Bear with me. I've been thinking about art, creators and creativity.
Somewhile back I posted a classic Warner's cartoon by director Chuck Jones. And talked a little about Jones, and his great forerunner Tex Avery, the real creator of the modern screwball cartoon for grownups. (I really want to talk more about these guys and their influence in a later post. Outside of Japanese anime, where you see a cartoon character in pop culture today, you're seeing Tex Avery.)
Anyway, then another adoptive mom - I'm not going to link to her because she enjoys her private little niche of the 'net - posted a picture her little girl drew on the Etch-a-Sketch and compared it to the work of Joan Miro.
And that got me thinking: why is it that most Americans can identify the work of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones and not Joan Miro and John Cage?Should I think that this is a Bad Thing? A Good Thing? Or just what it is, a change in the seasons of public taste and popular culture?
And that, in turn, got me thinking about why we think of some things as "art" and others as merely "pop culture", and the connection between the two.
I've always had a great affection for the pictures and sounds we gorge on in the modern world. To an extent undreamed of before the electronic age we are surrounded by and move through and in a world of images. Our lives have a soundtrack, if we wish it, often composed and played by others. Never in human history have pictures and music been so inescapable.
Yet, in an odd fashion, we are utterly disconnected from art and music, especially what we think of as the "High Arts", in a way that a moviegoer of Avery's and Jones' would, I suspect, have found shocking. Most of us know nothing of contemporary art, music, and literature. Many of us are also unfamiliar, or worse, contemptuous, of the "classic" great works that helped create the very Western culture we swim in like fish.
I suspect part of this is the very nature of our electronic society. Faster and more ephemeral than ever, we have little time or patience for the older forms. And the immediacy of the electronic arts leaves less for the traditional arts to say. Here's a good example: in 1808 when Goya created his series of sketches and paintings centered on the horrors of the Dos de Mayo his vision was the only way people outside Spain had to imagine the frightful events and picture the lives and deaths of the Madrilenos.But today we would see the images on CNN or Channel 2 news and have been glutted with the frightfulness long before Goya had a chance to touch us.
Still...that doesn't explain the widespread loss of affection for and interest in the High Arts. People sitting in a dark moviehouse in 1950 had newsreels and radio and TV...but think of the kind of knowledge that they needed to really get a laugh out of "What's Opera, Doc?"It's more than just the fat white horse and Bugs in Valkyrie drag; part of the funny is knowing that in the Wagner original Siegfied DOES have a "speaw and magic hewmet", and the conventions of Wagnerian opera. Few of Jones' viewers were hard-core opera fans. But they needed SOME degree of understanding of, and affection, or at least respect for, classical opera, to really "get" the gag. Jones had to know that, too, to have made making his art worthwhile.
But, if you dare, look at the latter-day descendants of Bugs and Elmer in the only profitable Warner's cartoon since 1959, 1996's"Space Jam". The only references in this...unfortunate...thing are to OTHER pop culture icons: Nike, "Pulp Fiction", Disney. It's culturally "dead", self-referential, capable of being fully understood by a kid who has read nothing but cereal boxes and watched nothing but ads and basketball.
Then think back to the John Cage piece I embedded above. Does "4'33"" touch you emotionally? Does it reach you on a really visceral level? Or do you sit there thinking to yourself, consciously working to find meaning in it? Or, worse, are just amused or contemptuous of it as a bit of nonsense? It's art, or a sort, but an art so rarefied and disconnected and self-absorbed as to have lost its ability to reach all but the smallest of self-selected audiences. Try and imagine a Bugs Bunny cartoon that uses 4'33" as a reference point. Hard, isn't it? The thing is so difficult to encompass, and yet so insubstantial, that it almost parodies itself. It, too, is "dead" in a way.
(I have to stop here and tell you a story about this piece. Someone named Batt, best known a "Womble" in Britain, apparently wrote a silent piece that ended up in court as plagarized from 4'33". Mr. Batt had two great quotes about this: first that his was "...a much better silent piece. I have been able to say in one minute what Cage could only say in four minutes and 33 seconds." The former-Womble also claimed that "My silence is original silence, not a quotation from his silence." Hesettled out of court. Heh.)
So let's agree that "Space Jam" is trash: fun but disposable, commercial crap. But I'm going to suggest to you that 4'33" is trash, too: twee, affected and oblique, you sit in front of it, cough, scratch your ass and walk away, untouched. Much of modern art, particularly painting and sculpture, and huge job lots of modern classical music seem to have this same problem. They are just lost, jealously treasured by a small coterie, disconnected from and disregarded by the rest.
So where does this leave the art and music we hear and see all around us?
This may seem insane, but I'm suggesting that Chuck Jones might be our Goya, the Coen Brothers our Miro.
I'm honestly suggesting that some of what is our "pop culture" IS going to turn out to be our Art. That, much as Mozart was the highest expression of the folk music and popular drama of the 18th Century, Bob Fosse may turn out to be the Mozart, Goya and Nijinsky of our day.
So what do you think?
And with that, let me feast you on one of Fosse's greatest: the "Come Fly With Us" scene from All That Jazz. I wouldn't be my Big Gay Son's Big Gay Dad if I didn't tell you that this is one of my favorite scenes from one of my all-time favorite movies. Pure. Fucking. Broadway. Dance. Genius.
"Now Sinatra will never record it..."