Sunday, August 21, 2011

what is charisma?


Video - Teaser for debate between Bayard Rustin and Malcolm X

NYTimes | Fully to capture what we mean by charisma we now rely on the language of physical forces — magnetism, electricity — but for the Greeks it was, simply, favor. Charis, whose name meant beauty and kindness, was an attendant to Aphrodite, the goddess of love.

The word appears throughout the New Testament, most often translated as “grace.” In Christian theology gifts from God are called “charismata.” These gifts can be as varied as knowledge, healing, miracles or prophecy and as grand as redemption itself. Charismata came to refer especially to the graces given to individuals specifically for the good of others: the gift that keeps on giving.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that the word acquired its modern secular meaning, when the influential sociologist Max Weber borrowed it to describe a key quality of leadership.

“Charisma,” he wrote, “is a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman or specifically exceptional powers. These qualities are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.”

But how is a performer a leader? Other writers have built on Weber’s work in the social sciences, but much less attention has been paid to charisma in culture. The problem is that when it comes to the arts, the uses of charisma become harder to pin down. When Bill Clinton is charismatic, you vote for him. When an obscure carpenter’s son in ancient Galilee is charismatic, you join his ministry. But when the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter is charismatic, or Callas or Mr. Amidon, what are you supposed to do? What happens? Is our applause enough?

To some, charisma has lost its power as descriptive. It connotes flash, smoke and mirrors. (You could slightly change my sentence about Mr. Tetzlaff to turn it into praise: “He may not be charismatic, but he is a searchingly creative, technically flawless violinist.”) Even when used as a compliment, “charismatic” is often taken for granted. Just look at Mr. Tommasini’s and my takes on Mr. Daniels: his charisma is “no surprise” and “expected.” Charisma is a given, we imply, so let’s move on to the real stuff.

Let’s assume for a moment that charisma is the real stuff, less a means than an end in itself. What we generally consider the “content” of the arts — the notes, the libretto, the bowings, the plot — is actually just the structure that makes possible the crucial thing: watching a performer who is able to connect with fundamental realities. It is not that a singer’s charisma makes a colorful aria sound even better but that the aria provides a platform, a vessel, for us to experience the charisma.

If charisma were recognized as the central experience of performance, then that experience would take on a ritualistic aspect. Art as we know it, centered on rigorously conceived structures and intricately deployed catharses, would become more inchoate, less an appeal to our intelligence or taste than to instincts that we barely acknowledge.

Charisma is the essential quality of our moment because it fits so well in a culture in which the connoisseurship of artistic technique — whether singing or instrumental playing or conducting — has declined, but institutions are still seeking new audiences for these complex, demanding art forms. It is a quality that requires no knowledge or preparation. Even if you know little about the technicalities of music, when you attend a performance by the pianist Evgeny Kissin, you are swept up by his power and presence.

The question is whether people want to be swept up. Charisma can be exhilarating but also frightening. Our surrender to it demands a trust that is not easily conceded. If our desire from performance is only for comfort and reassurance, charisma will repel us. It is about revealing scope, and it raises the stakes dangerously high.

Recently I was in the Met Opera Shop, and a video clip came on the screen above the CD racks. The longtime Met soprano Aprile Millo was singing “La mamma morta,” the ecstatic aria from Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier,” with burning intensity. The sales clerk and I both watched raptly. Later I e-mailed Ms. Millo to ask her what charisma is.

“Hemingway gave us a haunting clue to it,” she replied. “In his obsession with the Spanish bullfights, he spoke of the lust of the crowd and its desire to feel something special, a raw authenticity, even in so brutal a setting. What he mentions is the hush that would come over the crowd at the entrance of the toreadors. The people could sense the difference between those who did it for the fame, the paycheck, and those who had the old spirit: the nobility, bravery, heart, ‘duende.’ I believe this also happens in the theater. The crowd can sense the one with the authentic message, the connection to the truth.”