Monday, August 6, 2007

(sub)Culture Aesthetics

I just read an article entitled "The New Black Aesthetic" originally published in 1989. If I had read it then, I think I might have been able to skip my angry (not)black years.

I wish I could link to the article, but I pulled it off of J-STOR. Here's the relevant citation:

"The New Black Aesthetic" by Trey Ellis. Callaloo, No. 38. (Winter, 1989), pp. 233-243.

In the article, Ellis posits a rising new (at the time) aesthetic among black artists marked by a new relationship with our past:

Yet we all shared a lot more than skin color... I ... along with other young black artists I run into more and more frequently, all grew up feeling misunderstood by both the black worlds and the white. Alienated (junior) intellectuals, we are the more and more young blacks getting back into jazz and the blues; the only ones you see at punk concerts; the ones in the bookstore wearing little, round glasses and short, neat dreads; some of the only blacks who admit liking both Jim and Toni Morrison. Eddie Murphy, Prince, and the Marsalis brothers are just the initial shock troops because now, in New York's East Village, in Brooklyn's Fort Greene, in Los Angeles, and in Harlem, all of us under thirty only ones are coming together like so many twins separated at birth-thrilled, soothed, and strengthened in being finally reunited.


Ellis goes on to describe a rising tide of artists who are second-generation middle-class blacks. The first generation that, as he put it, felt secure enough to go into art school instead of medical school. These are cultural mulattoes, he claims, who due to their cross-cultural education, can effectively move in both black and white worlds.

A major portion of the new black aesthetic is the perceived freedom to create a larger definition of blackness - one that is not limited to "uplift" of the race, or worried about what "white folks think."

Ellis writes with an optimistic tone, one that leaves you imagining the brave new black artists that must have come into being in the nearly 18 years since the article has been written. Perhaps we've back-slid since Ellis was writing. Or perhaps (just like his original article) I just don't know the folks are out there. But in 2007 I find myself still trying to position my work on the black-white continuum.

Some of my work (such as Panther Burn which produced last year) falls clearly into what most folks would call "Black Theater." Most of my work features at least one major black character, but the work doesn't necessarily preoccupy itself with race.Still others (such as Raw Material to be produced this year) have not discernible race element at all: no indication of race of characters. Nothing. Guess which plays I send to contests looking for work by "African American playwrights."

The notion of what is a black play (and by extension a black playwright) has an effect on my subject matter. That is, I often find myself asking - if I write this play, does it make me less of a black writer? More?

The notion of what a black play is also affects my structural choices. For example, traditional narrative is identified with European cultural hegemony. So when I write narrative plays, am I less of a black writer? More?

In short, my self-identification as black man raises questions about both how I market and how I construct my plays.

Had I heard of this "New Black Aesthetic" earlier, I wonder if my cultural identity would have been more allied with this sub-group of black culture. As Ellis puts it:

Today, there are enough young blacks torn between the two worlds to finally go out and create our own. The New Black Aesthetic says you just have to be natural, you don't necessarily have to wear one.


Of course, the politics of identity affect artists of all affiliations. I'm curious: how has your (chosen?) cultural identity affected your marketing and structure choices?

11 comments:

Pookie said...

The question of Blackness?

My professional artistic life was just getting kick started when this article was written. And yes we - the second wave of Angry Black writers were wrestling with what exactly we were so angry about. There had not been a headline grabbing "movement" for years. The riots were a thing of the past, or so we thought. This was after all-- pre-Rodney King.

So as we gathered like a storm on the horizon we questioned what our aethetic was. What were the politics of our art, and was there validity to our anger (an our concept of self).

It turned out that there was plenty of validity to our anger. What we discovered was the same thing that every generation of "Black" artist discovers. --There is very little room in the marketplace for our ideas.

Our experiences compell us to examine our "Blackness" as more than a skin color. We must examine it as a perspective, grounded in some cultural experiences and rejecting others. It is not geography, or politics, intergration, assimilation, or our middle class"ness" that define our perspective.

We are in effect the Barely seen generation. If "Ellison" was the invisible man" perhaps we are now translucent. Only defined at the boarders. Not so sure of what we are- but rather what we are not.

Not white America, Not civil rights America, Not intergrationist America.

But left is still the question of what we are. I don't think that this is a bad place for an artist to exist. It is a place of challenge. Who am I/we creates/fuels a "drive" in us. Ultimately the answer to the question is ever changing. As I better understand my culture I accept and embrace that I am an extension of it. As I better understand my history I understand that it still shapes my reality whether I embrace it or not.

And perhaps most important for the "Black" artist. As I discover that I am not alone with questions/struggles, I recognize that I have refuge in the arms of my fellow artists. I understand that I do not have to surrender my definition of self to better appeal to market forces. I accept that we are "Black" because we define our selves as such. Our art is Black because it can not live outside of our sensibility. The fact that a "Black" writer can so effectively create both Black and White characters is often a product of our "Blackness". We know who we are-- and be cause we are so often translucent we are also well informed about authentic white America.

Tell your stories. The Blackness question is misleading. All Black artists wrestle with the question, and the best of us stretch the boundaries of that identity. It does not therefore make you less authentically "Black", it makes you true to the diversity of "Blackness".

LuckySpinster said...

I am a white female playwright and I struggle with that not because I am unclear myself but because I get odd reactions to my work.

Several plays of mine have male protagonists and strong language and violence and sexual content and I can't tell you the number of men who say how surprised they were after seeing my work that they enjoyed a "women's play" so much, as if plays by women are supposed to only be about menopause and jealousy.

THEN there are people who insist "women's plays" CAN'T be about menopause and jealousy because that's just setting us back. I say why not if they're well written. Look at 'Night Mother or any O'Neill play or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and it could be argued that they are "women's plays," if not in terms of playwright gender then in terms of the subject matter being the domestic sphere.

I was just at a playwriting conference for two weeks where I was told repeatedly I just wasn't getting the point of one of the writing exercises because the conflict was not in the dialogue. Because my characters weren't brow-beating each other, but were expressing their needing and wanting obliquely (something I think many female artists can identify with), my work was not thought successful. I disagreed but tried the exercise a fourth time with characters actually saying, "I want" and "I need" and it felt like cheating it was so easy but sure enough, the male instructor gave me positive comments. I thought it was boring as hell. I know myself well enough to know that is not the kind of writing I want to do, but it is important for those of us who are not white males to understand the rules of the game in order to break them.

I hope as a playwright that I continue to understand where I've come from--how my past and social conditioning inform my voice--but that I am increasingly able to step freely into any world to accomplish my writing.

Tony said...

I could be in the minority (not as in race, as I'm a white male--but I can't think of a non-loaded term) but I couldn't care less who wrote a play. When reading it I read the play. But even as such I do see a lot of, for lack of a better term, over compensation--I'll show how black I am, or I'll show a woman can swear etc . . . And it's a double edged sword. On one hand there are a lot of idiots out there who use those criteria when looking at plays and artists to produce/hire.

A friend of mine who is Mexican was just asked by her soon to be ex agent if she could list her as Eastern European, because she doesn't look Mexican enough.

But for writers it's a double whammy. If playing the game makes you cover up, or worse yet lose your voice, than it just feeds the perception, and probably waters down the work and makes it less likely to be produced. I don't know if there is an easy answer for it.

Aaron Carter said...

One of the reasons I stopped acting was that I was politely reminded one too many times that I didn't look black enough. I certainly feel your friend's frustration.

Of course, I should say that I'm slowly returning to acting - we'll see how it goes this time.

Tony, I must respectfully disagree with the characterization of "idiots out there who use those criteria when looking at plays and artists to produce/hire..."

The arguments about choosing to support artists of color and other marginalize groups in the face of the dominance of white male artists has been made many times elsewhere. But I would add two thoughts:

1) When identity trumps your belief in the artistic merit of a play, the label "idiot" might apply. Undercover Black Man has a great post that delineates between Support A Sister Politics and artistic merit.

2) While my identity is distinct from my work, it is not separate from it. That is, while the relationship always changes, it never goes away. As a result it is part of the product. I would like for people reading my work to know that I identify as black man - and if that in turn changes their perception of what black work is, all the better. I can't begin to have that effect if people "couldn't care less who wrote a play."

I wonder why it is that often people who don't use identity as a evaluating criteria throw it out completely. Is there a way to not ignore a writer's identity and still not succumb to pure identity politics?

Tony said...

Sorry, should have been more clear.

When I talk of idiots, I refer more to people (and I know quite a few) who have decided things like an Asian playwright has to write an "Asian" play--though to be honest, I don't really know what that means.

To my mind, it seems the same as telling an actor he's not "black enough," or a writer that her play is not "Latina enough." I grew up on a poor farm when I was really young. I do not have any ambition to write exclusively about poor farm boys.

You said it far better than I "When identity trumps your belief in the artistic merit of a play, the label "idiot" might apply."

For me (and I can only speak for myself) it's not completely throwing out identity.
I don't think they're mutually exclusive. While our identity feeds the work, identity is not the work. Identity should not determine a writer can only write specific things--because of an outside perception of the writers identity.

When I say I couldn't care less who wrote a play, part of that comes from knowing that a lot of great writers have written really bad plays. A play either has merit (which is a very subjective call) or it may not. That doesn't necessarily mean the writer is a genius or a hack, it just means that particular play may or may not be good.

I'm not sure if that makes it any more clear. Thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Pookie said...


So i'm looking at the original post, and already I am fascinated at how lightly people are treading around the race/identity issue.

Everyone seems to be identifying themselves as a manner of innoculation against possible negative/hostile reactions from other respondents.

So let's throw that out and try again.

I am drawn to a simple question at the end of the posting:

Aaron said...
"I'm curious: how has your (chosen?) cultural identity affected your marketing and structure choices?"

And wrapped in this simple question is the notion of identity and choice. In effect there are some (identities) that you choose (or suppress) and some that you inherit (and cannot easily suppress).

It is this question of choice in identity that I find so provocative. Do we as artists choose self-definitions which limit us or expand our opportunity?

Are limitations bad by nature or are they also useful as tools of self and cultural examinations?

So for all of this we need a context. Since Aaron has gone through the trouble of referencing Swamp Baby Let's use it as an example.

Does the playwright's cultural identity leave an indelible stamp upon the work? He is by his own statement Black (bi-racial), Male and American.

And he is struggling with a play that he concieves of as effectively a "Post-race" Race play.

It is the struggle of the artist and the subject that make this play so interesting. It is his attempts to reference and reflect his concept of self that ultimately is shaping HOW he tells the story.

It is self exploration as theatre. In this instance identity is immutable. He is an American caught up in the throws of that most peculiar institution.-- The American fascination with race/skin color as the most important determinate.

As a bi-racial person he is also exploring a bi-racial identity defined as "FREAK".

It is precisely because these are inherant perspectives that he cannot effectively step beyond that SWAMP Baby is limited, conflicted, and so terribly interesting.

It is not THAT he wishes to tell this story, it is that he is compelled to tell the story in a particular fashion because of how he identifies himself.


So identity becames a filter that does not dictate WHAT stories you tell --it dictates HOW you tell the story.


Now the posion--
If the marketplace dictates that you must write in a particular fashion, regardless of what the fashion is --it is asking you to suppress your perspective in order to achieve greater marketability.

This can be done easily enough when it pertains to the more maliable aspects of identity, "age, politics, regional perspectives". But when one is asked to sacrifice the more immutable aspects such as race, gender, ethnicity, spirituality, sexuality, this "market adjustment" is often asking you to "gut your work" in pursuit of monetary success.

My question--
Are limitations bad by nature or are they also useful as tools of self and cultural examinations?

In Swamp Baby -- it is the limitations of identity (e.g. can we conceive of ourselves any differently than we do now) that pose the most intersting questions.

If one attempts to tell this story for "the Market" the story will surely get pulled toward answers which make the audience comfortable. The playwright clearly wishes to challenge our concept of "race". We cannot do that and be comfortable at the same time.

We cannot do that if the cultural perspective (identity) of the writer is supressed in order to serve the market.


This is what we are discussing when we discuss identity. Not are you Black enough of woman enough or gay enough, but rather can you permit you Black, women, and/or gay identity to dictate HOW you tell stories.

Notice I am not suggesting that there is a singular "Black perspective" but there are certainly many "Black perspectives" that can and should be explored on the American stage.

It Should go without saying that I do not believe that the Black perspective is the only perspective that should be seen. But I know better, So I said it.

Tony said...

Good points and questions.

I can only speak for myself. I don't identify myself as a manner of inoculation, I identify myself as part of a discussion.

I haven't yet read Swamp Baby so I can't comment on it with specifics. I'm hoping to in the next week or so.

I think there are separate questions/issues raised.

One is "If the marketplace dictates that you must write in a particular fashion, regardless of what the fashion is --it is asking you to suppress your perspective in order to achieve greater marketability." Does a writer need to write what he/she feels the market wants?

I don't necessarily agree: "This can be done easily enough when it pertains to the more maliable aspects of identity, "age, politics, regional perspectives". But when one is asked to sacrifice the more immutable aspects such as race, gender, ethnicity, spirituality, sexuality, this "market adjustment" is often asking you to "gut your work" in pursuit of monetary success."

I know several writers who would have a far easier time suppressing their sexuality or race than suppressing their politics. I know more who aren't able to separate differing parts of their identity and view any "market adjustment" with their identity as gutting the work.

I completely agree, "there are certainly many "Black perspectives" that can and should be explored on the American stage."

Unfortunately, I don't know if "The market" necessarily agrees right now. (Which does not reflect well on the current systems of theatrical production.) If it did, there would not be so many talented people struggling with this question-—across the many cultures with which people identify themselves.

So for me the ultimate questions are:

Does a writer need to write what he/she feels the market wants?

If not, what do we do?

Which in some ways leads back to the (also great) post and discussion of whether closed shops are good for theatre, and if others won’t produce it should it be DIY until someone will.

Anonymous said...

Pookie Said....

And now my true bias is revealed.

I am completely absorbed in the false dichotomy that Aaron references in the Swamp Baby post.

I see the "Market forces" as a force of evil.

Simplistic I know, but I can't help it.

Tell a good story...invest in it with all that you know of your craft and your spirit-- and it will likely be an experience worth having. But that is about art making.

Market forces are about making money... and making money is too often about mass appeal... sweeping generalities, and dumbing it down, because it is assumed (falsely I might add) That the public hasn't the stomach for quality, the patience for introspection, nor the couraged to have it's sacred beliefs questioned.

By following market forces we produce more of the same crap. (Whatever made money last season). And we only show people what they are comfortable with.

So we get Wicked, and "The Lion King", and "The Color Purple" (as uplifting Gospel no less).

If we as playwrights succumb to "the Market". We get what we deserve...

We become network television....
Worse -we become top 40 radio.

Make art...
Let the bankers make "Legally Blonde" with all of the unanswered questions that await. (Like how to properly accessorize a pink business suit.)

As for our stories...
Someone has to chronical them. If we let the market decide... we would be collectively mute.

Mute but financial secure.

But never the less mute.

Pookie

Tony said...

There's the double edged sword. How to pay the bills and not be mute at the same time?

I have a hard time looking at "the market" as a purely evil force. It's really a small number of people who through luck and chance (and ability) Have gotten to a position to decide what goes up at the major houses with broad reach.

I think there are a lot of well meaning people who do silly things. This does not make it right, it is simply an awareness of how things currently are. Many feel the need to pack the houses however necessary--whether for their own job security; the growth of their companies; or for some, trying to keep everyone under them employed.

In large part many things that "aren't possible" really just haven't been tried. The Color Purple is a great example. Five years ago it was a supposed "widely known fact" that there would never be a large black audience on Broadway or at the major houses. You hold it up as a bad example, but there are two sides to the coin. If it helps some to realize that telling more than one kind of story will attract more than one kind of audience it is a good thing for theatre in general.

As far as the market (and those deciding the programming) is concerned nothing is possible, until someone proves that it is. That's why I argue against (and whole heartedly with you) writing what a writer thinks "the market" wants.

"Tell a good story...invest in it with all that you know of your craft and your spirit-- and it will likely be an experience worth having. But that is about art making."

Writing the stories is just a first step. The next step is making sure it is heard, and proving that it should be. I don't know if there is an easy answer for that.

Anonymous said...

Pookie said...

I'm with you.

But the color purple IS a force of evil. Everything about the book/ and the film for that matter has been co-opted. It doesn't resemble even vaguely the "Authors intent" and hardly resembles anything substantive with regard to the black experience beyond -- Your life suchs---Sing, dance, and smile -and everything will be alright.

I can't stomach that -even in the name of "Having a Black Broadway show".

Tony said...

I can't afford a damn ticket, so I haven't seen it.