Remains of the Day

Text for European League of Institutes for the Arts Conference, Berlin 28 September - 2 October 1994

    As I understand it, we are here to discuss systems of learning, and even new approaches to it.  So here I am, a 56 year old Dutch man working on a post academic studies program for theatre directors, choreographers, mime-artists and theatre designers: young artists, and if not yet in full bloom, artists none the less.
    Let's look at the old cliché of the experience of a lifetime at a moment when for far too many people, fifteen minutes of fame is enough to aspire to.  So why not take Rembrandt, what better roots than those leading back to Rembrandt?
    Rembrandt was born in 1606.  His youthful education lasted for nine years, until he turned 13.  That was followed by three years of working with two separate masters.  At 17, he decided to work for himself, and sold his first painting when he was just 19.  First in Leyden, and later in The Hague and Amsterdam, he developed the stature of what was in that time, a full-grown artist.  And he had numerous assistants working under him, with the result that now it requires great learning to determine what is the work of Rembrandt himself, and what was done at the hands of his assistants, which certainly says something about the quality of those who worked and trained under him.
    In 1984 Gary Schwartz published a study Rembrandt: His Life, His Paintings.  (1)  In his book Schwartz not only looks at the work, but also related each individual painting to what was going on in Rembrandt's life at the time.  Under this treatment Rembrandt, one of the greatest artists of his time, and an icon for our needs today, became a human being.  He was shown as a man fighting for his life at the cost of other people, as someone who would settle for the best offer available, as a grumpy chameleon with few scruples over what it took to become a power in his field in his time.  Schwartz shows us a picture of the artist as his own worst enemy who also expressed what exactly that phrase -- in combination with his own awesome talent -- meant.  And here is a picture we can all too easily recognize: a human being at work.

    In 1985, some 350 years after Rembrandt had begun to seriously work, I needed to create a theatrical project called Rembrandt and Hitler or Me.  (2)  Several elements had come together which seemed to me to turn the codes of the moment upside down, providing new insights into who, and how, and what one can be as a person.
    To begin with, there was Schwartz's incredible book, in which Rembrandt was confirmed as a star, but was also revealed as an utter bastard.  There was also The Rembrandt Project, a scientific attempt to determine, once and for all, which of his paintings were real, which were the work of assistants, and which were utter fakes.  It was also the time when the Hitler diaries were purportedly discovered and, after the initial upheaval of their revelations, were unmasked as clever forgeries.  
    The mid-eighties was also when Alice Miller, the Swiss psychologist, published The Drama of the Gifted Child  (3)  which threw light on, among others, Hitler's psychological roots.  
    At the same time, Mickery, the organization I'd founded and run for twenty years at that point, which presented and coproduced the avant-garde of the period, was once again threatened.  (This happened every three years of its 25-year existence, but no matter.)  And my personal life was also in total disarray.  Obviously some research into what muddled up truth with fiction was called for.
    I think I was then -- and am now -- looking at processes, which need to become three-dimensional.  Whatever I undertook in that mid-eighties period was based on extensive background research, and I was acutely aware of the final need to exercise my intuition of where I had to go.  But there remained a great deal of digging at tough old roots to connect it all; such might also be the process of learning.
    Indeed, with Rembrandt and Hitler or Me I was creating a personalized study program for an individual theatre person who needed to create a three dimensional fashion to inspect the connections between these seemingly unrelated considerations and developments.  There was no other way for me to grope my way toward insight into how one might be an artist in that time.

    That was almost ten years ago.  And where are we now?  These days, so I hear, we live on CNN.  We witness great historical moments, coming at us with ever increasing speed: the electronics of the Gulf War  (4)  (although the bulldozing of thousands of Iraqis, entombing them alive, stayed hidden); the first institutional meetings in post cold war Moscow, when a delegate rushes in, proposing that all proceedings stop immediately: the deliberations of the government are making the members look like fools as the world looks on (the motion was carried, and the meeting instantly closed.); marines storm the beaches of Somalia, and it is uncertain whether the press wishes to cover them, or each other; OJ Simpson is chased live on television as he telephones his suicide threats; the King of Jordan flies over Israel and phones the Prime Minister... and we know it all.  Instantly.
    We have come to a time where we watch untold numbers of people dying, and express our collective helplessness in the face of it.  We create grand theatrical events to simulate, or even experience condensed moments of shared emotion sufficient to warrant and execute the raising of hitherto unheard of amounts of money, thus soothing our need to act until the next catastrophe that photographs well explodes before us.  
    Really, there's a limit to what theatre may be in our time if it is considered only expressed by Peter Stein in Salzburg, or Chereau and Mnouchkine in Paris, or Zadek's latest in Berlin.  Whatever our statement, whatever theatre as art in time will be, for now it does not seem in place yet.

    Taken at the Flood: Art in Our Times  (5) could possibly be the way to put our finger on the sore.  Certainly art is in the flood.  As most of us look with satisfaction at those beautiful sandcastles we all built in another time, too many are unaware of the water washing away the structures we erected.
    Some fifteen years ago, under the auspices of Unesco, and for reasons I can neither recall nor reconstruct, we discussed the status of the artist.  Was that a successful effort?  Can a universal clause to guard the artist help when we know what we do now about human rights in general?  Would it mean anything in Sarajevo?  Would Rembrandt have cared?  Might it have armed us in response to Hitler when in 1937 here in Berlin he stated: "Especially today when in so many areas the highest is accomplished, this must also mean for the arts that the highest expression of the individual artist will make its comeback"?  (6)
    On some level, perhaps things are clearer today.  According to Oliviero Toscani, who creates the public visions expressed by Bennetton, the arts have lost it.  He says, "In this world nothing shocks or creates controversy in art, painting, sculpture... even cinema doesn't create controversy like it used to.  Theatre is finished.  The avant-garde doesn't create theatre now.  It used to, at the beginning of the century until the 1950s or 1960s.  No, what creates controversy in this open minded society is the voice of consumers and capitalists.  That is, advertising."
    Toscani obviously knows about controversy, consumers, and capitalism.  He is aware of the fact that communication, and how you communicate, is as important a product as is the product itself.  "I try to make advertising create life," he says.  "And not just consume life."
    In the arts we could do worse than listen to what he is saying.  Anything would be better than trying to inspire a movement by organizing it.

    Is our creativity still up to what is needed?
    In our world do we really have to demean ourselves in concentration on budget cuts, numbers of students, related income, placement numbers, the whole rigmarole of accountancy rather than context put passionately first and foremost?  As it stands, context has become an afterthought.

    The work of two visual artists, Fischly and Weiss, illustrate not only our predicament, but also our reactions to it.  Their film The Way Things Go  (7)  seems unstoppable.  Although obviously worked out to the tiniest detail, the result shows how haphazardly one thing leads to another in an endless futile cycle of senselessly related events.  Its skillfully organized, beautifully executed, professional as it is possible to be... and not devoid of a sense of humor, either.  Yet in the end it only fills up the time it takes to view the tape that, up to a point is exactly what too many theatrical efforts are up to today.  Craft is expressed, possibly at the highest attainable level, and the end result has little more effect than the time it takes us to look. 

    Theatre really may be hard put to equal Toscani's breathless audacity, yet to some extent, and whether we like it or not, we are in the same business, although at present even the idea of controversy has been consigned to the world of advertising. If we are seriously interested in concepts like future, vision, or - and God help us - utopia, then perhaps it is this absence of controversy that requires some thought.

    It is essential that we organize and stimulate the climate in which we wish to communicate, rather than the product that is to carry the communication. That’s essentially different from what’s predominantly going on: product produced that is out to please, recreationally oriented, entertainment galore.
    As if to emphasize the product angle MasterCard got into the act and sent me a brochure for this season in Holland with 174 evenings chosen from a repertory of 63 events, not one amongst them I would eagerly wish to see, fully packaged with hotels adjacent to the theatre with added meals to match the occasion.

    Those able to carve out enough time to sit back and consider what's happening will shortly discover that very little is.
    Toscani, who was a keynote speaker at the 1993 conference of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, was accusing an auditorium packed with designers of contributing to the ruin of culture by irresponsibly using its symbols. The same accusation could be leveled at an auditorium of theatre makers; or, for that matter, those who have their education at heart.  But I wonder.  Did anyone, and would anyone hear it?

    Given our present approach, and if theatre is really little more than institutionalized vanity, the desire to organize and stimulate would spoil even what little fun there is left by prioritizing vanity as a product.
    Jack Summerford, a participant at that AIGA conference, commented, "The best (product) identities are driven by somebody's vision.... create vision for your management identity and you can be both direct, and motivate people.  You're no longer talking about a future, then, but you're making it happen."

    And vision? It has to do with creating an awareness, different attitudes, and approaches, which will provide some space for vital discoveries.  Its the way you answer `why this?', `why here?', `why now?', and `for whom?'.  And then of course present it. Certainly if a theater maker doesn't know in their gut why he or she personally ought to make another theatre piece, it would be much better for them not to do it at all. And while we’re at it, does how we make schools and why, not depend on the same rules?
    These days I occupy myself with a post academic studies program.  We're creating that program while we -- the students, the guest professors, the advisors, and the staff -- work within it.  If I understand anything about the mandate for this school, it must be occupied with quality.  Given our first experimental ten-week block of the program, there is still much work to be done on that score.
    Whatever else we found, we have discovered that a school of art cannot be occupational therapy, nor can it be the place to sit and wait until an idea occurs.  ("What are you doing?"  "I'm waiting."  "Then you're not waiting hard enough.")
    In his address to open this year's Salzburger Festspiele, philosopher, professor, and writer George Steiner created the larger picture: "Money has never smelt more sharply, it has never cried more loudly in our public and private concerns.  In consequence there are fewer voices, which articulate a philosophy, a political or social theory, an aesthetic, which would be from the European heritage, and of world-relevance.  Our most visible philosophies -- visible in the sense of the media -- play with words.  Who among us believes sincerely that we shall witness a new Dante, a Shakespeare of the twenty-first century, a Mozart to come?"
    Or a Rembrandt?

    But for Schwartz's study, which couples the works, to the man, to his time, going back to Rembrandt would be meaningless.  But we now can learn about the painter, and the man, in his situation.  His character traits, his responses to the politics of the day, the undeniable needs of a complex human being: his opportunism, his guile, his inventive and somewhat sordid pragmatism: anything for the glory of recognition and the power of being `on top'.

    There are keys to be found there, for the experience of a lifetime, for what and whom we are dealing with, the climate we are working in now, and how to inspire within it. We are not here to manufacture our very own Rembrandt clones, but to discern the differences between the structures designed for learning, and the structures that create a supportive environment for the growth of a personality.

    My personal attitude during these first steps toward a post academic studies program is one of critical eagerness.  I want someone to show me something that, however rough it may be, will catch me off guard.  I want my curiosity stimulated and excited by something, however unready it may be, that smells good.  I want something I don't know yet, and I certainly don't expect to know ahead of time what any of this might be.  Does active interest stimulate a student?  I hope so; that's what I have to offer.  I, personally, know of no other way to create a climate for an artist to grow in.  And we had better start bartering ways to effect experience of a lifetime amongst ourselves now.  Students included.
    As Toscani said, "Any idiot can see the beauty in something beautiful.  The thing is to see beauty somewhere else.  There is beauty everywhere, if you are an artist."

    Of course, I could have ended my talk here. For us the blissfully living, two quotes in text and a song filmed, to remind us of our heartfelt obligations. The texts are the final statements taken from a theatre piece to be presented in Berlin from 7th to 10th October at the Hebbel Theatre, and well worth waiting for to see and have the shock of our lives, Quotations from a ruined city  (8)  by Rheza Abdoh:

"The easiest victories are the most costly in the end. We have blown a hole in time with a firecracker. Let others pass through. Into what, bigger and bigger firecrackers? Better weapons lead to better and better weapons, until the earth is a grenade with the fuse burning."

" I am in a beautiful garden. As I reach out to touch the flowers they wither under my hands. A nightmare feeling of desolation comes over me as a great dragon shaped cloud darkens the earth. A few may get through the gate in time. Remember. Remember. We are bound to the past as we cling to the memory of the ruined city."

(1)    Gary Schwartz: Rembrandt, zijn leven, zijn schilderijen, Maarssen, 1984.
(2)    Rembrandt and Hitler or Me: a theatre project conceived and directed by Ritsaert ten Cate, Amsterdam, 1985. A film with the same title, based on live-performances at Mickery, was made by Mike Figgis.
(3)    Alice Miller: Das Drama des begabten Kindes, Frankfurt am Main, 1979. English edition: The Drama of the Gifted Child, New York, 1981.
(4)    See also: Desert Storm. The War Begins. And: Desert Storm. The Victory. Both CNN video’s. Special reports, 1990.
(5)    The Shakespeare quote (Julius Caesar: “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune” was also the theme for the ELIA conference, held in Berlin from 28 September to 2 October 1994.
(6)    From his openings speech to The Great Exhibition of German Art, München, 1937. At the same time, the exhibition Entartete Kunst had been shown in München.
(7)    Peter Fischli und David Weiss: Der Lauf der Dinge, Köln, Dumont Video, 1990. VHS, 30 min.
(8)    Reza Abdoh/Dar A Luz. Quotations from A Ruined City. Premiered New York, September 24 1994. Co-production with Theater am Turm, Frankfurt; Kaaitheater, Brussels, and Szene Salzburg.


Berlin (D)