Coming right on the heels of the vice-presidential debate and shortly before Oliver Stone’s biopic about George Bush, W., this Sunday’s segment on Culture Project’s In Conflict, at the Barrow Street Theatre, reminds me of how crucial political art is in our tumultuous times. The Iraq war alone has inspired myriads films (both features and documentaries) and plays, of which In Conflict is but the latest. The show is built around interviews with actual vets, while not far away, New York Theatre Workshop is presenting Michael Weller’s absurdist, dark Beast, in which a pair of returning soldiers—one of whom may or may not be alive—encounter blind prostitutes and a certain President holed up in his Texas ranch. Clearly there’s many ways to approach political art, as these two very different pieces illustrate; but puzzling to me is why so much of it this decade has been so lacking. What we’ve had isn’t so much political art as issues art. And that’s just not very exciting.There’s been a steady flow of current-events-minded art in the past eight years, but honestly I can’t say I’ve found myself challenged by much of it. The intent is usually nothing short of commendable, but the results can be frustrating on a purely artistic level. Very little made an impact in the here and now, and I’m not sure that any of it will age well. Would any of them have any kind of meaningful impact if reprised in the future for instance?
Partly I think this has to do with too much literal specificity. A very pointed, naturalistic play about a particular issue—Guantanamo, say, or PTSD—can have an impact in the here and now, and help people “process” things, but I’m not sure it can travel across borders or endure the test of time. The abundance of real-life details adds a layer of realism, but while realism is necessary in politics, it is not always art’s best friend. If I want facts, I’ll read a book, thank you very much.
Tony Kushner had achieved a perfect balance in Angels in America, and that play’s enduring strength was proven yet again when Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski staged it in Europe last year. (It’d be great if a New York institution could import the show.) Key here is a sense of ambition, which is particularly crucial when it comes to political art.
In a couple of weeks, the Brooklyn Academy of Music is presenting Sunken Red, a show by Belgian director Guy Cassiers about the true story of a child imprisoned in a Japanese camp. I cannot wait to see this! Cassiers made a splash in Europe with a “triptych of power” partly comprised of the show Mefisto for Ever (based on Klaus Mann’s 1936 novel Mephisto, about an ambitious theater director’s collusion with the Nazi regime, video below).
Also part of the triptych are Wolfskers (inspired by director Alexander Sokurov’s scripts about dictators) and Atropa (looking back at Greek tragedy, video below). He is now working on another mammoth endeavor: an adaptation of Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities.
Not only is Cassiers’s approach ambitious in scope but from what I hear, his aesthetics is equally sophisticated. Which brings me to my another point: Yes, looks matter, even for “serious” subjects. By looks, I actually mean a willingness to look at the way a play (or opera or dance—though these disciplines don’t have the same problem with “realness”) functions, and realize that counterinstinctually, naturalism can soften a blow rather make it harder. One of my favorite pieces of political art in the past few years has been Les Freres Corbusier’s chilling Hell House, in which they staged a haunted house (video below) following the exact blueprint devised by fundamentalist pastor Keenan Roberts. The piece doesn’t hit you over the head with its point; rather, it lets you discover the world view of some evangelical Christians, and you can then draw your own conclusions. Thinking: such a refreshing concept!