(first published in shadow hous pits’ scream Sept 2014)
“The artist’s job is to stay alive and awake in the space between convictions and certainties. The truth in art exists in the tension between contrasting realities. You try to find shapes that embody current ambiguities and uncertainties. While resisting certainty, you try to be as lucid and exact as possible from the state of imbalance and uncertainty. You act from a direct experience of the environment.”  (Anne Bogarte: AND THEN YOU ACT,  Kindle edition 2007)

Since the late nineteenth century, theatre began to follow its poetic cousins and veered toward the idea that it can reflect both objective (realism) and subjective (expressionism and surrealism) realities in its conception and presentation. The earlier notion of art as mimesis being replaced with a creative imagination that sought for art to see beyond the observable and obvious reality into a causal world or even a modelled world as in science. Shadow House PITS recently had a production scheduled titled “… And Beyond the Violence“. Unfortunately it was cancelled for a number of reasons both from within and outside our control. The “violence” of the title was really “culture”. And since I began working on this essay late last year, I have changed the emphasis considerably since working on that production.

… And Beyond The Violence“, a production that was cancelled due to lack of interest from audience and venue, posited that culture is the ultimate violence; the straitjacket of the individual and community psyche through which all control and seeing is siphoned and constricted; the ultimate suicide machine for the soul and plaything for the gurus, prophets and unscrupulous manipulators of human potential.

The Modernist laments its stranglehold, the Post-modernist acknowledges its petty and absurdist manifestation; the Traditionalist deifies it into holy sanctuary.

The horrific image in Hans Sachs’ sculpture in Nurnberg might well be the violence of dead culture strangling the dead spirit of individual potential in an orgy of death. And Culture continues to fight back whenever it is challenged. And it attracts all the violence it can muster. If you want to live by “Death” then “Death” will become you … But if we go beyond semantic criptics, we can identify where art and theatre can play its part in subverting the tunnel visions of dogmatism, ideology and our mental limitations to comprehend the absurdity of so much that passes for ‘belief’. I still stand by the notion “To believe is to kill“, the subject of an earlier Shadow House PITS SCREAM. How much do the practitioners of Theatre even consider the meta-texts and meta-notions that encase our cultural discourse and ways of thinking?

Much of the once iconoclastic LEFT of the political sphere has become the slave of politically blind traditional culturalists, the same ones Marx railed against. The economic forces giving rise to religious dogma are such that it is difficult to attack a “belief” system because it becomes associated with cultural and ethnic histories which are often on the receiving end of colonial powers: be they Western or Islamic (in the case of the Ottoman empire). The spread of enforced “belief” is a colonial phenomenon. However, it is not something invented with the Western European empires. The conversion of an Emperor or Duke or tribal leader to a particular religious belief system has led to the adoption by his/her subjects at the risk of being put to the sword, burnt, shot or beheaded etc. The conquest of territories by Prophets and military leaders has seen the adoption of belief as mandatory; usually under pain of death. So as the “Left” tendency has been to recognize and demonize Western European domination a kind of “blind eye” has been turned to the fundamentals of opposing and traditional dogmas.

This is also felt in the arts and theatre. Postmodernism has tended towards evading such questions and focusing on the ironies and contradictions within historical thought and on a kind of Narcissistic turning inwards. The once certainties found in Brecht’s class struggle thinking have been thrown into chaos. Postmodernism has no certainty. The largely predominant presence of the Left tendency in 20th and 21st century arts practice has morphed into a kind of apolitical standpoint except in relation to social and cultural issues pertaining to particularities of gender, environment, local community and race relations.

 The LEFT tendency now blindly attacks the polemicist while supporting totally irrational and anti-human cultural precepts. It is one thing to abhor the right of bigots; but it is another thing to blindly deny and turn away from evidence that is challenging and contrary, even contradictory, to one’s cherished notions and sense of right and wrong! Theatre has become a champion of Narcissus wanting clarification and affirmation of personal beauty, individual dignity and egoism. Plays and productions about over-coming adversities and personal demons are now very prevalent. Narcissistic “you can do anything” sorts of ideology sprinkles it way into Dance presentations and theatre for young people. Mental illness and family and personal relations feature highly in the hide-away of theatre in the early twenty-first century. The fact that much of the world is in no position to consider such notions does not seem to rate any real investigation from within the arts. Sentimental feelings of pity certainly pervade proclamations of paternalistic support for the suffering in places where famine and constant warfare trample on individual perceptions of possibility for a better life. While sentiment and Narcissism dominate our art and theatre, perhaps we might well remember this quote from Martin Luther King:

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” 

And in the arts, perhaps the silence results from misplaced cultural alliances that inadvertently support violence, intimidation and the blindness of denial and refusal to question and seek!

An exception to this silence can be found in France’s Charlie Hebdo, a fearless satirical magazine that has been in existence for more than forty years. While its offices have been bombed by Islamic extremists for publishing cartoons and attacked by the “liberal” establishment for some of its stances, the magazine is a rare beast that lampoons and mocks the self-righteous religious and cultural establishments and beliefs. It is published in French and one needs GOOGLE TRANSLATOR to read it in English. But Charlie Hebdo is a throw back to when the Leftist tendency might have regarded “murder” as of greater anti-human behavior than mocking a religious icon; something many on the LEFT now can no longer do. Check out Charlie Hebdo: http://www.charliehebdo.fr

If art and theatre are to move beyond the silence of blind cultural alliance it needs to recognize a mutual exclusivity between Theatre, the State and Religion.

Beyond violence there is art that is antithetical to particular cultural / religious states of mind. Beyond violence there is the child of naivete that is bewildered by the rituals, choices and strange behaviours of the human beings captured within straight jackets of ritualized control and terror. There is the child who admonishes the symbols and shields of choice brandished by the adherents of cultural tribalism. The recitations and reinforcements have little or no meaning. Beyond violence, the child steps into an open book where his /her observations and reflections are the result of open eyes and seeing rather than blindfolded and smothered acceptance of the doctrines of the guardians. And if we replace the word “violence” with “culture” our metaphor remains the same. Like it or not, the straight jacket of cultural / religious thinking has been the direct link with violence on massive scales. Belief and culture are not limited to religion. Marxist ideology, Nationalism and Fascism lead to the same destination. And all become subsumed into cultural edicts.

Each culture constructs its own methods of reinforcement. In the case of Islam, an accusation of apostasy may lead to death. In ultra capitalism, the goat song of theatre’s source has been so muffled as to become the sad mantra of Rupert Murdoch’s world view or the muddled cacophony of idealized post-modern narcissism . . . while not acknowledging either position. The fear of Murdoch’s power and ability to destroy individual challenge and political activity has been enough to prevent real challenges to virtually all aspects of contemporary western government thinking.

Culture is a lens through which the naive child is prevented from seeing the stars and the natural universe. Two plus two equals five! Beauty is defined by the dictates of cultural precepts; stones are thrown at those that might indulge from outside the particular paradigm being foisted by the psychological empire of particular culture. The fanciful stories and arts from history shape the world through which the child grows. The rituals reinforce the superiority of the particular culture from other cultures as if it is fact. And the apologists look away as the child is forcibly given to monsters of traditional value. They tiptoe around cultural violence afraid to cast stones at the edicts of multi-faceted insanity. The various agencies of the particular State are charged with the job of re-affirming the paradigm through which all daily discourse and invention occurs. The inheritors of conquests past reinterpret and shape the institutions and means for dissemination of belief.

But perhaps this is a non-sequitur. Culture and belief are two different things. Isn’t this harsh view of culture over-stating the obvious? And isn’t culture a neutral concept that might be good? Bad? or Indifferent? So are we not talking about a particular kind of culture?

Culture and belief reinforce each other. Those who control either will control the other. Ultimately, this control will lead to violence against others where the cultural / belief nexus is significantly different. To suggest otherwise is to miss the whole point of history. Only where enough mutual ground can be found, perceived and accepted is it possible for competing and alternative cultures to co-exist. This might seem a truism; except that even when there is plenty of mutual ground for similarity, belief can become the divisive factor that highlights cultural difference and more importantly cultural Chauvinism. The belief factor ultimately has a greater potency than any questions of similarity and difference in manifestation. While it might be said “belief kills”; it kills within the ambit of violence that is culture. The more insecure the cultural belief; the more offence it will take at any form of slight or perceived offence from the other.

In the West, the United States is currently in a phase where it perceives itself as Exceptional in an historical sense. Unlike any other country in the world, it’s culture is viewed as the most advanced; thus the most necessary to engage every other culture in the world. Economic exceptionalism advances American ideology and economic interests as if they are the natural entitlements for a civilized world. The barbarians at the gate need to be held at bay as if in some zombie movie like World War Z.

This belief is ultimately based on fraud as are most belief systems against which it attempts to defend. Belief has mostly been spread by murder, conquest and brute force. Under duress populations will come to accept and adopt the rituals that reinforce belief. While we might respect each person’s right to practice such rituals and show solidarity with belief, it doesn’t mean that artists should surrender their role as opening doors to different perceptions or pretending belief in whatever system predominates. Artists don’t have to paint ceilings to the papal chapel in order to prove their worth. At the same time, artists should be able to see through the Emperor’s new clothes and see the naked reality beyond the cultural blinkers. All religious belief was spread by murderous conquest and authoritarian decree; as were most belief systems imposed on populations. The revolutions of the Enlightenment also came with blood and murderous decree.

The power of belief as a destructive tool is now more evident than ever. Witness the effect of cartoons drawn of Mohammed and the lack of any real effect beyond the borders of Nigeria of over 200 girls being kidnapped and abused over the past month. Which event caused greater upheaval from among the “believers”?

Theatre then needs to make an effort to stand and contemplate reality from outside the fear of swords and compulsion as dictated by the State (with whatever religion or belief system to which it adheres) or even the personal beliefs of the artist constructing the theatre. There is a mutual exclusivity between religion and art; between the state and the artist; between the interests of those with power and those with the creative urge and necessity of theatre and art.

Joe Woodward
(September 2014)

NOTE: This writing was originally posted four months prior to Charlie Hebdo staff being murdered by religious extremists in January 2015 …