"Performance is the heart of ethical behavior." That's where I left off in the last post, pretty much guaranteeing that most of my readers never return. Because actors have been told for centuries that what we do is inherently unethical, immoral, and nasty. We've been told that so long that we pretty much accept it, and, in fact, glory in it. It's part of the appeal, the romance.
But that's slander. Actors know, more than most, how to use the most powerful force human beings have to improve their lives. So sit back, relax, and hang with me as I attempt to justify that opening statement.
First, a couple of paragraphs of background. Starting with the idea of Freedom. (Sorry about the academic-speak, I'll make this as short as possible.)
Freedom, or more broadly, free will. Do we have it, or is it just an illusion? Tough question. Let's look at it in relationship with ethics and morality. If you can't choose your actions, if, say, you're at the mercy of an irresistible psychosis, or (more interestingly) if free will is just an illusion and all our actions are predetermined, then we don't really make moral choices. We simply follow our programming. We play out the pattern of our genetic makeup, or we're at the mercy of subatomic vibrations, or whatever. Ethical behavior requires the freedom to choose one action over another.
So, in my opinion, if all our choices are predestined, then the whole good/bad thing is a crock. No freedom, no choices, no responsibility. It's why we don't execute murderers who are clearly insane. We put them away so they can't do it again, but we don't 'punish' them, because they aren't responsible for their actions. Morality requires freedom.
Weirdly, this whole idea of predestination went viral several centuries ago. John Calvin, who along with Luther started that WASP phenomenon that that became so popular later, noticed that the Bible said that God knew who was going to heaven before they even were born. "Zounds," sayeth Calvin, "that's some serious shit. Better get the word out."
"A moral horror!" came the horrified reply. "That means that nothing we can do in this life really matters."
"Well. Allow me to retort," Calvin retorted. "It says so right here in the Bible. So there."
"Nah nah nah nah nah nah," replied numerous learned theologians, in lengthy treatises comprised of tens of thousands of nahs.
“Look, it says so right there..” “Nah nah nah.” “Just read it!” “I’m still not listening!“ And that's pretty much where Church theology is today. But I digress.
Rejecting the moral horror of religious predestination, science and secular philosophy turned their unblinking eyes to the study of humankind, researching and pondering the true nature of reality until at last, these aristocrats of the high country of human endeavor proclaimed their shared discovery to the waiting world: In a materialistic universe, everything must be predestined.
Whew, that’s a relief—what? Wait a second. What????
Sigh. So here we are. The first, the very first requirement of a moral life is that the individual has the freedom to choose between moral and immoral acts. But the one thing, in fact the only thing that contemporary science, postmodern philosophy, and good old fashioned Okie Calvinism all agree on is that freedom is just an illusion. It doesn’t really exist.
Artists, by the way, can’t be too happy about this. Sort of takes away the luster. Why glorify Picasso if he had to paint Les Demoiselles d'Avignon? If his inspiration was just a bunch of neurons firing in his brain in the only possible way they could fire? If every brush stroke was genetically predetermined going all the way back to his first single celled ancestor, a prokaryote named Squib? And what if Stravinsky didn’t choose the notes of Rite of Spring, but, instead, those notes were inevitable, fated, written in proverbial stone thousands, millions, billions of years before he ever wrote them down on paper? Why make a big deal about Stravinsky? Or Picasso? If we’re going to glorify anybody, it should be Squib, right?
Common sense says we have free will. Science responds, How? What mechanism could possibly allow anyone, artist or not, to break free of their genes/programming/electrical processes in the brain/laws of causation (choose all that apply)? We’ve looked, Science says, there’s nothing there. Logically, free will makes no sense, once you understand how the universe actually works. Like it or not, that’s just the way it is.
And really, what difference does it make? We’re still going to work, eat, watch TV, sleep, rinse and repeat. What difference does it make in our lives whether free will is an illusion or not? These enchiladas still taste great. I still love my kids. I still have to be at work early tomorrow. What does it matter?
Well, as I’ve said, the idea of moral responsibility pretty much disappears. (Yes, good dogs still get tasty treats and bad dogs still get spanked with newspapers or executed by lethal injection, but that’s training and breeding, not moral responsibility.) And, as I've also said, the artist gets detached, disconnected from the work in a way that eats away at one of the very reasons we seek out art—to marvel and rejoice at our infinite ability to create. Because if it’s predetermined, we’re not really creating it, yes? It just happens inevitably. So, I may still willing to pay money to go see a play, but that’s just a financial exchange, my dollars for two hours entertainment. But that's art with the humanity leached out.
In case it's not obvious, I'm not on board with the whole predestination thing. But just saying that doesn't make it true. So here's what I've come up with. Maybe those two things I've just mentioned, Morality and Art, are connected. Not that Art is always moral, because hello, it's not. But something unites them. Morality and Art rest on the same foundation. They both require freedom, freedom to choose. And the only thing that offers that freedom, the only way we can break the chains of our genetic programming and materialistic determinism, is through Creativity.
This is obvious with Art. But when it comes to morality, not so much. Morality and ethics, we've been told, are about following the rules. Except that, if you're a human being—and I'm betting you are—then you've already discovered that the rules do a piss poor job of making us 'good.' Some of the loudest proponents of the rules become small minded, mean people, people who eventually break the very rules they so loudly proclaim. Calling them hypocrites misses the point; they really do believe in the rules, even as they’re breaking them. They even have to invent a devil that ‘makes them do it’ to explain this otherwise inexplicable behavior. But their real problem is their very devotion to the rules. They’ve made the rules more important than people.
It’s not that the rules are bad. For example, “Don’t take things that don’t belong to you.” Hey, that’s a good rule. But here's a story about that. When I was 20, my beautiful Martin guitar was stolen. I reported it to the police, who, miraculously, called me up a couple of weeks later to tell me they had found a Martin guitar in a thieves’ trove of stolen goods, and I could come down and claim it. When I got there, in front of a group of cops who clearly wanted me to take it, I discovered the guitar, even more beautiful than the one I lost, was not mine, and told them so. They shook their heads and informed me that now the guitar would sit in the evidence room for a year or so, and eventually be sold at auction, while the guitar I had stolen would almost certainly never be found. I followed the rule. I had thought that would make me good. It did not. Instead, it made me stupid. There’s a big difference between good and stupid. The rule was/is good. But my implementation sucked.
Because life doesn’t come at you as a series of word problems. It comes at you in the sloppy reality of complex and confusing situations, each one unique, each a potential challenge to our ideas of good and bad. Some people give up on the good/bad thing, it's too complicated; they become criminals and assholes. Some people try to slavishly follow every single rule in every situation; they drive themselves crazy, sometimes literally, or they shrink into rule enforcers, blinding themselves to the complexity of life. But when we—you, me, anyone—looks at their situation creatively, like an actor say, like an actor deciding how to play a particular scene, taking into account the relationships, the inherent conflicts, the subtle interplay of motivations and emotions, I.e. when we apply creativity to our situation, and make our choices based on the freedom that creativity give us, then and only then do we become true moral agents. Only then are we able to apply the moral rules in the most appropriate manner for our unique situation. Only then are we attempting, in our imperfect way, to fit the rules to real life, instead of the futility of trying to fit real life to a set of rules.
Hidden from scientists, misunderstood by philosophers, mistrusted by the religious, Creativity is all that can free us from the slavery of predestination. In that freedom, the freedom to choose that our inborn creativity allows us, we find the possibility of becoming good.
Awakened, enlightened, self-actuated, call it what you will, the potential to become better human beings begins with creativity. It’s potential only; creativity, like any force of incredible power, also opens the path to the greatest horrors we can imagine. But that’s the choice we face. And it’s good to have choice.
More to say, as we pursue this seeming paradox of acting as pretend, and acting as reality. Why did Jesus (yes, we’re getting back to him at some point) call the Pharisees hypocrites, i.e. actors? In what other ways do the arts of ethics and acting overlap? Next time.
Arts Alliance Tulsa
Green Room OK
Tulsa Little Theatre
Tulsa Weekly Roundup
Am. Theatre Co.
BA Community Playhouse
Clark Youth Theatre
G Rated Theatre
Midwestern Theater Co.
Muskogee Little Theatre
Owasso Comm. Theatre
Sand Springs Comm. Th.
Sapulpa Comm. Theatre
Tulsa Latino Theatre
Tulsa Project Theatre
Tulsa Rep. Musicals
Tulsa Spotlight Theatre