Sunday, December 4, 2011

Art (Phillip Glass's "Satyagraha") and occupy

Art – the opera "Satyagraha" at the Met– and occupy come together (h/t Christine Bard). Phillip Glass, composer of Satyagraha, reads to the large Occupy group a closing statement from the Bhaghavad Gita about how the noble ones (perhaps all too human) reappear to fight evil, age after age. His words are repeated by the democracy through mic check. He repeats the lines:

"When righteousness withers away and evil rules the land, we come into being, age after age, and take visible shape, and move, a man among men, for the protection of good, thrusting back evil and setting virtue on her seat again." See below.

But each of us makes our own decision to stand up, to carry forth the effort for decency in this age.

Many who attended “Satyagraha” were called (the first part of the video below) by the Occupy people to join, gradually took heart – perhaps to hear Phillip Glass – and ventured out. Police stood between..

As Seth Coulter Walls noted in the Awl, One older man, who sported a thick, Eastern Europe-sounding accent, made a useful point about the act of imposition suggested by an occupation. Arguing that the truth-force of nonviolent protest 'starts in the street and moves into the artistic and intellectual space,' he suggested a common cause between the Occupy group and Satyagraha as an opera. In this account, it was the police who were occupying a space unjustly, by keeping the two apart. 'So we demand that the police occupation of our artistic space be ended immediately,' he concluded." See here.

Everyone flowed together.

Some speakers misguidedly criticized opera goers as elitists (Opera is of course a working class phenomenon in Italy; as Walls points out here, there are comparatively cheap seats here; operas are often very accessible and funny if attended to).

The cultural apparatus in its higher echelons is perhaps a different matter. But even for this, as Alex Ross suggests below, there is the nonviolent spirit of combining, of calling forth all, who as a matter of conscience, can come forth.

That is the spirit of Gandhi, to have a movement - satyagraha - which stops depradation and evil, but recognizes that even the privileged and even elite oppressors, have souls and might adopt, if stopped, a more decent way of living. Its peculiar power lies in blocking the crimes, while not physically harming the criminal and leaving him the chance to go into a private life or have a change of heart. Since the authorities usually respond to mass nonviolent protest with violence - in desperation and shame, it is all they know how to do - nonviolent movements tend to grow as in Tunisia and Egypt and Spain and Greece and Occupy; now, surprisingly, most changes of government in the world come about, sometimes very swiftly, through mass nonviolent protest (see the recent work of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan*).

The Occupy movement is showing up diversely in aspect after aspect of American life. Police and Democratic mayors and governors brutalize the campers. But words and music come together even at the Met…

Occupy writers has also produced some luminous words (google: Occupywriters). Here are Lemony Snicket’s:

"Thirteen Observations made by Lemony Snicket while watching Occupy Wall Street from a Discreet Distance

1. If you work hard, and become successful, it does not necessarily mean you are successful because you worked hard, just as if you are tall with long hair it doesn’t mean you would be a midget if you were bald.

2. “Fortune” is a word for having a lot of money and for having a lot of luck, but that does not mean the word has two definitions.

3. Money is like a child—rarely unaccompanied. When it disappears, look to those who were supposed to be keeping an eye on it while you were at the grocery store. You might also look for someone who has a lot of extra children sitting around, with long, suspicious explanations for how they got there.

4. People who say money doesn’t matter are like people who say cake doesn’t matter—it’s probably because they’ve already had a few slices.

5. There may not be a reason to share your cake. It is, after all, yours. You probably baked it yourself, in an oven of your own construction with ingredients you harvested yourself. It may be possible to keep your entire cake while explaining to any nearby hungry people just how reasonable you are.

6. Nobody wants to fall into a safety net, because it means the structure in which they’ve been living is in a state of collapse and they have no choice but to tumble downwards. However, it beats the alternative.

7. Someone feeling wronged is like someone feeling thirsty. Don’t tell them they aren’t. Sit with them and have a drink.

8. Don’t ask yourself if something is fair. Ask someone else—a stranger in the street, for example.

9. People gathering in the streets feeling wronged tend to be loud, as it is difficult to make oneself heard on the other side of an impressive edifice.

10. It is not always the job of people shouting outside impressive buildings to solve problems. It is often the job of the people inside, who have paper, pens, desks, and an impressive view.

11. Historically, a story about people inside impressive buildings ignoring or even taunting people standing outside shouting at them turns out to be a story with an unhappy ending.

12. If you have a large crowd shouting outside your building, there might not be room for a safety net if you’re the one tumbling down when it collapses.

13. 99 percent is a very large percentage. For instance, easily 99 percent of people want a roof over their heads, food on their tables, and the occasional slice of cake for dessert. Surely an arrangement can be made with that niggling 1 percent who disagree."

Snicket provides the perspective of the stranger in the street (what John Rawls calls the original position).

And here are those of Francine Prose.

"As far as I can understand it myself, here’s why I burst into tears at the Occupy Wall Street camp. I was moved, first of all, by what everyone notices first: the variety of people involved, the range of ages, races, classes, colors, cultures. In other words, the 99 per cent. I saw conversations taking place between people and groups of people whom I’ve never seen talking with such openness and sympathy in all the years (which is to say, my entire life) I’ve spent in New York: grannies talking to goths, a biker with piercings and tattoos talking to a woman in a Hermes scarf. I was struck by how well-organized everything was, and, despite the charge of “vagueness” one keeps reading in the mainstream media, by the clarity—clarity of purpose, clarity of intention, clarity of method, clarity of understanding of the most basic social and economic realities. I kept thinking about how, since this movement started, I’ve been waking up in the morning without the dread (or at least without the total dread) with which I’ve woken every morning for so long, the vertiginous sense that we’re all falling off a cliff and no one (or almost no one) is saying anything about it. In Zuccotti Park I felt a kind of lightening of a weight, a lessening of the awful isolation and powerlessness of knowing we’re being lied to and robbed on a daily basis and that everyone knows it and keeps quiet and endures it; the terror of thinking that my own grandchildren will suffer for whatever has been paralyzing us until just now. I kept feeling these intense surges of emotion—until I saw a placard with a quote from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” And that was when I just lost it and stood there and wept.”

The Occupy movement calls forth Walt Whitmans...

Occupy (satyagraha) is joining and inspiring the democratic imagination of the world.

Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise

Books, articles, and a blog by the music critic of The New Yorker

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Alan Gilbert said...

Here is the text of Ross's column (cut off above) without the video (you can click on the arrow above and hear Phillip Glass and the mic check...

Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise

Books, articles, and a blog by the music critic of The New Yorker

The Satyagraha protest (updated)

As promised, Philip Glass spoke at an Occupy Wall Street demonstration at Lincoln Center tonight, after a performance ofSatyagraha at the Met. The protest, which was directed not at the opera itself but at a certain disparity between its lofty moral message and the machinery of corporate arts funding, got under way during the third act; police cleared everyone from the plaza, loitering music critics included (I had gone to the Mahler Tenth at the New York Philharmonic), and so the crowd assembled on the sidewalk at the foot of the steps. When the Satyagrahalisteners emerged from the Met, police directed them to leave via side exits, but protesters began encouraging them to disregard the police, walk down the steps, and listen to Glass speak. Hesitantly at first, then in a wave, they did so. The composer proceeded to recite the closing lines of Satyagraha, which come from the Bhagavad Gita (after 3:00 in the video above): "When righteousness withers away and evil rules the land, we come into being, age after age, and take visible shape, and move, a man among men, for the protection of good, thrusting back evil and setting virtue on her seat again." In accustomed style, he said it several times, with the "human microphone" repeating after him. Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson were in attendance, and at one point Reed helped someone crawl over the barricade that had been set up along the sidewalk (see photo below). The police didn't seem to know quite how to react. In all, it was a remarkable scene.

Update: Seth Colter Walls, who fortuitously showed up in the picture above (he's partly blocked by Lou Reed's head), has an excellent commentary in The Awl. What I liked about the Lincoln Center protest is that it generally didn't take an antagonistic stance toward those attending Satyagraha — and with good reason, because the great majority of them weren't members of the "one percent." (Met tickets are expensive, yes, but no more so than Yankees tickets or Jay-Z tickets. And you can see the HD Live encore of Satyagraha on Dec. 7 for much, much less.) That said, there were some ill-informed comments afterward about opera being available only to the wealthy. Seth takes these apart, writing, "This persistent fiction of 'elitism' . . . is one of the strongest propagandistic tools ever devised by the titans of corporate pop culture." (For more on the affordable end of classical music, see my cheap seats page.) Maury D'Annato makes similar points on Parterre. By the way, Seth is amusingly right about the power of wearing a suit, "even a cheap one." My attempt to explain to the police that I was a New Yorker writer was undoubtedly undermined by the fact that I was wearing a knit Red Sox cap.

December 02, 2011 |

*Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict

pietro said...

I was a few feet from Glass when he recited those very profound words, and have to say it was incredibly moving to hear him recite them, and then to repeat them in turn, a la mic check. It was an incredibly intense moment. Some of us werent sure what would happen. Would Philip make a speech? Would he/we get shouted down? or worse? How much time would we have? And then it was over. Afterward the mood was subdue. But we felt it. It was beautiful.

Alan Gilbert said...

Pietro, thank you for that wonderful conjuring of the moment.

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