Peter Sellars vs. University of Chicago

I was intrigued by the lukewarm reception to Peter Sellars’ stream-of-conscious musings last Thursday. It’s like they/we couldn’t handle his presentation, his collection of catch phrases and opinions, which were decidedly not planned out in advance. Was it too amorphous, too personal, too poetic, too close for academic comfort? Was it his bright orange shirt, the organic khaki pants, the fantastically-energetic hair, and the long, gemstone necklace? Can’t we take a little impromptu around here? Did we come for a well-crafted lecture?

I saw varying responses in the room: Happy Humanities professors who smiled blissfully as if to say that “it’s all good, let’s play nice”; Senior ladies and gentlemen who came because of their connection to the opera and found it all “fascinating”; Artists from the current production who wanted to support their director; Disgruntled sophisticates that would have found something to be disgruntled about (they arrived disgruntled, they may even live disgruntled); and many Smarter-than-thou-hyper-critical-types whose first reflex was to pounce on his reading of Oedipus Rex, let’s say. The moderator for the Q&A session afterwards, tried to look serious and neutral, but it was obvious that she was representing the scholarly audience by approaching Sellars with somewhat of a distant, condescending air, asking him questions he wouldn’t or couldn’t answer [“Name some artists who you think are engaging in the public discourse” was one]. He definitely came off “looser” of the evening.

I found it slightly ironic that the University would bring in Sellars (taking advantage of his stint here in Chicago for Dr. Atomic), use his name for the promotion of a new top-down arts initiative here on campus (all of a sudden the University of Chicago and Hyde Park has a vibrant arts community, by the way), and that Sellars would then take the opportunity to low ball the academic community with criticisms that sounded maybe twenty years old. The whole evening felt a little disjointed and strange– a silent clashing of cultures or simply misplaced expectations?

But for the record, I did like some of what Sellars threw out there that evening. I just think that maybe we’re a bad market for his “way of being” or “mode of delivery”. It made me wonder how often he has had to make compromises about what he believes about art and community whenever he approaches or receives funding from people or sources that clearly do not hold his same beliefs. Is there any way to maintain your integrity, when you cut across classes or audiences to accomplish artistic aims?

A quick write up of some of his phrases that made it to paper. Please, take out of context. I already have.

art is a mirror • art goes bad when we mistake irony for meaning • the art of irony is the art of dis-empowerment • too much of the arts have been focused on itself • art should equip people to face what they will face • art should renew a sense of purpose and idealism • the hope of theater is to create a space for conversations that we can’t have anywhere else • the evil eye = the act of looking a someone and damaging them in the process • the act of seeing is an act of transformation • saddest thing about 20th century was that every field of study tried to become more like a science • Political Science, what? • 98% of life doesn’t fit in a scientific framework • Science became God in the 20th century • critical studies uses a specialized language that moves important conversations out of the public sphere • the challenge of the academy is to invent a language that can be shared with or survive in the public sphere • the media and entertainment is so much about symptoms and effects, special effects instead of focusing on the causes of things (what causes Oedipus Rex to pull his eyes out vs. thousands of dollars spent on making the eye-pulling scene realistic) • I try to deal with people minus their labels • we have made maximum profit by removing value • Greek theater as an institution of democracy, an architecture of deep listening (if you voted you had to attend the theater; an uninformed voting public is tyranny) • Theater addressed the most painful issues in society • so many things are beyond the scope of law enforcement • we need art to approach the unapproachable • an oratorio or public speech was an appeal to people’s better selves before elections • actual security lies in culture and communication • 3/4 of the task is to open blocked channels of communication • how do you not get poisoned by the poison you are fighting • art is an act of mercy, an act of grace • we are here to do what our ancestors couldn’t do • they sacrificed for us and we must sacrifice for the future • yes, I own an iPhone, but I rarely check my messages • I prefer to fly to cities when I meet with somebody, so I can really be there in person

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