Several weeks ago I was reading a website detailing an upcoming theatrical season in another part of the country when I noticed a quote from a youngish playwright who made a rather cryptic remark regarding one of his plays. Unfortunately, the accompanying summary of the play itself was uninformative, and I found myself confused about how the remark related to the plot of the play itself. At the end of the day, I was not at all intrigued by the drama’s skimpy description, but my reaction to the remark was immediate and quite strong. The playwright was quoted as saying, “What does it say about me that I don’t feel that intensely the need to make points, to let things slide when I disagree. Is it social cowardice?” In a rather introspective mood this spring, I’ve spent the ensuing weeks wondering just why I had such a visceral reaction to what was most likely an off-hand and mostly innocent observation.
The secret is that I know why the playwright feels this way—assuming that he meant it in a general way—or at least I am able to hazard a guess, because the fact is that I know the writer. But for the purposes of this essay his personal motivation or lack thereof is of less concern than the consideration of the Making of Points in art, and whether it is possible, or even logical, to say that one may create a work of art in which there is no point to be made.
Clearly, the premise annoyed me, because I have come to understand and believe that Art, whether visual, musical, literary, architectural, or involving any other creative undertaking, is all about making points and taking sides, as it were. If this were not so, there would hardly be any reason to translate the world through an individual artistic sensibility. This is not to say that all Art is radically or stridently partisan. Sometimes the point to be made is that this is how the Artist sees the world, or that this is the destination to which the currents of narrative have brought the Individual Creator. Actually, I think that this prominence of personal artistic perception explains why artists, composers, and playwrights often have difficulty commenting upon the works of others, for the impulse to remake something—or everything—according to one’s own views is often very strong.
In my own work—you knew I would get there eventually, didn’t you?—I have been both more and less explicit in the points I was trying to make; Der Singende Wald is, perhaps, the most overtly driven by issues, though when I began the piece the political climate in this country had not quite reached the frightening heights we seem to have scaled as I write this. Of course, this makes the point—the cautionary reminiscence of the piece—even more apt than it was when I wrote it. Having opened that door a few years ago, I find myself now working on another piece that touches on a similar issue, a setting for baritone and chamber ensemble on a text by Whitman from the “Calamus” poems. While these poems are well known for the depiction of “the manly love of comrades,” and were, no doubt, somewhat shocking to Whitman’s first audiences, I have, I hope, taken the next step by slightly twisting one of the lines of the poem to provide a title for my setting, “An Equal Joy,” with no points awarded for guessing the issue addressed by the unsubtle “equal” here applied.
In Porch Swing Stories I was not shy about addressing the issue of racism in the South; apparently this was somewhat disappointing to some readers, but again, the developments in our country since the book was published twelve years ago have shown that the issue is far from dead, so it seems that shutting up about the so-called Dead Past is not always the best or most judicious course.
Of course, having a point or refraining from “letting things slide” does not always indicate that there must be a political statement similar to those implied by the above examples, softly radical though they may be. At times the “point” tends to be a rather unconscious and almost inadvertent one, but considering that Art springs from the mind, it is no surprise that paint, words, or notes are sometimes applied in a way that means something to the applier even without deliberate initiation. I think, for example, of the novel I have been working on for far too many years—so many years, in fact, that I begin to wonder if I will ever finish it—When Soft Voices Die. I created the scenario for the work some time during the 1990s—I am not quite sure when—but I can state unequivocally that at the time I began writing there was no clear rationale for how the protagonist’s family was arranged other than the circumstances which wrote themselves, so to speak. However, many years on, I can see quite clearly that there is a reason—a point, if you will—to the hero’s mother being a widow, and it seems only natural—in a very pointed way—that his siblings comprise two sisters, without a brother in evidence. That one of the sisters is rather shrewish and disapproving is, with hindsight, extremely apposite, but this is only something that is apparent now, and the absence of the idea as a conscious thought at the time of literary birth lends even more strength, if not glamour (the spelling of which I use quite deliberately) to the premise at hand.
One final and somewhat mysterious example, if I may: one of the tales collected in Porch Swing Stories has a title that is borrowed from an old missionary hymn, “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains.” Appended to this romance (for such I unabashedly admit that it is) is a postscript including two lines from the hymn—“The heathen, in his blindness, bows down to wood and stone.” To this day I do not have the faintest idea why I added that afterword; it appeared in the manuscript, was transferred to the typescript, and there it stands today. This does not mean that there is no point to its existence—I simply do not know what it is.
So it goes. My answer to the unnamed playwright’s initial question—“Is it social cowardice?”—is obviously, “Yes. Yes, it is.” It may be that I’ve misunderstood. It is possible that, not having seen the play in question, I have mistaken puzzles proposed in the work by the playwright for questions he has about his own work. (I must point out, naturally, that if the play is about the consequences of not making points and not taking sides, these questions themselves are the “point” of the play.) With as much confidence as I can muster, however, I have to assert that all art has a point. It may be political, it may be a call to action, it may be criticism, either overt or implied, or it may simply be to summon forth emotion—beauty, horror, sadness, or numberless other evocations. But do not ever pretend to assert that you, an aspiring artist, have no point to make. Social cowardice indeed. If that is so, put down your pen or your brush and find something else to do.