[I was recently asked to be a respondent at a small panel — two papers, one by a student and one by a professor — at UCLA. This what I wrote. It ends as a sort of polemic about the “artist” and “society” today (the language almost sounds quaint, but I was trying to write in a “public” way, which I haven’t figured out how to do) but it gets at a few points I’d like to try to elaborate on later.]

These papers both seem to strike right at the heart of certain issues of aesthetics and ethics, and a discussion of either could easily spill over into an entire meditation on the role of the artist in society, particularly as it concerns society when it has failed us: in the former case, during the AIDS crisis, a relatively unprecedented failure of US leadership to even acknowledge a decimating epidemic (though we can look at instances such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiments as antecedents of government sponsored or endorsed disease inflicted on a minority population, or even before that, the ignorance or exploitation of smallpox and other diseases in the Native American population in the colonial years), and in the latter, a very specific instance of war – the Israel war in Lebanon in 1982 – but also war and “violence” (the former cannot entirely be reduced to the latter) in general.

The both share issues concerning witness – how to observe, record, convey, and memorialize incidences that most of us in our “everyday” lives never experience (one must assume that there is a “normalcy” that runs in counter to the extraordinary events of AIDS and war). They also ask how to create action, or “change,” from this witnessing – how does the elegy interact with an “ethics of activism,” how does a “war film” become an “anti-war” film and then an “anti war war film” (acknowledging, as we should, that there is a such thing as a “war film” just as there such things as “war poems,” such as the Anglo-Saxon “Battle of Brunaburh,” the epics of Homer and Virgil, and our own national anthem).

A running (not unexamined) assumption in both essays is that the artist is a participant in these events – even a “victim,” as they are not ever depicted as being in control of fate or the forces governing them – and that the artist wants to do good: the artist is aware of what a normal, full human life is – filled with love, compassion, responsibility to others, etc. – and uses this general sense of humanness as a foil for the aberrant conditions of the fatal, swift-acting processes of disease and of war. The trick or game is how to preserve the “human,” synonymous with the “good” in this relatively un-ideological formulation, as well as how to “keep alive” the events that prompted these works of art, rather than merely offer them for simple consumption.

In both papers, this leads into questions of technique. In the former instance, the question centers on how maintain the dynamic nature of very particular gay relationship – between the poet, Paul, and his late lover, Rog – and not let it fade into the “general” genre of elegy, not surrender “Rog to the past” (Aaron states it much more eloquently, but I can’t find the quote). In general, the poems become political by their very resistance of their particulars to submit to the “public mores” and their “utilitarian” nature, which (though it’s not quite stated, I think) quite obviously has failed them. There is some variation on the Galatea myth here: a poet, who knows his lover has died, nonetheless will continue to animate this body on the stage of the poem, which he is aware is entering a contested, politicized forum.

In the Israeli war films, an excellent case is made that both Waltz with Bashir and Lebanon made clean breaks with naturalistic filmmaking to such a degree that they in fact become meditations on war and cinema themselves. In the former, the spectacle of war – which is to say, the violence of battle (and not the spectacle of speeches and conferences), are kind of auto-critiqued by the very dream-like, vivid and beautiful nature of the animation, as if beauty and violence, or maybe dream and witness, were engaged in some intellectual counterpoint. In the latter, all hints of the spectacle are dropped (including non-diegetic music) in favor of the colorless boredom of life in a small tank – it’s always interesting when films refuse certain absorptive techniques, like in the films of Dogme 95 – though meditation on the mediation of cinema itself still makes its presence in the form of the cross-hairs in the gun sight (if anything, more poignant now considering our nation’s recent addiction to Predator drones).

I’m taking the long way to making my basic point, which is that in none of these cases do these artists present their works as assays – as tries, as intellectual workings-out. In the art works themselves (as opposed to the paratextual materials of interviews, postscripts, the author’s other work, or history as its been recorded, etc.) there is no thesis or grounds for argument presented, nor do there seem to be the operations of clear dialectics that would seem to actively request intellectual – as opposed to emotional, or even ethical via vicarious participation – engagement by the viewer. The artist him or herself is generally supposed to remain more or less invisible in the work, or if visible, only in nuances of style, editing choices, word choices, punctuation (or lack thereof) – the marks of the auteur – or as, importantly, character in this act of memory. Outside of that, the artist (in these cases, self-consciously responsible artists) does not, or more or less refuses to, interject what one might call editorial or intellectual content into their pieces concerning the aesthetics of depiction – the artist, as presumably the viewer or reader, are simply subject to events, just like you and I.

(I am reminded of a piece by British artist Fiona Banner, a huge book called The Nam for which she viewed six major American films about the Vietnam War – Platoon, Apocalypse Now, etc. – and conveyed what she saw as if she were there, almost thereby insisting on the centrality of an editorial vision in the apparently transparent, absorptive depiction of war.)

Maybe this is an obvious point. But it strikes me that a lot of the theory that we rely on with which to discuss the ethical implications of contemporary works of art – Benjamin, Adorno, Debord, Jameson, etc. – in fact relied on the work of certain artists who made this issue of artifice and “reality” – specifically the absorptive nature of filmic spectacle – central to their work. I am of course thinking of Bertolt Brecht, who, despite what appears to be a revival of a “pure” form of Marxism in the academy, does not seem to be suffering a revival himself – nobody calls themselves a Brechtian today. But it seems to me, for instance, that had Brecht made a movie like Waltz With Bashir, there would have been no mistaking the element of media critique in the movie itself (which I haven’t seen, I’m just assuming this critique wasn’t foregrounded enough, since so many failed to see it). Lebanon sounds like it possesses some anti-absorptive properties, though it sounds like the “sentimental” dialogue was expressly conceived to nullify any sort of cognizance on this level.

I do think some “anti-war” films, especially those of Stanley Kubrick, take into account this Brechtian possibility; though Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket often lapse into mere absurdity or outright nihilism, they are mated enough with some analysis of the machinations behind the scenes, and leave so many issues open, as to suggest this “assayistic” quality. (Bertolucci’s films about the war share some of these qualities, and I think the first minutes of Saving Private Ryan are pretty unique in being relatively free of narrative, given over entirely to conveying the physics of battle, to nearly traumatizing effect, as if a short avant-garde film were tacked on to in the first twenty-minutes of an otherwise standard Hollywood feature.)

I couldn’t help but think of Frank O’Hara’s amazing elegy for Billie Holiday when reading Aaron’s paper. It seems to me to address a lot of the issues that Monette was concerned with – how to maintain the dynamics particularity of a relationship in a monument offered up to time. I think O’Hara’s poem suggests a middle-ground between the lyric (which he seems to posit as some sincere effort at communication) and the monologue (which is implicated by its very details into an historical situation). O’Hara was always adopting voices to tell you something of himself and his time; there is an entire suite in the voice of Mayakovsky, for instance, one of which is called “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island.” Rather than Brechtian scheme here, I see a sort of elevation of the activities of a single human to status of high artifice; there is a relative lack of a case being made for the poet as “good,” as “natural,” even as “human” – the first stanza of “The Day Lady Died” is replete with numbers and schedules, and “Having a Coke With You” is largely a catalogue of things. O’Hara simply doesn’t fit in with “public mores” as much as the latest issue of the New World Writing didn’t fit in.

I guess I’m making an argument for unnaturalism in art – not “acting,” but also no pretending to merely “be.” Or maybe if the artist is to “be,” that the artist not be human – our trusted friend, “authentic” – but powerful, in full awareness of its seduction – to stand against, or perhaps in place of, those awful forces (of fate, of politics) to which we are all supposed to be unified in being victims of. If we’re going to subject artists to such readings as involve the politicized uses of emotional valences – “protest mourning” as Aaron terms it, or the staging of trauma as a public catharsis in Gil’s description of Waltz with Bashir – the artist might as well get in on the game! I guess I wonder why (and here I’m really getting polemical), for all the hundreds of poets and film directors we have in this country and elsewhere, in what is arguably one of the most liberal periods of expression, and with film production getting cheaper and cheaper, and with film and pop cultural criticism getting more and more sophisticated (though that, indeed, might be at the heart of the problem, too) and the academy willing to engage with pop culture, there are fewer assayists – Voltaire types, people that offer their works specifically as contributions, even discursive contributions, to the public sphere, rather than merely as fodder for other people’s works – than ever. (Lars von Trier, Oliver Stone, Peter Handke and Claire Denis might be filmmakers who clearly critique the artifice of film in their feature-length fictions.)

I might summarize my point here by suggesting that artists who offer their works to a critique involving the judgments of human behavior – who offer their works with a sense of a transcendent justice – that placing the artist central to the vision presented, not as invisible auteur but persuasive author, is merely the honest thing to do, since the artist him or herself, who would co-opt history and transform the realities of others, is nearly always doing the work of politics, and is never simply “innocent.” The scales of justice are only truly activated (one assumes these artists wanted these “scales” regarded) when the artist is frank in offering him or herself to be judged.

I’d like to quote from a song by Morrissey – never one to avert trouble, he recently attacked the Queen again – which is not a comment on these works themselves so much as the problems facing the artist in society today:

No it’s just more lock jawed pop stars
Thicker than pig shit, nothing to convey
They’re so scared to show intelligence
It might smear their lovely career

What keeps them from doing so? I can’t speculate – perhaps it’s our culture of high surveillance, perhaps it’s just money – but it’s a bad time when “intelligence” and careers seem to run completely counter to each other, in entertainment as elsewhere.