The Overwhelming and political art

Starting right now I am going to beginning documenting reviews of events, shows, movies, books, and so for that I come across in my artistic travels.

For this first review post (of which the reader must be absolutely aware that I am in no way a reviewer and see this more for me to place ideas and thoughts about this piece as the connect to the greater discussion of the culture of art, but anyway in some fashion this will represent a review) I will comment on a new work off Broadway titled The Overwhelming (no link because today was the last showing, they have already taken down the site) by J. T. Rogers and directed by Max Stafford-Clark. The play is currently running at Roundabout Theatre’s Laura Pels Theatre in midtown New York. But enough about its logistics on to why I liked it.

The only real reason I am choosing to bring it up is, well two reasons. First it played with the form of drama in a rather interesting way. First the characters were not afraid to interrupt each other and all talk at once, there were many dialogue sequences with multiple speakers, thus leaving the audience confused as to who to focus on. I am an audience member who likes to be confused. Second the final sequence of dialogue was interrupted by the speaker’s decision to focus his speech on the audience, not a new trick, but an extremely effective one. He was telling us that we’d forget about it, that we’d go back to our lives. The play itself is about Rwanda and the genocide that occurred; the events in the play coincide with the months leading up to the beginning of the genocide in 1994. There were some very powerful quotes to be taken from this play, among them were the ideas of peace, war, strangers, American involvement in foreign affairs, and so on. Questions that are prevalent today and that last act by the character to turn to the audience made that fact abundantly clear.

The second reason I bring this up is that it is a new work, using a political theme to present a message, a very traditional play in some sense but one that is of our time, and I am curious about that power it currently holds. It received a standing ovation, but did it receive it because of the true genius it portrayed or rather because of its significance for our current situation? What I am really getting it is were we not in a war, and were we not dealing with American involvement in the Middle East, involvement to the extant that it is greatly dividing our country, would this play still get a standing ovation?

Does that answer really matter?

(To be honest the first thought that comes to mind is the fact that this has strayed from being a review, but I like where this is going so forget my review idea for now, this has become an artistic discussion and will be filed under such, now back to the discussion.)

I am curious what people think in regards to the current importance or rather the current message a piece has. Does this work backwards? If an old piece that was considered bad art from yesteryear, today become extremely powerful and poignant, would we reconsider its artistic value?

Just some food for thought while we all prepare to feast on the holidays.



6 Responses to The Overwhelming and political art

  1. Everett Scott says:

    But is that a matter of “artistic value” or “cultural relevance”?

    The idea of overlapping voices is a cool one: I’m glad to hear they pulled it off. I’ve seen it turn out terribly, but have always wondered how impressive it would be if it worked.

  2. huysmans says:

    Can it be a matter for both?

  3. Everett Scott says:

    I tend to separate the two (and I think this goes back to where we disagree about art.) If the war wasn’t going on, the story would be no different; the only difference would be the way we reacted to it.

    A different tact: what if art has no value, in the same way that a tree has no value, in the same way that a person has no value?

    A tree can be cut down and sold as lumber. It can be used for shade. It “beautifies” a scene. These are all extrinsic: we apply these values to the tree. They are not the tree itself. In the same way, a person may take action, and those actions may have value, or we may apply a value to the person because of our relationship with them, but these are equally extrinsic. Value in terms of usefulness something we create: existence has no “use,” and yet its value is immeasurable because it cannot be recreated.

    Existence is entirely separate from commodity, because a commodity can be infinitely recreated, and yet the art itself (the tree itself, the person, the work) is unique and irreplaceable. In the same way that idleness is of supreme importance to Kenko and Bertrand Russell because it allows for natural, unforced development, so the isolation and valuelessness of art (and all perishable things) is crucial for our natural unforced interaction with art.

    I feel that my central issue will always be that we need to approach art naked. (As Sister Wendy, the art nun I saw as a child said, “We must be absolutely defenseless to the artwork.) There is room for cultural relevance, political value, historical context later, and they are important, but we cannot let them reduce the work to those things. Relevance, value, enjoyment: these things may change as the times change, as we mature. These can generate great discussions, they offer a great deal in terms of ideas, but they are not the thing itself, any more than lumber is a tree.

    As always, these discussions are an absolute pleasure. Hope you are enjoying your break.

  4. huysmans says:

    But what if instead of reducing the work, the cultural relevance and all the rest improves its value? I guess the better question is does that even matter to your point and perhaps it doesn’t. Also I would ask about where you would place art that is a commodity, like film or the ready-mades. These works of art are not unique, hell even all of literature can fall under that category to a certain extent because when something like Harry Potter publishes as big a first printing as it did, the book is a commodity, but it is still a work of literature to many.

    I think you are right that a work of art should be appreaciable regardless of its cultural relevance, but the question that rises from that is if a work of art needs that relevance is it a lesser art? I am not sure I am ready to commit to such an absolute statement. But on the otherhand I may be ready to support the idea that works of art that don’t need such relevance should receive the title of masterpiece, and perhaps that is why they have that title, they exist outside of context and thus become timeless.

    Interesting ideas…

  5. Everett Scott says:

    A DVD or a book is a commodity: it can be bought and sold, have a value placed upon it based on production costs, market forces, et&c. But the film itself, the novel itself– from the word choice to the juxtaposition of scenes to the lighting choices– is unique and irreplicable. You can have a hundred copies of the same book, the same film, but it is still only one story.

    (Borges wrote a short story where a Symbolist author writes an original version of Don Quixote, word for word like Cervantes’ version. And I think the very idea of that, the very impossibility of it, captures how unique a work of art is.) There are numerous versions of Rodin’s The Thinker– one in my native Baltimore, one in your native DC, one in New York and a number scattered around Europe– but the work itself is unique.)

    Re: art and cultural relevance: I would say that it could be lesser entertainment. (I wonder how Family Guy will be perceived, twenty years in the future, when all of the common references are long forgotten?) But art that deal with very specific events also speak to larger, universal themes. I’ve been reading a lot of literature and talking to various artists about the Balkans War, those who lived through it, those who left to avoid it, those who were away and wanted to learn more. And while the nationalities and technology were very much framed in present day Europe, one could imagine the same story told in Troy or Rwanda, Myanmar or Carthage. Likewise, one can read or view most older works and find relevance to current day in them.

    But I can reference Troy and Carthage only because I’ve read about them; I can comment on Rwanda and Myanmar because they’ve been on the news and documented in films. If I read an older book, I connect it to present day. In other words, cultural relevance is something we bring to the table. A work is not culturally relevant: it has no culture. We apply a work to our culture, or we apply our culture to a work, and thus it assumes a level of relevance. Art inherently exists outside of context.

    (I know to a certain extent I’m arguing in extremes: partially because I think they’re right, but also because I want to be able to tell if they’re wrong. Its always helpful to see your side of things, to have to reshape arguments and ideas.)

  6. huysmans says:

    Well to say that art has no context perhaps is true to the viewer, but when looking at the creator it can’t be true. If we place importance on the creator of a work the cultural relevance can become extremely important because as you mention for the viewer, the creator can’t help but bring it to the table. Therefore perhaps an understanding of that culture isn’t just useful but fundamental to understanding the work of art. That train of thought leads to the utter importance of Art History and the creation of all those pretentious know-it-alls (much like me) who then feel as if they are the voice of that work of art and can teach it to others. Thus that can’t be as true as stated. A work should be able to exist without cultural relevance but it probably doesn’t, however when it can be read and appreciated without it, it becomes an elevated art, perhaps an Art with the capital a. Your argument is extreme but I’m no so sure it’s that far off from the truth.

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