On January 19, 1919, Vaslav Njinsky, the greatest dancer of the 20th century, performed a special wartime recital at the Suvretta House Hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Leading up to the event, he refused to say what he intended to dance and wouldn’t even give hints as to the accompaniment. He was, after all, a star of the highest magnitude. He influenced culture, fashion and society and his appearance would draw a crowd regardless of the presentation.
When the recital started, he performed some perfunctory turns and flashed his mastery in a few signature aerials. Then he grabbed a chair and abruptly sat down facing his audience.
Njinsky glared at them. Time passed but the audience was silent. More time passed and still Njinsky stared. The audience sat motionless.
After several minutes, Njinsky rose. He took rolls of black and white velvet and made a giant cross the length of the room. Then he stood at the head of it with open arms and said: “Now I will dance you the war, with its suffering, with its destruction, with its death. The war which you did not prevent and so you are responsible for.”
And then Njinsky erupted across the room, his monumental gestures filling the space with horror and suffering. The audience was breathless, fascinated and petrified. Njinski’s movements and expressions suffused the room with twisted, contorted bodies and savage explosions. He took his audience to the trenches, the front, and the body-strewn aftermath. He was ethereal and violent; a perfect embodiment of tragic, terrible humanity.
His audience was discomfited, but undeniably moved. His recital was intense, brilliant and compelling.
If you go to the neighborhood library or check Wikipedia, you may find Njinsky as a historical figure or a physical genius. But you will hardly find the spirit of the phenomena he represented. And it’s even less evident on the TV channels and radio stations and art galleries we frequent. They are devoid of urgency and sadly lack the cogent, poetic ferocity that comprised Njinsky’s St. Moritz performance.
Contemporary pop culture is virtually bereft of real relevance and depth and the corporate architects who promote it go to extraordinary lengths to keep it that way. Taylor Swift is as challenging as a lukewarm bath. Lil Wayne is as evocative as a mustard burp. And Justin Bieber is as meaningful as bread crust crumbs in mayonnaise.
Sure, there’s a Sinead O’Connor tearing up the Pope’s picture here and there or a Sharon Olds addressing “The Solution” we seem to have chosen for ourselves. And now and then we hear a Rage Against the Machine; but the Bob Dylans are desperately missed. There’s no future in banal Beyonces, toothless Labeoufs or spineless Twilight and Harry Potter sequels.
There’s no edge to our art anymore because it’s filled with entertainers instead of artists and the few artful souls that do unintentionally get featured usually lack awareness or philosophy.
Kurt Vonnegut used to say that artists were like canaries in a coal mine. That they were super-sensitive and “keeled over” due to toxic conditions long before normal folks even sensed they were in danger. Vonnegut envisioned art as an indispensable herald, a critical means of alarm.
But despite the unparalleled toxicity of our times and our complicity in the systems that endanger us, artists aren’t sounding the alarm. There are as many doom-impending calamities in the world now as there are countries, but most artists are hardly even sentient, much less super-sensitive.
Albert Camus went further than Vonnegut. He plainly stated that “the time for irresponsible artists is over” and that in any troubled era, it was every legitimate artist’s role to create dangerously.
We are involved in one war and one quasi-occupation, but no performer on any significant stage or medium is dancing the war for us or compellingly conveying the shabbiness or shame of the occupation. Our socio-economic system is exposing us to a catalogue of environmental perils, but our creative communities spend more time cashing in on the system than condemning it. Our technological dependence is rendering an inestimable number of our natural, physiological capacities obsolete, but more artists are turning to the new, dehumanizing technologies than disputing their real, long-term merit.
Art for art’s sake was fine when there was nothing at stake, but when everything is at stake artistic expression demands courage and accountability. So if you fancy yourself a literary or filmic or singing sort and your muse isn’t telling you to dance our inhumanities or paint our self-destructiveness or pen our vainglorious insanities, please ignore it and find another pursuit among the uninitiated throngs. We already have enough artists who create safely and serve no purpose.