In the days immediately following Mike Pence’s attendance at the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” a friend of mine posted an article about the elegance of actor Brandon Victor Dixon’s address to the vice-president elect.
One of her friends replied that the address was inappropriate, rude and disrespectful. Another decried the lack of hospitality toward Pence: “people pay money to attend the theatre to relax and be entertained. They don’t go there to be made to feel uncomfortable.” I have a Master’s Degree in Theatre Arts and no instructor I ever had said anything remotely like that.
I replied to her post: “In the play “Inherit the Wind” a character based on legendary journalist, H. L. Mencken says, ‘It is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’. This is also the duty of art and artists and saints and martyrs. Early in the week the same friend who posted the article about Hamilton had posted a photo of a birthday card which featured a quote from Pope Francis, “Have courage! Go Forward! Make noise!” I referred to the card in my post, adding “that it seemed to me that this is exactly what the cast of Hamilton did.”
Comfortable art! Even “The Sound of Music” reaches its climax with Captain Von Trapp singing “Edelweiss,” and thereby risking his life to sing truth to power.
Almost immediately, I received a message from another woman who said she was scandalized (the most condemnatory word in the Catholic lexicon) that I would mention artists in the same breath with saints and martyrs. “You are lost,” she wrote, “you have no idea about right and wrong, you need to go to confession right way. Your soul is imperiled.”
It has been decades since I was last warned that my soul was imperiled. I was raised in an Irish Catholic household and had 12 years of Catholic education so I was admonished with those words more than once, although, blessedly, I have no memory of what I said or did to provoke it.
I refrained from responding with a litany of all of the artists who have been persecuted and/or executed for daring to speak truth to power. Nor did I post from the last act of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which the super-rational, non-emotional King Theseus says to his bride,
“Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, such shaping fantasies, that apprehend more than cool reason ever comprehends. The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact. . . .
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling, Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven.
And as imagination bodies forth. The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name. Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy.”
King Theseus is concerned that these lunatics, lovers and poets disturb the order of things. Substitute mystic or martyr for madman or lunatic and artist for poet and it will make just much as sense.
In his 1995 book, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, philosopher Ken Wilber uses the word trans-rational to describe spiritual experiences that are not irrational but transcend reason; these experiences cannot be described with reason alone. This is why mystics, artists and poets employ the language of symbol and metaphor to describe an experience that cannot otherwise be communicated.
In the sublime Pixar film, “Ratatouille,” which N. Y. Times film critic, A. O. Scott, describes, as “one of the most persuasive portraits of an artist ever committed to film,” there is a sequence that perfectly portrays a trans-rational or transcendent moment. An arrogant food critic, aptly named Anton Ego, comes to a restaurant to review the food. Just as the meal is served Ego pulls a notebook and pen from his pocket and places them beside the plate so that he is totally prepared to critique the meal. However, when he takes the first bite, the pen drops from Ego’s hand and he is transported from a place of critical reason to a place of pure experience. Later, he may try to find words to describe the taste of the food but in this moment, it is impossible to simultaneously experience the meal and think about it. His total absorption in the experience temporarily disables the rational faculties of the left brain.
Art is experiential!
“Hamilton” demands that we see the founders of our nation with fresh eyes. If you can’t get tickets (who can?), listen to the original cast recording over and over for a crash course in the courage, imagination (and sins!) of our ancestors. Experience Washington, Jefferson and Hamilton (three great rationalists) being embodied by people of color speaking in rap and singing hip-hop. Suddenly the British oppression of our ancestors mirrors the injustices inflicted on the citizens of Ferguson, MO and Standing Rock, ND. For the audience to embrace this artistic approach they must abandon cool reason and surrender to the artist’s strong imagination.
Hamilton, makes history both timeless and contemporary; it liberates us from the white-washed (that’s intentional) myths of our school days. It demands that we pay fresh attention to this imperfect but sacred inheritance and dedicate ourselves to its preservation as wholeheartedly as our foremothers and forefathers dedicated themselves.
Art is not supposed to make us comfortable, it’s supposed to provoke us and make us question our assumptions. It is supposed to wake us up!
Some years ago, while visiting New York, I ran into a casual acquaintance at the intermission of a revival of Edward Albee’s play, “A Delicate Balance.”
“I don’t care for this,” he said.
“Really,” I said, “Why not?”
“It’s making me think too much.”
Hamlet instructs his players to “hold a mirror up to nature.” In the age of Trump, in a crisis such we are facing, holding up the mirror becomes more important and relevant than ever.
During the 1950’s, two extremely popular, seemingly innocuous genre films, the sci-fi movie, “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and the western, “High Noon” successfully held a mirror and a magnifying glass to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s demagogic condemnation of everyone who dared disagree with his twisted view. (Rent these two movies on Netflix or Amazon, look for them on TCM; they are as relevant now as the year they were made.) And, if you have the stomach for it, watch Elia Kazan’s classic, “A Face in the Crowd” (1957) starring Andy Griffith (you’ll be shocked) in the best role of his career playing a manipulative, charismatic, and completely cynical radio reality star. Look for any parallels with our current situation?
For spiritual guidance and insight, trust art! Support it. Commit to it. Go to the theatre or movies. Read poetry and novels. There is always an abundance of wonderful movies this time of year: two that I’ve seen in the last couple of weeks speak to me directly of the circumstances we find our nation and our planet in: “Arrival” and “Dr. Strange.” I have catholic tastes. On the surface they couldn’t be more different. They have two things in common: both are anchored by two of the most resourceful and empathetic actors of this generation: Amy Adams* and Benedict Cumberbatch and both place their protagonists in situations that challenge the limits of their rational minds.
Dr. Strange is a genius surgeon, (this character is based on a Marvel Comics superhero, and the film is shot in comic book colors) who worships intellect, reason, ambition, and, above all, the strength of his will-power. His sense of self is based entirely on his conviction that he is superior to any surgeon on the planet. (I would say “superior to any human being on the planet”, but I’m not sure he fancies himself as human—humans are capable of errors and limitations.) A car crash mangles his surgeon’s hands and he determinedly, but unsuccessfully, employs intellect, reason and will-power to recover from this accident. He fails—that is, his ego fails—and he’s faced with an unimaginably hopeless future.
Dr. Strange is slammed with the realization that his genius, his reason and intellect, cannot resolve his problem. This is way beyond discomfiting and he is confronted with the challenge of “surrender.” I don’t want to give away the ending. Please, do see it.
Reason and logic are inadequate strategies in the Age of Trump. We must go Higher, as Michelle Obama says, and deeper.
In “Arrival,” linguistics expert, Amy Adams, is charged with communicating with extra-terrestrials. Through trial and error, she discovers that these “aliens” do not communicate in past or future tense. As with the great mystics, everything is now. Mystics challenge the reality of linear (chronos) time. “There is no time with God” they tell us, “Everything is happening everywhere, right now!”
Dr. Strange has to deal with the imprisoning concept of time, as does Amy Adams. As do we. The mystics all speak of presence—the experience of now. Author Eckhart Tolle calls it “The Power of Now.”
The challenge of the Trump era is to resist projection and determinism and to stay present and conscious, as the protagonists of these films struggle to do—as we all struggle to do. Logic, intellect, analysis and reason are powerful tools, but by themselves, they are not up to the job. Too often, we use these tools to retreat into our heads and out of the present moment. Art calls us to the Now and holds us in the present with images and symbols that communicate past logic to intuition and imagination and, sometimes, to inspiration and guidance.
Art is not a luxury; it is food for the soul.
“An artist is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo. And an artist takes it personally. Art is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another.” -Seth Godin
*If you want to give yourself a treat, track down Junebug one of Amy Adams’ earliest films: she plays a saint who has no idea she is a saint.
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