Disturbed Balance

Nov 14, 2016

Every autumn I arrange two museum visits with my first-year Columbia MFA directing students. On November 9th we were scheduled to meet at 9:30 a.m. at the Museum of Modern Art on 54th street in Manhattan. But on November 9th the world into which I woke felt decidedly different. Actually, I did not really wake up into that day because I had not slept at all. Two hours before Hillary Clinton’s lead began its long descent, I began to feel catatonic. I sensed that something distressing was on the horizon. As night’s results grew increasingly worse, I could not escape into sleep, something I am usually quite capable of doing. In the morning I was exhausted and drained.

After no sleep and loaded down by the previous night’s shocking events, looking at art on November 9th suddenly felt like a terrible idea. Nevertheless I decided to proceed with the plan if only for us all to be together. My wife Rena, despite her own hesitancy about looking at visual art on such a difficult day, decided to join us as well. Rena and I found the six directors waiting outside the museum, each one in a state of disbelief and shock. I proposed that we each wander separately through the fourth and fifth floors of MOMA to discover which artwork had the power to draw our attention in our current condition on that particular day. We planned to meet up a half hour later as a group to see and talk about the pieces that had attracted each of us the most. At first I meandered alone, quite unfocused and distracted through the galleries, but then found myself drawn unexpectedly and powerfully to works by Marcel Duchamp. I have long been intrigued by Duchamp and his place in art history, but have never been strongly attracted to his art. But on November 9th his work spoke directly to me. One piece in particular entitled To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost and Hour seemed to simultaneously embody violence, imbalance and irreverence all the while looking closely at the world closely, as it actually is. The convergence of these qualities spoke to me directly. (Here is a link to the piece.)

In the presence of Duchamp’s creation on November 9th I felt as though I had been tuned like a musical instrument, my body more grounded and my mind unexpectedly oriented. The piece became the vehicle through which I was able to focus. According to the museum notes, Duchamp made the piece in Buenos Aires, Argentina after fleeing the United States in 1918 in order to escape the oppressive atmosphere of World War I. The initial owner of the work hated the title To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost and Hour, finding it a far too cruel set of commands. Instead, she referred to the piece as Disturbed Balance. I find her title, disturbed balance, useful in considering our current political and cultural environment.

The fact that the Republican Party, much of it extremely right-leaning, will now dominate the House, the Senate, the Presidency and soon the Supreme Court shows a dangerous lack of built-in dissent and constructive disagreement. A successful pluralistic social system depends upon difficult conversations, indeed a disturbed balance, or differing points of view within the unity of an overall vision. Grace lies in the tension and imbalance between dissenting opinions. Certainty is the enemy of a democracy in which engaged dissent and diverse points of view are essential.

In art the tension and imbalance that can co-exist amidst discordant components, when lined up accurately within the same framework, can provide enormous power and enough space to diminish the ego and offer the conditions for nothing less than a taste of the sublime.  In an attempt to find clarity and a way forward, I have been considering the powerful concert of the number three. I knew that the number two is essential in the creation of effective theater because truth and suspense lie in the opposition and disagreement between two forces. But how is it that a virtual trinity, when lined up properly, can also provide the necessary conditions for effective art and perhaps even good governance? There are many references to triads throughout history including in Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.

The ancient Greek polymath Aristotle proposed that three necessary co-existent modes of persuasion – ethos, pathos and logos – are a model for effective communication between a speaker and an audience. To be persuasive, these three contrasting modes must function simultaneously and in sync. Ethos is an appeal to one’s ethics and starts by convincing someone of the character or credibility of the persuader. Pathos is an appeal to emotion, and is a way of convincing an audience of an argument by creating an emotional response. Logos is an appeal to logic, and is a way of persuading an audience by reason. These three ingredients are the building blocks to persuasive communication and are highly relevant to the theater.

In considering Aristotle’s ideas about the three modes of persuasion for the theater, I begin by suggesting that ethos requires the integrity of the actor, demanding that vocal style, body language and palpable enthusiasm are in concert with humility, empathy, sensitivity and concern for the audience. The actor should appear qualified, trustworthy, credible and filled with both knowledge and skill.

Pathos refers to the actor’s emotional effect upon the individuals in the audience. The actor appeals to the audience’s feelings in order to persuade them by being believable, sensitive, empathetic, passionate, enthusiastic, likeable, encouraging and credible. The actor must feel a real concern for the audience, building desire and interest and encouraging action and decisiveness.

Logos is an appeal to an audience’s reason. To persuade people requires the relevance and the strength of the message, the content. According to Aristotle, the event must be well structured, clear, understandable, logical, balanced and memorable. To appeal to the audience’s logos demands that the material can be absorbed and interpreted, that it is provable, convincing, balanced and unbiased and that the reasoning is memorable and can be easily recalled.

The influential thirteenth-century philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas exerted a considerable influence upon Western thought. His theories about aesthetics and beauty substantially influenced the trajectory of the writer James Joyce. Aquinas proposed three constituent elements of beauty, three criteria for the aesthetic experience: Integritas, consonantia and claritas. This triad of principals, these three elements in concert, provides the circumstances for an aesthetic experience. The beauty of an artwork is composed of its constituent elements (integritas) and is proportional to its ultimate purpose (consonantia) and radiates its essential reality (claritas).

Integritas means wholeness or completeness. John Cage proposed that if you want to see theater, sit on a park bench and put a frame around what you are looking at. If you put a frame around something with intention then what is within that frame can be regarded as one thing, as a whole work of art. This one-ness is integritas. Within the frame, nothing essential is lacking and nothing extraneous is present. An artwork is one thing within a designated frame, not a collection but rather is experienced as one thing. Nothing within the field of that frame has reference to anything outside of that field. It is whole and complete. James Joyce, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, wrote: “An aesthetic image is presented to us either in space or in time. What is audible is presented in time, what is visible is presented in space. But, temporal or spatial, the aesthetic image is first luminously apprehended as self-bounded and self-contained upon the immeasurable background of space or time, which is not it. You apprehend it as one thing. You see it as one whole. You apprehend its wholeness.”

Consonantia means harmony. It is proportionality in relation to an end. Within the frame set aside from the rest of the world is a rhythmic arrangement, a rhythm of beauty, an arrangement. The rhythm or the rhythmic arrangement is the instrument of art and the essence of the aesthetic experience. Joyce: “Having first felt that it’s one thing you feel now that it is a thing. You apprehend it as a complex, multiple, divisible, separable, made up of its parts, the result of its parts and their sum, harmonious.”

Claritas means radiance or fascination. Due to the concentration of attention by the artist and the audience, the object becomes pure object. Claritas engenders aesthetic arrest. The audience is held. The writer Umberto Eco describes claritas as “the fundamental communicability of form, which is made actual in relation to someone’s looking at or seeing of the object.” Claritas radiates intelligibility and has the power to reveal its ontological reality. Joyce again: “When you have apprehended it as one thing and have then analyzed it according to its form and apprehended it as a thing you make the only synthesis, which it is and no other thing. The radiance is the scholastic quidditas, the whatness of a thing.”

Why is the number three powerful? According to Pythagoras, the number three was the first true number. Three is the first number that forms a geometrical figure – a triangle. Three was considered the number of harmony, wisdom and understanding. Three is the number of time: Past, Present and Future. Birth, Life and Death. Beginning, Middle and End. Three is a sacred number in many religions. In ritual, many actions are performed three times. In fairy tales three is often the magical number. Heroes and heroines are often offered three choices or three tests. They overcome difficulties on the third try. In Zoroastrianism there are three ethical principles: Humata (to think well), Hukhta (to speak well) and Huveshta (to act well).

In 2005 I attended a revival of the UK based theater company Complicité production A Minute Too Late at the National Theatre in London. Founded in 1983 by Simon McBurney, Annabel Arden and Marcello Magni following their graduation from Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, Complicité continues to create and tour galvanizing theater to this day. The working and teaching methods of the Lecoq school had a profound influence upon the founders of company and the training remains part of Complicité’s DNA. Lecoq emphasizes strong, corporeal, poetic and surrealist images supporting text.

The director/performer Simon McBurney conceived A Minute Too Late in 1984 shortly after the death of his father and following the completion of his training at the Le Coq School in Paris. The piece, one of the company’s earliest works, premiered in Edinburgh in 1984 and toured widely for several years. In 2005, more than twenty years later, A Minute Too Late still remained fresh and impactful, drenched in the sense of loss and the comedy of one’s often-awkward relationship to death.

I have previously written about the three necessary ingredients to making effective theater: passion, technique and content. I proposed that if even one of those components is missing, the work falls short. You must have passion, you must have technique and you must have something to say. Think of a three-legged milking stool. If one of the three legs is missing, the entire enterprise topples over. In A Minute Too Late McBurney had clearly lined up all three elements: 1. He is a man with great and sustaining passion (see his current production of The Encounter on Broadway). 2. The content of the piece arose from the then-recent death of his father. 3. The LeCoq School had given him palpable and impressive technique. He finished his training and was clearly ready to pounce effectively upon the international theater scene.

Several years ago the members of SITI Company decided to shift from a single artistic leader to shared leadership model. I went from being Artistic Director to Co-Artistic Director, together with Ellen Lauren and Leon Ingulsrud. The three-part structure has been a godsend to the entire SITI enterprise. To make decisions as a threesome adds exponential thoroughness and a depth-of-discourse to each decision. It demands listening. By understanding each other’s different point of entry, we are able to really hear the articulated and contrary position. Each of us looks at the same issue through three separate windows. Leon is highly philosophical in his considerations. Not to say that he is not practical, but he tends towards useful philosophical reflections. Ellen’s observations are decidedly practical and action-oriented. Not to say that she is not philosophical or thoughtful about the future, but her sense of pragmatism and her concern for the wellbeing for each member of the company is crucial. I tend to be project oriented: where are we headed and what art and what study will provide meaningful engagement for us and for our audiences? In this current structure, SITI has finally landed upon the benefits of a functioning triad. Rather than flattening into a basic mutual agreement, the structure of three allows for communication, lateral thinking, argument and space for a wide spectrum of passions. The convergence of three different points of view within a unified agreement about our overall mission provokes difficult yet positive conversations and also engenders decisive action. The disturbed balance is fruitful and hopeful.