Brooklyn, though having lost a famous baseball team (and, before that, an infamous football team), need weep no longer: it now has the up-to-date Brooklyn Academy of Music, the national leader in the presentation of guaranteed media-succulent avant-garde theater-cum-dance-cum-“music” extravaganzas. Indeed, so successful has the institution been under the guidance of Harvey Lichtenstein, its President and Chief Executive Officer, that Blam!—the title chosen for an exhibition of Pop, Minimalist, and performance art at the Whitney Museum this fall—might have been thought to refer not to the famous 1960s (Roy) Lichtenstein cartoon painting but to the 1980s (Harvey) Lichtenstein Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Jokes aside, the Brooklyn Academy’s record in presenting what it has chosen to call the “Next Wave” has been notable. A successful series sailing under this name took place in 1983; it featured eleven attractions, among them such icons of the new as dancers Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Carolyn Carlson, and Molissa Fenley, and theatrical animateurs Lee Breuer (of Mabou Mines fame) and George Coates. This year—with one exception—the presentation roster seemed a bit slimmer in hype value; on the whole the names of the artists—dancers Remy Charlip, Bill T. Jones, Arnie Zane, Mark Morris, and Elisa Monte, videogra-pher Tim Morris, far-out saxophonist Richard Landry, and even composer Steve Reich—appeared to come out of the debate within the experimental art world rather than to stand perched, as their predecessors of the year before had been, on what might be called the brink of true media stardom.

The one exception, of course, was the presentation of the now-mythic—at least in some circles—Einstein on the Beach, the mid-1970s collaboration between composer Philip Glass and director-designer-visual artist Robert Wilson. The 1983 Brooklyn festival had begun with Glass’s The Photographer, a kind of tribute to the nineteenth-century figure Eadweard Muybridge, who first proved by the evidence of the camera that a horse, when trotting, has all four hooves off the ground at the same time. This work, in its static artificiality, seemed to impress even the composer’s fans as something more of a whimper than a bang. Einstein, however, was different. Through its use of the terrifying images associated with the scientist’s work, it had managed, in two 1976 performances at the (rented) Metropolitan Opera House, to enter into the consciousness of artistically knowing New Yorkers. A measure of the fame the work has gained with the passing of time is that so many people now claim to have been present that these performances must have been given, not at the Met, but at Madison Square Garden. The choice of Einstein to close the 1984 festival with some twelve performances thus seemed a deliberate attempt to end with strength, to make up once and for all for whatever was less than exciting in the earlier part of the season. Artistic merit aside, the effort succeeded at the box office: Einstein seems to have sold out every performance, in the process enabling the entire festival to gross over a million dollars.

Apart from their collaboration on Einstein, Glass and Wilson have separately made enviable public careers.

Apart from their collaboration on Einstein, Glass and Wilson have separately made enviable public careers. Glass is the most visible of the musical Minimalists, those composers who have found a way out of both the complexities, disintegrations, and unpopularity of post-World-War-II modernism. Following in the footsteps of La Monte Young and Terry Riley, and evolving on a parallel course with Steve Reich, Glass used the simplest harmonic materials, iterated at stupefying length, and orchestrated for instruments sometimes electronic and always electrically amplified. Prior to the mid-1970s, his music was instrumental, written for and performed by an ensemble led by him and bearing his name. The result of all this was a growing reputation on the New York downtown music scene and several LPs available only in the more sophisticated record stores. In Europe, too, where Glass had worked with Nadia Boulanger and first become inspired to follow his present course through association with Ravi Shankar, a cult began to form around him and his ideas. This cult abroad was perhaps most interesting as yet another example of the European readiness to be charmed by American simplicities at once eccentric and divine.

Whereas Glass’s artistic education at the Juilliard School in New York and with Boulanger in Paris was nothing if not establishment, Robert Wilson was from the beginning of his theater career in the 1960s something of an autodidact. Born in Texas in 1941, he had almost graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in business administration when he decided to come to New York to study architecture; though he did take a degree in it at Pratt Institute and even served as an apprentice with an architect, his interests lay more with the visual arts, and more specifically with body movements. For him, such movements were not “dance” but rather a means toward freeing blocked impulses and capacities. He had worked with handicapped, deprived, and disturbed children to support himself, and in the process developed an aesthetic of slow-motion gesture and action, wherein each detail carried a portentous but usually nonexplicit, quasi-symbolic meaning.

When Wilson’s therapy-induced movements were grafted onto his background in architecture and his time spent in painting in New York during the yeasty mid-1960s, the result was a theatrical conception of painterly stage designs, massive constructed sets, and wordless dance, all unfolding without very much action but at heavenly length. Wilson’s titles for his stage works all seemed to suggest more content than the works themselves made any attempt to provide: The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud (1969), Deafman Glance (1970), and The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin (1973). All were huge stage pageants using for the most part untrained actors and dancers who did Wilson’s bidding more through the force of his personality, deployed during unlimited rehearsal time, than through any professional experience of their own. The critics—especially those of the avant-garde stripe—were interested, and audiences here and abroad attended in enough numbers to convince private and governmental backers that Wilson was indeed onto something.

Wilson likes to call his earlier works “operas,” though the music that accompanied them was, by common consent, little more than trivial, even for those critics whose standards were anti-profundity. In this regard the collaboration with Glass on Einstein awakened expectations—which many critics later found wholly fulfilled—of a Wagnerian “Gesamtkunstwerk,” that is, a unity of music, theater, and dance in which the aesthetic whole was vastly greater than the sum of its parts. Whatever the justice done in this instance to the wooly formulation ascribed to Wagner—his great oeuvre, after all, demonstrated nothing if not the primacy of music—the general feeling after the first performances of Einstein was that the multi-media avant-garde had at last come of age.

Even for those who were enthusiastic in saluting Einstein on its first appearance, the creative results from Wilson and Glass working separately thereafter—they had entered upon a period of strained relations that precluded their further collaboration for the time being—fell short of complete satisfaction. Wilson, for his part, retired to Europe, where funding, mostly from state sources, was easier to find than in America. He conceived and staged several less ambitious works on the Continent, and even turned his busy imagination to making video clips capable of being shown in any order and at any length. Then Wilson devoted the major part of his attention to a project grandiose even for him, an extravaganza that was to be the centerpiece of the cultural offerings at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. It was designed to do nothing less than sum up the entire human world-historical experience.

In any case, the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down was first conceived by Wilson as an agglomeration, lasting twelve hours, of six related theater pieces with music; the six parts were to be produced (and financed) in six different countries, then shipped to Los Angeles, where their assembling was to be funded by the Olympic Arts Committee and presented at the Shrine Auditorium. Though individual segments had been produced in Rotterdam, Cologne, Rome, and Minneapolis, their putting together at the Olympics defied even the financial abilities of the doughty Robert Fitzpatrick, President of the California Institute of the Arts (a school founded some years ago with Walt Disney money) and Director of the Olympic Arts Festival. The work was scaled down to eight hours, and further cuts were envisioned, but to no avail. Despite more than three million dollars from the producing countries, two hundred thousand dollars from Los Angeles, and almost a million and a half dollars from donations and projected ticket sales, the entire project was scrubbed amidst massive publicity. The French Communist Party daily, l’Humanité (as quoted by American Theatre, the magazine of the non-profit Theatre Communications Group) wrote that the cancelation was “a crime against the spirit.”

Whatever the expert status of l’Humanité in matters of the spirit, the segment of the CIVIL warS produced last spring in Minneapolis suggested a different conclusion. There, in the small auditorium of the Walker Arts Center, one could hear and see a collection of entr'actes from the CIVIL warS. Wilson called these “knee plays” because they serve as the “joints” between the work’s five acts.

The narration was written and spoken by Byrne as well. The scenario and the direction were solely by Wilson.

It is doubtless less than fair to judge an art work lasting twelve hours (some estimates go as high as sixteen) by intervening excerpts alone. But a passage in the program notes, presumably written by Wilson, explicitly argues for these entr’actes’ existing on their own: “the Knee Plays is like a sub-story that is woven through the tapestry of the CIVIL warS . . . . they serve in some cases as an introduction to the larger scenes, but on their own they tell a story together that can be seen separately.” The knee plays include music composed and led by David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame) and played by seven musicians, six brass and one percussion. The narration was written and spoken by Byrne as well. The scenario and the direction were solely by Wilson; the design and lighting were by Wilson and a group of (presumably subordinate) collaborators. The choreography for the evening was by Suzushi Hanayagi, variously described in the program as “one of Japan’s foremost classically trained Kabuki dancers” and as “one of Japan’s foremost classical dancers.” Rehearsal time for the Walker performances had apparently been generous: rehearsals had begun (after much planning here and abroad) fully one month before the opening.

There is no point in attempting to describe the story line of the knee plays, for it is part and parcel of Wilson’s aesthetic that there is none. Instead, the watcher is confronted by a motley assortment of symbols drawn from the stock inventory of emotionally charged detritus floating about in every half-educated intellectual’s mind. On this occasion, the material consisted of a tree becoming a boat becoming a book and then ending up once again a tree. More consequential for the viewer was the heavy oriental influence on the proceedings, an influence mostly enshrined in the choreography and in the mise-en-scène. To my Western and doubtless parochial eyes, it all seemed stiff, arbitrary, and unconvincing. The movements of the dancers, full of jerks and bodily pourings, seemed like some clumsy imitation of Japanese samurai movies on late-night television. The sets included bird-puppetry carried around the audience and a clumsily constructed boat that insisted (on the night I attended) on repeatedly falling apart. It was all creaky, and its minimalism extended well beyond its conception of its craftsmanship.

A special word, I suppose, is necessary to describe the music and the narration. Byrne’s composition—it must be remembered that he wrote only the music for the knee plays: the music for the five major acts of the whole work came from other composers, including Glass—was a combination of charmless hymn tunes and the minimalist overworking of already thin material. And the narration, at least on the level of literary interest, added nothing to the evening’s vitality. Seemingly heavily drawn from the deadpan monologues of performance artist Laurie Anderson—another icon of the new avant-garde artistic sensibility—Byrne’s words would have been laconic had there not been quite so many of them. A quotation from the opening of the first knee play defines the curiously androgynous camp effect:

Today is an important occasion.
She thinks that she must wear the right clothes.
The right combination of clothes
. . . will make her lucky.

A quotation from the beginning of the fourth knee play adumbrates an element of schizoid alienation never very far from Wilson’s work:

I thought that if I ate the food of the area I was visiting
That I might assimilate the point of view of the people there
As if the point of view was somehow in the food
So I would make no choices myself regarding what I ate.
I would simply follow the examples of those around me.

The reception by the audience of Wilson partisans in Minneapolis fell short of delirium on the night I attended. Even The New York Times’s usually ebullient (at least on this subject) John Rockwell seemed to have some difficulty getting his praise started:

Mr. Wilson is a creator of massive spectacles, and sometimes his more intimate work has looked schematic and simplistic. There was a bit of that during the first few “knee plays” on Thursday. But then Mr. Wilson exerted his spell, or one began to comprehend what he was about.

For my part, I found the whole effect both boring and amateurish, with remarkably little to show onstage for the month-long efforts of something like fifty people. Indeed, so aimless did everything seem that I could not help wondering later whether the key to both the aridity onstage in Minneapolis and the spectacular financial demands that caused the cancellation of the Olympic Arts Festival presentation was not simply Wilson’s oft-trumpeted insistence on developing the final form of his works in rehearsal. This implies an emphasis on casualness and at the same time an inevitability of outcome too profound to be communicated to the participants in words. In artistic matters, after all, the line separating egoistic self-indulgence and merely not knowing what one wants is often a fine one indeed.

In the meantime, while Wilson had been preparing the CIVIL warS, Glass was devoting himself to opera. The first major fruit of his attempt to write for conventional opera houses was Satyagraba, a set of tableaux drawn from Gandhi’s experiences in South Africa from 1893 to 19141 The work was commissioned by the city of Rotterdam and first performed by the Netherlands Opera in 1980; the American premiere took place in 1981 at Artpark in upstate New York; the New York premiere was given at the Brooklyn Academy in the fall of the same year. Satyagraba’s “libretto” was written by Glass and his associate and friend Constance Dejong, with sets and costumes by Robert Israel, and staging by Hans Nieuwenhuis.

Satyagraha’s vocal text is completely drawn from the Indian Bhagavad-Gita and sung in Sanskrit, a language known neither by Glass nor by the participants in the performance. By Glass’s own testimony he does not wish the audience to be distracted by understanding. The work’s three acts are each overseen onstage by a different benevolent, totemic figure: Tolstoy, the Indian philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The mimed (in slow motion) Gandhi material is, of course, heavily fraught with anticipation of the American civil-rights struggles of the 1960s. The music is in Glass’s repetitious and mostly motoric style, this time with the motor set on Molto adagio. Only the score’s ingenious (though Broadway commercial sounding) orchestration—and a moving theme at the end seemingly drawn from the apotheosis of Tchaikowsky’s Swan Lake—saved the evening from the total tedium Glass’s admirers call ecstasy. In fairness, it must be added that ten thousand tickets were purchased for the work’s five sold-out Brooklyn performances.

Satyagraha was the second of what Glass calls his “portrait” operas, Einstein being thefirst. The third, and latest, of these is Akhnaten, a work based on Oedipus and Akhnaton, a 1960 book of psychoanalytic-historical speculations by Immanuel Velikovsky, a best-selling author famous for Worlds in Collision, an attempt to prove that the Red Sea actually did part. The work was first produced in Germany early last year. Its American performance was the result of a co-production by the Houston Grand Opera and the New York City Opera. Akbhaten thus arrived at the New York State Theater in November and, like all of Glass’s recent operatic works, promptly sold out.

As far as my own experience of Akhnaten is concerned, I must confess that I only managed to last through the first act. Musically the work began with an endless arpeggiated A-minor chord. The number of notes in the arpeggios varied and sometimes quick repeated chords—also in A minor—were sounded. The stage was full of piles of sand, to which scantily clad Egyptians added water to make what one presumes were monotheistic mudpies; the eponymous hero throughout behaved in the manner of what Andrew Porter called in The New Yorker a hermaphrodite, a description which seems both kind and understated. The first act ended with several minutes—Andrew Porter, again displaying British caution, thought it seemed like only five—of what can only be dubbed a romp around the pyramid. At the end of the act the audience was either too stupefied or too moved or too exalted to do more than give a few rattlings of applause, which sounded like nothing so much—or so little—as the fluttering of aged pigeons’ wings.

Donal Henahan in the Times and Peter Davis in New York hated it all. Henahan, no slouch with a cutting phrase, summed up the musical side of the evening this way:

Akhnaten . . . is not a work whose music asks to be listened to seriously. Despite the publicity that Mr. Glass’s works have received, his operas to date add up to little more than pageants with backgrounds of continually repeated, barely varied sound patterns. They stand to music as the sentence “See Spot run” stands to literature . . . .

Considered strictly as an almost primitively tonal protest against the self-defeating complexity of most contemporary music, Akhnaten may act as a tonic, if you will forgive the pun. But it is one more example of going-nowhere music . . . .

Davis made his verdict into a prediction of the composer’s future: “Glass may have reached the end of his limited resources and can think of nowhere else to go.” Speaking for advanced opinion, Andrew Porter wrote respectfully and at some length on the opera, describing the work’s sources and blaming the unsatisfactory nature of the outcome on the problems of the production. Porter even described the music, but the closest he could come to saying he liked it wasn’t really very close at all:

The only section of the score I’ve seen, the Akhnaten-Nefertiti love duet, is two hundred and seventy-five bars stuck in an arpeggiated E minor, colored by passing notes and added notes. There are pedals and some slow, occasionally dissonant counterpoints in the form of climbing chromatic scales. The lovers’ voices shine out above this in a slow chorale-like melody, crossing, overlapping . . . and ending each phrase on a unison, octave, or fifth. The metres and the phrase lengths vary. It’s a carefully composed, carefully proportioned stretch of music.

My own reaction to the third of Akhnaten I was able to endure will come as no surprise. It was rising boredom, passing through the various degrees of irritation to fidgets and anger. Is it that I was merely reacting to the presence of a strong creative personality? I hardly think so. Rather it was just the normal response of a Diogenes trying to find, not an honest man—that would by comparison be easy—but a performance of Glass or Wilson that would justify the hype. Neither man by himself had been able to bring it off. Would a collaboration succeed where each had failed?

So in the long run it all came down to Einstein on the Beach in Brooklyn. For months the buildup had been intense, and a veritable Niagara of printed material on the pair, all clearly produced with the cooperation of their busy subjects, had prepared the scene. The sets and the costumes from the 1976 performances had been stored, and so were available to re-create the original production. The lighting design, by Beverly Emmons, and the sound design, by Kurt Munkacsi, were repeats of 1976; many of the musicians, too, were back for the revival. The 1976 choreography (except for one dance at the beginning of Act I) had been the work of Andrew deGroat, a dancer much favored for his ability to twirl endlessly in one place; in the present performances, Luanda Childs (who had been a lead dancer in the 1976 production and had choreographed the beginning of Act I) was the choreographer for the entire work. Several actors repeated their earlier roles; and most of the words they spoke were carried over from 1976.

The performance I attended was billed as the opening, though several performances, called previews, had been given earlier. While the news could hardly have been a total surprise, it still came as something of a shock to be informed by a sign in the lobby that the performance would last four and a half hours without intermission. Fortunately, this disciplined call to duty was leavened by a generous concession printed in the program:

As Einstein on the Beach is performed without intermission, the audience is invited to leave and re-enter the auditorium quietly, as necessary. The food service will remain open during performances.

With comfort and nourishment thus assured, it was possible to settle down to the performance. Though the opera was scheduled to begin at two o’clock, the music seemed already to have started when I arrived ten minutes early. This music consisted of low organ-like tones, only slowly changing, coming out of an electronic console in the orchestra pit. Anyone not familiar with the recording of Glass’s score made after the Met performances in 1976 might have been pardoned for assuming that this quasi-doodling was just pre-performance tuning.

Several minutes later—but still before the official starting time—the audience’s filing into the hall was matched onstage by the appearance in front of the curtain, but to one side, of Childs and Sheryl Sutton, the two dancer-actresses who were to be onstage for almost the entire length of the marathon. They sat down in front of a table in the two chairs which had been prepared for them; their costumes, clearly chosen to awaken memories of Einstein’s dowdy dress, consisted of men’s pants, open-necked white shirts, and suspenders. Both wore telephone-operator headsets, complete with microphones. As they sat they began to make slow, laborious motions with their hands and arms, giving the impression of being in considerable pain. At the same time they began to count numbers very slowly; sometimes other words were audible, including the fascinating phrase “Take a Toyota.” As this action went on before the closed curtain, a chorus, also dressed in Einstein costume, began to file stiffly into the orchestra pit. The chorus began to sing numbers as well.

Suddenly—it was now about 2:10, and the sold-out house was still only about two-thirds full—the curtain went up, and the music, which up till now had been quite delicate, came alive with an enormous amplified rush. Childs, repeating her dance from the 1976 production, kept up a constant movement diagonally from the back of the stage to the front, and then back again; her dancing was frenetic, as was the music. From the side a crudely schematic steam locomotive, looking like an enormous child’s toy, advanced ever so slowly to the center of the stage. On the back curtain a narrow band of light, like some fugitive element from a Morris Louis or Kenneth Noland painting, descended from the top to the floor.

Now a violinist dressed—surprise!—like Einstein appeared on an elevated platform in the pit, and began to play an endless solo consisting of slow single notes, mostly in scales. From the many loudspeakers could be heard nonsense containing the name “Mr. Bojangles.” The male judge began, in a sententious tone, to tell a story about a modest woman—so modest that she wore a blindfold when bathing—who gave a speech in Kalamazoo on the rights of women. After describing how the woman wanted to lead her listeners in singing the national women’s song, the judge went on to quote her as recommending that women should tell men, if they don’t behave right, to take “their kisses right back where they came from.”1

Now there was a huge dance sequence, illuminated by a vaporous persimmon light, which proved for me by far the highlight of the entire event. Danced by the members of the Lucinda Childs Dance Company, the choreography seemed a brilliant evocation of the post-World-War-II New York dance scene in all its athleticism, buoyancy, and optimism. Though it all went on too long, and though Glass’s music kept up a constant drumbeat of triviality, one could not help feeling that dance, as brought to Brooklyn by Lucinda Childs, had staked its claim to full artistic stature.

From this point on things went downhill. There was a jail scene featuring what looked like two male dancers, one of whom was stated in the program to be a woman. In this scene Childs went on muttering lines typical in their combination of nonsense and alienation:

I was in this prematurely air-conditioned supermarket and there were all these aisles and there were these bathing caps you could buy that had these kind of Fourth of July plumes on them that were red and yellow and blue and I wasn’t tempted to buy one but I was reminded of the fact that I had been avoiding the beach.

As if to show that the Third World guerilla movement is still with us, she picked up an automatic weapon and pointed it first at her colleagues onstage, then at the orchestra pit, and then finally at the paying customers.

Perhaps I tired, or perhaps the profusion of visual material and incessant music unmatched by any real story line made connected notetaking impossible. Much of the rest hardly seemed worth writing down. There was a long scene with a couple standing on the platform of a railway observation car, and another scene in which a long horizontal bar, lighted in front and meant to represent a bed, was raised ever so slowly by a cable at one side so that it became vertical; it was then raised into the flies. Toward the end of the afternoon, a little missile, perhaps two feet long, flew across the front of the stage on a guy wire against a sky-blue backdrop. This was succeeded by a nuclear explosion, and then by a new drop curtain which in the center depicted a mushroom cloud, on the top right an American bomber, and on the top left a detailed explanation in words of technical aspects of an atomic blast.

So here at last was the point of the whole work. Einstein, the shabby, music-loving, humble philosopher-scientist had come home to roost with a vengeance. The putative disaster of the century—the threat of annihilation which produces the alienation of the person—can now be seen to rest at the feet of the greatest scientific mind of the century. If this is what comes of logical thinking, I suppose the argument would run, who could condemn Robert Wilson for putting on a melodrama without a story line, and Philip Glass for writing hours of music using only a few harmonies and even fewer harmonic and rhythmic devices?

The end of the opera, on the stage as in the recording, found Childs and Sutton sitting on a bench, not touching, as a bus driver intoned drippy words expressive of young love. It was all frightfully maudlin, and the final words seemed risible indeed:

Once more her voice was heard. “Kiss me, John,” she implored. And leaning over, he pressed his lips warmly to hers in fervent osculation . . . .

At the final curtain almost all the seats in the house were still occupied, and the applause was deafening. John Rockwell wrote in The New York Times the next morning:

I find it constantly involving and almost religiously moving. For those who feel the same, the performances this week in Brooklyn will be experiences to cherish for a lifetime.

For those who do not feel the same, the problem will be to understand just what took place in Einstein and why this work appears to have such a powerful effect on certain people. The verdict on Einstein as an art work must be that, as a collaboration, it represents a vastly more interesting work than either has been able to achieve on his own. As music heard apart from the stage spectacle (and at low volume on one’s home phonograph), Glass’s score seems both harmless and even appealing, as if it were quite content to function as a sentimental pop anodyne; heard in the visual context of Wilson’s shameless exploitation of contemporary anomie, the music takes on a character no more musically impressive, but vastly more evocative of a certain kind of cultural despair. As stage spectacle, Wilson’s aimless cramming together of overworked metaphors is tied together and even integrated by the frenzied electronic sameness of the music. The result doubtless is the putting into art of a unique moment in modern culture: the moment in the 1970s when it had become clear to all the participants that the best, if not the only, causes were those undertaken strictly for oneself.

The social characteristics of the audience for Einstein are, I think, quite clear. Affluent, relatively educated, moderately successful in the professions, old enough to know about the 1960s, too young to know that the events of the 1960s had a historical context beyond personal concerns. The other side of this concentration on self is a loss of faith in a transcendent order, a loss which hardly renders less necessary the satisfaction of human needs for comfort and reassurance. It is about this situation that Stephen Holden wrote in the Times on the Sunday of the Einstein opening (in an admiring article tided “The Avant-Garde is Big Box Office”):

Whether mystical or nonsensical, the idea of evoking a totality of experience is the essential thrust behind works like “Einstein on the Beach” . . . . But that reality isn’t a rarefied perception of truth and God toward which high art has traditionally directed audiences, but a multiplicity of images and sounds, from cartoons to Mozart. Its appeal may come from its attempt to embrace not only the familiar but—everything we don’t know and can only imagine.

Doubtless Einstein, like other products of the counterculture and its fossil remnants, has a political cast attractive to its viewers. But those who are determined to find in this ideology manifestations of an orthodox left-wing, state-oriented disposition will be wrong: the politics of Einstein and its kindred is that beguiling, irresponsible variety of anarchism so endemic in an educated middle class which, no matter how existentially alienated, still wants someone else to pay for its amenities, whether these amenities be urban redevelopment or cultural offerings.

In this regard, it is significant that the requisite financial support for the entire range of Brooklyn Academy “Next Wave” offerings does not come from the audience, which pays only a part of the cost of mounting the various events. Even the huge gross for Einstein failed to cover the costs of reviving a previously paid-for production. It is significant, too, that it was not the audience that was to cover the expenses of the CIVIL warS at the Los Angeles Olympics. Indeed, in neither case was the lion’s share of the money to come from private patrons of vast means. Rather the money was to come from corporations, foundations, and, most especially, governments. In the case of the CIVIL warS, most of the necessary money had already come from foreign governments via their own lavish support of culture. In the case of Einstein a glance at the acknowledgments page in the 1984 Next Wave souvenir booklet discloses that the first seven donor names saluted are the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Howard Gilman Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Pew Memorial Trust, and AT&T.

If this analysis of the audience is correct, one can understand why The New York Times, Gotham’s mission to (and trading post for) the Yuppies, is in the forefront of the publicity wave for the Next Wave festival, and also why The Wall Street Journal, that former bastion of bourgeois respectability, has published material extolling Glass on tour as well as the doings in Brooklyn. Whether the Journal’s writer is experimental music critic (and Village Voice regular) Gregory Sandow or opera and dance buff Dale Harris, the tone is one of wonder and gratitude for the new—and popular—riches being proffered. Clearly these newspapers have identified an audience, not just for a certain kind of culture, but for themselves.

Given the current success of Einstein, two questions about the movement it exemplifies remain to be discussed: its future as box office and its future as art. Despite all the claims made for the burgeoning commercial success of this branch of the avant-garde, the fact remains that its productions, from solo appearances to fully staged events, require hefty subsidies from non-profit sources. The one example usually cited as showing the financial potential of this material is the hit English single “O Superman” by Laurie Anderson. Though it briefly was near the top of the English rock-singles charts and inspired Warner Bros. to sign her to a contract here, it has proved incapable of replication either by Anderson or any of her colleagues and imitators. The costs necessary to put these events on, whether in lighting, staging, dancing, or audio, are onerous, and audiences for intellectually trendy attractions are notoriously fickle. Furthermore, there is no sign that this material is capable of appealing to an uneducated mass audience on the one hand or to traditionally oriented music lovers on the other. It must be added, too, that any artistic product so tied up with the particular historical and personal experiences of its devotees tends to find it hard to attract new audiences who must come fresh to the offering.

None of the above considerations, of course, has any necessary relationship to artistic validity and potential. Whatever the stature of Einstein on the Beach as an art work in itself may be, it seems clear enough that it has not had progeny as successful as it was immediately upon its birth. It is equally clear, it bears repeating, that neither Wilson nor Glass, working separately, has been able to achieve the success on his own that they have earned together. Once again, we may take the word of John Rockwell that at least so far Einstein is sui generis: for him, “This Wilson-Glass collaboration is the major achievement in the performing arts of the minimalist esthetic.” Wilson and Glass may, it is conceivable, decide to work together again on something new; it should be borne in mind, however, that sequels which have as their only purpose the repetition of an earlier success, usually fizzle.

And so, the 1984 Next Wave Festival in Brooklyn is history. But the grants go on, and the yards of favorable publicity already generated guarantee no shortage of future events in Brooklyn and elsewhere. Whether one calls Einstein on the Beach performance art or multimedia, there can be little doubt that it symbolizes the nearest we have yet come in this country to an art form crafted for the tastes of what has been called the new class, that group which, we are told, alone possesses the skills to run our society. The new class certainly will have progeny; will its art?

  1.  Interestingly, this somewhat ambivalent pitch for women was not in the 1976 recording, and presumably not in the 1976 production either. In its place was an equally sententious speech devoted to what I suppose must be called equality of sexual choice:One of the most beautiful things of Paris is a lady. She is not too broad, bordered with smiles, and very, very, very pleasant to look at. When a gentleman contemplates a lady of Paris, the gentleman is apt to exclaim “Oo la la,” for the ladies of Paris are very charming. And the ladies of Paris are dedicated to the classic declaration, expressed in the words “L’amour, toujours l’amour!” Whether or not the avant-garde is attempting to tell us that feminism has replaced free sexuality as a cause I leave to the reader to determine.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 3 Number 6, on page 15
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