Monday, February 22, 2010

On Not Saving the World

When I was a boy I found myself non-plussed when my parents cast their bemused half smiles on me and said, "David Jr., you're twelve going on 45," and "you want to save the world," because I had a 1960s-70s era social education and took seriously the ills I saw on t.v., e.g., Vietnam, Birmingham, Kent State Riots, Columbia U. riots, Nixon's resignation, Watergate hearings (I loved those! I rushed home every school day to try and understand that these seemingly earnest men were lying outright), The slaughter of the Israeli wrestling team at Munich Olympics, and so on, and on, and on.  In my parents' half smiles hid half-surfaced derision (or so I thought) as well as an askew pride, and in reaction to this parental alarm at whom I was becoming I swore not to attempt saving the world.  The world didn't need my earnest hands on its twitching brow.  I swore I'd not turn into the evangelical do-gooder that my elementary school essays decrying capital punishment and the Anglo theft of American Indian lands testified I was to become.  To hell with that.  I'd be a poet instead (alas, I was a bad poet.)

I did partly succeed in taming my personally felt-responsibility for the worlds' well being, but only partly, enough that my more politically-committed friends (mostly located on the west coast) tend to think of me as apathetic, and my more politically laissez faire friends (living more frequently in the south) see me as a political fanatic, because when I see what I see I say so.  I call a bigotry a bigotry when I hear it. I read The New York Times daily.  I closely follow national debates.  To the degree I haven't succeeded in ridding myself of missionary urges, it has also been noted by at least one acting coach--Jack Young--that my "talent is released by [my] social and political interests," which is an astute observation.  In other words:  I can be kind of a loud mouth, on the one hand, but you won't find me in a march on Washington, on the other.  Insofar as my half-quenched urge to repair the world (tikkun olam) infects my general behavior, actions, and writings, I've only half-succeeded in proving my parents wrong.  Insofar as I dislike didactic and politically explicit art (Brecht is one exception; some of Kushner is too; etc.), ditto.  Insofar as I love truthful observation and exploration of human behavior with the hope that human beings can improve their lot simply by the act of paying attention, I've kind of failed.  I'm still the earnest young man my parents saw in me, though the earnestness is more properly that of the ambitious artist, and less of the activist or politician, two breeds of doer for whom I have tremendous respect, but don't wish to work among.

My work in theater perfectly expresses my half-denial of my parents' insight into their eldest son.  It's a realm of art in which not many minds are changed in any explicit way, but it's one in which the cause of human self-knowledge does progress, most usually by skipping sideways through the open doors of laughter and delighted surprise, both frivolous and serious.  I'm comfortable in theater, then.  There's no grand design I'm pursuing in theater, but there are not moral compromises there, either.  I'm doing work that, at the very least, does no harm, and at the best, deepens people's sense of vividness.

But, theater is not the only work I do as an actor, of course.  I also pursue commercial work, in print advertising and television, and in the commercial sphere... well... here--here--is the grand moral compromise of my life and my clearest step away from my parents' vision of me.  Not to put too fine a point on it:  I loathe selling unneeded crap to people, but I'm willing to do it, because I want the money.  I'm not sure if my acknowledgement of my moral compromise makes me a worse or more honest person.  I truly don't know.  Most actors I know show no apparent difficulty selling stuff, testifying to the effectiveness of products about which they can only know nothing... etcetera, etcetera, you know what I mean.  Advertising too often lies even when it's truthful, because editing and art direction, at the very least, imply worlds that don't exist, e.g., worlds made perfect by the ultimate driving machine or being fried in non-trans fats....  Whatever.  I've never heard an actor acknowledge the inherit untruthfulness of the commercial acting we do.  The closest I've heard them say is, "this copy is cheesy," but that's an aesthetic complaint.  I don't care about that so much.  I'll do cheesy any day, with a pure conscience.

I only hope that as moral compromises go that my commercial works is, and remains, a modest one, that I and the rest of the world see it as a not-overly toxic act of rendering unto Caesar, especially if it supports my artistic, as well as creature, well-being.  Not that being an "artist" is all that noble or politically progressive or spiritually devotional, but it is something more than merely "fun."

Seeing is meaningful.

Or, so I hope.

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