Thursday, March 26, 2009

Aesthetic Trumps Moral

Jeffry Goldberg has posted a fascinating conversation he had with Ari Roth (yes, of course he's Jewish, with that name). Roth is playing Caryl Churchill's antisemitic screed "Seven Jewish Children" at the Jewish theatre he runs in Washington, DC. Goldberg thinks that's a horrible idea. They argue past each other at great length; it's the transcript of an argument, not an edited article.

Roth's main justification for playing the screed is that it was written by a master, and is an accomplished work of art.
AR: I read this play and I said, "My God, she's been listening really, really closely to how Jews speak." She's not Jewish. She's gone to a shitload of cocktail parties, she's memorized every play that David Hare ever wrote about Israel. You know, her referencing the swimming pools is a reference to David Hare's "Via Dolorosa" when he talks about something fundamentally un-Jewish about Jews is Gaza sitting by their swimming pools and watching a Palestinian walk two kilometers with a jerry can for two liters of water. That's a direct reference to that. Every fucking line there comes from something else she's overheard or watched or said. And who the hell knows if she's ever been to Israel or not. I have no idea. But she is smart. She is a smart writer. And each one of these lines is doing something that is more sophisticated than you're giving her credit. And then --

JG: Oh, I'm not saying that she's not sophisticated. I'm just saying that she's using her skills and her shrewdness in order to paint a picture of Israel's that's a caricature. And she knows that Jews, because of their self-flagellating nature, will just go along with this to an extraordinary degree. I mean if she were brave, she would write about the Qu'ran, about Islamic fundamentalism...

AR: If it was written by a halfway decent writer and somebody wrote a play about the so-called pernicious Jewish lobby that's affecting the way the make our decisions. So listen to this. Here's why we're doing it. The fact that, over eight pages, so many of the lines resonate not with the language of hate, but with the language of perception. Meaning she has overheard, she has seen, she has captured the language that Jews speak to each other with and that is astonishing.

JG: It's astonishing that she overheard the ways Jews talk at cocktail parties?

AR: Because that makes her a ten-times better theatrical reporter than anybody I've ever seen. This is play written with extraordinary precision. She wrote a play that arrested my attention. And it has a problem title. I hate the title. It is a problem place where it ends, but it is subject to an incredible amount of interpretation. It's written with multiple characters. People argue with each other. It's not written as a diatribe. And so you have to allow for the art form of theater to have its way with her text. That is what's going to happen, that's what's happening in this rehearsal room. I struggle with the play. God bless me. I'm a struggling Jew. You know?

JG: You can't decontextualize it. I'm sorry. It comes out of a certain moment and it comes out of a culture that has demonized Israel. It comes out of a particular theater subculture in Great Britain that demonizes Israel...

AR: Okay, just stop for a second. Let's pretend we're not talking about a play but we're talking about a painting. Let's pretend Picasso. Picasso was going to paint, à la Chagall, the story of Gaza, like in "Guernica" -- he's outraged by the killing of children in Gaza. So let's say Picasso does with simple brush strokes, little artful renderings of who his friends, the Jews, used to be; who they were in the '60s; how they were in the '90s; and what he sees today. And he does them with little stokes, little hints of this. And they just happen to be the strokes of a master artist, as opposed to an idiot. And they end with a horse braying and an electric light bulb going off and bombs falling. And that is his cry from the soul.

JG: Are you saying Caryl Churchill is Picasso?

AR: I'm saying it's Caryl Churchill's "Guernica." Come and debate this. And how did Franco feel about "Guernica?" Who knows? He was angry too. I'm angry. I don't think this is a great work of art, but I think there's a great artist doing something interesting here...

AR: I want your very, very smart blog readers to understand that the way to discuss this play is not to lift lines from the last page and a half of it. That is not how to fully experience and understand the meaning of any drama. I can't cede this to journalists who don't love theater enough to understand what's going on here. That is not a sophisticated way to regard art, by picking out a sentence here and then going apeshit over it!...

AR: There's a lot at stake here. There are big intellectual and political questions. And to boycott this and to just turn away and say "We don't hear Caryl Churchill. We don't hear this criticism," that's wrong. You asked why I said yes to this. I said yes to this because it's disarmingly, and maybe even unfortunately, so well-written.
Morality and truth are subordinate to art, says Roth. Goldberg could have taken the argument even further, of course, and pointed out that loud and consistent antisemitism has this nasty propensity to end up with dead Jews: this is one of the few constants in Western history these past thousand years or more. By aiding and abetting it, you ultimately have to own its outcomes. Yet my understanding of Roth's position is that he's not interested. If it's high art, it's valuable, and real-world outcomes be damned.

Which, taken one step further, means that aesthetics are superior to morality, and even to human life. Read George Mosse's books on the cultural environment that fascism originated in: they're full of such ideas. Though Ari Roth would be deeply deeply offended if he heard me saying so.


Anonymous said...

But then Roth should be coherent: since aesthetically beautiful arguments override any moral consideration, he loses his right to feel offended.

Anonymous said...

I have read the complete play.

The play is a propaganda piece, plain and simple. It claims that Israel as a crime against Palestinians rather than making any attempt at all to illuminate what is in fact a complex and multi-sided (not 2-sided) story, where everyone has done bad things and everyone has some grievances.

The play attempts to paint a picture of Israelis as hiding from themselves, of Israelis as hating Palestinians, and even of Israelis today as ranting psychopaths. It completely ignores the multicultural reality of Israel, the very understandable nature of Israelis, the very human reasons for Israeli decisions regarding security, and so on, and instead creates something completely fictitious that it passes off as Israeli dialog. It relies on the ignorance of listeners.

Propagandists can read and listen; in fact they may do this very well. This does not change the fact that a propaganda piece is a propaganda piece.

rashkov said...

Roth's position is actually more interesting, and probably more defendable than a notion that aethetics trumps morality.

The transcript reveals that the theater program is Jewish, and that the audience is probably mostly Jewish. Roth wants his mostly Jewish audience to wrestle with what anti-semites say about them.

This is typical behavior attributed by the book "Oslo Syndrome" to the psychological defenses of a community under siege.