Friday, July 6, 2018

SLAVery and Aesthetics

One of the major productions of the Festival de Jazz de Montréal this year was the theatre revue SLAV directed by Robert Lepage. Margaret Wente at the Globe and Mail has a column on the controversy.
Are white people entitled to perform songs composed by black slaves?
The answer, it appears, is a resounding no. This week, in the face of mounting protests, the Montreal International Jazz Festival cancelled the show SLAV only a few days after it began its sold-out run.
SLAV is (or was) a theatre revue that explored slavery and oppression throughout history, using the vehicle of black slave songs. Its star was a white singer named Betty Bonifassi. Four of its six supporting cast members were also white, and so was its director, the legendary theatre great Robert Lepage. That spelled trouble from the start. Protesters denounced the show as a racist appropriation of black culture. “Is there nothing y’all won’t steal?” one sign read. “White culture is theft.”
The column also takes a look at the trend:
Complaints of cultural offence are widespread these days. They have shut down two separate theatre productions of Othello in Canada, where the directors had the idea of casting Othello as a woman. In Britain, a student production of Aida was shut down because activists warned that white people (instead of, presumably, Egyptians) might be cast in the leads. Yet when the Stratford Festival cast a black actor in the lead role of The Music Man (that whitest of all shows), everybody cheered. How does this make sense?
Something else that doesn't make a lot of sense is condemning the star, Betty Bonifassi:
Ms. Bonifassi has been performing these songs for 15 years, based on material she researched and developed herself. She has released two albums related to her research. This show was five years in the making. She has an impressive voice and a huge stage presence. She’s not just a hired gun. She created the show. Without her, it wouldn’t exist.
So, if you are white, you are not allowed to make creative use of black culture as that would be cultural appropriation. If we were to apply that more widely the music of, among others, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton would be disallowed. What if we reversed this logic? What if other ethnicities were not allowed to use anything from white culture? It sounds weird just stating it. But things like music notation, tonality, 12-bar blues and a host of other structural underpinnings of music would be disallowed under that criterion.

The underlying moral truth that I think is being violated here I would state as moral agency and moral desert are individual, not collective. In other words your moral and aesthetic worth, positive or negative, has nothing to do with your ethnicity or any other collective grouping. It is individual. This truth was behind the creative understanding of the producers:
But Ms. Bonifassi never had a chance. She was doomed by the colour of her skin. She was also doomed by her explanation that she wanted the show to be colour-blind. “I don’t see colour; to me it doesn’t exist, physically or in music,” she told the Gazette’s music critic. ”We don’t talk about black and white in the show. We talk about human pain, experienced together. All cultures and ethnicities suffer the same.”
Alas, even saying that is not allowed these days and the production was cancelled early in its run. Strange days. Here is a clip of Eric Clapton re-creating a great Robert Johnson song (that was also covered by the Rolling Stones), "Love in Vain":


Will Wilkin said...

The main reason I quit left politics (some years ago, and I've now quit ALL politics) is I realized they are very racist and racial in their categorizations of people and culture. How ironic that they think of themselves as anti-racist when they seem to consider race a fundamental principle of identity. Meanwhile they seem to despise patriotism, to me a much more functional and constructive element of group identity, based on real common interests in shared institutions and conditions. Oh well, play on!

Bryan Townsend said...

Deeply ironic! Their go-to accusation is often "racism" but at the same time progressive sociologists keep telling us there is no such thing as race. And the reason not to be an actual racist is that it prevents you from treating people justly as individuals. Leftist politics prevents you from treating people as individuals because they see all people in terms of their membership in a collective. It's really screwed up!

Will Wilkin said...