Must assessments of absurd art be themselves absurd?

Critiquing a Critic

The worst thing a writer on the arts can do is to discuss a work he has not seen.  I once lambasted the excellent critic for the New Yorker, Alex Ross, for writing about the staging of the Metropolitan Opera’s Ring Cycle when he had seen each of the works but not the Cycle itself.  Perhaps that’s harsh.  But not having seen the Ring at Bayreuth directed by Frank Castorf, I have no view.

I am nevertheless moved to comment on an execrable study of that production by Tash Siddiqui, appearing in the otherwise estimable Wagner Journal (vol. 8 number 3).  The logic of the article, the artistic assumptions that it relies upon, and the conclusions that it draws are simply absurd.  So profound are the flaws in this piece of criticism that the enterprise demands response.

Ms. Siddiqui, an Associate Editor at the Journal, posits her assessment of the production on a view articulated by a fictional character, the avant-grade composer in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus.  The fictional character advocates that the modern sensibility is so corrupted that anything fictional, even be it ever so beautiful, is untrue and illegitimate.  The world is too ugly to accept concepts of nobility, redemption or love as legitimate.  Accepting without irony the veracity of this fictional character’s observations on the nature of fiction, Siddiqui then argues:

This is, presumably, why [in Castorf’s staging of the Ring] Siegmund and Sieglinde’s ravishing love duet is accompanied by a film of Azerbaijani oil geysers and oil-drilling machinery; why Brünnhilde, being otherwise occupied with filling phials of liquid dynamite, largely ignores her father during his crucial monologue in the second act of Walküre; why their moving farewell in Act III is interrupted by a “nodding donkey” and footage of the German assault on the Caucasus in 1942; why Siegfried is clearly uninterested in the agony and ecstasy of his duet with Brünnhilde (and distracted by a crocodile attempting to devour the Woodbird); why Wotan lustfully has it off with the Rhinemaidens and Freia as well as his paramours Fricka and Erda; why the Wanderer munches spaghetti and drinks copious amounts of red wine during his hauntingly primeval scene with Erda at the beginning of the third act of Siegfried; and why Erda’s “Hinab!” at the end of that scene is the cue for her to descend to his privates for a quick blow-job.

Huh?

Mann’s fictional character’s critique of mid-20th century Germany is why Wotan gets a blow job?  The imagined aesthetic view of a novelist’s imagined character – one who purposely contracts syphilis and whose descent into the madness of disease consciously evokes Germany’s descent into the madness of Hitler – is why the crocodile swallows the Woodbird during the love duet?

No, Siddiqui is arguing that the production does something else by inserting these distractions – and by placing on video screens events occurring out of the sight of the audience at the same time other action is occurring onstage.  She welcomes the production as an “attempt to wreak havoc on the Romantic work of art.”  She proposes that the production’s “abiding message seems to be that we should all abandon the beautiful lie and face up to the ugliness of the world.”

The validity of this proposition is not at issue.  The decision to choose Wagner’s Ring Cycle is the means to propound it – or, more narrowly, the decision to laud such a choice – very much is.  Siddiqui seems to accept that it is appropriate to undermine a work of art whose aesthetic premise you find unacceptable, by bringing attention to the work and ridiculing it.  Thus, for example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art might exhibit a Henry Moore sculpture but display it under a cloth so that it can’t be seen, thus signifying its disapproval of the art it has consciously and intentionally acquired.  You engage in romantic narrative, and then disrupt it in order to convey your skepticism of it.

Were this practice to be lauded (Ms. Siddiqui compares the production favorably to Chereau’s and urges that the use of simultaneous video images “should be taken up immediately by opera houses worldwide”) then it seems to me that all bets are off.  If narrative is best if disrupted, and if the intellectual content of a work is presented in a way so as to undermine it, then any method of illogic should suffice.  Why a crocodile?  Why a blow job?  Why spaghetti?  How about if Wotan eats the crocodile, Siegfried eats the Woodbird, and Erda gives Fafner the blow job?  Once you exempt yourself from the rigors of narrative cogency, then there is no obligation to the audience whatsoever, is there?  In which case, why invite them to attend?

The critical error is even more profound, because at heart Ms. Siddiqui extols illogic, yet relies upon it herself to make her argument.  At one point she approves the use of plastic objects as props, and explains: “Plastics are, of course, made out of oil; furthermore, the German word for plastic is Kunststoff – literally, artificial stuff – close to Kunstwerk.”   It’s also close to Kunstgalerie (art museum), kunsthandlung (art store), keine kunst sein (so easy it’s a piece of cake), schwarze kunst (at wit’s end), and Kunstler (acrobat).  So Castrof may have achieved the objective that Ms. Siddiqui proposes by continuing motifs of befuddled acrobats buying paint brushes.

But taking aside the absurdity of Ms. Siddiqui’s observation, she employed logic to get there.  She took one theatrical event or object and related it to another theatrical event or object, and proposed a relationship between them.  Yet that is not the intellectual universe that she argues renders Castorf’s “a meaningful reading of the work.”  According to her own analysis, events should have no narrative or sequential meaning.  If someone says “Be mine” they should be dealing with a crocodile, so that the words have no romantic or narrative significance.  If someone says “Trust me to hear your story for I am nothing if not your own will,” she should be “filling phials of liquid dynamite,” so that the trust that the words (ordinarily) prompt is negated.

I have no problem with the aesthetic that Siddiqui propounds, though I note that it arises from the mouth of a fictional character that presumably we are not meant by its author to admire.  I do have a problem praising a theatre production on the ground that it successfully undermines the content of the work being produced, rendering its narrative cogency weaker rather than stronger, and successfully (in the esteem of the critic) presenting beauty as ugly.

That’s why ugly exists, after all – so that we can distinguish beauty from it.  And that’s why theatre producing organizations exist – to make art available to those who wish to experience it without placing a cloth over it, simply to make the point that it is wrong for you to want to experience beauty at all.

 

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