Primer: Saint Genet’s “Paradisiacal Rites” at On the Boards

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Photo by Dan Hawkins

The North American premier of Saint Genet’s “Paradisiacal Rites” is tomorrow night at On the Boards. Saint Genet is the new aesthetic phase of Implied Violence, still led by Ryan Mitchell. The performance troupe has shown internationally and been accepted to prestigious residencies, including the Watermill Center. The Frye Museum hosted a retrospective of the work of Implied Violence in 2010, which was perhaps the first time the group’s work became known to a large audience in Seattle despite their being based here.

Saint Genet’s performances can be gruesome, but it is patently incorrect to label them as shock art, as shock art comes from a place of cynicism and disdain for the audience. That has not stopped some soi disant critics from using that epithet to describe the work of Implied Violence, however, and so on the eve of the local premier, it behooves us to consider the context and the inspiration for “Rites” and the Saint Genet project as a whole.

Mitchell and company challenge their audiences with images that are at turns beautiful and disturbing, and much of the sentiment is directly antagonistic to the bourgeoisie who can afford to attend such shows. This is typical of performance art, which is perhaps why performance art has often been treated with suspicion and disdain in the States. In the land of Hollywood, where performances are ranked on a scale from “laughable” to “Oscar-worthy,” a country where theatre is synonymous with Broadway and Shakespeare (neither much appreciated), and where mention of commedia dell’arte will often draw blank stares, there is simply no basis for understanding performance art. It is treated as a punchline, not an art form.

Saint Genet does well to neutralize this issue by uniting so many compelling aesthetic elements (grand costume and stage design, ballet and modern movement, more contemporary music, etc) but this creates another problem in more Protestant, Puritanical regions—including Seattle. (Seattle may be ranked as a highly “unchurched city” per capita, but permeated and skirted by cults and circuit riders like Mark Driscoll’s execrable Mars Hill Church(es), we cannot truly declare the city to be a secular haven.) It is no coincidence that IV/SG’s performances have been so welcomed and lauded by audiences in Canada, NYC, Germany and Austria, where pageantry and Catholic aesthetics are better understood. For better or for worse, Catholicism is North America’s most relevant link to Western history, through the Enlightenment, the Middle Ages, back to the Roman Empire (whose ghost is made incarnate in the Holy See), then the Greeks, and the Egyptians before them, whose syncretic figures and myths became the foundation for the Church and its saints. Catholicism is a vessel for the aesthetics, the history, and a broader cultural picture that complex works like Saint Genet’s “Rites” must reference if they are to effectively rebut current religious and political dogma.

The dogmata laid bare by Saint Genet include concepts of salvation and myths of human progress, which are bound together in the Judeo-Christian mythos—a sense that we left paradise and are returning to it, Tikkun to some and preparation for a Second Coming to others. Meanwhile, some secular thinkers have adopted equal fervor, a belief that mankind is progressing toward a more exquisite, perfected form through technological advances. Culturally, we may have made our way from magical animism toward secular humanism, but the same ethical questions and problems beleaguer us, and ideas of progress and salvation can be as much a force for stability as they are a justification for terrible violence, even genocide across tribal lines.

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Photo by Dan Hawkins

Saint Genet’s work counters the lie that art is a replacement for religion. It hints at the truth that all religion is a matter of aesthetics and politics organized into a cohesive structure, as synthetic as any stage production but played in earnest. “All the world is a stage.” And in an age of media obsession, where the saints of old are replaced by celebrities occupying the role of mother and whore, warrior and monster, we have all become performers in a gruesome pageant. This may be the heart of why performance art is regarded with suspicion in America; it is the uncanny reminder that we are already in the middle of a performance and the violence is sadly not merely “implied.”

If the Saint is a figure who embodies a steadfastness of faith, Sartre was right to label Jean Genet as Saint Genet for the writer’s maniacal devotion to his aesthetic, a naturalistic blend of sacred and profane that did not so much celebrate treachery and violence so much as acknowledge it as a fundamental and permanent condition of humanity that must be mitigated through empathy and illusion. Art might be described as the fusion of these things as a creative act for its own sake, toward reconciliation with others rather than a personal and selfish salvation. Hence, taking Saint Genet as the title of troupe is apt, even if it is in some ways asking for trouble. Similarly, “Paradisiacal Rites” aptly implies a pristine state where ritual is purely aesthetic and divorced from petty tribal disputes, something I believe that Mitchell and his collaborators have consistently achieved. It will be exciting to see their latest efforts at unraveling these most fundamental, most troubling aspects of our culture.