Monday, May 07, 2007

the lives of others

I just saw a fantastic movie with the husband called "The Lives of Others". The movie takes place in mid-eighties East Germany before the wall came down. It tells the story of a state security agent-- known as the Stasi-- who is spying on the country's leading playwright. Not just spying, but listening to every single thing that takes place inside the writer's home. It's fascinating to watch how the "security" agent is transformed by what he listens to and learns, and the unpredictable chain of events that are put into motion by the surveillance. I was moved by many elements of this movie, but the one thing I considered the most while I watched was how important art is to a society and culture. People simply cannot live meaningful lives without the beauty art brings, whether it's a thought-provoking play, a piece of music that stirs up an emotional response, a painting that transports you to another place, or the pleasing roundness of a perfectly made bowl.

The art a society produces is a direct reflection of the lives being lived in that culture. It is no wonder that it is the artists and intellectuals who are suspect in a totalitarian society, and often the first to be purged during revolutions. The characters portrayed in the movie were not free to express themselves as they wanted, for fear of what would happen to them if they spoke against the socialist government. It made me think about the American culture that I live in. As a general principle I am free to express what I wish without fear of retribution, and other artists in this country are free to do so also. There are issues of censorship and grant-pulling and political correctness, but there is a platform to fight back without fear your spouse will be arrested and disappeared into a prison if you don't toe the line. I have this gift of freedom to express whatever I wish while others do not-- today, right now--and what do I do with this precious commodity I possess?

I thought that no matter where you live in the world, being an artist is always a struggle, and that is part of the life of an artist. Your job, as an artist, is to hold the mirror up to the culture. I guess there are some artists who get to cozy up to the king and have a cush life, but then I wonder what is the value of the art. Or am I just romanticizing the struggle because I'm not in the king's court... yet? I have often said that our culture worships artists, yet also despises them for not directly contributing to the GNP. There is the expression, "the tyranny of capitalism", and when I consider that expression, I think of the many who give up on being artists before they even try because they think they can't survive.

The wall falls at the end of the movie, and I remember the day well. It was right after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, and my life was in chaos because I was living and working in downtown Santa Cruz near the epicenter. I was 19 and shakily trying to adjust to this reality of big nasty earthquakes. I had dreamed of living in California since I was a kid, and now I was thinking that there was a heavy price to pay living in quake country, and not just the rent on my 300 square foot studio. News of the outside world filtered in here and there, but it all seemed distant and far away. But when the wall fell it was such big news it knocked everything else off the headlines. I remember looking at a picture of a young woman with a mohawk, a black leather jacket, and a pink tutu, drinking champagne out of the bottle on top of the crumbling wall. The juxtaposition of that image against the backdrop of my own world of fallen buildings and changed lives seemed strangely parallel. Buildings fall, walls come down, change is inevitable. I don't know where I'm going with this tangent, but see the movie. It's worth it.