The Ecstasy of the Privileged Moment

Oct 17, 2016

On the evening of October 24th SITI Company will host a Noir Dinner, a fundraising event, in the wonderful restaurant known as the Library at the Public Theater where we will be honoring the brilliant duo Julie Taymor and Elliot Goldenthal. The event promises to be joyful and delicious and I have been working hard with the SITI Company actors on a fun and surprising entertainment. But we need your help to meet our goal; all money raised in support of the Noir Dinner stokes the fires of SITI Company and keeps us moving forward. We are a company that runs on passion, vision, a deep belief in the art of theater and the capabilities of ensembles and the training and encouragement of young theater professionals as well as consistent international engagement. We would prefer your company at the Noir Dinner but if you cannot join us in person, please consider donating SOMETHING through our website. Participate in the why of the evening in any way that you can because your support and generosity means so much to us and would help us in a myriad of ways both large and small as well as practical and creative. Thank you!

The Ecstasy of the Privileged Moment

It has come to this: I’m sitting
under a tree
beside a river
on a sunny morning.
It’s an insignificant event
and won’t go down in history.
It’s not battles and pacts
where motives are scrutinized,
or noteworthy tyrannicides.
(Wislawa Szmborska)

In describing the potential effects of Virginia Woolf’s writing upon the reader, Harold Bloom used the phrase “the ecstasy of the privileged moment.” What an apt trope to describe the very best of what the life has to offer. Woolf titled her only book of autobiographical writings, Moments of Being. Art, and in particular theater, which is indeed privileged, is uniquely qualified to create ecstatic “moments of being” by altering one’s experience of time and space and creating the possibility of privileged moments.

Am I alone in my struggle to maintain equilibrium in an over-stimulated environment? Without intense vigilance, my experience of living can slide into default modes. Moments slip by. Stress escalates. Distractions pile upon other distractions. Welcome to the current milieu of technology, work and entertainment. But beneath all of the noise, I know that stress can kill, that distractions weaken the mind and that the moments that slip by unattended are precious beyond any estimation.

Our current cultural moment requires a certain amount of skill, discipline and vigilance to avoid getting swept up into the maelstrom. The escalation of distractions is compelling and even addictive, but it is not unavoidable. It is possible to make choices that put the breaks on what may feel inevitable.

There are two principal parts of each personality: the conscious mind and the unconscious, and these are split and dispersed, in most of us, in countless ways and directions. The function of music, like that of any other healthy occupation, is to help to bring those separate parts back together again. Music does this by providing a moment when, awareness of time and space being lost, the multiplicity of elements which make up an individual become integrated and he is one.
(John Cage)

I am currently studying the music, the life and the philosophy of the composer John Cage in preparation for a new work about his impact on artists, audiences and the culture. I recently learned that as a young man Cage underwent a creative and personal crisis. Not only was he struggling with his attraction to men, hence his sexuality and identity in a culture that at the time did not embrace homosexuality, but he also hated the idea of creativity as a form of self-expression. Due to these personal struggles, Cage felt blocked and uninspired to compose. Caught in the turmoil of his emotions, he was forced to face an essential question: what is the “self” that is being expressed? Eventually he came to terms with his identity as a homosexual and he also solved his creative crisis about art as self-expression through the study of Asian philosophical traditions. In particular the Buddhist teachings of Roshi Shunryu Suzuki began to ease his conflicted feelings and inner turmoil. And gradually he found inspiration in non-western notions about the role and function of art-making. He wrote, “I could not accept that the purpose of music was communication … I determined to give up composition unless I could find a better reason for doing it than communication … I found this answer from Gira Sarabhai, an Indian singer: ‘The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences’.”

I also increasingly struggle with the assumption that the task of an artist is to express oneself. I too am drawn to the idea of creating art that allows the audience’s mind to “become more susceptible to divine influences”. Perhaps my own current dissatisfaction with art as pure and unmitigated self-expression is the result of the intense barrage of technological information, communication and over-sharing that floods our daily lives.

I believe that all great art holds the power to dissolve things: time, distance, difference, injustice, alienation, despair. I believe that all great art holds the power to mend things: join, comfort, inspire hope in fellowship, reconcile us to our selves.
(Tilda Swinton)

I visit art museums whenever I can because the experience is always worth it and occasionally transformative. I have never regretted a museum visit.  But for years I avoided the work of the early abstract expressionist painter Agnes Martin. I buzzed past her paintings, never lingering long enough to be affected by them. At first glance her pale canvases felt too cool and removed. I supposed that the meditative and repetitive quality of her canvasses was purposeful but the faint grids and obsessive detail did not draw me towards them.

Recently I read that Agnes Martin’s work is such that it cannot be appreciated in reproduction. In order to experience Martin’s work at all, one needs to be actually present with the canvases themselves. In order to experience this in person, several days ago I spent an afternoon with Martin’s paintings at the current exhibit of her work at the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan. I moved slowly up and down the vast spiral ramps of the Guggenheim’s Frank Lloyd Wright building and allowed the canvases to speak to me. And they did. The paintings emanate a palpable presence and power and created in me nothing less than the sensation of spaciousness. The paintings did not strive to impress or overpower me in their self-expressiveness; rather, they provided an environment for new sensations. They also achieved the task of sobering and quieting my mind thus making it “susceptible to divine influences.”

Martin’s paintings came into prominence in the early 1960s in New York City, but she bristled at the big-boy abstract expressionists around her – Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollack, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman and others – and her canvases stand in sharp relief to their bold expressiveness. In a similar way to John Cage, Martin stated in several of her writings that she wanted to avoid ego in her work and was committed to conveying positive emotional states of being, including happiness and joy and freedom.

If we obliterate the future and the past, the present moment stands in empty space, outside life and its chronology, outside time and independent of it (this is why it can be likened to eternity, which too is the negation of time).
(Milan Kundera)

Rather than an emphasis on the communication-of-self (self-broadcasting) as the goal of art, I want to create the conditions in my work in the theater in which spaciousness, integration and perhaps even occasionally the ecstasy of the privileged moment may be situated and embodied.