Saturday, August 15, 2009

Art and Purpose

At the end of the month I'll be done with 12th Night, and done with acting, unless I can find a paying gig. I do look forward to writing every day without the enormous time commitment of rehearsal and performance. The time commitment is greater than just the hours spent with the other actors; acting takes over my life at home. I find it hard to write when I have an acting obligation I should be working on to perfect my part.

When I was in college my professors had nothing but contempt for community theatre. When I told one I was working for a local theatre festival in the summer, he said he hoped I didn't come back in the fall a worse actor for working with all those community types. At the time I was leery; his condescension struck me as a bit elitist.

Now I think my professors were right. I've tried to stay away from community theatre and work with companies that at least have the ambition to be professional regional theatres someday. That ambition does make a difference, but even so, those companies have no money and are forced to use actors with a community theatre mentality.

What do I mean by "community theatre mentality"?

It comes down to purpose. Of the three cardinal values defined by Ayn Rand -- reason, self-esteem and purpose -- purpose is the one that has been least explored by Objectivist philosophers (although I think I read that Dr. Tara Smith is writing a book on purpose). Perhaps it has been neglected because Aristotle made such a brilliant start with it.

Purpose is Aristotle's "final causation." It defines what one will do in an action.

In writing, I have come to learn that purpose determines whether or not a writer has a chance of writing something halfway decent. If you set your purpose as writing a comic book or a soap opera, that's what you'll get. If you set out to be a hack, you'll be a hack.

A writer cannot create great art unless he sets that as his purpose. Setting out to write great art does not guarantee one will succeed in meeting that purpose, but setting a lower purpose does guarantee that one will not write great art.

Of course, in our present culture, many writers never consciously define their purpose. They think something like, "I want a career as a screenwriter. I need to write what Hollywood will buy." This purpose pretty much guarantees that one is on the road to hackdom. To see the result, go check out the load of dreck at your neighborhood multiplex.

If a writer does not consciously strive to put art above money, he is doomed to a life as a whore. For many that is fine because they have no conception of any art greater than the whoredom they see in popular culture. To ask them to write something on the level of Friedrich Schiller would be like asking a punk rocker to play a diminished ninth chord.

The tragic cases are the ones who have some conception of what is better, but destroy the best within them in order to put food on the table in a mindless culture that only wants garbage. See Ayn Rand's short story, "The Simplest Thing In the World."

I write this as a defender of capitalism and money. Money is not the root of all evil. Money does not corrupt all it touches, as some Platonist might think. However, there are other values than money. It is the artist's responsibility to be clear in his mind that he does not compromise his art for money. Once you have that understanding, then I say go for the big bucks all you can. There is nothing in the least wrong with getting rich. The best deal is to make money while making great art, as Ayn Rand did. In the 19th century, before naturalism separated thought and plot, it was common for great novels and plays to succeed in the market place.

I should clarify here that there is nothing wrong with writing good popular art without deep ideas. Agatha Christie, P.G Wodehouse, Noël Coward, Harold Lamb and so many others wrote good, entertaining stories that do not rise to the standard of great art. I suspect that they all wrote what pleased them, what they wanted to read. To write a page-turner with suspense and twists is no mean achievement; try it sometime. But even on this level, a writer must be clear about his purpose and avoid any second-hand imitation.

In acting purpose makes all the difference. If an actor sets his purpose as making a career of it, then he strives for professional quality. He must meet the highest standards. Furthermore, he will put in the time needed to act well because acting will be a priority. Among professional actors there are differences. Some are content just mugging in sitcoms, so long the paychecks keep coming in. Others want to be classical actors and undergo more training.

Since I began acting locally four years ago, in every show there have been anywhere from a couple to a handful of actors who don't get their lines memorized until dress rehearsal -- and some never entirely get their lines cold. This is unheard of in professional theatre. Jon Jory in his book says actors should have their lines memorized after they block a scene: never do a scene twice holding a book. Noël Coward thought actors should have their lines memorized before rehearsals begin: don't waste precious rehearsal time fumbling around with lines.

Non-professional actors have day jobs, families and lives outside of theatre; acting is a hobby or a social activity. When you approach it that way, your thinking is different -- it's unprofessional by definition.

Non-professional actors have lower standards. (Many have no conception of standards or how to go about acting. They just get on stage and play make believe like children. Some actors with a little natural talent can get away with this their entire lives.) Non-professional actors are not going to work hard on their lines because they know they don't have to. The director can bitch all he wants, but he won't replace the actors for being late on their lines with someone new -- someone who would have only a week to memorize a part from scratch.

I'm just talking about memorizing lines here. All the other acting work you might read about in Stanislavsky is not a factor here or even for many actors in Hollywood.

I've worked with some fine actors. In every show there are a few who do quality work that could compete professionally if they wanted to. Those people keep the smaller Shakespeare festivals chugging along. My hat is off to those talented people who manage to do it year in and year out without pay. Long may they run.

I can feel myself getting lazy. I know I don't have to work hard. When other matters press, I know acting can be put aside. I feel the rust corroding me at the edges. Rust never sleeps. If I keep acting with non-professionals, then my standards will lower to theirs. It takes a titan of discipline to maintain standards when good enough is good enough. I don't know if I have that discipline.

So it's time for me to move on. From now on I either get paid or I do something else with my time than acting.

When Words Are Weapons

There are, I believe, two factors that explain the Democrat ad hominem strategy against their opponents in the health care debate (not that there's much argumentation of ideas going on). One factor is general, and the other more specific.

The general cause is the decline of reason in modern philosophy, and its effect on the left. The postmodern left does not believe that there is reason, but only subjective narratives determined mainly by ethnicity and sex. Language to the left is not used by reason to persuade, but is a weapon used to gain power. Language is a form of force.

This is why the left hates advertising so much; they think it is the way corporations manipulate the minds of the masses and make them act in ways against their own self-interest (in other words, corporate propaganda turns the innocent into right-wingers). One of Obama's first acts when he took over GM was to cut their advertising budget.

Since words are weapons, the left uses them as such. They tend naturally toward character smears and the "politics of personal destruction." So they're going after their opponents on health care the only way they really know how, by calling them a "mob," "right-wing extremists," "racists," "KKK," and I've probably missed a few choice epithets.

This is why Obama said,

"But I don't want the folks that created the mess -- I don't want the folks who created the mess to do a lot of talking...I don't mind cleaning up after them, but don't do a lot of talking."

Toleration used to be valued on the left, but those days are over. When words are weapons, then talking is force. You don't want the enemy to "do a lot of talking."

The more specific cause is the Swiftboat advertising campaign against John Kerry in 2004, an event that seems to have traumatized the left. Recently Senator Franken -- no, I can't believe he's a Senator either -- was nasty to Warren Buffet about Buffet's support of the Swiftboaters. The Democrats still remember it well, and it still bothers them.

As the left views words as weapons, it concluded from the Swiftboaters that the mean-spirited right is really good at using words to attack their side. I would say the Swiftboat attack devastated Kerry because it hit home with the truth. I think it was Aquinas who said that the most powerful argument in a debate is the truth. This doesn't even register with the left. There are no absolutes, no reason, no truth.

The left concluded that Kerry's problem was that he let the Swiftboaters sink him without responding. It has become dogma among the Democrats that when the Republicans attack, you attack back hard and fast. Thus Obama aides said they would “punch back twice as hard” against their critics. Now, even though 70% of independents are against the health care bill in the House -- which means a majority of voters -- the Democrats don't care, they're fighting back to avoid John Kerry's failure.

Modern philosophy has corrupted our culture and created this nastiness. The left sees words as weapons, and probably some precincts of the right, who are not altogether immune from the dominant trend in philosophy, also have no confidence in or understanding of reason. When people use words as weapons in the pursuit of power, without regard to the truth, can the use of real weapons be far behind? How long until factions begin shooting at one another?

UPDATE: Corrected a name. Al Franken feuded with T. Boone Pickens, not Warren Buffet, as I first wrote.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Les Paul, RIP

We take the electric guitar for granted but somebody had to invent it. That man was Les Paul. Though it might seem obvious to us today, it took ingenuity and creativity to do it right. Les Paul came up with a brilliant innovation:

As ensemble sound levels were growing with amplification, his goal was to improve tone and sustain, while minimizing feedback, so he designed an instrument with a solid body, reducing vibration in the frame and concentrating it in the string.

I own a Les Paul. After more than half a century, the guitar is still the standard of excellence. Jimmy Page got an astonishing range of sounds out of the guitar. For a pure, beautiful Les Paul tone, I would recommend listening to Duane Allman's lyrical lead solos.

Les Paul was a giant. His life is over, but his achievement is eternal.

Monday, August 10, 2009

A Joke From My Childhood

There was this monastery where all the monks took a strict vow of silence. They couldn't talk at all, except on Christmas day during dinner at 6pm, when one monk could say one thing.

One Christmas it was Joe's turn to talk. At 6pm, as they were eating dinner, Joe stood, cleared his throat, and said, "I hate the mashed potatoes here."

Then Joe sat down and the monks continued eating in silence.

A year passed in silence. The next Christmas at 6pm it was Sam's turn to talk. Sam stood, cleared his throat, and said, "Well, I like the mashed potatoes!"

A year passed in silence. The next Christmas at 6pm it was Claude's turn to talk. Claude stood, cleared his throat, and said, "I request a transfer to another monastery. I can't stand this constant bickering!"