‘Art With Values’.

There’s a friend of mine, a very successful artist, who I admire very much. I met him twenty years ago when we were working together in a dirty nightclub in South Melbourne; he was collecting glasses and I was bouncing. We both aspired to art, and he hit critical pay-dirt much earlier than I (who am I fooling – I still haven’t got there).

Anyhow. He specialises in photography, but has a real gift for the abstruse stunt. Much of his art sets up peculiar, dissonant situations where the spectator is actually the butt of the joke. You ‘get it’ when you laugh at yourself, and there’s a kind of confrontation between spectator and artist which functions as the flashpoint.

He’s gone on to a tenured position teaching in a university (which, in days past, was always a bad sign). We caught up recently and I’d been reading Sylvia Plath. I’d read quite a few of her well-known works, both her poems and the novel, The Bell Jar earlier in life, but made a concerted effort to read her complete oeuvre.

I was talking about the experience, which was immensely exciting to me. To begin with, I had to learn to penetrate her structures, before assembling the ‘story’ of her oeuvre for myself. And part of what is so compelling about Sylvia Plath is the way her trajectory as an artist parallels the trajectory of her life, which is a progressive unravelling towards suicide.

Her world is a remarkable world; she’s got a poetic imagination, and works in terms of the symbolic lexicon that wells up out of it. When reading her works in chronological order, you can see the symbols of her fate presenting themselves, woven into a concert of dissonant, angular structures. It’s an eerie, yet deeply involving emotional experience.

As I was ranting about all this, he interrupted with the question, ‘Do you think she glorifies suicide?’ The question reminded me of fundamentalist Christians deriding the Rolling Stones as Satanists; even if they were, that question is beside the point.

He said that it was important to cultivate ‘art with values’. I instinctively responded by saying, ‘There are no values in art, Ross.’ He then fell into a peevish silence that has lasted until this day.

I didn’t know what I meant until some weeks later, when I heard Bryan Doerries, artistic director of the ‘Theater of War’ in conversation.

The Theater of War is a theatrical company that stages ancient Greek dramas for modern audiences as a way of confronting and engaging with trauma.

Dorries says that Ancient Greek drama is a kind of technology, like a hard drive, that you plug in to a given community and they know what to do with it, just as the tragedy itself knows what to do.

“[The plays are] a technology for collective healing. The message is, if there were a message, you don’t have to bear the burden of these decisions alone. We sent you to war, we will now share the moral ambiguity of what you did on behalf of our country.”

He describes a performance of Sophocles’ Ajax, performed for a group of soldiers returned from service in Afghanistan, and their families.

A woman stood up after question time and said, ‘I am the mother of a marine and the wife of a former navy SEAL. My husband went away to war three times and every time, he returned like Ajax, dragging the bodies with him.’ She then quoted Tecmessa, Ajax’s wife, saying, “Our home is a slaughterhouse.”

An hour was scheduled for discussion after the performance; people were queued at the microphone when the session was shut down at midnight, three hours after it had begun.

“[Greek tragedy] is not about morals” says Doerries, “Nor it is not about lessons. It is about ambiguity. The moral greyness in which we’re all living.”

“The plays don’t mean anything. They do something.”

“The answer is not in the play; the answer is in the audience. The end of the story resides in what the audience chooses to do about it. And I think in each story, there is a fleeting possibility of making a change. But what I think the Greeks knew and what people who have been to war know and what people who have experienced loss know is that that possibility is not guaranteed and it is fragile…”

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