postcards from berlin #16 [trump-era art]
PENG (r. von mayenburg) @ schaubühne
i remember a year ago, at just about this time, a rattled world grappling with an ugly truth that seemed much more impossible then than it does now.
i remember watching the election at an american comedy bar on roseggerstrasse with conor wylie so sure that they were going to… even that katy perry video got me a bit emotional—back then. and then, at six am, michigan still hadn’t flipped back, and we had to go to bed. i kept updating the map on my phone in bed just in case.
in the horrified grieving that followed, as most of us constantly waited for a technicality, a recount, anything to disqualify him, many of the artists on my facebook tried to console themselves by saying “well, at least it’ll be good for the art.” it would be urgent again, necessary again. it would make it vital. maybe people would finally want to go to the theatre. i probably even said it myself once or twice.
aurora stewart de peña already knew that. she wrote this great thing for canadian art magazine.
and beyond anything aurora says in her article, it’s been amazing to me how unbelievably flat and flaccid the work that i’ve seen has been.
the problem is, no intelligent person can construct an interesting or useful dialectic around it. there’s no “on the other hand” to fascism. the man’s an idiot, an egomaniac, a bigot, and he will take your basic freedoms away as soon as it serves his interest. punkt. there’s not a flipside to really consider, there’s not a complex matrix of forces that drove those tump voters to do the unconscionable en masse. (aside, perhaps, from this brilliant long read by dale beran in medium on the rise of 4chan and the emergence of a demographic of young men who value the valueless).
but it doesn’t take much to assess it. if you let angry, poor, disenfranchised-feeling white people feel ignored in an election, you do so at your peril. russia probably worked real hard for this too, not even expecting the upset. bla bla bla. it’s not even worth talking about again—and that’s kind of my point.
there’s no artist who can construct a meaningful flipside to this situation. especially not here in germany. because it is too obviously egregious. so there’s no dialectic, there are no competing points of view to place in tension. the problem—trump, and the hyperpolarization of american politics, is so divisive that it almost entirely eliminates our capacity to consider the other viewpoint.
it’s been good news for late night TV, whose comedy doesn’t operate on the level of dialectics and nuance. it really struggled in the obama era to make itself necessary as a form/medium. suddenly it seems more vital than it did in the bush era. (and they’re even bringing him on as a guests to talk about his paintings and eight years later we can almost get misty at the relatively comfortable reign of our second-stupidest president in living memory—even if that administration was doing some appalling things you had the sense that there was at least an evil mastermind who KNEW WHAT THE FUCK HE WAS DOING. and that felt safe in its own way).
but it’s been nothing but terrible news for the theatre. i haven’t seen one play that has managed to take on the question of how the fuck this happened thoughtfully or compellingly. artists i generally respect are suddenly getting reductive, one-sided—even christopher rüping (see postcard #9).
von mayenburg generally manages to keep me at least interested. don’t always love his work but he’s especially good in a swamp of murky ethics. but this one—his latest offering about a violent kid with a despotic streak—just leans into trite clichés and is a pretty tedious night out.
so what’s left to us that can be engaged with dialectically? i mean for one, i think the battle between individual hope and despair is a complicated one these days. i think the funny thing is that #45 demands so much attention that a lot of artists are looking to him for material, when the interesting questions to ask actually run around him, not through him. earlier this year i was feeling really sure that it was high time for a remount of ARTURO UI. (mostly cause i loved doing that show). but i’m not sure it’s really useful to us in the thick of this. maybe it’s a better time for THE GOOD PERSON OF SEZUAN.
there’s that (in)famous picture of trump staring into the solar eclipse. maybe that’s a decent metaphor for where art can effectively go right now. not to stare into the central event, but look instead for where it’s reflected as a shadow, the secondary effects. because the actual mechanics of the thing are more interesting and examinable than watching some giant orange thing flame out.
for more on the show click here.