SCREAM November 2001

Mimesis & Imagination:

A Demonic Culture of Art and Theatre

The cornered rat with no back-up and no allies has to be highly focused and able to withstand the tests of fire. Art is not a frill; a social diversion; an escape into multiple areas of distraction ... or even the statement of social movements like feminism, socialism, conservatism, gay rights, or cultural hegemonies of all shades and persuasions. The rat, like the cockroach, is alone and left to scavenge for survival. No wonder experimental artists come across as a little morbid, overly serious or perhaps more than a tad pretentious. Yet cultural rats and cockroaches have a major function in combating and exposing political, social and religious cynicism.

Students of Drama can be puzzled by the strange advocacies of their teachers. Their peers have mostly seen the subject as a loose distraction from academic subjects. The focus on marks and coarse scores makes the passions of expressionist and experimental theatre practitioners somewhat absurd and bemusing. It's a puzzle. To this point, the students associate drama with building confidence, self esteem, learning to express oneself, develop good diction and generally having a good time. They play games. They read a few scripts. IMPROVISATION is taught as if it is a sacred art form of its own. Drama is fun. So what happens when they are confronted with a course and an attitude that flies in the face of all those comforting and re-assuring things associated with school drama?

Recently I worked on a theatrical adaptation of Dostoyevsky's novel Devils, using multi-media, live music, large installations, dance, simulated riots and acting performance. My role was limited, though I wrote the successful funding application and played a peripheral part in the development of the production conceived and directed by David Branson and written by Wayne Macauley.

Demons (as it was re-named), derived its focus from Dostoyevsky, but drew on contemporary history for its inspiration. Branson had to fight to get his way with the production. In some ways the work risked being the antithesis of Dostoyevsky's novel. There were tensions between writer, director, cast, visual artists and the original director (me).

But it finally took place! And Canberra's Street Theatre never looked so good. Huge projections on walls; cars upturned and set on fire; giant eyes in the sky ... murders in the courtyard! It once again demonstrated the amazing power and personality of one of Australia's most extravagant and dynamic theatre practitioners, David Branson.

Writer, Wayne Macauley, was critical. The play didn't successfully resolve. Some fantastic things happened. One woman in the audience wanted to tell me how seeing the action through the glass window of the theatre foyer made her see the rest in a totally different light. She was a theatre goer. But this was different.

None of the students saw it. It took place over the holidays. They missed an experience that sounds ridiculous in the telling. Arguing its merits in a class room is a waste of time. Yet such a production creates vital and engaging experiences for both audiences and participants. It takes us into the world of metaphor and symbols; into the world where artists died for their work and history was shaped by the visions of artists and philosophers ... and is still being so shaped, even if the artist is a marketer or clinical psychologist.

And so my thoughts fade into depressions.

Arthur Koestler's "Darkness At Noon" corrodes into night leaving the artistic vermin only the cracks in the cell. The radical non-conformist artist risks hanging or death by attrition from advocates of the red terror or the white terror; from the left or the right; from the conservative or the nihilist.

The absurdity of social existence overwhelms any sense of social responsibility and order. Students brought up on Sesame Street and Disneyland conceptions of the world are apt to feel morbid about anything that isn't sugar-coated with sentimentality. The Disneyland Little Mermaid is preferred over the original Hans Christian Anderson version. Disney lets her live to make a Little Mermaid 2. The Hans Christian Anderson version of her death and spiritual release is just too complicated ... too morbid for the illusory world of the Marketing Director and artistic outcomes made to order for the corporate engineers of culture.

Culture is mostly supported by, and supportive of, a confirming art: confirming of cultural precepts. The resultant music, painting, architecture and fashion become at one with such precepts ... even adding to the way of interpreting the culture. Religion, a close relative or sub-set or foundation stone of culture, appropriates art and the minds of artists to give shape and form to metaphors and beliefs so that they might be experienced by masses of people.

On the other side, experimentation in art and theatre subverts and undermines culture. It gives creative imagination primacy over mimesis. This means creating new forms which articulate an otherwise incoherent experience or vision; going beyond the reproduction of forms already there; emphasizing creation over imitation; or simply giving new shape to cultural precepts as seen from a different stand point.

To step outside the known and imitative precepts that affirm one's cultural life and understanding is dangerous and frightening. Paradoxically, this means stepping inside oneself. But following the impulses that follow the act of experimenting in form and content may well lead away from the desired and preferred outcomes of cultural and religious guardians or even the high priests of the art world...

Witness the recent withdrawal of Telstra from its sponsorship of the Adelaide Festival. The use of Hitler in the advertising was deemed offensive. This was apparently in spite of Hitler's image being used as a symbol and not as an icon as used by the Nazis. The difference may be subtle. But corporate culture requires a stable universe without disturbance. Change and diversity must be managed. It is not the intent of corporate sponsors to unleash uncontrolled responses resulting from artistic exploration.

So too in the case of religious control. Salmon Rushdie is probably the highest profiled example of the clash between artistic symbol and religious icon. The death sentence for invoking such a symbol still has not been lifted.

Religion and culture have mainly supported art over the centuries. The Puritans and the Taliban are obvious exceptions. But that support has demanded that its sponsored subjects reflect the attitudes and teachings of the particular religion and/or culture. Like Telstra, they have little need for sponsoring art that is beyond the scope of their control or influence. Who will support such art?

So the teacher, like Don Quixote, continues to tilt at the ideal of an art beyond cultural control. The students mostly recognize the absurdity and so they mock or show their incredulous feeling. After all, why should they take up the sword of some dubious art in the face of cultural force fields?

There are no marks in subversion. One learns to affirm the status quo and reap the benefits. So let the Demons play its merry rout for the amusement of its small audiences and creators. It has little sentimental value. Thus it is unlikely to make it on to the screen. And in the end, why bother? Who cares? The culture of the Demons is outwardly morbid. The characters most sympathetic to the ideals of the creators are the most moribund and flawed. The older guy keeps something of his idealism alive only to succumb to his youthful lust in his old body.

The size of the project prohibits completely professional payments to its collaborators and participants. Discussing its merits is only likely to draw scorn and derision when confined to discussion of “outcomes”.

So like the cockroach and the rat, the experimental artist scampers around the scraps from the cultural table: creating a kind of honor among fellow cultural thieves. They are the new demons in our midst spinning the other side of the artistic coin and planting doubts and confusing ordered souls. They are the shadows through the cracks. The brighter the lights; the more defined the shadows.

In the face of political cynicism now perpetrated at new levels of smug audacity, there is an ever-increasing need for these demons to scurry amongst us with urgent fury. While a Prime Minister can peg his political ambitions on the murder of thousands of people and the potential murder of many more, and the press and shapers of public culture and society are complicit in this act of extreme cynicism, then all such demonic shadows need to rise from the depths and add contrast to the light of cynicism.



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