Saturday, April 05, 2008

Take Off With Us

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..."

Heh. Priceless.


walternatives said...

I didn't see Space Jam nor do I watch cartoons. I'm not saying that to be elitist, but cartoons just aren't part of my current world (not since childhood). I'm certain that will change post-kidlets, won't it?

With a degree in Art History, "High" arts are the icing on my life's cake, the Hot Fudge sauce of living. Part of our recent vacation was built around seeing a certain exhibit, for Pete's sake; it was sublime, BTW.
My blog comment icon also reflects this core trait; it's a detail from one of my favorite pieces Questioning Children (Vragende kinderen) by a favorite artist: Karel Appel.

As for Cage - I had to study his works in a Western Music History class. While I might - on a good day - "appreciate" his contribution, I can't tolerate the noise he composes. That said, I also learned Philip Glass in the same class and he's been featured in my personal musical pantheon ever since.

IMHO, Cage falls into The Emperor's New Clothes school of High Art. Someone (with snooty credentials and big influence) somewhere pronounced Cage's "music" as Excellent - innovative - worthy and all the other (lesser) critics nodded their heads and dutifully agreed. That's the way I see (hear) it, anyway.

You asked "So where does this leave the art and music we hear and see all around us?"

It's up to us to #1) open up our eyes to ALL OF IT #2) define it as we see it. If it's art to you, it's art. Period.

The older I get, the more it all seems to whirl together as One Big theme - not distinct and seperate categories such as Design, Craft, Architecture, Sculpture, Flower Arranging, Mosaic, etc. Instead, it's all ART - glorious under the same Big Top - and, as always, subject to the eye of the beholder.

Though I'm not a bumper sticker chick, I bought one in Fort Worth (stellar modern art museum). Basically, it's
the word EARTH on a black background, with the E and H in white and the ART in red. It spoke to me, whispering two statements: those two words are my everythings - important beyond measure. And secondly, one is nestled (or hatched from) the other. Ok, may be three statements as I *heart* Earth Art, i.e. Andy Goldsworthy.

I've babbled enough already. Loved the Fosse piece, but a big part of it's appeal (in this format) was the film editing - another art form. Wonder what the same performance would have looked like sitting in the theater...

Thanks for the Saturday morning brain breakfast, Chief. Good weekend to y'all....

You Know Where You Are With said...

Well, yes. Of course, pop culture is art. In many cases. But I don't think that's really changed from Way Back When. Shakespeare was the pop culture of his day. Manuscript circulation at the Tudor-Stuart courts (basically passing around each other's commonplace books in the rooms of the London estate houses) was the Renaissance blogosphere. Though many/most of us don't recognize it now, that "high culture" literature is full of bawdy epithets, base language, and raw sociopolitical farce. But because their English semantics sound "old" to us now, we hear it as highfalutin' and precious, rather than the edgy and often punked-out writing it really was. Sonnets were raw, atonal stuff, not sweet love songs. They were the Sex Pistols, not Britney Spears. (Well, at least the stuff that was good enough to stick around for 400+ years.)

And, by the way, I would count The Simpsons and Harry Potter as examples of current popular culture that trades on their High Culture/High Art roots. They're both FULL of references to all sorts of canonical works.

And, finally, I disagree with one thing walternatives said--I don't think that art is defined solely by individual taste or perception. I think art is ultimately a communal/cultural designation, and I don't buy into a sort of radical relativism in any case.

FDChief said...

Well! Hmmmm...

That's a lot to chew on.

First things first: yes, film editing (or directing, since the director is supposed to have the final say in how the film is cut) IS an art form in itself. And with respect to the clip from the movie, Fosse is a unique director in that he was both dancer and choreographer. The man flat out knew his dance and how to film it. Compare it with the "flat" editing of standard Hollywood dance scenes, even in pics like "Singin' In The Rain" or "An American in Paris", where Gene Kelly and Hermes Pan ran the shoot. My man Bob Fosse just flat out runs the table.

I tend to agree with YKWYAW (that's an ugly acronym - let's settle for "YouKnow") - I think there IS a public standard for what is "art" - unfortunately I think the bar is set too high right now. Stuff that should be better crafted - television serial shows, to pick one - are crap and are accepted as crap because "it's just TV". For every "Battlestar Galactica" or "Hill Street Blues" there's fifty zillion "Everybody Loves Raymond"'s. So we drown in tons of crap.

But on the other hand, the "High Arts" - classical music, painting and drawing, sculpture, much dance - have drawn up their skirts to avoid the rabble. You seldom get an opera company, say, trying to get the average butt in the seat, even though Rigoletto, or Don Giovanni or Cosi fan Tutti has - as you point out, YouKnow - as much good sex and violence as any episode of "Girl Meets Cowboy". You're familiar with Cage, W, and can say with authority that he's a bug, not a feature...but the average Simoleon can't. He runs into something like 4'33" and walks away shaking his head.

I honestly feel that one reason that post-modern painting and much post-modern music has retreated into such odd attitudes and quirky affectations is that the lusty, leavening vitality of popular culture and popular interest has largely left them. They remain like dragonflies in amber; beautiful but lifeless.

But where there's life there's hope! Lulu is channelling Miro and your challenge, W, is to instill that delicious cake-icing taste in your little one, too!

I know you well enough to believe you can. Enough of that and perhaps the old High Arts will live again!

You Know Where You Are With said...

----- Original Message -----
From: FDChief
To: You Know Where You Are With
Sent: Sunday, April 06, 2008 10:01 AM
Subject: [You Know Where You Are With.] New comment on The Art Scene..

FDChief has left a new comment on your post "The Art Scene.":

In re: maia's comment about the rote-learning-right-and-wrong thing, I have to be the scientist for a moment and interject that, while purple trees and red stars are cool, one of the most difficult issues I had to deal with teaching at the local commnity college was fighting that idea that for SOME things participation DOES mean correction. I ran into many students who had been encouraged to look at their own best efforts as worthwhile just because they had put in lots of effort and had a hard time convicing them that, in certain things like building a wall, driving a car or removing a cyst, "close" or "different" aren't just personal choices, they can be dangerous or even disastrous!

If Lulu finds that her drawing skill leads to a love of engineering drafting, say, the difference between a straight line and a curve are more than just interpretation!

OTOH, I suspect that our education system is skewed towards molding kids into conventional thought. Granny j hits this: there are times, and there are times. Art is a time to let your freak flag fly. If poor little Stephania can't go bugnuts then...when can she? So I think that a mommy who can appreciate her little one's skewed take on art is doing the Right Thing.


Yes, hence my take on radical relativism...if all you have to do to justify your own interpretation/perception/opinion/truth is say that "to each her own," then we are in a sorry state indeed. While I have always told my students that there are MULTIPLE "right" answers or "right" ways to interpret a text, there are indeed WRONG ways to interpret a text as well. Not every single 'take' on a text or a situation is correct just because you think it so.

FDChief said...

Spot on.

Meghan H said...

To bring your discussion down to the lowest common denominator, I reference The Simpsons. I would argue that it is more art (satire) than culture, but what can I say? I'm a fan.

The Simpsons, last week, referenced "All That Jazz" and the Bob Fosse character when Lisa took a dance class. Now, I wonder how many people got THAT reference? If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say probably me, and some other people who were in the same film class I took in 1996.