Friday, April 22, 2016

a survey of riffs on Hamilton as a reflection of competing ideals on the social purpose of art, shared aspirational ideals? or vicarious living that represents who we are? Two threads of tension in Western ideologies about the aim of the arts as politics or art-as-religion

From "Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner" author Mr. Jarrell ...

“Taking the chance of making a complete fool of himself—and, sometimes, doing so—is the first demand that is made upon any real critic: he must stick his neck out just as the artist does, if he is to be of any real use to art.”
Randall Jarrell, “The Age of Criticism”

To piggyback on discussions from the past about A. O. Scott's film criticism, perhaps we live in an era in which criticism is felt to be in decline because critics may not want to look like total fools for supporting an artist or a cause.  Clement Greenberg backed Pollack and could look like a doofus for having done so if you're not into that style (I'm not, personally) but Greenberg took a stand.  Mencken backed Joseph Conrad (hooray!). 

So ... we have critics here and there who are talking a bit about this musical called Hamilton, which I might bother to get around to listening to in spite of my history of ambivalence about the genre.  I own Fiddler on the Roof and Singing in the Rain and South Park (yes) and I enjoy all those musicals. But generally the idiom hasn't been my first preference.  But whether Miranda and company's experiments in fusion can work intrigues me and it's been interesting that so much of the critical back and forth about the musical has been about race and politics and power.  That's what I'd expect ... although discussions of how well (or if) the musical works as a genre fusion and what that may suggest to us about fusion as an experimental process in contemporary music doesn't seem to be quite as high up the ladder of things to talk about. 

It's been about race, basically, and politics. 

From Noah Berlatsky, on the unsurprising question from the progressive side as to whether Hamilton is racist.

Historian Lyra Monteiro makes the case for thinking so. She argues that casting back actors in the role of the white founding fathers is a way to erase said founding fathers racism, as well as the narratives of actual black people who lived at the time.  ...

I don’t know if the musical talks about this, and Monteiro doesn’t, but Hamilton was racialized himself, at least sometimes. We don’t really know who his father was, and given his childhood in the Caribbean, there’s a non-negligible chance that he was part black. His enemies certainly made much of the fact that he might be part black; he was referred to as a Creole on more than one occasion, and attacked as a foreigner, which I think then (as now) had some racial overtones.

So you could see Hamilton’s story as being about the possibility of black assimilation, which is in part what it sounds like the musical’s about too—black people claiming the Founding Father’s story as their own. The problem is that of course black people haven’t been allowed to assimilate, really, and that Hamilton’s assimilation is contingent on him not having been black (he certainly didn’t live as a black man in America.) And similarly the assimilation of the cast to the Hamilton story means losing blackness as a historical phenomenon, at least to some great degree.

So…the politics of it sort of depend on the politics of assimilation, which seem like they’re fairly complicated. On the one hand, racism in the US is in large part about black people not being allowed to assimilate. On the other hand, assimilating to whiteness means identifying with the oppressor, which is arguably also racist. The alternative would be telling a story about the oppressed—but of course many black commenters have talked about how sick they are of seeing black people only in the role of the oppressed, because it’s dreary and disempowering to constantly be portrayed as dreary and disempowered.

To me, overall, it seems like Hamilton the musical offers a kind of representation that isn’t often seen in the media—that is, black performers explicitly playing white people, rather than playing roles in which their blackness isn’t supposed to be recognized or acknowledged (which happens quite often.) Monteiro makes a good case that this representation isn’t perfect, but no one representation is going to be perfect, and more representations, more kinds of representations, and more jobs for black actors all seem like good things. -

Then over at Slate ...
...What’s remarkable about the criticism of Hamilton—and basically unique in the history of American theater—is that even the most vocal critics of Hamilton share with its fans a love for the show. Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed, who wrote that “[t]he genius of black music and black performance styles is used [by Hamilton] to sell a picture of the founding era that has been largely rejected in history books,” also told the Times she listens to the soundtrack every day. Loving a work of art involves advocacy and championship, but it also demands of us that we question it, interrogate it, work to see it for what it is honestly and with clear eyes. Dismissing this line of inquiry entirely and demanding that Hamilton be uncritically celebrated is against what Hamilton itself is doing and what it asks of all of us. Hamilton is a great play. It’s time to treat it like one.

 As a hip-hop/Broadway fusion it might be unavoidable that any attempt at a fusion of two styles that could seem as different as hip hop and Broadway would be pre-emptively doomed to failure in satisfying purists from either category.  It could end up seeming a hopeless compromise to purists for hip hop or purists for Broadway. That there are debates about the history and politics of the stage work might not be assurance that it's "a great play".  Bad art can inspire great discussions ... but I don't want to assume the worst about Hamilton at this point.

So we get to Terry Teachout commenting on progressive critiques of Hamilton.
Terry Teachout
April 20, 2016 6:27 p.m. ET

Everybody loves “Hamilton.” It’s the hottest hit on Broadway, sold out so far into the future that forged tickets have reportedly been going for as much as $300 a pop on Craigslist. (No, they won’t get you into the show. Don’t even try.) Now that it’s been anointed with a Pulitzer Prize for drama, none can doubt its greatness. Right?

Way wrong.

The New York Times recently published a piece by Jennifer Schuessler called “‘Hamilton’ and History: Are They in Sync?” in which a gaggle of academic historians declared Lin-Manuel Miranda’s multiethnic hip-hop musical about the man on the $10 bill to be politically incorrect. While some of them claimed to like the music, they bristled at the rest of the show, and one dismissed it as “Founders Chic.”

Mr. Miranda, it seems, is too easy on Alexander Hamilton to suit progressive tastes. The Hamilton of “Hamilton” is a flawed but nonetheless incontestably heroic figure, an illegitimate Caribbean-born immigrant whose greatness is insufficiently acknowledged: “Another immigrant, comin’ up from the bottom / His enemies destroyed his rep, America forgot him.” But to left-wing scholars, the real Hamilton was an elitist who, in the words of Princeton’s Sean Wilentz, was “more a man for the 1% than the 99%,” and for Mr. Miranda to have portrayed him as “an up-from-under hero. . . seems dissonant amidst the politics of 2016.”

I’ve been waiting for just such a reaction to “Hamilton” ever since it opened last year. Why? Because, as I wrote in my review of the original off-Broadway production, the show “is at bottom as optimistic about America as ‘1776.’ American exceptionalism meets hip-hop: That’s ‘Hamilton.’” Whether Mr. Miranda knew it or not—and he surely knows by now—such a point of view is by definition anathema to those who see America as a country so tainted with the original sin of class privilege as to be irredeemable. To such folk, the fact that the founders were rich white men is reason enough to sneer at the underlying optimism of “Hamilton.”

Although Ms. Schuessler doesn’t say so in her piece, it’s no less noteworthy that “Hamilton” received near-universal praise from right-of-center critics who responded wholeheartedly to its thumbs-up perspective on the founding. Richard Brookhiser, David Brooks, Peggy Noonan, John Podhoretz: All found the show to be, in Mr. Podhoretz’s words, “nothing less than the most stirring patriotic pageant of our time or any time.” That alone should have triggered a left-wing backlash.

Responses to Ms. Schuessler’s piece have ranged widely. The fanboys and fangirls of Broadway were outraged that anybody would dare to say anything bad about their favorite show. Isaac Butler, by contrast, offered a far more reasoned perspective in Slate, writing as a progressive theater critic who likes and admires “Hamilton” but doesn’t swallow it whole: “Loving a work of art involves advocacy and championship, but it also demands of us that we question it, interrogate it, work to see it for what it is honestly and with clear eyes. . . . ‘Hamilton’ is a great play. It’s time to treat it like one.”

I’m with Mr. Butler, albeit for somewhat different reasons. To criticize “Hamilton” because it simplifies and fictionalizes Alexander Hamilton’s life and achievements is to miss the point of the show—something that literal-minded historians too often do when grappling with historical fiction. Not that “Hamilton” gets anything really important wrong. “It is surprising, and heartening, how detailed and generally accurate ‘Hamilton’ is,” says Mr. Brookhiser, whose own biographies include “Alexander Hamilton: American.” But it is fiction nonetheless, as much a work of the imagination as Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” or Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons,” and to
treat it otherwise is to fail to grasp what Mr. Miranda is trying to do.

For my part, I think “Hamilton” is best understood as an exercise in historical mythmaking, the same kind of thing that John Ford was doing when he made such films as “My Darling Clementine,” “They Were Expendable” and “Young Mr. Lincoln.” Ford’s purpose was to pass American history through the prism of popular art, in the process creating semi-fictional American heroes whose stirring lives would inspire young viewers to do great deeds of their own. Of course he knew perfectly well that his cinematic tales of historical derring-do were far from literally true, but he also understood the pivotal role played by idealism in the formation of character. That’s what the newspaper editor in Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” meant when he told Jimmy Stewart’s character, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” And that’s what Mr. Miranda has done in “Hamilton”: He’s created a modern-day legend of his very own, a rainbow-colored Hamilton who might just inspire a new generation of hip-hop-loving youngsters to emulate the greatness of the men who made America. Long may he wave.

That arts critics left, right and center mostly seem to enjoy the work might suggest that it's worth giving at least some kind of shot.  Might get around to listening to the whole thing. 

The idea that Hamilton shouldn't be mythologized seems a bit too pat.  Let's turn this idea around and ask why Martin Luther King Jr. should be mythologized.  Did he deserve it more than Alexander Hamilton?  King's earlier plagiarism is not exactly up for debate, is it?  But people left, right and center seek to co-opt King into their respective political mythologies.  David Bowie getting praise from Jacobin seems to prove the point in another way, if an artist or a public figure is popular enough Americans of any political stripe will find some way, even a desperate way, to assimilate them into identity politics.  We haven't stopped living in an age where Cold War era political binaries about whether something is even art or not based on the publicly observable political alliances of artists is a way to decide whether "it" is even art or not. 

It can seem like there are two categorical ideals about the nature of art that are in conflict with reactions to Hamilton among critics.  The first could be said to be the camp that considers the aim of art to articulate a vision of shared ideals, whatever those ideals might be.  If Hamilton is in this first category then to find it wanting from the second category doesn't mean it hasn't faltered in measuring up to the ideals of the second category.  But neither does it mean that it should be considered a failure for not setting out to do what someone else thinks art should do.  To recall an old debate on Batman Begins, local writer Charles Mudede asserted that it's ridiculous to compare Nolan's Batman film from 2005 to something by Godard.  If you set out to assess whether a movie works on the basis of the goals set out for itself, Nolan's film worked. 

To put it another way, in the history of the arts an artist can be loathed and loved for the same set of traits.  The reasons some people love Hemmingway are the reasons I can't stand him, just as the reasons I love Jane Austen are the reasons some people can't stand her work.  Berlioz found J. S. Bach tedious.  People who did like Bach may have found Berlioz' approach to counterpoint incompetent.  You probably get the idea here.  So, on to that second category, a category of thought about the arts that seems to be more and more dominant in our era, perhaps in reaction to fallacious claims of the universal appeal of the arts from earlier eras.

The second category of thought about the aim of the arts  could be called the impulse to recognize within the arts vicarious living.  It's not about the lives some of us think we SHOULD live but ruminations about the lives we DO live. Those for whom the aim of the arts is vicarious living and representation may have more of a voice in arts criticism and commentary now not for what they do see but for what they don't see.  Whether we're talking about OscarsSoWhite or concerns about Scarlett Johansson playing the Major from Ghost in the Shell, this concern crops up in an impulse to regard the arts as a form of vicarious living--when certain lives seem curiously or even systematically under-represented in the realm of vicarious living (i.e. the arts) people get concerned.  When appeals are made by those in category 1 to people in category 2 that the shared ideals might be enough, the folks in category 2 might disagree. 

Regarding these categories for art it would seem that it is good to hold on to one thing without letting go of the other and as Ecclesiastes advised, the one who fears God will come forth with both of them.

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