On the occasion of having just watched Tracy Letts' August Osage County, I submit the following ideas:
1.) Art is NOT universal. It is, actually, entirely specific being the product of one person's subjective interpretation of one part of a supposed collective reality, which I would also like to assert is really their subjective reality.
2.) What do I mean by art is not universal it is specific? Art deals with a specific story, that is, an interpretation, based on one person's specific life experience sometimes in regard to one moment of this specific life experience...sometimes in regards to several or the entire life lived to the moment that the work was made public. We like to think that art has some universal meaning -- that great art has one meaning that EVERYONE can understand...even though it might also have a multitude of other meanings that only one or a few people can understand...we yearn for art to have one universal message, thus making it, great art. This is bullshit. Sometimes everyone thinks that they think what everyone else thinks and therefore art is universal. But really, that's impossible. You can get there to a certain extent, PERHAPS, but not 100% and therefore it's impossible. Sometimes the audience agrees, or thinks they agree, with the artist. We think Shakespeare was saying a thing and we think everyone knows what he is saying, so his work has some universal significance. No. I'm not saying it's bad (which is kind of useless, considering if you think it's good then it's good just as if I think it's bad, then it's bad), I'm not saying it is not important, I'm just saying that not even Shakespeare is universal. Because we don't know what Shakespeare was trying to do - we don't even know if he is one person - and furthermore, what does it matter what he was trying to do? The structuralists and the post-structuralists and pretty much most theorists, have taught us that we create as we interpret - just like the artist did when he painted that girl he loved or wrote that play about the time in Vietnam. We interpret that play or that book and it gains meaning for us, and therefore, begins again anew. Because it begins for us. Because we didn't know it before, and now we do, and it has added to our life, and therefore changed our life. And we want not to be alone, so we say to our friend - did this book/move/symphony/etc. make you feel this way and do you think it means yes? And our friend says yes it did and yes it does yes, and then it's universal. But it's not. Because we are not our friend. Our friend, even if they agree with us, agrees with us for different reasons, or might choose to use different words. We are not the same as our friend. We are experiencing the same thing called the Mona Lisa, but the Mona Lisa is a different thing for each of us...and it was different for Da Vinci and also Dan Brown.
2.1) Art is also not universal because art ALWAYS gives us the OPPORTUNITY to reflect. Our lives - subjective or collective - do not ALWAYS give us this OPPORTUNITY. Nor do we always take it. Moreover, not all art makes it easy for us to reflect. This might mean the art is bad, or it might mean we do not like the art, or it might mean we see very little of ourselves in it. But I do think that --- wait. Here's what I think: if you like the art, you see yourself in it. If you do not like the art, you do not. I also think pretty much everyone likes everything a little. This is sympathy - liking things a little, even though you don't want to. Or wait is that empathy? What the fuck is sympathy? I have no idea.
Continuing on: if art gives us the opportunity to reflect on our lives it is not universal because we do not all have the same life. Ah! You (I don't mean you-Rich, I mean you-stranger...but it could be you-Rich too...but it doesn't have to be and I wanted to leave the option open for you, for both of you, for all of you) say we do, I say we don't, we disagree. This is a fundamental disagreement. The nice thing is, it doesn't need to come to blows. Because I might change my mind. Or you might. Or we both might. That is okay. Because we are meant to change. We are meant to add to our lives. Subtracting is much harder. I do not actually think it is possible. Obviously to forget is not to subtract because we remember. So perhaps people with neurological disorders that actually prevent them from remembering subtract. I think that might be true. The possibility of that happening to me frightens me.
OK. That's all that I can write on that for now. I'm not going to edit it, by the way. I want it to remain in its flawed state. I want to correct it later. Mess leaves room for change. I was writing about that in the Scheib post.
So what does this have to do with August Osage County?
I don't care to write too specifically about this play. Yes, it was extremely well constructed by the playwright and acted by the actors...and I imagine directed by the director (because if the director had messed it up, I'm not sure I would have understood it as I think the job of the director is to convey the words on the page to us in the audience). And it was well-designed. And I do not mean to sound like I am writing any of those people off - I am not! I'm just not interested in writing a review that points to those things. That is for someone else to do. But all those people helped me have this very moving experience, and for that I am entirely grateful. More so than I can say.
What I want to say about August Osage County is this: I loved it without question until the part where Karen's fiance molests Jean...and Jean leaves with her father and argues that it's not a big deal and it is implied that maybe she wanted Karen's fiance to try and have sex with her...and that's pretty much where I started to question the morality of the text. And then I realized that the play was not trying to make a universal moral statement. It was trying to tell me a specific story, and that story was allowing me to question the idea of consent. You might see the play and disagree - you might say Tracy Letts is sexist and reactionary. I would disagree because even if I do believe that Karen's fiance was manipulating Jean (and I do) and doesn't get punished for it, it doesn't matter - what matters is that sometimes young women are molested by older men and then in court someone says they were asking for it. And to put an analogous situation to this on stage and force me to think about it, to decide where I stand - this is what matters. And also because this play was not about balance. It was not about good things happening to good people or bad things happening to bad people - it was about things happening to people and also people happening to things. And life is a lot more like that.
Right and wrong are such dangerous lies. If enough people believe that right is right it is often beneficial to create a system that allows for the circumstance of being right to be repeated, but we should also allow for this system and that rightness to change. And we do not. And that is a major problem. Because people do change. And so too does the environment in which those outdated systems remain active and therefore detrimental to the benefit of society.
A work of art brings us to action, to change, it does not allow us to stay complacent, no matter how right we are, no matter how comfortable. That is what I have come to believe about art right now. That is what I need to believe.