Talkback: “On Cultural Power”posted on September 30th, 2009 by Sara Wintz
In his essay “On Cultural Power,” taken from remarks made at a 1997 debate with black playwright August Wilson, Robert Brustein states his belief in theater as a springboard for political action and the importance of inclusion when it comes to audiences’ experience:”We have had some sour experience in the twentieth century regarding efforts to regulate or improve human nature through the agency of a political system:
Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Iran under the Ayatollah, to name a few … “’All revolutions,’ as Eugene Ionesco wrote, ‘burn the libraries of Alexandria.’ Today in American we see a similar development in what is called political correctness—which in its overzealous crusade to purge our language of offensive terms sometimes seems to be leading to what one critic has called ‘freedom from speech.’
“Out of a conviction that freedom of speech is essential to creative invention and critical thought, a number of modern artists, both black and white, whatever their beliefs as citizens of the state, have rejected the concept of art as an ideological instrument. Ideological art is dedicated either to reinforcing the existing power structure (as in totalitarian regimes) or (as in most activist revolutionary expression) reforming and changing it….
“While the arts at best are inclusive, ideological art is exclusive. The spectator is pressured to reach conclusions, coerced into choosing sides. Political art is usually a persuasive form of melodrama, the opposition of right and wrong—or shall we say black and white?—when the truth is usually grey….”
“All revolutions burn the libraries of Alexandria,” sticks in my mind as being one of the more dynamic references that Brustein nabs in a well-fed, seven-page polemic. Obviously, the image of libraries easily stands out to me now: Recent Wildfires in California + Growing Digital Libraries = Burning the Libraries of Alexandria…right?
But Brustein also draws on this Ionesco quote to highlight his opinion that, despite the failure of Nazi Germany, of Soviet Russia, and other systems of exclusion that have attempted to gain power in modern times, and have failed, we persist with the notion of separatism as a way to power.
“All revolutions burn the libraries of Alexandria”—as though all the information that we ever needed was sitting right there, and because of our own desire to overturn a current state of things, we immediately clobber any relic of existing knowledge, no matter how informative it may be.
Brustein’s remarks are especially juicy when you factor in the time in which he delivered this lecture, and his words and opinions emphasize a broader wave of discussion that took place throughout the 1990s arts community, with regards to identity politics, and the way that drama may or may not be able to enact larger social change. (Think: Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, Crooklyn, or Def Jam Poetry, in conversation with Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, first published in 1994, or Bill Maher’s television program Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher.)
Brustein states his belief in the function of theater to represent ideal societies to audiences, in “On Cultural Power” and the importance of racial and ideological integration:
“We speak a lot these days of cultural diversity, but true diversity lies in acknowledging that every human being is an individual, and not simply a member of a racial, ethnic, or sexual group. The variety of these individual differences is what bonds us all to the human family.”
Based on Brustein’s remarks, how do you think theater may address and overturn systems of power?
*Note: All quotes from “On Cultural Power” in Cultural Calisthenics: Writings on Race, Politics, and Theatre by Robert Brustein (1998).
Sara Wintz is Communications Assistant in the Office of Arts & Cultural Programming at Montclair State University. Her writing has appeared on Ceptuetics and in the Poetry Project Newsletter.