An Enlightened Centre: On Politics & Aesthetics

frank Artistic Producer Chris Gatchalian was invited to talk about identity and aesthetics at Co. Erasga’s symposium Undivided Colours on November 7, 2014 at the Scotiabank Dance Centre in Vancouver. Here is his complete speech.

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It’s my great pleasure to be here this afternoon.

I’d like to acknowledge that we are on unceded Coast Salish territories. Many thanks to the Musqueam, Skohomish, Tseil-Waututh and Tso:lo First Nations for the privilege you have given us of speaking here today.

I always welcome the opportunity to exchange ideas with other artists as well as with art connoisseurs, especially ideas related to identity and its precise role in our personal practices and in art in general.

The reason I enjoy talking about it is not because I think there’s an objectively right or wrong way of thinking about identity and art, but because, as artists, we often work in solitude, and because of this we fall into the trap of accepting our own points of view as gospel, rather than seeing them as shiftable, open to revision and texturization – part of a larger, contrapuntal, dialectical, dynamic conversation that ultimately leads to higher understanding and, in turn, more evolved artistic practices.

Today, I will refrain from offering generalities or blanket statements about art and identity, for two reasons:

  1. I’m not smart enough to do that; and
  2. I’m not convinced that generalities and blanket statements have really been able to move any conversation of this nature forward in any significant way.

So what I will be offering instead is simply a description of my own individual journey as an artist and, in particular, the aesthetic and identity issues I have personally grappled with, and continue to grapple with.

When I first started out as a writer in university, I assumed a decidedly Wildean pose. My motto was Oscar Wilde’s motto: art for art’s sake. I rejected labels and identity politics. I was an apologist for the Western canon, for DWEMs (Dead White European Males). In fact, the nom de plume I eventually settled on, “C.E. Gatchalian,” was directly inspired by that of the most elitist of elitists, that DWEMest of DWEMs, T.S. Eliot. In one of my first big media interviews, I made a point of saying that I did not consider myself to be “a gay Asian playwright.” (So in other words, if you were to provide an illustration for the term “sophomoric snob,” you’d be well advised to use a photo of me at age 22.)

And then, it happened. I exited the ivory tower and started living in the real world. I became more exposed to, and in some cases experienced firsthand, the harsh realities of societal injustice and the detrimental effects of unquestioned assumptions: racism, homophobia, ableism, sexism, transphobia, poverty, corporatism, philistinism. I stopped seeing society as a logical extension of nature but rather as a perversion of it, replete with unjust and exclusionary practices. I did a 180 on the idea of “aesthetic standards” and came to equate it with the hegemonic, Eurocentric superstructure that had successfully promoted itself as “universal truth” when it was, in fact, nothing more than arbitrary bigotry.

And then, another shift happened, though I’m not sure exactly when – like most big shifts, it crept up quietly and organically, over a stretch of time. And this time, the shift had nothing or at least little to do with politics or ideology, but rather with, quite simply, my nuts-and-bolts work as an artist. I simply started appreciating the importance of artistic rigor – the need to uncover the reason and motivation behind every artistic choice. And with this came an examination of, and a new appreciation for, the forms I had for so long been railing against. Gradually, the term “well-made play” ceased to be a dirty word, and I became fascinated with the mechanics of exposition, climax and denouement and came to see these conventions as not patriarchal and oppressive, but as the result of millennia of earnest trial and error by the long array of dramatists that came before me. It’s not that I no longer wanted to challenge these conventions – far from it; but I came to understand that the way to do that was to know these conventions inside out. I now regard this mindset as a way of giving artistic tradition the reverence it deserves while thumbing my nose at it at the same time.

There was another issue that I became more cognizant of: that of quality. I can’t speak for other media and art forms, but as a writer I can’t help but notice the decline in the way people, even, in many cases, “professional” writers, string words together. This is a truism verging on cliche, but it bears repeating that we are inundated with crap: ill-informed, off-the-cuff, poorly written analyses of everything under the sun based on doxa and un-interrogated, underlying assumptions. That a sizeable chunk of the book-reading, theatre-going and film-going population now depend on the recommendations of bloggers who can’t for the life of them produce a coherent sentence, is, or should be, deeply troubling to us. Meanwhile, young writers are routinely graduating from prestigious Creative Writing programs without at any point in their Creative Writing studies having taken formal, mandatory training in literary histories or literary traditions. Democratizing the playing field to embrace diversity is right and proper; but should it come at the expense of literary and aesthetic standards?

In her 1969 essay “The Aesthetics of Silence,” Susan Sontag talks about the artistic imperative of silence during times of cultural overload – when the alphabets of our primary media, whether it be literature, visual art, dance or film, have been so worn out and contaminated by superfluous activity that what is necessary is nothing less than a retreat into “silence,” which can manifest itself in a variety of forms, usually as extreme minimalism or esoteric difficultness. I believe that we are currently in such a time; and I feel that one way we as artists can feed ourselves “silence” now is through introspection, a thorough re-examining of the way we engage with our respective media in relation to a Zeitgeist which has leveled the sonnets of John Donne with episodes of Three’s Company.

So how does this all relate to the issue of identity? I have always been identified – not necessarily by myself, but certainly by others – as “alternative” – by virtue, I suppose, of my being queer and non-Caucasian, and because of the often grizzly subject matter my plays explore. I have no serious issue with the term “alternative” being applied to me. I am against racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, cisgenderism, moneyism, philistinism and therefore do stand, and proudly so, against most mainstream values. I believe there is injustice in the world and that all injustice should be and must be rectified. But as an artist, I am in some key respects what some would call an arch-conservative. I embrace – or rather, have re-embraced – the idea of “aesthetic standards”; I uphold distinctions between high and low art; I don’t believe that everyone who calls themselves an artist should be automatically deemed one and given a place at the table; and I love – imbibe even – the work of Dead White European Males.

So I guess I am currently in a position somewhere between where I was in my sophomoric snob days and where I was in my Marxist-Leninist days: a reasonable, mature, “enlightened” centre (although it’s quite possible that later in life I will look back on this current position as one that was equally as misguided as the other two). My current personal definition of culture is pretty much that of another much-hated Dead White European Male, Matthew Arnold: “the best that has been thought and said.” Yes, this definition is elitist; but my rendering of it makes it, I believe, an open elite. For me it is the best that has been thought and said (and painted, and danced, and shot, and composed) from every walk of life: every culture, every orientation, every gender, every class, from every genre of every art form, high or popular. Yes, there will be acrimonious and endless debate over what exactly constitutes aesthetic excellence, and whose standards and why: but, for the sake of art and its survival as something enduring and relevant, I’d rather we have that debate than no debate at all.

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