s bourgeoisie will never compromise on. The public in 1915 would have been aghast to see a black man onstage. These days it’s aghast at blackface onstage: a swarm of bloggers forced the Met to modify its makeup for this season’s production of Otello. Meanwhile, we will never see another major production of The Mikado in our lives. It’s been judged to be Orientalist, and that’s the New York elite’s last word on the subject. Anti-Semitism is tolerable to the cultural authorities in small doses, but only if it’s in the service of experimental art.

This isn’t necessarily bad: there’s nothing inherently wrong with a culture insisting on moral standards in its art. But moral standards they are, and they’re waiting to be flaunted by a cultural dissident. Joining the avant-garde of 2015, that is, means doing something that gets seen as racist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, or homophobic. You’ll suffer for it, because political tolerance at the theater is even lower than it was two centuries ago. Wagner, after all, was able to get away with spitting on Christian mores, and Lorenzo da Ponte skewered the nobility with impunity. If you’re an opera director in 2015, you’ll be banished for doing anything that makes Peter Gelb and his board squirm.

Of course, there’s usually no good reason to cause an artistic scandal for political reasons: it costs you popularity and employment, and in the end it’s no less boring to shock elite leftists than it was to shock elite conservatives. What’s more, there’s no guarantee that your politics are worth anything. (You might just be a racist after all, or a harebrained leftist, or both.) Finally, a political scandal is harmful to art, for the simple reason that politics—even for a good cause—are unmelodic. Political manifestoes are better read outside the opera house in Lincoln Plaza, or sung in some campy Broadway theatre.

There is, though, one kind of scandal that might be worthwhile: you can studiously refuse to be shocking. The modern superstition (embodied by the New York Times’ senior music critic) is that anything traditional is safe and therefore boring, and that anything radical is brave and important. But this belief is not based on reality. Since you can be sure of a good review in the Times with something hideous or spare or politically relevant, the tamest thing possible is to mount a postmodern production.

What, meanwhile, will bring out dismayed howls from conceited reviewers? Stage a Ring that portrays the gods in their ancient splendor, with an armored Brünnhilde riding a horse into the fire. Fill the victory march in Aida with elephants, generals on litters, slave-dancers, and some triumphal animal sacrifices. Or have Ceres’ pageant in The Tempest outstrip an opium-dream in its sumptuousness. Shout fire in a crowded theater, and give the audience a dreadful spectacle that will break their cold contempt for raw beauty. If you run an opera company, refuse to show an opera unless it’s in Italian or German, and written before World War I. If you run a theater, stage no plays that aren’t in verse.

A little lovely wholesomeness works too.
This is the right way to mount productions, but that’s not why I bring it up here. I bring it up because imaginative traditionalism is the fastest way under the skin of the gluten-free, Hamilton-listening cultural authorities.

—Or forget the whole tired business of being shocking. I for one, thank God for YouTube and my mp3 player, which lets me do the best thing possible to the stale crowd: ignore it it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

How to Protect Idols

If my Facebook feed is any clue, most Westerners think that ISIS shouldn’t have destroyed the Temple of Bel in Palmyra. The temple ought to have stayed up, we think, because it’s part of humanity’s patrimony, which no ignorant thug has the right to insult much less destroy.

But in the first place, it's clear that ISIS had far more reverence for the temple than us. They understood that it was a temple of a god; and that since idolatry is evil it had to be destroyed. This opinion is far ruddier—and understands more of the spirit the temple was built in—than our own stuffy antiquarianism. For us the temple was a pile of broken columns, useful merely because old things are titillating.

You say that ISIS had no right to destroy the temple, because it belonged to humanity, not to them. Well, who is humanity made of? It is made of you and me, plus Javanese miners, and Greek monks, and San hunters.  Only some of this huge herd gives a damn about an old temple in Palmyra. The people who do care are either professors, or wide-eyed Facebooking idealists, or gunslinging Islamist iconoclasts. Shall we have a pageant to decide which of these groups is most representative of “humanity”?

You also say that we, not the terrorists, are the rightful stewards of Near-Eastern civilization. After all, we study the cuneiform languages, we do careful archaeology, and we have a sense of the region’s history. But for all we know, the ancient Palmyrenes themselves would have preferred ISIS to us. They might have recognized more of themselves in men who still live with holy terror, and who still have a sense of the awesome grandeur of heaven. (But the Palmyrenes are all dead, I guess, and it’s pointless to speculate about the opinions of that impossibly ancient people.)

In short, there’s really no argument to make for us having the Temple of Bel and not ISIS. Please don’t get me wrong: I am not drawing a moral equivalence here, just a logical one. I am not one of the relativists who throws up his hands and says that we’re just as much in the wrong as ISIS because we bear a legacy of colonialism or something. No: I think that it is vulgar and hideous to destroy antiquities, and noble to preserve them.

But I am sure that ISIS will never see it that way, because there is no convincing a man who lives by religion religious fanaticism. And I don’t think the Palmyrenes would have seen it that way either: they meant their temple for Bel, not us. We cannot produce a will to prove that the temple ought to belong to educated professors, not evil thugs. And there is no god of history who wants the treasures of Syria to be preserved. There are only men and women who will preserve them if they have the power.

If they have the power: in the end, there is something that antiquarians can do about the destruction of antiquities. They do not need to convince devout Islamists that history must be preserved. It is only necessary to overpower the barbarians by force. You need not demonstrate rationally, for example, that the Buddhas of Bamiyan must be left standing; you’ve just got to make sure that an iconoclastic Islamist regime never takes control of Afghanistan. Or, if there’s something you really want to keep safe, you can nick it. The British and French did just that in the nineteenth century, hauling the treasures of Greece and the Middle East home to the Louvre and the British Museum.

These would be sitting placidly in Bloomsbury if they hadn’t been so damn hard to move.
So no, we humanists don’t have more of a claim to Palmyra than ISIS. That’s because ISIS rules over Palmyra. But only for now—by the grace of God they will be destroyed, and the past of the Middle East will be safe from people who want to obliterate it.