Review - Porgy and Bess: Bess, You Is Politically Correct Now
Let's just say, for the moment, that I owned the Venus de Milo. I don't know how it happened. Maybe some ancient Greek stone cuttings were found that led to a Middle Ages parchment that inspired someone to do some research on ancestry.com, but in any case, it has been indisputably determined that I am the sole owner of sculptor Alexandros of Antioch's Venus de Milo.
Okay, so I call up the Louvre and I tell them that I want to bring Venus to New York for a few months. Nothing permanent. I just want to let my fellow New Yorkers see this classic work of art.
But then I go to France and take a serious look at the thing and wonder if this depiction of a topless woman in a low-riding skirt really speaks to a contemporary viewer. After all, it seems to glorify a feminine ideal of physical beauty that's really unattainable to the average woman. We know nothing about the inner workings of the subject; her thoughts, her emotions, how she saw her status in society. We just see her outward beauty. So I think that perhaps something could be done to make Venus more acceptable to the 21st Century public; especially women who are continually bombarded by sexualized depictions of their gender every day.
So, after finding a suitable gallery space in New York, I hire a well-respected artist who is known for work promoting positive female images to make some temporary revisions and additions to the work. Nothing to change the statue permanently, just make it more acceptable for today's viewer. "Be bold," I say.
While the statue is being worked on, the artist and I are interviewed for a New York Times article where we explain how a faux-marble material that looks like the real thing is being used to fit Venus' torso with an addition to her skirt that would cover up the exposed bit of her buttocks and a short tunic that would cover up her bare breasts. Arms would be attached to her body, and she would be depicted as holding hands with a young girl while handing her a scroll, indicating that the woman has been educated and she's passing on her knowledge to her daughter. Thus attention is diverted from her body and focused on her mind. And even though we know that such a depiction of womanhood would most likely not exist in an ancient Greek statue, we feel confident that if Alexandros had lived another 2,100+ years he probably would have made similar changes. Sure, we say, there are always those annoying "purists" who feel they have to complain every time someone makes an artistic choice when presenting a classic work, but we insist that a great statue should not be relegated to remaining a dusty old museum piece.
Well, imagine our surprise when, a few days after the article is printed, there's a letter in the Times from some bigwig at the Metropolitan Museum of Art saying how we're disrespecting both the statue and the public by not displaying it in its present form. But we stand by our artistic principles and suggest that, instead of listening to one of those "purists" who haven't even seen what we've done yet, people can buy a ticket and reach their own conclusions. After all, the statue has never been displayed in its complete original form since its remains were discovered nearly 200 years ago, and the Venus de Milo will continue to exist as an armless, barely-clothed woman for anyone who would like to go to the Louvre and see it after the New York showing.
So our alternate version of the Venus de Milo comes to New York and, despite those purists' objections, we point to our sold out engagement as proof that the public approves of our updated vision.
Of course, the above scenario may seem a little silly. Classic works of visual art are simply not updated for the modern viewer, who generally sees such objects as representations of their time. It's a little trickier, though, when it comes to live theatre, where living interpreters are regularly called upon infuse their vision into the work of deceased writers and composers. Minor tinkering may be common but it would be difficult to think of a time when a work as iconic to American theatre as the Venus de Milo is to ancient Greek sculpture was presented on a major stage so drastically changed.
Back in the 1920s, composer George Gershwin was a major force in getting American jazz accepted as a classical music form; composing orchestral works like Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris while writing in a Broadway/jazz style for the then-emerging form of book musicals. His lyricist brother, Ira, was admirably nicknamed "the jeweler" for his ability to delicately place words into so many complex and fascinating rhythms.