Sunday, September 18, 2011

Seeing Red with Nietzsche

Fret not, gentle reader: though the title of this post might make it sound like I'm about to embark on a rage-fueled rant against all the untermenschen getting in my way at the salad bar, I'm not here to talk about seeing red—I'm here to talk about seeing Red, John Logan's wonderful play about Mark Rothko, which opened last night at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.  Logan makes Nietzsche's distinction between Apollonian and Dionysian art in The Birth of Tragedy central to the story, and he's helped me see not only Rothko but also Nietzsche in a new light.

I'm often a fan of the work of the director, Robert Falls, although sometimes he goes too far into big spectacle for my taste (his King Lear featured a sawn-in-half car on stage, for example).  I've been less enamored of John Logan's work, though like most people I know him more for his movies—Gladiator, say, or Sweeney Todd—than for his plays.  But there really was no way I was going to miss Red, which just hit too many of my buttons: as a provincial art school brat in the 1970s I grew up surrounded by painters still working in the then-aging abstract expressionist mode, with all the brainy, butch swagger of Rothko, Pollock, and company; and Rothko was known for his love of exactly the literary and philosophical works that sit close to my heart: the Romantics, the German Idealists, and the existential wing of modernism.  When a colleague of mine, who'd seen the New York production, told me the play was all about aesthetic theory, and that it had only two characters "an earnest young bumpkin and a cynical old intellectual wreck—that is, your origin and your destination," I knew I had to be there on opening night.

When the play began, I knew right away that, whether it went well or poorly, whether it would succeed or fail by more objective lights, it would speak to me. The cavernous set, depicting Rothko's studio, came to me straight out of my youth: stacks of paintings leaning on one another, unframed in stretched canvasses; paint mixed in steel buckets; a big sink spattered with god knows what chemicals; a hot plate used for  in-studio cooking and the alchemy of paint mixing; a big adirondack chair from which the artist could stare at his work in progress; high-wattage floodlights; a battered old record player spinning classical LPs. I remember this as the stuff of the Aladdin's caves in which my dad and his colleagues made their art.  It will always be my image of the sort of place where the real, serious work gets done.  And then, in one of Rothko's first speeches to Ken, his new, young, naive intern, he rolls through a list of writers that pretty much comprises the syllabi of my seminars—Wordsworth, Beckett, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche—before thundering "you have to be civilized before you can paint!"  I don't believe it's true that all artists need this required reading list, but it's the stuff that's meant the most to me, and it's the background of the work for which I care the most.

The play never bogs down into a mere matter of talking heads: it makes much out of small movements and long silences, and there's an energetic scene of Rothko and his apprentice painting.  But talk there is, plenty of it, and it shows that Logan knows the big issues in aesthetics.  The action centers on the creation of what became known as Rothko's "secret paintings" — a series commissioned in the late 1950s to hang in the then-new Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building, but that Rothko refused to hang there.  Rothko, who came of age at a time when there really were no collectors or institutions for his kind of art, believed in the autonomy and integrity of the artwork, in its status as a stage in a personal struggle, in what amounts to its spirituality.  He believed these things with the intensity possible only for those almost totally removal from the forces of the art market.  But his paintings were supposed to hang in a place whose closest parallel would be the Vanity Fair of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress: a restaurant where the rich and status-hungry of Manhattan came to see and be seen, to establish themselves in a social order.  These people needed expensive, aesthetically profound art on the walls to show that they had both economic status and cultural capital, but they didn't really care about the paintings except as tokens in a game of status.  Rothko found himself crucified on the contradiction between the religion of art and the commodification of art.  His young assistant confronts him about this, throwing a new generation of artists in Rothko's face, saying "at least Andy Warhol gets the joke!"  (He's right, of course: Warhol saw just how art became a prestige commodity, and he cranked out visually shallow, repetitive work in a place called "The Factory" as a way of underlining the point, though it's by no means clear his many avid collectors understood, or understand now, that they were being punked, and that Warhol's real medium wasn't the slipshod silkscreen, but the apparatus of the New York art world, which he played as well, and as flashily, as Pagianini played the violin).

Logan also treats the matter of artistic generations with real sensitivity.  Near the beginning of the play Rothko speaks with a little glee about how he and his abstract expressionists did in an earlier generation of painters, and how it's "impossible for anyone to paint a cubist picture now."  Revere the fathers, he tells his assistant, but murder them.  There's a bit too much relish in how he says this, and we know he's being set up for a reversal, which comes when he later returns to his studio choking with rage at a show by Warhol, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and other pop artists.  After this, Logan shows us Rothko moving from an initial glee at the destruction of the old, through anger at his own aging, to a kind of acceptance of the inevitability, even the rightness, of change.  Near the end of the play he dismisses his assistant, telling him that, having learned enough from the old master, he should be out in the world with his own generation, making an art that speaks to their experience.  It's an interesting moment, in which the young man's growth is acknowledged, and the old man grows through acknowledging the passing of all generations, including his own.  I wish Falls hadn't had Rothko put his hand over young Ken's heart at this point, though: it was too literally a benediction, and one of the few moments in the production to fall a little flat.

The real aesthetic center of the play, though, isn't a matter of artistic generations, or even of commercialization.  It's a riff on Nietzsche's Apollo and Dionysus.  Early in the play, the young Ken tells Rothko that his favorite painter is Jackson Pollock.  Rothko rolls his eyes, but later, after Ken's read Nietzsche on Rothko's advice, Ken comes back with an explanation for his admiration of Pollock, and for Rothko's reservations about the man.  Pollock, says Ken, is Dionysus: passion, the loss of self-control, the life-force itself coming through in all its disorder; whereas Rothko is all self-possession, analytic mindfulness, limit, restraint. Pollock threw paint down in a trance-like dance, says Ken, while Rothko stares at his canvasses for weeks on end, wondering what they need, and how to provide it.  Rothko rightly rejects this as shallow, and as too easy a division, and challenges Ken to think harder.  He does, and he comes to see Rothko's canvasses as an opposition between the two Nietzchean forces.  The luminous reds seem to represent Dionysus, and we hear Rothko and Ken shouting out the various associations we have with red—blood, warmth, anger, fire, Santa Claus, Satan— signs of life in its excess and passion.  Ken speculates about Rothko's colors as Dionysian and his form, all those containing rectangles, as Apollonian, but he soon moves on to interrogate Rothko about the meaning of another recurring color in his work, black.  Rothko's black is death, but also limit, and inadequacy, and self-doubt: the various antitheses of passion.  But red wouldn't make sense without black, just as passion, desire, abandonment and the like wouldn't make sense, wouldn't even register to our sensibilities, without their negations.  Ken calls this a conflict, but Rothko, gesturing at his paintings, tells him "conflict" isn't the right word for the relationship of red and black,  Dionysus and Apollo.  Rather, the right word for the relationship is "pulsation," the beautiful, living heartbeat of the colors in relation to one another in Rothko's luminous paintings.

This idea, I think, is the strongest part of Logan's script.  It's a real insight into Rothko's paintings: I'd always thought of them as icons of aesthetic autonomy, as color in relation for purely formal reasons, proud in their removal from the world of morality, commerce, political actions, and the like, assertions of the value of things as ends in themselves.  But there's a slightly different angle, in which the formal relations are seen as living things, experienced through time by the viewer as the necessary, pulsating oscillation of differences.  Think of them this way, and you can see them as meditative instruments, as the sort of thing that might reconcile a man to the pulsating change of time—to, for example, the rhythm of changing artistic generations.

The notion of the pulsating interrelation of the Apollonian and the Dionysian is more than just an insight into Rothko, though: it's also an insight into Nietzsche.  I think I can best explain what I mean with reference to a recent exchange I had with a sociologist colleague.

Not long ago, my sociologist pal, who is passionate about the Chicago Cubs and has written a book about how fans of this team form communities based on their enthusiasms, directed my attention to an article in which an editorialist complained about people doing "the wave" in Wrigley Field.  His objection was that "the wave is the very embodiment of groupthink, the surrendering our individuality in order to follow the rest of the lemmings..."  My pal agreed with this position, but I didn't.  I don't mind the wave, and in a way it's just a version of Nietzsche's Dionysian feeling, in which the division between spectator and participant dissolves, and (to quote Nietzsche), "every man feels himself not only united with his neighbor, reconciled and fused together, but also as one with him, as if the veil had been ripped apart, with only scraps fluttering around in the face of the mysterious primordial unity.  Singing and dancing, man expresses himself as a member of a higher community."  The crowd, moving together, is a harmless manifestation of Dionysus.  What could be wrong with that?  My colleague came back at me, saying "you know that I refer to the Cubs using the first person collective pronoun, and when we do something good, of course I want to be screaming and cheering and feeling that good old collective effervescence.  For me, the wave isn't about connection with the team."  In fact, "the wavers are disrespecting my team."  Ah! I thought.  This is neither an endorsement of the respectful, intent Apollonian spectator, nor of the Dionysian erasure of the hierarchy between crowd and the performers.  Rather, I thought, this is the moment of synthesis that Nietzsche sees as the birth of drama out of earlier ritualistic gatherings. The drama privileges the performers over the crowd, who are not equals in performance, except very intermittently.  But they're not isolated or passionless, either: they're united by a collective, focused passion.  It's about what's happening on the stage (or the baseball diamond), and one is restrained and reserved compared to the participants in a Dionysian ritual, but there are real foci of collective passions, and the form of the drama (or of the ballgame, as my colleague conceived of it) provides a kind of balance or synthesis of the Apollonian and the Dionysian.  Or so I thought.  But now, thanks to Logan's Red, I think that's not quite it.

After seeing Red, I'm more inclined to think of the relation between Apollo and Dionysus as a pulsation, rather than a balance or a synthesis.  That is: I don't think it's a matter of finding some ratio of the two, or some fusion, so much as it's a matter of letting the two modes of experience alternate, interact, and combine in patterns that make up a living, changing whole.  Rothko's paintings aren't a matter of balance, but of a living relation that changes for the viewer over time.  And watching the Cubs isn't a matter of intense, analytic spectatorship (although that's a part of it), nor is it a matter of enjoying one's unity with the gathered crowd (though that's a part of it too).  Nor is it a matter of finding a combination of these things, allowing for certain forms of collective experience (cheering together) but excluding others as illegitimate because they're not focused enough on spectatorship (doing the wave).  Instead, the experience of watching the Cubs, like the experience of looking at a Rothko painting, is a matter of letting these different kinds of moments come together in pulsating patterns that change over time.  I think, now, that's more in line with what Nietzsche was getting at.  It's certainly the version of Nietzsche Logan's Rothko presents to his apprentice Ken, but we're left with some question as to whether it is a vision he can live up to.