I find this video amazing in all it encapsulates. It is a demonstration by Occupy Wall Street at Lincoln Center that began during the third act of Satygraha, Philip Glass’ opera about Ghandi.
As Alex Ross, the New Yorker music critic, explains: The protest “was directed not at the opera itself but at a certain disparity between its lofty moral message and the machinery of corporate arts funding.” That’s code for “elitism.” More about that in a moment.
Most striking, Glass came out to address the Occupiers. Police had herded them down the center’s steps, effectively creating a barricade between what looks like the peasants and the exiting royals. But many of those alleged royals ended up jumping the barricade to join the protestors.
Glass, always elegant, limited himself to simply repeating the opera’s last three lines, from the Bhagavad Gita:
When righteousness withers away and evil rules the land, we come into being, age after age, and take visible shape, and move, a man among men, for the protection of good, thrusting back evil and setting virtue on her seat again.
Talk about appropriate for our time. And those words are thousands of years old.
What is amazing here, besides Glass’ chilling quotation of an ancient text so relevant today, is the drama of presumably elitist opera goers — the royals — interacting with demonstrators. (I stopped myself from using the words “counter-cultural demonstrators.”) Glass’ appearance was of course in support of the Occupiers and, I assume, was meant to demonstrate that “fine art” itself does not necessarily represent elitist values.
Seth Colter Walls takes up this subject in detail in a post on the Awl, where you can also see videos of Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson separately addressing the crowd. Walls writes:
At the Met, the most expensive opera tickets are indeed expensive, but you can stand behind the orchestra section—or even sit at the upper reaches of the house—for less than the cost of an IMAX showing at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 multiplex up the road. This persistent fiction of “elitism,” and contemporary classical music’s supposed inaccessibility, is one of the strongest propagandistic tools ever devised by the titans of corporate pop culture. They would prefer you not ever cost-compare a Family Circle seat to Satyagraha alongisde a 3D screening of Transformers 3.
I found myself cringing at the claim that letting the rest of us stand behind the orchestra section disproves elitist characterizations. (Let them eat cake in the rear of the palace?) But Walls does construct a good argument that, in the absence of a public-arts infrastructure, the opera’s continued existence necessarily depends upon donations from 1-percenters, like the Koch brothers. And nobody, he writes, is making big bucks at the opera.
I remain conflicted about such responses. It’s more than a little noticeable that every time an Occupy event impinges upon progressives’ comfort, they issue kind-hearted, paternalistic advice.
I was shocked to see Frank Bruni and Charles Blow of the New York Times do that a few weeks ago. I wonder if they are even aware that their privileged occupancy of the Times offices unavoidably distorts their vision. It’s not just conservative journalists who lose touch with the commoners.
Since I’ve reviewed restaurants for so long, I’m painfully aware of the absurdity of dining like Marie Antoinette while millions of American children don’t get enough to eat. But issuing guilty statements in that respect — Bruni has done plenty of that — isn’t enough. Philip Glass made a poignant statement before the Occupiers and then disappeared. Does that reduce his protest to rhetoric? I certainly wouldn’t advocate not staging his operas, anymore than I’d shackle brilliant chefs and force them to work in dungeon kitchens.
Obviously, I’m conflicted.
The Awl link also includes an audio clip from the third act of Satyagraha. Maury D’Annato of Parterre, who was also on the scene and is an Occupy supporter, described his experience of emerging from the opera:
Inside, we had seen messages of, alas, hope and change, alongside political imagery bearing little resemblance to anything in the last three decades. The mood at the end of the opera is one of nostalgia, of optimism beaten almost out of existence.
Thus they jumped the barricade. The scene is virtually a parable. If you don’t do anything else, please listen to Glass in the video above. He appears around 3:00.