Saturday, December 20, 2008

Has It Always Been This Way?

From time to time over at, Ray Carney invites mailbag reader to weigh in on various topics. I’m starting to think that I weigh in too often, particularly as I have my own stupid blog. Therefore instead of continuing to inundate Dr. Carney with more of my rants, I bestow them upon the two, and possibly as many as four people, who read this site. The questions concern his usual theme: Why is art film in America, in such dire straits, commercially speaking? My answer relates specifically to his uncertainty as to whether or not things have always been this way.

It depends on what one means by, “this way.” I could recite a litany of painters, composers, poets and rock bands to suggest that artists rarely receive respect, reward or even attention in their lifetimes. This cannot be very surprising. Art is not for everyone and it never has been. A recent letter writer to Carney’s site suggested that we need our Shakespeare – a Shakespeare of film and a Shakespeare for our times. He implied that the world would be a better place, and that society would change, if only this artist would emerge. It seems to me a strange suggestion. I only know some of the plays, and not much of the social history of England, but I am reasonably certain that Shakespeare’s plays did not promote social change of any measurable sort.

How could they have? Art changes a person, not people. People, as such, do not change. To paraphrase Tarkovsky, art does not help humanity progress. We have had great art for thousands of years, yet we still have not figured out how to stop killing one another. And surely there is no other lesson art could have to teach us. If the question, then, is whether or not people have ever been more receptive to art than they are in this country in this day and age, I lean toward, “no.”

Our times are different, and the problem is particularly acute in the US, in that the general attitude about art fostered and promoted both socially and culturally, is contemptuous. In this country sensitivity to art, like all true wisdom, is a quality to be mocked by conservative types and to be regarded as illusory, as a pretension to an actual quality, by so-called liberals and progressives. Our society and culture have been bought and sold by a marketing ethos which instructs us that the best thing a person can do with his or her life is have fun. Fun as the meaning of life is, I believe, uniquely American (though from what I gather the Japanese and the South Koreans would like to give us a run for our money).

This base desire underscores every other cultural problem in this country. Why are we fascinated by beauty and celebrity? Why do pay attention to famous people? Because they seem to be having fun and we have be taught to believe that if we could be pretty and famous too, we could also have fun. Money works the same way. People kill themselves to make as much money as they can as fast as possible so that they can retire young and start having fun.

To have fun is the meaning of life, and if you are not having any fun, people may feel sorry for you and they may be suspicious of you. It is one thing to disagree with someone’s politics or their religion, people can understand that. But to spend your free time taking life seriously, watching serious movies that try to teach you something, going to museums and standing in front of a painting with a notebook when you aren’t even enrolled in an art history class, spending money on classical music CDs and making time in your day to sit a really devote attention to them – to most people these activities make no sense. You could be skiing, or relaxing in front of the TV or reading the new Harry Potter book. It’s all escape. Escape from this horrible world in which we have no choice but to live and work.

And if you don’t participate in this system that they have sold us, you are an asshole. If someone calls you out for not being part of the next fun thing that your group of co-workers is doing, you try to explain that you have better things to do. No. You cannot say “better,” because then you are a snob. “More rewarding” things to do? Now you are pretentious. I am uncertain how deeply rooted these attitudes are. I tend to believe that most people live quietly and desperately, keeping everything bottled up. The fun ethos is very superficial and anyone willing to cast it off would not have to dig to deep to find the strength, except that our culture doesn’t really encourage soul digging.

You can find an egregious example almost anywhere. I was struck recently by a piece from New York Post columnist and right-wing dip-shit, John Podhoretz, who took the death of Ingmar Bergman as an opportunity chastise anyone who wants to think while watching a movie. We are so far gone in this country that the corpse of a great artist barely has time to cool before writers at major publications can begin pissing on it.

Yet, as bad as the conservatives are, the so-called progressives are often much worse. I have colleagues at this university who are earning the same piece of paper that I am – a document which will have printed upon it the words: Doctor of Philosophy in Fine Arts – who repeatedly tell me to stop praising art works and artists because the art object is moot and we no longer have to worry about what the creator of the work is trying to communicate to us (as if this is some shackle form which we have been liberated).

I don’t know how this came about, but my tendency is to blame the generation of university professors and public intellectuals who made art the focus of their academic interests because it was fun. Thus we arrived at the notion of “how to do things with texts” as opposed to “trying to understand good texts.” And film studies emerged in the middle of all that. We owe film studies as a discipline to people like Andrew Sarris whose primary interest in film is that he loves movies. There is no seriousness here, no sense of responsibility, just a way to fashion a career out of a past time.

This is why the academy is full of people who like to have fun with texts. It is why the texts don’t matter: you can play whatever deconstructive, psychoanalytic or semiotic game equally well with Harry Potter and Henry James. Ultimately, it is why people outside the academy thinks academics are full of shit. Playing these kinds of games is pretty rarified pleasure. What are we left with? – Academics have a different kind of fun than regular working folk.

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