The last month has been traumatizing: it's gotten so that it's hard to look at the news. Ferguson, Missouri; Gaza; Syria; the Ebola crisis in Liberia; the Ukraine... it's too much!
An artist i know on Facebook posted a statement to the effect that he's had to tune out some of the news, because if he dwelled on it, he would be too depressed. But it's not like he's insensitive; rather, he'd be almost paralyzed if he really concentrated on current events. And i know exactly how he feels.
But i'd like to try to focus on matters that i feel competent to write about, but even that's getting to be dicey. I didn't realize i was so depressed until about a month ago. So i shall explain.
In the last few days, there have been some discussions on Facebook among my friends. One was a thread started by the filmmaker Saul Levine; it began with a discussion about efforts to restore some films by Marjorie Keller. And it became a discussion about many filmmakers whose works are too little known or remembered. Of course, this is such a big issue now, when this whole history of the avantgarde cinema is muddled by conflicting perspectives. At one point, i mentioned a screening i attended (probably around 1970) of films by Jerry Joffen, and there was some comment about the fact that he was one of those filmmakers that was mentioned by a number of people (including P. Adams Sitney) as an influential artist. At one point, Bill Brand wondered when i was going to write about my memories of these filmmakers and artists, and i really didn't have a reply.
And the other day, Sturgis Warner posted a video interview with Jeff Weiss, with whom he'd worked. One thing that Sturgis mentioned was that Jeff believed in the theatrical experience, and he didn't want his work filmed or videotaped. And so Jeff Weiss's work exists in the memories of those who had the very good luck to be able to see it.
In a way, that's how it used to be with performance events. In the past, there was a reliance on eye-witness accounts: reviews, written testimony. Reputations were created through the critical literature of the time. It is through that critical literature that we have the records of great performances.
What's happened with the traditional valuations of art is that the notion of the avantgarde has called into question traditional values. As Susan Sontag noted, "For instance, there is the kind of seriousness whose trademark is anguish, cruelty, derangement. Here we do accept a disparity between intention and result. I am speaking, obviously, of a style of personal existence as well as of a style in art; but the examples had best come from art. Think of Bosch, Sade, Rimbaud, Jarry, Kafka, Artaud, think of most of the important works of art of the 20th century, that is, art whose goal is not that of creating harmonies but of overstraining the medium and introducing more and more violent, and unresolvable, subject-matter.... Clearly, different standards apply here than to traditional high culture. Something is good not because it is achieved, but because another kind of truth about the human situation, another experience of what it is to be human - in short, another valid sensibility - is being revealed."
The problem hasn't been the acceptance of other valid sensibilities, it has been the devaluation and the lack of comprehension of the traditions of high seriousness, high culture. It is a situation of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as well as throwing out the bathtub.
But i've been observing a lot of the evolution (or devolution) of the arts in New York City since the 1960s; i've written about it, i've edited and published other people's writings about it, i've curated and produced and presented exhibitions and works about it.
None of that seems to matter any more. In the last few years, i've found out that whatever i have to say, no one wants to listen.
A few years ago, i was asked to write about the Judson Dance Theater on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary. I did; the article was never published. I never even heard back; i sent it in, as requested, and nothing. And that's happened to me so often. Or take this as an example of how much my opinion matters. Last summer, i suddenly got e.mails from someone i know, asking me about some performance artists of the 1970s. So i answered. How was i supposed to know that this person i know was involved in curating an exhibition about Performance Art of the 1970s? Except he hadn't seen a lot of the performance artists involved, so he had to ask someone who had seen them. My opinion was so important that i wasn't invited to the party; i wasn't even invited to the opening.
So when Bill Brand asked when i would get to writing about the art/film/performance since the 1960s, i wanted to answer, no one wants it. And i already know that. If that's not enough to make me depressed, i don't know what is enough.
Ok: i'll give another example. Two years ago, when the New York Film Festival was celebrating its 50th Anniversary, i wanted to write about the fact that so much of the actual history of the festival was being elided and ignored. The reason was simple: Richard Pena, who had been the director of the New York Film Festival for the last 25 years, had just announced his retirement. So the celebrations for the anniversary of the film festival were tied to events in honor of Richard Pena. Which is fine. Except that, during the spring of 2012, Amos Vogel had died. In 1962, when the New York Film Festival was started, the founders of the festival were Richard Roud and Amos Vogel. Richard Roud died about a year after his retirement from running the festival, but Amos Vogel was always at events at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and it wasn't unusual for Amos and his wife Marcia (who had served as the administrator of the festival in its earliest days) to attend screenings for the New York Film Festival. So it would have been fitting for some sort of memorial event to have occurred during the anniversary celebration, to honor one of the actual founders. But it never happened. In fact, the Film Society of Lincoln Center totally ignored Amos Vogel. (Anthology Film Archives wound up having a series of screenings in his honor.) But no one seemed to care about the hideous slight that the Film Society of Lincoln Center was doing to Amos Vogel. Certainly, no one involved with the New York Film Festival.
I would like to write about these things, but i'd like to know that they won't just be ignored. But since that's been the case, it's left me in a quandry.