Additional notes on ‘Views of Communist China’

Anna Hartmann [who asked, an hour or more into the event, what actually was my view of communist China] was not a ringer. I didn’t expect things to go so far afield in the gradually overwhelming comments-and-questions that developed. I had thought I would simply talk everyone through an informal walking tour of my apartment, as it had been [very partially] planted inside Francie and Bob’s loft, eventually to perform the final dialogue/monologue with Bob’s help, cuing him on it, when I felt done with touring.

The ‘talks series’ was not yet established enough to bring me to expect so much interaction during my presentation, nor were methods and precedents of mine for such intensive interaction, in presenting ideas or work. I was dismayed and tried to stay hospitable and wonder as we talked whether things were going badly amiss and what this ever might be good for. I had no idea I would create a transcript, at the time, but Bob was taping these talks, and I decided to make myself a transcript to help myself understand, follow, trace, reconcile what had actually occurred, which felt at once so confusing and thick and ephemeral. Then while and after I typed it carefully up, I was really impressed with the entire paradoxical drama/inquiry of it and made 50 copies, I think, with covers I designed using John Harryman’s photos, to give to friends.

Anna was someone I barely knew, someone I thought of at the time as more dry and left-political than artistic; today she is still alive today and making artwork. Anyhow, her remark, from a perch by a window where she was sitting fairly still, was spontaneous and unexpected, although fully justified by the very minimal advance publicity offered for this talk, and I had not prepared a response, though I felt that I ought to have. I feel that what I said in reply reflects almost helplessly both what I’d had to say and how I was experiencing the event itself, as well as my rather sketchy and humble sense of what life in China and anyone’s views of it might entail.

I don’t know that I’ve been a committed radical leftist, but I do seem to have tended to assume positions that our society references as radical and left more often than not. If my sense of continuity and resolve on such stances constitutes commitment, then the word may fit me; I don’t feel I’ve been activist enough to suggest militancy or a deliberate behavioral or career-long focus on realizing radical change in society, much as I may admire those who do undertake this meaningfully. If I felt more gifted in that kind of aptitude and skill set, I might have been more actively committed in such ways.

Structurally, I intended to do the tour of my apartment (rather as Jackie Kennedy and Grace Kelly, I think, had lately offered home tours), framed by the two vignettes (texts having been memorized, Bob having been primed to do his bit) almost as an afterthought. Thus, there was a process/journey, and a frame around it (like putting a scroll painting inside a frame). Anna’s question, like all the others, was fundamentally not anticipated or thought through. You will notice, I didn’t invite questions, or if I did, it was to allow for them once I realized they were under way and felt that to block them would be a deliberate move, one that I preferred (ethically or politically) not to exercise.

From my point of view, the esthetic value of the work was virtually destroyed (or blown apart) by the organizing intentions’ unravelling as it proceeded. Anna’s question and my thinking to answer it, as well as I could at the moment, and follow immediately with the closing coda, seemed at least possibly to begin to redeem the talk as an aesthetic project (this talk could hardly be thought to be a sharing of erudition or critical analysis, as most other talks [but not Carla’s, which had been very first in the series] rather seemed to be, at least generically, if not in their actual experience).

Thus, your premise gives me more credit for predicting the interaction of aesthetic structure and social relations than I commanded at the time, and perhaps less credit than may be warranted for my improvisational performance aptitude and self-permission. The themes that emerged during the performance were perhaps obviously latent in the gambit I proposed to undertake, but I don’t believe I had consciously formulated them. I just looked forward to doing what I’d planned to do — two dramatic monologues bracketing a detailed personal tour of my apartment occupying most of the time and attention. I hardly ever plan anything in terms of theme or issues to address. I thought people would probably enjoy it, while feeling somewhat bemused and puzzled.

The risk of ‘orientalizing’ [that is, by enacting monologues by native Chinese that I’d transcribed from sinologist Orville Schell’s narrative journalism] was one I certainly recognized and tried not to lean toward. I did not assume anything purporting to be a Chinese accent (I think — check the recording!) or add makeup to change my face. I simply sat fairly erect and still, as though respectful and assuming a modest kind of authority, when talking the monologues in a slow deliberate clear tone that might suggest they were canned, whether out of deference to the Communist Party in China or out of the challenge of memorizing and delivering them without any sense of how best to inflect them. This they presented a variant sort of ‘talk’ in the talk series. That the speaker was patently not myself, as the apartment I was guiding people through was patently not my home, was more critical than that he was Chinese. However, I’d started out with the title, which began to get publicized, before I had decided actually what I would try to do that evening (either of these parts). I believe I decided on a tour and read Schell’s New Yorker article as research after I had announced the title and felt I must not turn back.

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