Friday, March 30, 2012

The Agony and Ecstasy of Mike Daisey

Mike Daisey is a performance artist who made things up for his piece,The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs which recently completed a run at the Public Theater. No one says that performance artists can’t make things up. Was Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia enjoyed as piece of journalism or rather for being a monologue whose concerns reflected on reality but didn’t necessarily mirror it? Journalists are embedded with platoons, but fictionistas rarely are and thus we have the difference between writers like Frances Fitzgerald who reported on the Vietnam War and on the other hand those who fictionalized it like Tim O’Brien. And then there was John Hersey whose Hiroshima used fiction techniques in the service of truth. Where Mike Daisey got into trouble was to make things up and claim they were true and then make matters worse by taking them on This American Life, which also employs dramatic expository techniques, but prides itself on high journalistic standards. “It was a fine bit of theater, but worked less well as a piece of journalism,” the Times’ David Carr commented in his column The Media Equation (“Theater, Disguised as Real Journalism,”NYT 3/18/12) Mike Daisey claimed his faux pas was for a good cause: the exploitation of low paying Chinese workers by Apple, one of the world’s wealthiest companies (Apple recently reported it would pay its stockholders their first dividend in 17 years since it had $97.6 million dollars in cash reserves). No one is comparing Daisey to Clifford Irving, but a more exaggerated form of what he did hearkens back to the Clifford Irving case. Irving solved the problem of having an elusive subject in the reclusive Howard Hughes by making up his autobiography. It also recalls the cases of the fictional persona of JT LeRoy made up by a writer named Laura Albert and of James Frey’s fictionalized account of his alcoholism, A Million Little Pieces.Appropriation is an important movement in modern art and literature. But all of these works represented not the appropriation of reality in the service of fiction or art, but the appropriation of fiction in the service of reality. Well, you might say, as Daisey has, that the means justify the ends and that it’s all for a good cause. That’s a little bit what happened with Kony 2012, the video that became an internet sensation and a cause, until as Carr reports the filmmaker Jason Russell “was found running around naked and yelling incoherently in a San Diego neighborhood.” No one doubts that Joseph Kony is bad and should be brought to trial by the ICC, but when an excess of imagination and artfulness actually muddies reality than a dangerous line, what we might called “the story line,” has been crossed. Daisey appeared on a subsequent This American Life to recant and ostensibly explain himself. Carr quotes Daisey telling This American Life’s Ira Glass the following: “I think I was terrified that if I untied these things, that the work, that I know is really good, and tells a story, that does these really great things for making people care, that it would come apart in a way that would ruin everything.”

[This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture.]

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