"It's art. It's not nice."

Act Two began today (with a citation to Martin Puchner for the metaphor). Sovereignty was the topic du jour in “Theatre and Democracy,” with Brecht’s Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and Derrida’s The Sovereign and the Beast as the main texts. Brecht also made an appearance in “Theatre and Philosophy,” though in what we might call his “vulgar” form as one of Jacques Rancière’s main artistic antagonists.The Emancipated Spectator was our central text, with a few interpolations from the considerations of 19th century theatre and social history in Staging the People and the meditations on photography and cinema in The Future of the Image. The spectator took center stage in our discussion as we considered Rancière’s project of emancipating her from the emancipators—those directors who took the aesthetic or political education of the theatre audience as their main artistic goal, schoolmasters who refused to acknowledge their own ignorance. Brecht and Artaud are of course the main examples to be vanquished, though Rancière also seems to be expunging the ghosts of Althusser and even Plato. What are we left with after the retreat from a director’s theatre? An art event (“performative eventality,” anyone?) that accepts as its function the redistribution of the sensible. Or, to have it another way, an art grounded in a Kantian aesthetics, a sensus communis based around a principle of aesthetic equality. Examples abound, though mostly in the other arts. In visual art there are the installations of Alfredo Jaar. In film, Jean-Luc Godard’s Histore(s) du cinéma. In theatre? Well, at least we have a schematic. See, it’s actually very simple:


 (Thanks to fellow Austinite Carrie Kaplan for the first layer of the diagram and to Joe Cermatori for the photo.) Still not sure? You might consider turning to the philosopher himself. You can hear him talk (in English, heavily accented) here:


Brecht returned to the fore for our evening lecture today, this time with Walter Benjamin in tow. Freddie Rokem delivered an address on what he called (in jest) the “B2 Summits,” the series of conversations between Brecht and Benjamin during their years in exile in the 1930s (oh, to be a fly on the wall…). He began with a frame from Aristotle and Plato, considering the relative positions in classical thought of poetry, history, and philosophy—the three topics to which our two protagonists variously devoted their thought and their lives. He moved on to a microhistory of The Threepenny Opera, both in its theatrical form and in Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s 1931 film adaptation, followed by a consideration of Brecht’s Threepenny Novel and its relationship to Benjamin’s thought, particularly on history and the dialectic. (One appropriate summary of Brecht and Benjamin’s aesthetics might be best expressed by a character within the text of Brecht’s own play itself, speaking of the song “Pirate Jenny”: “It’s art. It’s not nice.”) Our comparison concluded with a view to Brecht’s Messingkauf Dialogues—likened to Benjamin’s own Arcades Project and aptly embodied (literally) in the trumpet intro to the Louis Armstrong version of “Mack the Knife,” which concluded the lecture.

Enthusiasm abounded, as did questions. What of Marx’s own vision of the theatre and history in The Eighteenth Brumaire? (Benjamin would take a different view and would dispute the idea that history was prone to repeat, though elements might recur.) What of the changes to The Threepenny Opera made for Pabst’s film? (Hard to compare to a stage production for which we have little remaining record.) What of the role of the deus ex machina in the play and in Benjamin’s thought? (A connection possibly to treatments of the topic Benjamin’s Trauerspiel and certainly a persistent concern in modern drama from Godot to Robert Wilson.) What of the others in Brecht’s entourage (Helene Weigel, et. al.) who may have been party to the “B2 Summits”? (A tempting topic to consider, but there’s relatively little of their contributions in the written record.) And what’s this we hear? Brecht and Benjamin planned at one point to write a detective novel together? Oh, the possibilities…

For those of you who simply did not get enough of Brecht today, you might consider indulging in the entire length of Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s unsubtitled, German-language, early sound era, expressionist film adaptation of Threepenny. If so, you can find the full film here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1x2YkjRISpM

See also: Donna Kornhaber