The Arts, Generosity, and Politics
Speech given at a public symposium for the Arts.at the California College of Arts and Crafts.
I’d like to thank Ted Purves and the California College of Arts and Crafts for inviting me to speak today, and also my old friend and mentor Stephen Goldstine for suggesting me. Before directly addressing a subject of such complexity as generosity, I’d like to frame things with a story told to me by film director Martin Ritt, as we were about to begin a film 20 years ago. Marty was a tirelessly political man and the creator of such wonderful films as “Hud” and “Norma Rae”. He was, to say the least, often cranky and pessimistic, and he told this story traditionally at the first read-through of each of his films. After hearing it, perhaps you’ll understand how I feel today.
Once, in the town square of a small Russian village, a sign appeared on the street proclaiming: World’s Oldest Living Jewish Acrobat- The Mosque – 9 PM Tonight. That night the local people assembled, and they saw, the same sign, established at stage left- “World’s Oldest Living Jewish Acrobat”. At stage right was a cannon with a man-sized bore, pointing towards the rear of the mosque, where a trampoline had been angled next to the wall, in such a fashion as to receive a body fired from the cannon, and deflect it towards a tight-rope stretched across the center of the hall. There was no safety net. An extremely old and fragile looking man was hobbling back and forth across the stage, looking at the cannon, looking at the trampoline and then at the rope, shaking his head from side to side. He paced, shook his head and paced some more. Nine o’clock came and went. At nine fifteen, a rustling was audible in the house. At 9:30 loud muttering could be heard, and by 9:45 the crowd was stamping its feet and clapping in unison, shouting for the show to begin. The old man walked to center-stage, looked at the crowd dyspeptically and held his hands aloft for silence. In the ensuing quiet, he shrugged fatefully and addressing the audience, said, “Alright. You vant to kill an old Jew? I'll do it!”
This story feels appropriate today, for several reasons. The obvious one is the personal risk inherent in undertaking a subject as vast and profound as generosity. However, buried within the joke, there is, in the image of the man’s body itself being the offering, something extremely germane to our topic.
I would like to consider “generosity”, which originally referred to courage as well as munificence, in the larger context of the Buddhist assertion that nothing on earth, including one’s self, stands independent of the rest of creation, with an isolated existence. Trees cannot be independent of sunshine, rain and microbes in the soil any more than people can be independent of sunshine, water, microbes in the soil and the flora and fauna of their own intestinal tracts. Only a very small enlargement of our frame is required to observe that this interdependence is generosity; an offering of mutual, interpenetrating support which is a fundamental characteristic of all existence. The “courage” implicit in the archaic definition of generosity is involved in the coming forward to participate fully, without shirking.
It has been my long-standing belief that artists of every discipline have an intuitive understanding of this reciprocity. Beginning with a field of perception which includes foreground and background simultaneously, the artist’s understanding is fostered and forged by intimacy with their materials---whether words, the body, color, or sound. The creative process itself demands that they apply their intuition and intentionl without overpowering or otherwise disrespecting the forms with which they work. The willingness to accept such a limit, is also a kind of generosity to the material world on the part of the artist.
Furthermore, all artists require or their work at least implies an audience with which they are interdependent, and upon whom they are dependent to some degree, for the meaning of what they do. For these reasons, the arts are particularly appropriate for exploring and expressing relationships, interdependence, and mutuality and it is for this reason too that there is often such and intimate relationship between artists and the political issues of their times.
Having said this, I’d like to recall a time nearly 35 years ago, when this explicit relationship between art and politics seemed more pervasive and generally more apparent than it does today. I’d like to review ways in which some artists with whom I was familiar regarded their world then and what ramifications their history (which is also my own) might have for us here today.
I emigrated to California in 1964 to pursue a Masters Degree in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University. I had done a great deal of acting (or “ecting” as the old acrobat would say) in college in the Midwest, and I joined a rather traditional rep company here while I attended school. One afternoon when my own theater was dark, I happened to attend an outdoor performance of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, an event which changed my life.
I was lolling around in Golden Gate Park, when a small flat-bed truck arrived and a ragged crew of people began assembling a small stage -- really not much more than interlocking wooden platforms on top of overturned wine barrel halves. A gaily painted rear curtain hung from a simple frame at the back of the stage and that was the entirety of the performance space. Wicker trunks were dispersed about the grass and quasi- Elizabethan costumes made of rag-ends and flotsam appeared from them in staggering profusion, followed by tambourines, drums, whistles, and recorders. While some actors dressed and applied make-up, others played music and danced about exhorting the growing audience to be seated. A theater company had materialized out of the fog.
For the next two hours, they sang, joked, and transfixed their audience with hilarious satire based on issues of the day. They lampooned politicians, war-mongers, capitalists, pomposity, hypocrisy and sexual up-tightness with flair and verve. It was not at all inconsequential to me that two of the actresses were breath-takingly beautiful and all but bursting out of their décolletage. Consistent with my life-long predilection for impulsive behavior, I changed theatrical and political allegiances on the spot and joined The San Francisco Mime Troupe.
For the next several years, almost without interruption, we rehearsed, argued, laughed, performed, laughed, and toured, fought and laughed some more without pause. Under the direction of R.G. Davis, the Troupe had an avowed Socialistic-sort-of perspective. It’s multi-racial membership included college graduates, cab drivers, labor organizers, realtors, and ghetto refugees, bound together by a common dedication to left-of-center politics and wacky humor. This tiny company, housed on the second floor of a warehouse at the intersection of San Francisco’s Fifth and Harrison Streets (in days when young artists could afford to live in San Francisco) mounted two National tours and several mini-tours during my tenure there. Our provocative Minstrel Show—a black-face review which steals the stage from the white interlocutor and present American history from the minstrel’s perspective, garnered us an invitation to perform in New York City from civil-rights champions, comedian Dick Gregory and Harry Belafonte, who sponsored our performances there. Following a triumphant tour of the East Coast, the Troupe garnered rave reviews for its work and was recognized with an OBIE award from New York’s Village Voice newspaper.
In the face of such approbation troupe members could hardly be blamed for feeling as if we had our fingers on the national pulse. In the whirl of the moment, the underlying principles of generosity inherent in the Troupe’s work evaded me, and I was more than satisfied with novelty and political satire. In retrospect, however, it is much easier to see, that there were profound, non-ideological aspects of generosity underpinning everything we did.
First of and foremost, sharing and organizing information in a useful form is an essentially a generous act. Real information—data which makes a difference--- is like oxygen to the bloodstream of clear thought. I am as convinced today as I was in 1966, that the primary social function of the major media is to obfuscate and confuse historical context. By burying valuable information in blood-drama or trivia, a much more effective form of censorship than repression is created; more effective because it calls no attention to itself. The more one reads and attends major media sources, the less one actually comprehends political events, and this state-of-affairs has been empirically verified by a media watchdog group called Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). FAIR created a series of scientific surveys and polls to determine the relationship between hours of media exposure and objective knowledge of current events and the conclusions were precisely what you might expect: the more exposure to media they had, the less people understood the events being reported.
The Troupe’s antidote to this situation was obsessive study and discussion to refine and clarify issues until they could be dramatized in incisive forms. Characters in our dramas were rude cartoons, bold, iconographic, arguments, that stripped away distractions and simplified relationships to encourage decisive action. As such, these characters were a service to the community; a gift quite different from the “he-said-she-said” reporting of the corporate media which makes judgement and decision all but impossible.
(A digression about the relationship of the artist and audience is in order here: Troupe members sometimes took Ezra Pound’s dictum to be the “antenna of the race” perhaps too literally. The notion of being the vanguard, the first perceiver, is a seductive delusion which can lead artists into an arrogance implying that “we” know and our job is to “transmit our knowledge” to a passive audience. This is overly flattering to the artist and demeaning to the audience. Furthermore, it generates a style of self-importance which is the opposite of generosity.
Today, after having much of my arrogance bludgeoned out of me by time, I would suggest that it’s more accurate to describe the audience and the artist as the left and right hands clapping. The artist has the capacity to articulate and express novel perception and unexpressed thoughts and conditions for the delight and edification of others. The audience’s recognition and appreciation of the articulation is proof that the artist’s translation has succeeded. If the audience did not recognize the artist’s expression, the relationship between them is severed and the artist is, at best, “misunderstood” or ignored. This even-handed relationship between artist and audience mimics the mutual coming-forward--- that creates our common world. It is for this reason that the arts are especially capable of the expressing complexity and contradiction beyond the logic of grammar and syntax which normally rule perception. For those of you still with me, the digression is officially over.)
The Mime Troupe might have continued like this indefinitely, (and in fact the Troupe continues to thrive here today.) had not the success of our work in the early Sixties led a number of us to consider whether we were rigorous enough in fulfilling the implications of our work.
Let me explain how we framed the problem for ourselves. Imagistically, a pedestal, a frame around a picture, or a stage can be regarded as the epitome of private property—space owned and controlled by the artist for their own purposes. A number of us became troubled by the tensions between our democratic intentions and our autocratic monopolization of the stage. A dissident movement evolved within the Mime Troupe, which sought to erase the imbalance of power between actor and audience, and elicit creative participation from everyone to create what we hoped might be newly liberated public space and social forms. This internal subset of the Mime Troupe evolved into a loose gang of friends who called ourselves, The Diggers, and led to an eventual fissure in the company.
The original Diggers evolved during the early days of the Industrial Revolution in 17th century England, when the King, needing more sheep to service his new woolen mills, violated ancient traditions by fencing public pastures for his own use. A man named, Gerard Wynstanley, responded to this violation of custom with a number of pamphlets on the damnable attributes of private property. Influenced by his writing, the local peasantry marched to re-claim their land from the king who responded by sending his Puritanical general, Oliver Cromwell, to meet them. (Imagining Cromwell, I envision a cross between the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz and John Ashcroft). This dissident group was named the Diggers because each dawn they were observed burying their dead from the previous day’s battles.
In 1967, a displaced Brooklyn visionary named Billy Murcott, and his charismatic friend, Emmett Grogan began to preach a digger-like ethos in San Francisco. They papered the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood with cryptic hand-outs proclaiming, “It’s Free because it’s yours”, and criticizing city officials and “hippie” merchants for capitalizing on the new phenomena of the counter-culture without giving anything back. The two soon gravitated into the orbit of the Mime Troupe.
Under their influence, the dissidents in the Mime Troupe advanced their ideas until a spot in Golden Gate Park was established where free, hot food was delivered daily to the hordes of kids scrabbling to live on the streets. This was a direct-action intervention intended as a rebuke to the public hand-wringing of the City Father’s who were threatening the hordes of young visitors from around the nation with arrest. The Diggers visited the farmer’s market for donations of day-old vegetables, cooked them in friend’s kitchens to produce a hearty stew which they delivered in steel milk containers, accompanied by small loaves of bread shaped like mushrooms because of rising over the old one-pound coffee cans in which they were baked.
At the food site, a yellow wooden frame, six-feet-by-six-feet square, was assembled. One stepped through this “Free Frame of Reference” and, on the other side, was handed a smaller version (about an inch by an inch) attached to a cord for wearing. Then you were given food. The extent of the coercion was the invitation to look at the world from another perspective--- a free perspective; a point-of-view one could assemble oneself, without the intervention of ideologues, scribes, pundits, or coercive behavior. It was, after all, a free exchange. This free-food program was a great success, not because it was “charity”, but because by participating, one created a world in which free food was “a fact.”
The food was soon augmented by “free” crash-pads, free medical clinics, and free stores. In the Digger Free Store, not only were the goods free, but so were the roles of the customers and “employees”. If someone entered the store, which looked just like any other Goodwill filled to overflowing with mid-20th century detritus --- and asked, “Who’s in charge?” the answer was always, “You are.” If the person rose to the occasion, and assumed their authority they might say, “Well, let’s clean this place up, it’s filthy. If the person dumbed out or failed to understand the invitation, there was no sense blaming “the man” or “the pigs” or “the system” for what was essentially a personal failure. That was an inherent part of the transaction.
The Digger Free Store, though unworkable as a permanent social model, called into question the relationships of people and property: Who “owns” it? What value systems and relationships are implied by the acceptance of terms such as “consumer” and “producer”? The Diggers sought artistic forms to articulate that which was unexpressed in our society. We believed that if someone did not have a commodity because they did not have the money, it was the money which was scarce, not the commodity. The Digger Free Store was an artistic solution for highlighting and creating dialogue about this state of affairs. The fiction of scarcity was exposed by direct action extending knowledge as a gesture of generosity.
All social and political forces are balanced by opposition, and the experimentation of the Sixties could not continue indefinitely. The watershed event which began the dissolution of the decade’s experiments was, for me, the oil-crunch of 1973. A major hiccup in global distribution systems of petroleum was manipulated into a general anxiety about “scarcity”, frightening people and leading them to doubt whether or not there was “enough to go around”. The question of conservation was never raised in a serious manner, but conveniently undercut by the sudden absence of plenty ( or at least the perception of absence) the revolutionary public experiments of the Sixties were starved to death. Long-lines at the gas-pump deflected the focus from generic social ills to personal loss. Scarcity became the environment in which social advances could be questioned and rolled-back..
President Carter was politically emasculated for attempting to protect the citizenry from the gouging they were receiving from the Nation’s oil-companies under the pretext of crisis. The next President, Ronald Reagan, projected a cozy, avuncular, camouflage for the corporate machinery which had placed him in office, thanking them by returning their tax monies and justifying it with weird, later discredited science called “supply side economics.” Reagan-era media concentrated on discrediting the recent political turmoil, condemning social activists as self-indulgent romantics and spreading the message that selflessness had been a failure and that material acquisition was a social good. Promoted by naked appeals to self-interest, the stock market rose to unparalleled heights, fueled by the tax monies extracted from the fiscal commons and returned to investors who dedicated them to personal speculation rather than rebuilding the Nation’s aging industrial sector. The lure of instant riches re-oriented the majority of a decade’s imagination towards personal gain. Social protest virtually disappeared and “blink”…the Sixties were over.
There is a synchronicity between the oil-crunch and the tragedy of September 11th. Both events offered the authorities a two-fer--- an objective situation requiring a political response, while simultaneously providing an opportunity to camouflage a political agenda that could never have passed public scrutiny without the hysteria of a crisis. This last point seems worth noting because it illustrates the manner in which political responses are often simplified and less appropriately complex than artistic ones. For that reason it’s useful to compare some differences between the two.
Whether or not our response to terrorist attacks should have been orchestrated by the United States or the United Nations is debatable, but while I disagree with the administration’s position, I cannot fault them for not addressing the problem. However, the two-fer principle is also operative here. Administration proposals to retroactively return 15 years of income taxes to the Nation’s largest corporations is an opportunistic fraud orchestrated under the cover of a national tragedy. Adding insult to injury, such legislation also exempts corporations from alternative minimum taxes, transferring that burden to individual tax-payers. This is the same order of thought that argues giving your food to the neighbor’s pit-bulls will insure that your children get to live in a community of robust animals.
More of the nation’s resources are being dedicated to weaponry and conventional weapons systems today than at any time since the Reagan years, and there appears to be little chance that the situation will improve now that we are on a continual war footing against yet-to-be-declared enemies in yet-to-be-declared countries.
These examples of simplistic political responses lead directly to the subject of the political class, the group least intimate with the creative process and most ignorant of interdependence and the innate generosity of the universe. A few random reminders of who is representing may clarify my position. The political class that twice buried airline safety proposals recommended by Congressional hearings which could have protected us against the September 11th attacks. The first after Pan Am 103 was blown out of the sky by a bomb in 1988 killing 259 people; the second after TWA flight 800 exploded in 1996, killing 229. Magically, months of investigation, millions of tax dollars, and the recommendations themselves all disappeared as certainly as the airliners themselves, leaving no trace of censure or blame for the representatives who stage-managed this sleight of hand.
During the most prosperous decade in our Nation’s history, this same political class liberated 40 million working poor people from the supposed indignity of paying for food with food-stamps with virtually no debate examining an economy where workers could be legally compensated with wages too meager to buy food! The same folks stifled all debate on a single-payer health plan used by many of our European allies, 12-15% cheaper than the current system fattening the bottom line of insurance companies.
They have determined that we the people agree to execute the mentally handicapped and that the “American life-style” is not up for review no matter how egregious its environmental consequences may be. The Democratic “opposition” has totally ceded the declaration of global war and the creation of an expanded National Security State to the President because they are afraid of his popularity and their corporate masters are getting rich off the war anyway.
These critiques of our political leadership are germane to my subject of generosity and the arts in several ways. Besides high-lighting the one-sided and rudimentary nature of most political responses, they require at least posing if not answering the question, “What damage does such mean-spirited selfishness do to the individual and National spirit? Interdependence implies that we cannot shelter ourselves from the implications and repurcussions of horrors perpetuated in our name.
Secondly we must ask, what physical harm is being done to us, our heirs, to others, and our common environment by those who simulate concern for us while actually serving the interests of a corporate sector whose interests are inimical to those of the average citizen? If, for example, the 77 Senators who took money from Enron recuse themselves from the investigation, who will defend the tens of thousands of ruined employees and investors? Who but the Senate and House passed the laws making such a debacle possible, only a decade after the multi-billion dollar collapse of the Savings and Loan industry and only shortly before the collapse of todays mortgage markets and hedge-funds which used shoddy properties as collateral.
Professional political behavior stems from one-sided, self-interested thinking. It is the common predilection of artists however, to perceive “in the round”, and interdependently. They are an available antidote to the fearful, one-sided thinking dominating public discourse today. Ralph Nader made a valiant try to impact this conversation and succeeded to a degree, but never approached the cultural affect of a Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. This was not because he was not charismatic, but because the nature of the analysis he employed was essentially one-sided and linear thought which is never complex and contradictory enough to express a true picture of events. He happens to express a point of view I agree with, but still it embraces only one half of a contradiction, instead of marrying both in a new, higher level of organization. What might “coming forward” with the mind of an artist contribute to the current malaise, I wonder?
Here’s a clue. My wife told a friend, a sculptress, that I was coming to speak here tonight, and the friend commented on the number of homeless people she had recently seen surrounding the CCAC campus. Then she said, “Now there’s an idea for an art installation---a soup kitchen!” Regardless of politic persuasion, it is the nature of the creative process to perceive foreground and background simultaneously. As such, my friend could not choose not to see the homeless simply by switching her focus and imitating the mode of perception the average politician employs hourly to survive.
The self-serving conceit of the political class is that the public cannot follow the intricacy of the problems they deal with and sometimes they may be right. Listening to even ten minutes of AM talk-radio will deliver a shocking insight into the extent of bigotry, resentment, and rage coursing through public consciousness. Having admitted that, however, my rage is still expressly reserved for the political class because they have the information to know better. They understand the ramifications of legislation which protect accountants and CEO’s from being liable for improper decisions. (Watch this one re-surface during the Enron investigations. It was passed during the Contract with America.) The politicians understand what de-regulation of the banking and electricity markets imply, or that tax refunds are a back-handed way of limiting the government’s ability to protect and serve the public. They are paid to consider these issues in the public interest and have access and reach ordinary citizen do not.
Despite the omnipresence of vitriolic radio, my deep instinct remains that on some level, the people, regardless of political persuasion, even the angry and bewildered, know that their interests are not being represented by Washington. They are deprived of a voice by the corporate media and in dire need of allies who can express their intuitions, and speak plainly and pungently on their behalf. I believe that the times require artists to speak for those voice-less citizens, and by so doing restore a vital social balance.
The question for each of us here today, is to what purposes shall we raise our voices, unlimber our bodies, sharpen our pencils, and mix our colors? Will we choose the route of a personal salvation, seeking refuge in the fiction that we exist independently, or will we honor the mutually supportive processes of our own creativity by becoming expressions of generosity and interdependence? Some always have, and there are examples of good works available, but they are isolated instances which are not capable of rectifying the enormity of the problems before us today.
Troubled times offer all of us unparalleled opportunities for significance. I anticipate with whatever optimism I can still muster, the responses of creative minds to the current maelstrom of our historical moment. Having declared that, it’s time for me to abandon the rostrum and climb down into the mouth of the cannon along side the old Jewish acrobat. There’s room in there for all who would join us in offering themselves to the present, and it certainly seems we’re overdue to start the show. There is always risk. Even at this moment of commitment, while the fuse of the cannon is being lit and I am shoulder to shoulder with the old acrobat, I know that we are still mutually dependent on others. Consequently, in closing, I have to hope that the assistants who prepared the cannon, have aimed it at the trampoline and not the wall. But that is where trust enters the picture. Thank you very much.
Causes Peter Coyote Supports
The Global Security Institute, Native Sovereignty Issues, Wild Earth( Natural Corridors Program),