Id like to thank Ted Purves and the California College of Arts and Crafts for
inviting me to speak today, and also my old friend and mentor Stephen Goldstine for
suggesting me. Before directly addressing a subject of such complexity as generosity,
Id like to frame things with a story told to me by film director Martin Ritt, as we
were about to begin a film 20 years ago. Marty was a tirelessly political man and the
creator of such wonderful films as Hud and Norma Rae. He was, to
say the least, often cranky and pessimistic, and he told this story traditionally at the
first read-through of each of his films. After hearing it, perhaps youll understand
how I feel today.
Once, in the town square of a small Russian village, a sign appeared
on the street proclaiming: Worlds Oldest
Living Jewish Acrobat- The Mosque 9 PM
Tonight. That night the local people assembled, and they saw, the same sign,
established at stage left- Worlds Oldest Living Jewish Acrobat. At stage
right was a cannon with a man-sized bore, pointing towards the rear of the mosque, where a
trampoline had been angled next to the wall, in such a fashion as to receive a body fired
from the cannon, and deflect it towards a tight-rope stretched across the center of the
hall. There was no safety net. An extremely old and fragile looking man was hobbling back
and forth across the stage, looking at the cannon, looking at the trampoline and then at
the rope, shaking his head from side to side. He paced, shook his head and paced some
more. Nine oclock came and went. At nine fifteen, a rustling was audible in the
house. At 9:30 loud muttering could be heard, and by 9:45 the crowd was stamping its feet
and clapping in unison, shouting for the show to begin. The old man walked to
center-stage, looked at the crowd dyspeptically and held his hands aloft for silence. In
the ensuing quiet, he shrugged fatefully and addressing the audience, said, Alright.
You vant to kill an old Jew? I'll do it!
This story feels appropriate today, for several reasons. The obvious one is the
personal risk inherent in undertaking a subject as vast and profound as generosity.
However, within the joke, there is, in the image of the mans body itself being the
offering, something extremely germane to our topic.
I would like to consider generosity, which originally referred to courage
as well as munificence, in the larger context of the Buddhist assertion that nothing on
earth, including ones self, truly
stands alone, with an independent, isolated existence. Trees cannot be independent of sunshine, rain and microbes in the
soil any more than people can be independent of sunshine, water, microbes in the soil and
the flora and fauna of their own intestinal tracts. Only a very small enlargement of our
frame is required to observe that this interdependence is generosity; an offering of mutual support which
is a fundamental characteristic of all existence. The courage implicit in the
archaic definition of generosity is this coming fully forward to participate without shirking.
It has been my long-standing belief that artists of every discipline have an intuitive
understanding of this reciprocity. Beginning with a field of perception which includes
foreground and background simultaneously, the artists understanding is fostered and
forged by intimacy with their materials---whether words, the body, color, or sound. The
creative process itself demands that they applying their intuition and will without
overpowering or otherwise disrespecting the forms with which they work. The willingness to
accept such a limit, is itself a kind of
generosity extended towards the material world by the artist. Furthermore, all artists
require or their work implies an audience with which they are interdependent, and to whom
they are dependent to some degree, for the meaning of what they do. For these reasons, the arts are particularly appropriate for
exploring and expressing relationships, interdependence, and mutuality and it is for this
reason that too that there are often such intimate relationship between artists and the
political issues of their times.
Having said this, Id like to recall a time nearly 35 years ago, when this
explicit relationship between art and politics seemed more pervasive and generally more
apparent in society, than it is today. Id like to review ways in which some artists regarded the world then and what
ramifications their history (which is also my own) might have for us here today.
I emigrated to California in 1964 to pursue a Masters Degree in Creative Writing at San
Francisco State. I had done a great deal of acting (or ecting as the old
acrobat would say) in college in the Midwest, and I joined a rather traditional rep
company here while I attended school. One afternoon when my own theater was dark, I happened to attend an outdoor performance of the
San Francisco Mime Troupe, an event which
changed my life.
I was lolling around in Golden Gate Park,
when a small flat-bed truck arrived and a ragged crew of people began assembling a small
stage -- really not much more than interlocking wooden platforms on top of overturned wine
barrel halves. A gaily painted rear curtain hung from a simple frame at the back of the
stage and that was the entirety of the performance space. Wicker trunks were dispersed
about the grass and quasi- Elizabethan costumes made of rag-ends and flotsam appeared from
them in staggering profusion, followed by tambourines, drums, whistles, and recorders.
While some actors dressed and applied make-up, others played music and danced about
exhorting the growing audience to be seated. A theater company had materialized out of the
For the next two hours, they sang, joked, and transfixed their audience with hilarious
satire based on issues of the day. They lampooned politicians, war-mongers, capitalists,
pomposity, hypocrisy and sexual up-tightness with flair and verve. It was not at all
inconsequential to me that two of the actresses were breath-takingly beautiful and all but
bursting out of their décolletage. Consistent with my life-long predilection for
impulsive behavior, I changed theatrical and political allegiances on the spot and joined
The San Francisco Mime Troupe.
For the next several years, almost without interruption, we rehearsed, argued, laughed,
performed, laughed, and toured without surcease. Under the direction of R.G. Davis, the
Troupe had an avowed Socialistic-sort-of perspective. Its multi-racial membership
included college graduates, cab drivers, labor organizers, realtors, and ghetto refugees,
bound together by a common dedication to left-of-center politics and wacky humor. This
tiny company, housed on the second floor of a warehouse at Fifth and Harrison Streets in
the days when young artists could still afford to live in San Francisco, mounted two
National tours and several mini-tours during my tenure there. Our provocative Minstrel
Showa black-face review from the minstrels perspective, garnered us an
invitation from civil-rights champion, comedian Dick Gregory, who sponsored our
performances in New York City. Following a triumphant tour of the East Coast, the Troupe
garnered rave reviews for its work and was recognized with an OBIE award from New
Yorks Village Voice newspaper. In the face of such approbation troupe members could hardly be blamed for feeling as if we had our
fingers on the national pulse. In the whirl of the moment, the underlying principles of
generosity inherent in the Troupes work evaded me, and I was more than satisfied
with novelty and political meaning. In retrospect, it is much easier to see, that there
were profound, non-ideological aspects of generosity underpinning everything we did.
First of and foremost, sharing and organizing
information in a useful form is an essentially a generous act. Real informationdata which makes a difference--- is like oxygen to the bloodstream of
clear thought. I am as convinced today as I was in 1966, that the primary social function
of the major media is to obfuscate and confuse historical context. By burying valuable
information in drama or trivia, a much more effective form of censorship than repression
is created; more effective because it calls no attention to itself. The more one reads and
attends major media sources, the less one actually comprehends political events, and this
state-of-affairs has been empirically verified by a media watchdog group called Fairness
and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). FAIR created a series of scientific surveys and polls to
determine the relationship between hours of media exposure and objective knowledge of
current events and the conclusions were precisely what you might expect: the more exposure
to media they had, the less people understood the events in question.
The Troupes antidote to this
situation was obsessive study and discussion to refine and clarify issues until they could
be dramatized in incisive forms. Characters in our dramas were rude cartoons, bold,
iconographic, arguments, that stripped away
distractions and simplified relationships to encourage decisive action. As such, these
characters were a service to the community; a
(A digression about the relationship of the
artist and audience is in order here: Troupe members sometimes took Ezra Pounds
dictum to be the antenna of the race perhaps too literally. The notion of
being the vanguard, the first perceiver, can
lead artists into an arrogance, which implies that we artists know and our job is to transmit
our knowledge to a passive audience. This is overly flattering to the artist and
demeaning to the audience. Furthermore, it generates a
form of self-importance which is the opposite of generosity.
Today, I would suggest that its more accurate to describe the audience and the artist as the left and right hands while clapping.
The artist has a capacity to articulate and express novel collisions of perception and
epiphanies for the delight and edification of others. The audiences recognition and appreciation is proof that the artists translation has
succeeded. If the audience does not recognize
the artists expression, the relationship between observer and observed is broken---
the artist is misunderstood or ignored for failing to express the zeitgeist adequately. This even-handed
relationship between artist and audience mimics the mutual coming-forward--- that creates
the our world. It is for this reason that the arts are especially capable of the
expressing complexity and contradiction which exists outside the logic of grammar and
syntax normal ruling perception. For those of you still with me, the digression is
The Mime Troupe might have continued like this indefinitely, (and in fact the Troupe
continues to thrive here today.) had not the success of our work in the early Sixties led
a number of us to consider whether we were rigorous
enough in fulfilling the implications of our work.
Let me explain how we thought. Imagistically, a pedestal, a frame around a picture, or
a stage can be regarded as the epitome of private propertyspace owned and controlled
by the artist for their own purposes. A number of us became troubled by the tensions
between our democratic intentions and our monopolization of the stage and dialogue. A
dissident movement evolved within the Mime Troupe, seeking
to erase the distinction, or more aptly, the imbalance of power between actor and
audience, and elicit creative participation from everyone
in what we hoped might be newly liberated public space. This internal subset of the Mime
Troupe evolved into The Diggers, and led to an eventual fissure in the company.
The original Diggers evolved during the early days of the Industrial Revolution in 17th
century England, when the King, needing more sheep to service his new woolen mills,
violated ancient traditions by fencing public pastures for his own use. A man named,
Gerard Wynstanley, responded to this violation of custom with a number of pamphlets on the
damnable attributes of private property. Influenced by his writing, the local peasantry
marched to re-claim their land from the king who responded by sending his Puritanical
general, Oliver Cromwell, to meet them. (Imagining Cromwell, I envision a cross between
the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz and John Ashcroft). This dissident group was named the
Diggers because each dawn they were observed burying their dead from the previous
In 1967, a displaced Brooklyn visionary named Billy Murcott, and his charismatic
friend, Emmett Grogan began to preach a digger-like ethos in San Francisco. They papered
the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood with cryptic hand-outs proclaiming, Its Free
because its yours, and criticizing city officials and hippie
merchants for capitalizing on the new phenomena of the counter-culture without giving
anything back. The two soon gravitated into the orbit of the Mime Troupe.
Under their influence, the dissidents in the Mime Troupe advanced their ideas until a
spot in Golden Gate Park was established where free, hot food was delivered daily to the
hordes of kids scrabbling to live on the streets. This was a direct-action intervention
intended as a rebuke to the public hand-wringing of the City Fathers who were
threatening the young with arrest. The Diggers visited the farmers market for
donations of day-old vegetables, cooked them in friends kitchens to produce a hearty stew which they
delivered in steel milk containers, accompanied by small loaves of bread shaped like
mushrooms because of rising over the old one-pound coffee cans in which they were baked.
At the food site, a yellow wooden frame, six-feet-by-six-feet square, was assembled.
One stepped through this Free Frame of Reference and, on the other side, was
handed a smaller version (about an inch by an inch) attached to a cord for wearing. Then
you were given food. The extent of the coercion was the invitation to look at the world from another
perspective--- a free perspective; a
point-of-view one could assemble oneself, without the intervention of ideologues, scribes,
pundits, or coercive behavior. It was, after all, a
free exchange. This free-food program was a great success, not because it was
charity, but because by participating,
one created a world in which free food was a fact.
The food was soon augmented by free crash-pads, free medical clinics, and
free stores. In the Digger Free Store, not only were the goods free, but so were the roles of the customers and employees.
If someone entered the store, which looked just like any other Goodwill filled to
overflowing with mid-20th century detritus --- and asked, Whos in
charge? the answer was always, You are. If the person rose to the
occasion, and assumed their authority they might say, Well, lets clean this
place up, its filthy. If the person dumbed out or failed to understand the
invitation, there was no sense blaming the man or the pigs or
the system for what was essentially a personal failure. That was an inherent
part of the transaction.
The Digger Free Store, though unworkable
as a larger social model, called into question the relationships of people and property:
Who owns it? What value systems and relationships are implied by the
acceptance of terms such as consumer and producer? The Diggers
sought artistic forms to express knowledge which was unexpressed in our society: that if
someone did not have a commodity because they did not have the money, it was the money which was scarce, not the commodity. In a
time when technology can crank out limitless supplies of stuff, money
functions as a mechanism for creating and enforcing scarcity. The Digger Free Store was an
artistic solution for highlighting and creating dialogue about this state of affairs. The
fiction of scarcity was exposed by direct action extending knowledge as a gesture of
All social and political forces are balanced by opposition, and the experimentation of
the Sixties could not continue indefinitely. The watershed event which began the
dissolution of the decades experiments was, for me,
the oil-crunch of 1973.
In the case of the oil-crunch, a hiccup in global distribution systems, was manipulated
into a general anxiety leading people to doubt whether or not there was enough to go
around. The question of conservation was never raised in a serious manner, and
undercut by the sudden absence of plenty ( or at least the perception of absence) the revolutionary public
experiments of the Sixties were starved to death. Long-lines at the gas-pump deflected the
focus from generic social ills to personal loss. Scarcity became the environment in which
social advances could be questioned and rolled-back.
President Carter was politically emasculated for attempting to protect the citizenry
from the gouging they were receiving from the
Nations oil-companies under the pretext of crisis. The next President, Ronald
Reagan, projected a cozy, avuncular, camouflage for the corporate machinery which had
placed him in office, thanking them by
returning their tax monies and justifying it with weird, later discredited science called
supply side economics. The Sixties were over folks.
Concurrently, Reagan-era media concentrated on discrediting the recent political
turmoil, condemning social activists as self-indulgent romantics and spreading the message
that selflessness had been a failure and that material acquisition was a social good.
Promoted by naked appeals to self-interest, the stock market rose to unparalleled heights,
fueled by the tax monies extracted from the fiscal commons and returned to investors who
dedicated them to personal speculation rather than rebuilding the Nations aging
industrial sector. The lure of instant riches re-oriented the majority of a decades
imagination towards personal gain. Social
protest virtually disappeared.
There is a synchronicity between the oil-crunch and the tragedy of September 11th.
Both events offered the authorities a two-fer---
an objective situation requiring a political response, while simultaneously providing an
opportunity to camouflage a parallel political agenda that would never have passed public
muster in ordinary times. This is important to note because it illustrates the manner in
which political responses, are so often
simplified and less appropriately complex than artistic ones. For that reason its
useful to compare some differences between the two.
Whether or not our response to terrorist attacks should have been orchestrated by the
United States or the United Nations is debatable, but while I disagree with the
administrations position, I cannot fault them for not addressing the problem.
However, the two-fer principle is also
operative here. Administration proposals to retroactively return 15 years of income taxes
to the Nations largest corporations is an opportunistic fraud. To add insult to
injury, such legislation would also exempt
corporations from alternative minimum taxes, transferring that burden to individual
tax-payers. This bears the same relationship to fighting terrorism as giving your food to
the neighbors pit-bulls so that your
kids can live in a neighborhood with robust animals.
More of the nations resources are being dedicated to weaponry and conventional
weapons systems today than at any time since the Reagan years, and there appears to be
little chance that the situation will improve now that we are on a continual war footing
against yet-to-be-declared enemies in yet-to-be-declared countries.
These examples of simplistic political responses lead directly to the subject of the
political class, the group least intimate with the creative process and most ignorant of
interdependence or its innate generosity. A few random reminders of who is representing us
are in order. The political class, that twice
buried airline safety proposals recommended by Congressional hearings which might have
protected us against the September 11th attacks. The first after Pan Am 103 was
blown out of the sky by a bomb in 1988 killing 259 people; the second after TWA flight 800 exploded in 1996, killing
229. Magically, months of investigation,
millions of tax dollars, and the recommendations themselves disappeared as certainly as
the airliners themselves, leaving no trace of censure or blame for the representatives who
stage-managed this sleight of hand.
During the most prosperous decade in our Nations
history, this same political class liberated 40 million working poor people from the supposed
indignity of paying for food with food-stamps with no debate examining how workers could
be legally compensated by wages too meager to buy food! They stifled all debate on a single-payer health plan used by
many of our European allies, 12-15% cheaper than the current system fattening the bottom
line of insurance companies.
Our lawmakers have determined that we agree to execute the
mentally handicapped and that the American life-style is not up for review no
matter how egregious its environmental consequences may be. The Democratic
opposition has totally ceded the declaration of global war and the creation of
an expanded National Security State to the President because they are afraid of his popularity. This is self-centeredness
accelerating towards the inevitable murder of Democracy.
of our political leadership relate to the subject of generosity and the arts in several
ways. Besides high-lighting the one-sided and rudimentary nature of most political
responses, they require answering the question, What damage does such mean-spirited
selfishness do to the individual and National spirit? Interdependence implies that we
cannot shelter ourselves from the implications of horrors perpetuated in our name.
Secondly we must ask, what
physical harm is being done to
us, our heirs, to others, and our common environment by those who simulate concern for us
while actually under the command of a corporate sector whose interests are inimical to
those of the average citizen? If, for example, the 77 Senators who took money from Enron
recuse themselves from the investigation, who will defend of the tens of thousands of
ruined employees and investors? Who but the Senate and House passed the laws making such a
debacle possible, only a decade after the multi-billion dollar collapse of the Savings and
political behavior stems from one-sided, self-interested thinking. It is the common
predilection of artists however, to perceive in the round, and
interdependently. They are an available antidote to the fearful, one-sided thinking
dominating public discourse today. Ralph Nader made a valiant try to impact this
conversation and succeeded to a degree, but never approached the cultural affect of a Bob
Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. This was not because he was not charismatic, but because the
nature of the analysis he employed was essentially one-sided, political thinking. It
happened to be a side I agreed with, but still it embraced only one half of a
contradiction, instead of marrying both in a new, higher level of organization. What might coming forward with the
mind of an artist contribute to the current
malaise, I wonder?
Heres a clue. My wife told a friend, a sculptress, that
I was coming to speak here tonight, and the friend commented on the number of homeless
people she had recently seen surrounding the CCAC campus. Then she said, Now theres an idea for an art installation---a
soup kitchen! Regardless of politic persuasion, it is the nature of the creative
process to perceive foreground and background simultaneously. As such, my friend could not
choose not to see the homeless simply by
switching her focus and imitating the mode of perception the average politician employs
hourly to survive.
The self-serving conceit of the political class is that the
public cannot follow the intricacy of the problems they deal with and sometimes they may
be right. Listening to even ten minutes of AM talk-radio will deliver a shocking insight
into the extent of bigotry, resentment, and rage coursing through public consciousness.
Having admitted that however, my rage is still expressly reserved for the political class because they have the information to know better.
They understand the ramifications of legislation which protect accountants and CEOs
from being liable for improper decisions. (Watch this one re-surface during the Enron
investigations. It was passed during the Contract with America.) The politicians understand what de-regulation of
the banking and electricity markets imply, or that tax refunds are a back-handed way of
limiting the governments ability to protect and serve the public. They are paid to
consider these issues in the public interest and have access and reach ordinary citizen do
Despite the omnipresence of vitriolic radio, my deep instinct remains that on some level, the
people, regardless of political persuasion, even the angry and bewildered, know that their
interests are not being represented. They are mute and in dire need of allies who can
express their intuitions, and speak plainly and pungently on their behalf. I believe that
the times are calling upon artists to speak for those rendered voice-less by lack of
representation, and in so doing restore a vital social balance.
The question for each of us here today, is to what purposes
shall we raise our voices, unlimber our bodies, sharpen our pencils, and mix our colors?
Will we choose the route of a personal salvation, seeking refuge in the fiction that we
exist independently, or will we honor the mutually supportive processes of our own
creativity by becoming expressions of generosity and interdependence? Some always have,
and there are examples of good works
available, but they are isolated instances which are not capable of rectifying the
enormity of the problems before us today.
Troubled times offer all of us unparalleled opportunities for
significance. I anticipate with whatever optimism I can still muster, the responses of
creative minds to the current maelstrom of our historical moment. Having said that, its time for me to abandon the rostrum and
climb down into the mouth of the cannon along side the old Jewish acrobat. Theres
room in there for all who would join us in offering themselves, and it certainly seems
were overdue to start the show. There is always risk. Even at this moment of
commitment, while the fuse of the cannon is
being lit and I am shoulder to shoulder with the old acrobat, I know that we are still mutually dependent on
others. Consequently, in closing, I have to hope that the assistants who prepared the
cannon, have aimed it at de trampoline, and not de vall! Thank you very much.