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When Art is Cooler -- and More Conservative -- Than Politics

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If art and politics run counter to each other, it's little wonder that a hip new production at the Spoleto Festival USA is so anti-utopian. Why? Because the leading utopian in the world today is our own 43rd president, who preaches, and practices, a kind of coercive do-gooderism that has caused a far-reaching backlash, from the streets of Baghdad to the capitals of Eurasia -- and now even to the theatrical stages of Charleston, SC. And while George W. Bush might be totally oblivious to trends in art, it's fair to predict that the artists of the future will not be oblivious to Bush.

The production at the Spoleto festival -- founded by the legendary Gian-Carlo Menotti in 1977 -- is a memorable reworking of an otherwise unmemorable opera, Christoph Willibald Gluck's 1758 L'ile de Merlin ou Le monde renversé ("The Isle of Merlin, or, the World Turned Upside Down"). While much of Gluck's work is well known, this presentation is, in fact, the American premiere of Merlin -- 249 years after it debuted in Vienna.

Perhaps the delay indicates that this isn't the composer's finest piece, but it's a bravura effort by New York-based director Christopher Alden. Alden has updated the work, using modern sets and costumes--and, more to the point, referencing modern politics.

Gluck intended Merlin as a satire of Parisian manners: In his "reverse Paris," spouses are always faithful to each other, lawyers are always honest, and leaders are always good-hearted.

Yet at the same time, Merlin is a window into a more optimistic era. Gluck was a product of Enlightenment thinking -- promoting the vision, thanks to Reason, of a brighter and better world. As Schiller rhapsodized in his 1786 "Ode to Joy," "All men become brothers." But then came the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and any number of other blood-drenched stabs at building a better world -- coercively, by brute force.

And so by the 20th century, artists and writers had turned decisively anti-utopian. Yevgeny Zamyatin's dystopian We, published in 1921, was followed by Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984.

Yet despite all the failures of coercive utopianism, politicians have continued to push the idea, perhaps because such grandiloquent scheming assigns them a leading role in the drama. Even mediocre pols, possessing ordinary intellects, warm to the idea of taking their place among the Great Movers and Shakers of History.

A case in point is George W. Bush, who has gone from being a traditionally conservative incrementalist as governor of Texas to a revisionist "neoconservative" visionary as president. Quaffing deeply from speechwriter Michael Gerson's romantic tankard of rhetoric, Bush stunned the world with his 2005 inaugural address, in which he recalled the events of his first term, using a deliberate--but unfortunate--fire simile: "By our efforts, we have lit a fire as well--a fire in the minds of men." He doubtless didn't know it, but "fire in the minds of men" is almost a direct quote from Fyodor Dostoevsky's 1872 novel The Possessed, in which a Russian official watches helplessly as revolutionaries burn down his house. "It's all incendiarism!" he cries out. "It's nihilism!" To which an observer answers, "The fire is in the minds of men and not in the roofs of houses."

Yes, it might seem strange to hear a Republican president avidly quoting a novel about Russian revolutionaries. But actually, it's not so strange, considering that so many neoconservatives are the legatees of Leon Trotsky. As John Judis has argued, the neocons simply transmuted one kind of radicalism into another kind -- from dialectically determined Bolshevism to dialectically determined "democratism." And yet in both cases, the "ism" is to be enforced at gunpoint.

Indeed, even an artist, disconnected as he or she might be from the pedestrian world, would have a hard time matching the radicalism of what Bush said next in that address, as he went on describe the mystical fire of freedom: "It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world."

"Fire in the minds of men"? Untamed fire"? This isn't conservatism, this is radicalism. And a bloody-handed radicalism at that -- certain to cause a counter-reaction, even in the theater.

So it's little wonder that Merlin director Alden went the other way, striving to make his production a commentary on our times. As he told me in an interview, his goal was to make the show "compelling to a modern audience" -- and what's most compelling in this Spoleto show is its backlashing anti-utopianism.

In Gluck's tale, two light-hearted vagabonds, Pierrot and Scapin, are shipwrecked on Merlin's island, where they find phantasmagorical happiness. But under Alden's direction, coercion creeps into the story. The two characters are seduced and forced -- and, ultimately, mostly forced -- to accept the utopian decrees of their new home. Yes, they seem to be better off for the time being, but for how long? The words "We Are In Paradise" appear on a drop-down screen, blaring irony. And through effective lighting, the stage set, which once looked comfortable and inviting, ends up appearing stark and harsh -- like, perhaps, the inside of a psychiatric hospital.

Alden commented, "It's hard to accept a utopia today" -- because now we know too much about the Kafkaesque construction of alleged utopias. He cited the Jonestown suicide commune and also Scientology as recent examples of coercive and cultish behavior. And that leads back to the point of his updating the opera: Art doesn't just imitate life; it reacts to life, it comments on life.

Artists, flashing their fancies and passions, might not commonly be seen as anchors of common sense and prudence. Yet when politicians lose themselves in the pyrotechnics of their own romantic ecstasies, even artists will feel compelled to step in and provide the needed dousing. And that counter-active cooling will likely continue as long as George W. Bush and his white-hot ideology burn in the White House.