Styles of Radical Will: Art, Film and Theatre

“Every interesting tendency now is a species of radicalism. The question each artist must ask is: What is my radicalism, the one dedicated by my gifts and temperament?” (Theatre and Film, 1966).

Upon reading a collection of essays by writer Susan Sontag I came across a number of interesting ideas and references related to a number of aspects of my project and the views I have around the wider themes that surround it: from accessibility and a general approach to the arts, to the consensus view on extreme topics (here, pornography) and on film and it’s relation to theatre, including references to both artistic forms as syntheses of a wider range of artistic media (re: Gesamtkunstwerk), and from this how these media also speak of the state of wider society’s relationship to the arts.

Firstly Sontag references a passage written by theorist and Furturist movement founder Marinetti between 1910 and 1914, where he proposes that film may be used as one element in the theatre experience: “He envisaged the theatre as a final synthesis of all the arts, and as such it had to draw on the newest art form, movies,” (Theatre and Film, 1966). In this Marinetti is presumably considering all of the media known to contruibute to film at the time: sound (i.e. music), narrative structure (the written word or script), mise-en-scene, and photography – in the conventional sense, i.e. cinematography, but also in the relationship between images (a kind of rapid-fire mise en page).

Approaching the discussion of the the connection between the two media she also references the later use – in fact the insistence of use – of film in theatre by Russian and Soviet director Vsevolod Meyerhold, where he “[described] his program as fulfilling Wagner’s once ‘wholly utopian’ proposals to ‘use all means available from the other arts’” (Theatre and Film, 1966), referring to the German composer’s theory of the Gesamtkunstwerk in theatre, and his assuming of the poisitin that this synthesis should involve new and therefore ever-evolving artforms, here the then-new medium of film.

In reference to Meyerhold’s practice, Sontag points out how “Wagner’s ideology of a total theatre played its role in confirming the philistinism of German culture,” (Theatre and Film, 1966), a position on the unwillingness of wider society to fully embrace the arts – whether out of inability or apathy. A year later, when discussing the concern of the increasing availability of pornography and the underlying idea that this supposed concern for the upkeep moral standards is really about the availability of a certain kind of knowledge, she proposes that:

“There’s a sense in which all knowledge is dangerous, the reason being that not everyone is in the same condition as knowers or potential knowers. Perhaps most people don’t need a ‘wider scale of experience.’ It may be that, without the subtle and extensive psychic preparation, any widening of experience and consciousness is destructive for most people,” (The Pornographic Imagination, 1967).

Here, Sontag is referring literally to a kind of psycological destruction that comes as the result of being shocked by disturbing images, or at least images that do disturb, if only for the fact that one is not prepared to see them. But she is also referring to the wider idea that certain kinds of information, as with certain kinds of images, cannot be appropriately appreciated or even witnessed without some sense of context, of understanding, and therefore of a kind of preparation for receiving them – whether actively or passively undertaken.

It may be fair, then, to apply such thinking to all art; with certain forms of extreme music – industrial, noise, techno, freeform jazz – is an appreciation of a piece of such music reliant on a greater understanding of the landscape of the field that surrounds it? I’d argue yes and no. If approaching any one of these without prior knowledge of their structure or style, why wouldn’t one recoil and declare “it’s too loud”, or repetitive, or lacking in beat or melody? The only possible answer would be that despite having no prior knowledge to the piece’s provenence, that it speaks to the listener in an innate or primal way.

However, this phenomenon is by no means common or consistent enough to be more than the exception to the rule. Sontag is perhaps right in both the idea that people may be neither prepared nor willing to receive this kind of information, these kinds of images or any extreme form of media that is inaccessible, uncomfortable, unfamiliar or even simply boring to them.

The obvious, if perhaps slightly overwhelming and maybe useless, question here is: why is this the case? Or, maybe more usefully, how has this become the case? A brief skim over the history of Western civilisation would suggest the answer is access and privilege; the rich are and have been privileged to information where the poor have not, and when and where the poor have gained access, compared to the difficulties of the daily grind, the pursuit of academic and artistic enlightenment understandably falls down the list of priorities.

But with the information revolution democratising that system, whereby said information is arguably accessible to all, has this changed anything? I’m reminded of a 2012 Vanity Fair article by Kurt Andersen, in which he argues the exact opposite: that as history has progressed, at least recent history, the development of the cultural landscape has slowed dramatically, especially in regards to the art of popular culture. Referencing the differences in music, fashion, literature, etc. each decade throughout the 20th Century, something so universally understood it shapes the way we reference history, the last two decades show the smallest change:

“[If we] try to spot the big, obvious, defining differences between 2012 and 1992, movies and literature and music have never changed less over a 20-year period. Lady Gaga has replaced Madonna, Adele has replaced Mariah Carey—both distinctions without a real difference—and Jay-Z and Wilco are still Jay-Z and Wilco. Except for certain details (no Google searches, no e-mail, no cell phones), ambitious fiction from 20 years ago (Doug Coupland’s Generation X, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow) is in no way dated, and the sensibility and style of Joan Didion’s books from even 20 years before that seem plausibly circa-2012.”



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