Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Guiltless Pleasures: High Art, Pablum and Pretentiousness

I want to try and tackle something I've been thinking about lately, on which I think I have different opinions from most people. These are complex subjects that won't be getting the exhaustive treatment they deserve.

We seem to like to divide every medium into two catagories: Popular Meaningless Pablum, and Intellectual Meaningful Art. We do this with movies, books, comics, TV shows, songs, boardgames, artwork, dance styles, and videogames. Often we all seem to agree which is which. Air Force One, Twilight, Infinite Crisis, Oops I Did It Again, Memoir '44, the cover of Action Comics #1, Hip Hop and Halo are examples of "low" art, while Citizen Kane, Lolita, Ghost World, Adagio for Strings, Caylus, Guernica, Waltz and Limbo are examples of "high" art. High art is subtle, innovative, meaningful and well made while Low art is accessible, crass, derivative and inconsequential.

Except that that last sentence is clearly bull. No matter how you divide any medium into High and Low, there will always be plenty of songs that are both crass and innovative, plenty of films that are both meaningful and accessible, and plenty of artwork that is both subtle and inconsequential.

Yet most people seem to at least tacitly accept these ideas of high art versus low art, regardless of which side of the fence they find themselves. Many times I've heard people remark that they like a film even though they know it's trash, or accept that a film is brilliant but just not their cup of tea. While I think that it is healthy to realize that others may not share your opinion, I also feel that it is somewhat intellectually dishonest to tout an opinion that you don't personally share.

An additional problem with the notion of High versus Low art is that many things once labeled as Low art have morphed into High art over time. Shakespeare's plays were considered Low, plebeian entertainment in his day, as were the works of Charles Dickens and composer Gustav Mahler, and John Carpenter's Halloween and The Thing, now considered benchmarks of horror cinema, garnered mixed reviews upon their initial release.

All of this leads me to the uncomfortable conclusion that our dichotomy between High art and Low art is inherently flawed. I don't mean to say that only our personal opinions matter (though when it comes down to it, that's kind of true), or that the concept of artistic merit is meaningless, merely I believe that trying to place works on a one-dimensional spectrum with the ends labeled "High" and "Low" is as unhelpful and wrong-headed as marking one's worldview on a spectrum labeled "Right-Wing" and "Left-Wing."

We like to categorize things, and I don't think that categorizing media is worthless, but I also don't think one dimension is enough to paint a proper picture. Any work of art is made up of many elements, and how much we care about a particular element, or how much "artistic importance" we ascribe a particular element, will greatly shape our perception of that work. If I care highly about narrative, I may get a lot out of Mass Effect and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and not so much out of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Mario Sunshine. 2001 is generally considered to be more of a masterpiece than any of the other things mentioned, so maybe I'll apologize for my opinion either by saying that I enjoy the other things as "guilty pleasures" or that 2001 is boring artsy crap. But can I say with honesty that I think 2001 is artistic if I didn't enjoy it and wasn't moved by it?

As it happens, I greatly enjoy 2001. I probably value atmosphere and uniqueness more than some, and conventional narrative structure a little less. 2001's story and characters are sparse and muted, but I get more of a feeling of actually being in space than with any other film I've seen. Similarly the hollow plot and one-dimensional characters in Sucker Punch bothered me less than some, though here the atmosphere and visuals don't quite pick up the slack for me. If you are offended that I would even compare 2001 to Sucker Punch, you are exactly who I am writing this for.

Tron: Legacy is often maligned for having a weak plot, and has been called "nothing but a Daft Punk Music Video." Interstella 555, at 68 minutes long, is literally nothing but a Daft Punk music video, having no diagetic sounds or dialogue, yet it holds a higher rating on IMDb. Why is this? It could just be that people don't want Jeff Bridges talking over their Daft Punk, but I believe it is an issue of context. Our expectations tend to affect our experience as much as our preferences. We assume that a statement is clever if the speaker is an expert, or if the accent is British and not Texan. The ongoing question of Art vs Pornography is an extreme example of this effect. Renoir's The Bathers will never be viewed or evaluated in the same way as a Japanese Hentai, even though fundamentally they are both drawings of naked people.

Perhaps Renoir's brushwork is more impressive than that of a Hentai Manga artist's, but this is not the reason it is considered Higher art. If one compares a Modern Artist with a Marvel artist, it's obvious that one has a firm grasp of anatomy and perspective, while the other is creating seemingly random blotches and squiggles (and no this isn't turning into a jab at Rob Liefeld). There are clearly things that the Marvel artist is doing better, so why isn't his work thought of by most people as "art"? Again it's a matter of context. Were the Marvel artist's work put up in an art gallery to be viewed by an audience completely oblivious to the existence of comics, it would undoubtedly be treated as art. The term "graphic novel" was introduced to help "serious" creators escape the stigmas that the term "comic" has, justifiably or not, come to carry, and to help people outside the hobby join in without feeling as geeky or childish. Similarly, Eurogames usually carry a vague historical theme because European boardgamers have traditionally looked down on fantasy and science fiction themed games.

The truth is, what is classified as Low art can sometimes be considerably harder to create. Hollywood spends countless millions every year on summer action flicks that no independent filmmaker could replicate. In order to compete, the small studios with less to lose focus instead on innovation. The same is true in the videogame industry, though indy developers are just recently starting to get the recognition and fiscal support that indy filmmakers have long enjoyed. Every year, many great indy games and movies are created, and many more are doomed to fail. Although I tend to seek out good indy titles in the face of corporate homogenization (particularly with videogames), it would be as much of a mistake to assume that all indy works are great as to assume that no mainstream works can be great.

People often argue that mainstream works aren't meaningful. What they are really saying is that the thematic elements aren't accentuated or "fleshed-out," since virtually every work has thematic subtexts, whether or not the creator is aware of them. But this also is not an adequate measure of a film's artistic status. Machete would be considered by most to be Low art (Danny Trejo swings through a window by a dude's intestines), but the immigration messages are overt and pervasive. Likewise, South Park makes no attempt to hide its agendas. But, you say, High art is more subtle with its messages. I actually believe that the opposite tends to be true. Judd Apatow comedies are packed with societal critique, despite also playing to the lowest common denominator; Robocop is a vicious criticism of American media and privatization while being enjoyed by many as just a mindless action flick; and Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time and Warhammer 40k's Space Marines both portray the horrors that can arise from blind devotion. Just because a work isn't necessarily about an issue doesn't mean it doesn't have something to say on the matter. Some works of High art emphasize their thematic elements simply because they have nothing else to fall back on, or because it helps to establish the context that the work is "art." Low art is often accused of being "exploitative," yet the term "Oscar bait" certainly implies exploitation, albeit of a more insidious sort. And I challenge you to tell me that award winning movies are less cliché ridden.

Perhaps it isn't the themes of the work itself, but rather the impact it ends up having on the medium, that determines its art status. This is an attractive barometer since it defers the judgement until some time in the future, at which point the work's art status will have already been settled, however it quickly falls apart under closer inspection. Saw and Hostel, both widely panned by critics, have had an incalculable effect on horror cinema, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, widely considered the worst of the original trilogy, prompted the introduction of the PG-13 rating which has undoubtedly had an effect on the way studios have since chosen to finance films. Halo championed the success of first-person-shooters on consoles, irrevocably altering the evolution of the genre, yet most FPS aficionados would hold up games like Bio Shock or Deus Ex as being more deserving of artistic praise.

Maybe High art is what touches us more deeply on an emotional level, however I imagine more people cried during Old Yeller than during Citizen Kane. To date I have not been brought to tears by a book, a painting or a game, yet I do not consider these media to be artistically bankrupt. Maybe sometimes one has to become somewhat versed with a medium or genre to begin to appreciate its artistic depth, yet people everywhere seem happy to declare that they don't need to read science fiction novels, watch horror films, or listen to classical music to know that it sucks. And that's really my problem with the whole distinction between High and Low art: the marginal categorical convenience and feelings of comfort come at the cost of perpetuating archaic class distinctions and preventing people on both sides from discovering works that they would enjoy.

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