I had only planned on writing one tiny harmless paragraph for this blog entry. One simple suggestion:
Take 24 hours this week, and every other week, to simply be grateful. Don’t buy anything. Just sit still, breathe, and say, “Thank you.” When you wake up in the morning, be grateful that you have been given a new day, and as you are falling asleep at the end of your day, be grateful that you were given the day you had just experienced.
Then. Out of nowhere, for no logical reason. A man went to see Hamilton: An American Musical. Of all the men in America, what was this man thinking? Did he think he would remain a political virgin while experiencing a work of art? Does he think that all art must conform to his beliefs? That art must only value and repeat back to him what he already thinks? Does he, or that one friend of his, think he possesses the power to silence art?
Granted other white people have sat back in comfortable chairs and harmlessly watched Hamilton as part of their New York City Broadway Adventure before, but this particular white man is myopic and color blind in ways that only people of a certain ilk are. (He is of the ilk that can stand on a stage, with another disturbingly pale man, and stare out over a sea of other people, drones who look exactly like these two comrades, and pronounce that it is time to bind the wounds of division (i.e. it is time to ignore difference) and come together as one united people; people, that is, of the exact same color and social and economic class, who agree on the exact same values.)
Did this man think that he was simply paying for an innocent experience? One that he could mindlessly applaud once the singing stopped? Did he, do you, think that art would not unnerve his, your, sheltered, protected way of being in the world? Did he think he could continue on his merry and innocent way, dreaming of heterosexual sugarplums and fairies after confronting a work of art? Did the white snowflake need a trigger warning?
Brandon Victor Dixon, a cast member of Hamilton, feared that this man would only consume an experience, that he would see nothing and think nothing beyond his own thoughts. That he would then leave the theater and continue to do what he does. That he would continue to think in exactly the same way that he has always thought.
So, assuming that this one particular white man, sitting in the audience watching the performance, most likely was not understanding the performance, Dixon ended the performance by thanking the man for coming and by requesting that the white man, who had just had the experience of watching Hamilton without seeing Hamilton, think about what he had just missed seeing and by asking that this white man see something other than his own mirror when he comes to have power over people he most likely will never see or acknowledge exists.
Then, another white man, defending his compatriot from being bullied by an actor, tweeted a demand that the cast of Hamilton apologize for trying to explain something to someone who cannot understand anyone who is different from him and whose experience differs from the purity of his own singular experience.
Here, then, is my one question, and this is my question for all artistic experience: Having seen a musical or a film, or having read a book, or heard a song, or looked at a photograph or a painting, what are we going to do with what we now know that we otherwise would not know and would not be thinking about? That is: How are we going to be in the world in new ways given this new way of seeing and of thinking of the world?
I am not very curious about themes or symbols or allusions. Such methods of thinking are simplistic (and safe and apolitical) ways for narcissistic intellectuals to show off their eclectic knowledge of arcane and somewhat dead knowledge, and to exercise power over those who do not posses the same tradition. If we do not act on, act through, and act with something, then it is not knowledge; it is only information. Knowledge must be activated through doing something, not simply filling out answers on an exam on a way to degree.
Art is not a comforting experience. Artists are not here to distract us. Art should terrify us. Art frightens me. Art threatens my identity. The other day I mailed a copy of my new novel to Bill Vollmann. The postal agent asked: “Is there anything inside this package that is liquid, fragile, perishable, or potentially hazardous?” I replied: “No, it is not fragile (I’m from Pittsburgh), no, it is not liquid, and I certainly hope it is not perishable, but yes, it is potentially hazardous; at least, I hope it is.”
Thousands of people went to see someone named Kanye West, in a place called The Golden One Center, a place paid for by taxpayers in Sacramento. He sang two songs in their entirety. The people (his fans), however, expected him to entertain them with more songs; instead, he went on a rant (which, I am told, differs from a rap). While lording above the crowd on a floating platform, West ranted about a man he admires, a man he would have voted for to become the Leader of the Free World, if he did vote (and if there was an election for such a position), but he, like so many others with intense (and slightly insane) political convictions, did not vote.
Still, West feels it is important to talk about whom he would have voted for, had he taken time out of his precious life to vote. (If not voting, but ranting anyway about politics, does not make someone a red-blooded or blue-bloodied American, then nothing will. A man who feels he is entitled to complain and rant, without actively participating in political processes, is a truly heroic man. That is sarcasm. And, from the research I have completed, West does not even take the time to “like” posts on Facebook. I mean, come on, Kanye, at least appear to be political! “Like” something on Facebook. Or “like” this! Or “like” Josh Fernandez’s brilliant critique of your performance.)
Similar to the man who went to see Hamilton, these people (fans of a man named West) merely wanted to be entertained without having to think, and they wanted their entertainment to be free and innocent of anything political, because, if Disney Enterprises and Hollywood and the whole culture industry has convinced us of one thing, it is that entertainment never circulates an ideology. Entertainment is just entertainment.
Seriously. I mean seriously. It is not as if there is a twilight enterprise teaching our daughters that they only have value if they are in a relationship with a boy. And it is not as if there are songs suggesting that our daughters are only objects. No, we are only consuming entertainment free of ideology, unless, of course, we disagree with the ideology of the artwork, then the entertainment is besmirched by the political. If we agree with it, we consume it and celebrate it as being free from politics. Oh, the bliss!
My only hope is that any human being who has an experience—whether the experience comes through art or through sports, or through a hike, or through touching another person—reflect on their experience, maybe even talk to other people about their experience. Such conversations are especially important when we experience something that rubs against the grain of what we formerly held to be true.
This week is the week in America for giving thanks. The cynic in me wants to question people who only donate one day out of the year to a local foodbank or who gobble up their Thanksgiving meal, giving thanks to all that they have, before rushing out to stores in order to buy more stuff, since they do not have enough stuff; since, we tell ourselves, there we can never possess enough stuff. We are told we need more stuff, so we obey.
We buy stuff to protect us from ourselves.
What would happen if we, instead of distracting ourselves, created time to be alone with ourselves, with our thoughts? If we are able to devote one day each week to being with ourselves, then we have more than most people.
So begin and end each day with a moment of gratitude. We do not have to wait for a special day to come once a year to be grateful. And just because Blue Laws have been overturned does not mean that we have to accept that. Be a revolutionary take one day each week to refuse to be stupid.
Devote every moment of at least one day every week to living and being grateful instead of consuming and being fearful. Imagine if we convinced ourselves that our identity came from what we gave instead of from what we bought?
Too often we focus on what we do not have. We live with seeing lack, rather than experiencing our simple abundance. So, each day we need to remind ourselves of what is part of our lives, what we hold in our hearts.
Sign up for the DOUG RICE Newsletter to stay up to date with readings, gallery shows, new publications, and special offers.