Lessons From Madame Defarge And Kitty Genovese

Illa Thompson
Mercury Column 113
March 2018
Have we become a nation of Madame Defarges ? The bloodthirsty Tricoteuse who sat alongside the guillotine in Paris during the French Revolution, eagerly watching the public executions while simultaneously knitting; encrypting the names of the dead in her hand-knitted goods.
Has our lust for the macabre and gruesome coloured our way of seeing the world with any sense of compassion or grace? Do we really peer at our little cell-phone screens to watch a young mother violently assault her daughter while boyfriend looks passively on? Do we really want to watch traumatised animals battle to the death in illicit dogfights or watch the class bully shame and hurt a vulnerable child? Counter intuitively, it seems we do. We enthusiastically, thoughtlessly, eagerly click to share these vicious violent acts.
In the early days of reality programmes, Big Brother Shower Hour brought voyeurism of the intimate into the acceptable realm of mainstream family TV. Suddenly those dreadful candid camera prank series, shamelessly laughing at innocent passers-by with practical jokes looked tame and mild in comparison. Society had given us permission to gloat, watch and drool. Our entertainment options have shifted from the scripted to the impromptu; from the curated to the verbatim; the underbelly and dirty petticoats we are now seeing are the real thing. The bruises, blood and tears are no longer merely make-up.
Has our sense of social justice shifted as a result of exposure to these horrors? Do we rush out and volunteer our time to help at abused women shelters, animal anti-cruelty organisations, children’s homes or education support structures? Probably not – we default to outrage online, but remain comfortably on our couches. We are mesmerised by the Siam Lee murder, but probably don’t donate to SWEAT. We mouth off about the state of our polluted oceans, but probably don’t pick up litter, or nurdles. Our social currency is in relation to the battle-cry de-jour, eagerly putting up our hands in response to the #MeToo campaign, but this does not mean we are in the business of being actively part of the solution.
All of a sudden the Kitty Genovese phenomenon makes sense. The senseless murder of a young woman in 1964 New York was heard or seen by at least 38 people yet she died unaided. Her death has become a cautionary tale about how diffusion of responsibility causes inertia.
So where does the arts fit into this rapidly changing, worryingly darkening social landscape?
We know that arts support is in ferocious decline; that budgetary constraints; different financial priorities; the affordability and accessibility of Netflix, Showmax and a preference to watching on-line activity rather than the live experience, means that the galleries, museums, concert-halls, cinemas and theatres need to streamline their operation in order to stay afloat and constantly re-invent themselves to capture the audience’s imagination.
In the past few weeks we have heard about the possible demise through lack of support of the Dance Umbrella, Gauteng and Cape Town Operas and the closing down of the Durban Theatre Awards – KZN’s very own Oscars.
Remarkably some art forms are flourishing, but I think that sometimes people choose the live experience due to nostalgia, a sense of occasion or simply potential bragging rights. This can’t be sustainable in the long term. The support of the arts is by and large, being diluted by distractions.
I was watching an early episode of the articulate and intelligent series, The West Wing, in which Laura Dern plays an award-winning poet in crisis deciding whether to use her moment in the spotlight to be gracious and benign, or to use the platform to be outspoken and campaign for justice (in this case, landmines). She was considering if her job as an artist was to speak the truth at any cost, and decided: “Our job as artists is to captivate you for however long we ask for your attention. If we stumble into truth, we got lucky, but I don’t get to decide what truth is.”
In my personal quest for my own truth I have always taken solace, inspiration and guidance from the creative industries. It is my emersion in literally hundreds of shows, concerts, recitals, festivals, musicals, exhibitions, dance and films which has informed my moral compass, guided my world view, taught me other realities and fed my soul.
There are no quick-fix answers here; change is inevitable and necessary. We are all endeavouring to find solutions, be relevant, earn a living and keep precious institutions alive. It is unlikely that live theatre will rejuvenate itself substantially in Durban any time soon; or that we will readily put down our devices and pick up a paperback novel more often; or if we are habitual computer gamers, we may not rush off to explore a museum or gallery come next rainy day.
But perhaps we can flip through the pages of Dickens’s sublime if difficult, A Tale of Two Cities to be reminded of the heartlessness of Madame Defarge, or read up about the tragedy of Kitty Genovese; and think twice before randomly sharing and viewing violent clips on social networks. In our personal and communal evolution let us still be mindful for our need to be human. Whatever else changes, let us not abandon our compassion, empathy and grace.

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