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February 3, 2023

The protester’s dilemmas

Art has always had serious political potential. Which it often neglected and other times it wasted through abuse. Since art with a much too strident political content often disappointingly misses its target. On the other hand, some apparently neutral works of art end up being veritable bombshells through their force of suggestion. Oscillating between deficiency and excess, between exhibitionism and subtlety, art’s political dimension deserves being reevaluated precisely by carefully looking at society’s dynamics which usually evade the scrutiny of “public opinion.” A good strategic positioning in assessing a situation, one that would infer the specificity of contemporaneousness while avoiding ideological hijackings, is not really at anyone’s disposal.

Theater has always been privileged in this sense, but its success depends even more on the director’s abilities. A theater show, let’s not forget, is a collective achievement and only the happy convergences of its various instruments of expression have the chance to be really persuasive. Let’s take the case of one of the most provocative shows of the day, the work of a group from Berlin’s ‘Schaubuhne.’ Director Thomas Ostermeier has proposed once again Henrik Ibsen’s old play, ‘An Enemy of the People,’ adapting the text with the help of Florian Borchmeyer. The play itself is extremely up-to-date (despite being over a century old): a small town prospers as a result of the construction of a Spa, which becomes a source of prosperity for the whole community. But the honesty of the spa’s doctor, who discovers the perverse effects of industrial pollution, seems to destabilize the apparent social harmony. Eventually, through the joint efforts of the employers, of local authorities and of the corrupt press, the “green” doctor is sidelined and smeared as “enemy of the people.” In the name of the interests of the majority and, consequently, of the principle of democracy. How many places reproduce today, in real life, situations like that in Ibsen’s play? Several days ago, Casale Monferrato, a former mayor of a small locality in northwest Italy, died. At the end of the 1980s he stood out through his courage to adopt, for the first time in Europe, an ordinance against asbestos pollution. But at the time the community – which at first prospered because of the important local cement plant, but which in time was to experience over a thousand deaths because of the environment’s high toxicity – opposed the mayor, fearing a loss of jobs. He too had become “enemy of the people.”

Through his play Ibsen talked about the worrying vulnerabilities of modern democracy. After a century of sinuous evolution, Ibsen’s main character can be seen other than a prophet oppressed by the obtuseness of his contemporaries. It’s not by chance that Hitler himself saw himself in this character who ended up fighting the whole of society and who justified the exceptional individual – a foreshadowing of the principle of the ‘Fuhrer’ who leads the masses even against their opinions. But it’s not the ‘Fascist’ temptation that Thomas Ostermeier chose to talk about in his show. It’s the ambiguity of protest. In the centuries of democracy protest has become a decisive instrument. It entails that an active minority tries (and often succeeds) to impose changes in the public perception of various aspects. But at the same time the protest itself was integrated into what Guy Debord dubbed “the society of the spectacle.”

Among the innovations that Ostermeier’s adaptation resorts to there is also the provocative introduction of a fragment from ‘The Coming Insurrection,’ an anonymous text which appeared several years ago and which sets off from the urban riots that took place in France in 2005, a text that announced “an imminent collapse of capitalist culture.” The fragment is introduced in the speech that the character addresses directly to spectators, as if they are the audience in the play. Moreover, the audience is tempted to more actively enter the game. Those who want to can take the stand, commenting, as part of the play itself, the main character’s attitude.

At one of the two performances in Cluj – which were part of the ‘Interferences’ International Festival – even some of the organizers of the recent electoral march that took place before the presidential runoff took the stand, a march that was a real success not only because it brought together approximately 10,000 people against the head of government who was the favorite presidential candidate back then, but also because it mobilized through its example a much higher number of voters.

But the stage-manager’s intent – such a participation of the public takes place at any performance, anywhere in the world, with the improvisation de rigueur – was not to provoke empathy with the protagonist, possibly in the direction of solidarity in an unofficial international of protesters against institutional complicities that seek to maintain the political and social status quo at any cost. This sentiment of subtle oppression is somehow diffuse at global level. That is precisely why the protester is an undeniable hero of our time, but his action is always stalked by a versatile dialectic of publicity. As the aforementioned ‘insurrectional’ manifesto reminds us, the idea of stressed personal identity, cultivated by a venerable liberal tradition but grotesquely downfallen to the level of unscrupulous marketing benchmarks, has become an exhausting burden of self-representation, as a frustrating responsibility, with the paradoxical cost of always-different interior infirmities. The individual thus risks becoming empty fiction, a social representation that is anesthetic for consciences and the sign of anthropologic hijacking.

But even when he protests he is no longer entirely credible – here the director proves to be more subtle than the aforementioned left-wing argument – because his pathos is based on the spectacular impact, thus implicitly secreting the trauma of a very probable farce. This is the protester’s new burden: to advance through the tenebrous forest of demagogy, where he always risks losing himself morally and his cause being mystified. Thomas Ostemeier and his team have found once again the most vigorous vein of political art: to give serious food for thought on the ambiguity that often accompanies our political attitudes.


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