At the risk of betraying one of the Spouse’s deep, dark secrets, I’m going to tell you about the movie that changed her life and helped make her become the person she is today. It was the movie that inspired her to leave home, because it showed her you could do that. It was the movie that compelled her to dream big, because it was about making dreams come true.
She was seven or eight years old, it was The Muppet Movie, and she wrote her Academy Award acceptance speech afterwards.*
Back when I used to teach Theater History at the university, I’d sometimes ask the question HAS ART EVER CHANGED YOU?
I don’t mean an emotional connection. I’ve teared up at movies. I’ve wished for some books never to end. That’s not the same thing.
When we teach craft and technique, we focus on the results that we want to achieve and we talk about Grand Purposes. In the marvelous, at times pitiful and at times embarrassing, documentary Addicted to Acting, the filmmakers follow four German students through their conservatory training. In the first 5/6 of the narrative, they focus on Craft and Art. In the last 1/6, the students are suddenly faced with Business and Getting a Job – and it’s no longer just how good they are that matters – it’s what they look like.** Art just got real petty.
So I say “big deal,” to whether or not you’ve had an emotional reaction. We’ve all had that happen. I want to know the big question – how often has art changed you? Because that’s what we say ART is supposed to do. That’s why ART is supposed to be so great. That’s why – I suspect – artists so rarely talk about the BUSINESS of art. Because that business is a different kind of a gatekeeper.
I had a follow-up question in my History classes after querying whether or not my students had had a life-changing experience because of ART. If art is supposed to change people and make the world better, then why are so many of the people we work with assholes?*** I mean, you’d think that all that transformative mumbo-jumbo would be working on the people who made the stuff, wouldn’t you?
If you’re the author of that emotional connection, there is pride in knowing that you made a connection. There is hope that you brought that person around to your way of thinking by showing him or her what you feel is a profound experience. But did you change anyone? Did someone stop being a bully because you showed him what it was like to be bullied? If it’s that straightforward, then, given the sickening popularity of programming Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol in the U.S. come the end of Thanksgiving, why are there still so many Scrooges in the world?
See, you knew what I meant. Scrooge isn’t even a lesson any more. He’s just a cultural reference.
The best I got in my classes, the absolute best my students came up with, was that someone might have changed based on a play she was performing in. In other words, the process of creating art was more transformational than the process of consuming it.
If you’ve got an example, please tell me. Because it’s my inclination, based on observation and conversation, that art hardly ever changes its audience.
I focused my dissertation research (“Doctor?” “Doctor.”) in the Czech Republic because theater companies led the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Theater companies. How crazy is that? But, I discovered, they didn’t engage with the revolution via their theater. The people helped transform their country, but their art didn’t, at least not directly. Roughly at the same time, the trade union Solidarity was making a parallel change in Poland. You don’t hear unions squawking about how they’re transformational like art is. But there’s historical precedent, so maybe they want to try that in the next election cycle.
Good art makes me think. Good art can fill me with joy or passion and sometimes rage. Good art might make me want to do something.**** But I can’t think of a time when ART made me stop acting in a certain way, become a different person.
The “specialness” of art is not a lie, but I don’t think it’s what we tell ourselves it is.
So what is it for you? What’s so great about art?
*To date, she has not delivered said speech, but I suspect it is only a matter of time.
****Both Bertolt Brecht with epic theater and art critic Arthur Danto conceive of art has having a fundamentally rhetorical bent. For Brecht it was an entertaining lecture that made you a better person, which would help improve Society. For Danto, a successful work of art is one that brings you to the artist’s perspective, at least for the duration of your exploration of the work. (Danto happily struggled with Warhol.)
I’ve been noodling the question of art for years. Or Art, as the case may be. The assumptions that we carry with us when we talk about it, the baggage inherent in those assumptions, the privileges artists assume and that audiences may grant or resent. Or grant and resent. Because for all the high-minded talk that lots of artists and philosophers bandy about, there’s an inevitable muck up involving “what art does” that plays strongly against “what I want art to do.”
I used to read about aesthetics – a natural consequence of grad school. There’s a complicated-sounding field of inquiry called ethnopoetics, but what it does is not particularly complicated at all (unlike how it’s done, which is terrifically hard). Ethnopoetics is the study of aesthetics from within a culture that produces a particular body of work.
Lemee give you an example. You can’t look at rap music through the lens of classical music and say “Rap music is déclassé,” and vice versa, looking at classical from the perspective of rap leaves you with, “What’s up with that, yo?” From the standards of rap, there is good and bad rap. There is good and bad classical. You can like both. It’s just unfair or irrelevant to judge one by the other’s rules.
The goal of ethnopoetics is to determine the rules that govern expression not based on our own experiences and perspectives, but on how that expression is… expressed. It is an observational approach (verging on the phenomenological, for those of you interested in deconstructing it) that attempts to derive conclusions from interviews and observations, balancing and taking into account what people say and how they execute their work. When I was researching my dissertation another life ago, I interviewed theater artists in the Czech Republic so that I could see how people talked and compare it to what they did.
Because a lot of what we say is so much bullshit and a lot of our artistic justification comes down to “it’s art because I’m doing it, and I’m an artist, and artists make art,” as though artists weren’t just as capable of self-delusion.
A lot of what we say is rhetoric designed to convince ourselves and others of what we want to believe.
One of the books I read in the course of my dissertating life was Arthur Danto’s The Transformation of Everyday Life. He was wrestling with “art after the end of art,” by which he meant, what the hell did Andy Warhol do to us? Basically, if everything can be art, and Andy did a pretty good job of making a case for everything he wanted to be “art,” then the idea of art is meaningless.
Unless you’re on the other side of the argument, in which case:
And now, here I am, trying to be a writer, wherein everyone in the business already talks about the division between “commercial” and “literary” fiction. It’s inescapable.
Apparently, we should blame the Renaissance.