Sunday, 30 September 2012

How art has failed

Last week was a week off from seriousness, but now that's over with it's time to put my pretentiousness cap back on and dive into the salty waters of Pretending-I-Know-What-The-Hell-I'm-Talking-About.  Today I want to talk about what art ought to be doing for society and why I feel that it is failing in that regard.
I expect that I will mainly be talking about literature here, but I want to make clear that when I say art I mean all of art, from paintings to plays to computer games to films all the way to the cruddiest reality tv show you can think of.  Anything created by people for other people to experience is, for the purposes this entry, art. 

What does it mean when I say 'what art ought to be doing for society?' well, that's a stupidly large question with a number of correct, and possibly conflicting, answers.  However what I mean by it is that art is a dialogue.  Art is a societies way of having a conversation to explain and explore it's problems.  In a crude example, people go to see a film about racism and that helps them to re-assess how they feel about the subject in light of how society (here played by the film) feels about it.  Obviously in more complex examples it can help people to process things like the death of a relative or the impending reality of their own death.  I don't want to give the impression that this is all about big questions however.  Reading a story about even simple life events allows people to live those out in their minds, it is a way of getting experience without any associated risks.  As such, when art represents the current status of society, it is a way for people to experience the full state of that society, with all of its associated complexities and depths, while still staying within their smaller corner of that society.

Within this definition, I think art is failing because the vast majority of it is extremely shallow.  The most populist fare, from reality television to blockbuster movies, tap into very basic emotions in a totally by the numbers way.  While completely shying away from providing any commentary on those emotions.  They simply aren't asking any questions which are of any use to people or, in many cases, aren't asking any questions at all.
Let me be clear, certainly there is art with incredible depth.  In almost every field there is a great wealth of material ready to be tapped, really important things being said in ways which have significance in all of our lives.  However I think the problem here is that there is a definite tendency that the more depth a piece of work has the further it is from being seen by most members of the public and this isn't the way that it has to be at all.  My counter example is clear, Shakespeare and Dickens.  Both of these artists had incredibly important things to say about human nature and the society they lived in.  Both of them also said these things in a way which was, at the time, incredibly popular.  For them their art was a balance between pandering to what the people would enjoy and saying things which would be important for those people to hear. 
This balance is something which, it seems to me, has fallen out of favour in more recent times.  Artists nowadays are often presented with a false choice between producing something trashy and popular or something deep and niche.  This is how I think that is how art has failed its responsibility to society.

So why has this happened?  Personally I feel that it is because we began analysing too deeply what makes art great.  This is fine by itself, but that analysis by necessity takes place in fairly segregated and often academic communities.  Once those communities are in place it's a small leap to see that the newer artists might be tempted to, for the sake of being recognised as great, write just for them.  That means writing using a language which is entirely based around that smaller community and using shorthand which is only understood within that circle. 
I think it is in these smaller communities that things have gone wrong.  I don't think it is impossible for there to be a modern Shakespeare or Dickens, I don't think there is anything about modern society which precludes that possibility (in fact, there are people we could point to and say that perhaps they are fulfilling that role).  However what I do think is happening is that there is now an assumed divide that something is deep or it is populist, never both.  This is a huge mistake.  For me it has always seemed that if an artist is expressing their message in a way which only a studied academic will understand then they are failing in their responsibility.  These smaller communities of commentary and understanding are stealing away the most creative types and best artists.
It is as though there is an assumption that if you aren't well educated or intelligent enough to understand certain points then you are not worthy of those points.  It may be that many people went to see Hamlet without any awareness of the deeper themes or issues which it contended with.  But to argue that they gained no benefit from those themes, that they were wasted on them, that seems to me to be an awful kind of intellectual superiority (not to mention untrue in my opinion).

I suppose this probably all comes from my definition of art as a dialogue.  By that definition it is reasonable to say that if hardly anybody is listening to you, then what you're saying wont be of any importance, whether it's a valuable thing to say or not. 
There are lots of ways to define art, it's intent and the values by which we judge its success and I'm sure there are arguments against what I'm saying here.  However I want to be clear, I'm not suggesting that anything be dumbed down, only that it be translated into a language which is accessible to everybody. 
Ultimately people will probably still be idiots.  The television executives will still commission the reality tv, the guy sat at home will still put it on because it's easy and he will still discuss it over the water cooler at work the next day, adding to its ubiquity.  However if we continually increase the divide towards a situation where products are entirely shallow and vacuous or entirely deep and impenetrable, then we're denying that guy his chance to even begin to dig him out of the hole he's found himself in, and that seems to me like a pity.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Who is my favourite super hero?

Particularly after the extreme seriousness of last week, I'm going to try and provide a little bit of balance to the blog by allowing myself to veer off into a few sillier and more casual directions. With that in mind I thought I'd provide a bit of a break this week by talking about something that kept me up last night. The question of who my favourite super hero is*.

From a very young age I had a great interest in super heroes. There's an old story my godmother loves to tell about me where, as a very young child, I unexpectedly jumped off a wall I'd been walking along and shouted “SuperTed”. Apparently I trusted completely that her instincts would to save my fall (she was thankfully equal to the task). On another occasion I remember hurting my throat quite badly by trying to swallow an entire banana in one go after I incorrectly “figured out” that this must be how Bananaman, who always ate them like that, got his powers to work. However I think these cartoon characters always occupied a slightly smaller place in my heart than the real superheroes, the ones who appeared in comics in America (that mythic land of my childhood). Those ones were so much richer and they had such a vibrant history and unseen past that was extremely enticing to me.

My earliest obsession was with Superman. I'm not sure exactly of the ages, but I would guess that he occupies a place in my life from the age of about four to eight. I remember I had a Superman t-shirt and a duvet cover and pillow (and they were wicked cool, I'd wear that t-shirt now if I could get it in my size). I'm not entirely sure about the details, but I think in my young mind I always understood that I WAS Superman, my having so many items depicting him couldn't just be mere chance. I knew that it was only a matter of time before I would grow up and people would recognise me for what I was. I was quite certain that all of his powers were due to me as well, it was a very optimistic and promising imagined world. In that sense I think it is well matched to the hero himself, who is always presented as a symbol of virtue and potential. However I also think it is a fine symbol of the type of young man that I was at the time, supremely confident in my own abilities, trusting all of those around me and with a total faith in the security of my future.

The next focus for my attentions was Judge Dredd. For those of you not aware, Judge Dredd is a policeman in a city of the future. He applies every aspect of the law with a rigid certainty which is often totally unfair on the people he is subjecting to it, but he believes in his city and the order which him and the other judges subject it to. For the first time with Dredd I was able to go out and get the stories for myself, from roughly the ages of eight to thirteen I would often sit in WHsmiths for hours on end reading every comic they had. In Dredd not only had I discovered a world which I could immerse myself in, but I also suddenly had a deeper awareness of all the other things going on under the hood. There were years and years of Dredd stories and in my searching I would occasionally gain a little glimpse at them, at a whole world I wasn't aware of and big impressive events in its past. I never did manage to fill in those gaps but I didn't mind, somehow having my imagination fill them in let them, and Dredd by association, be so much more impressive.
There are all sorts of reasons why I liked Dredd, why he fit well with my life at the time. My Father had a cardiac arrest and was never the same again. I went to a private school and was no longer effortlessly in the top of the class (if I was lucky I was towards the middle). I began to enter my teenage years and the whole world of social pressures and rules which I was poorly equipped to understand. I think these do mirror quite nicely the more hopeless and grim struggle which Dredd's world represented. However I personally prefer to take the view that rather than my enjoying Dredd because of those things, that he came along at as a mirror to them (I'm rather enamoured of this idea that your fictional reality, whatever it consists of, is a microcosm of the macrocosm of you life... or perhaps even the other way around).
Whatever my attraction to him, the fact is that Dredd has some strong associations for me, that he represents in my head a time when my world suddenly became difficult, a thing to be fought against, even when that fight seemed impossible.

The next period of my life probably represented a much wider expansion of my interests, at least as far as comics went. There was one notable stand out though in the form of Batman, who I was probably mildly obsessed with throughout the rest of my teenage years. Through reading him I discovered some brilliant writers and for the first time I felt involved with some of those big events that I'd only heard about in Dredd's world. Batman to me represents the triumph of the normal man. He has no powers handed to him, in fact he had an awful start to life (if you ignore the many silver spoons crammed in his mouth), but he triumphed all the same, becoming a symbol of order and reason in much the same way that Superman symbolised hope and possibility. Batman was the genius polymath that I always half suspected I could be, but he was also dark, he was driven to those things by pain and it didn't ever seem to bring him happiness when he fought for what was right, it was just what he did. I'm struggling to figure out what Batman symbolises for me and my life, perhaps because so many more of those aspects are still with me. I think it is a return to the boundless possibility of my younger self, but a possibility which is now tinged by grim times and hard work. It was around this time that I decided I wanted to be a writer, though I still felt that it would come easy, that I would put pen to paper and be instantly declared a genius. I had no real concept of just how difficult achieving that ambition would be.

What now then? Well through my twenties I gravitated towards more complex super heroes, their worlds filled with drugs and magic and much more complex problems. Often this meant they didn't lend themselves so well to being symbols for me, though they often bore my obsession in much the same way.
However I'm still skirting around the original question which I asked myself, who is my favourite? I have such a well stocked pantheon nowadays that I could (and have) mulled that question backwards and forwards endlessly. There is a sense in which they all, having a particular character and mood, fit for particular situations and places in my life. That there are times when I need to be Batman and others when I need to invoke Dredd to get through the day. Really though, it's Superman, it's got to be Superman. My obsession with him goes back to almost before I could talk and in every other period of life he has always been there, waiting quietly. I in fact did end up being mistaken for him in a way. For much of secondary school my nickname was Superman (because I looked like Clark Kent) and even now people occasionally remark on the similarity. That same optimism has always been there too, that insane certainty that things will work out, that people are good and I can do whatever I turn my hand to. I'm not sure if it's a safe or sensible way to live, having that sense of security at my back, but if the past thirty years have taught me anything it's that life is happier this way.

*[It's probably worth admitting that, somehow, I ended up taking this silly idea rather seriously. I promise that this wasn't planned, I suppose the weight of ideas was just too great this week I'm afraid]

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Figuring out what makes you happy

I have recently been exploring what makes me happy, or perhaps more accurately, I have recently been questioning my own ability to determine what will make me the most happy. One of the big reasons for this is that I have been experimenting with internet dating. There is something about the process of looking through a large number of profiles of potential dates which allowed me to realise a few things.
Firstly, there are clearly a few things which I am attracted to that I wasn't previously aware of. It was only once I had such a large sample size and was exploring that side of myself in such detail that I was able to see them. I think it is clear how this applies back to the topic of this entry, that there are often things which make you happy, foods which you make like, people you may get on well with, activities you may enjoy, that you have no awareness of until you try them (and often until you've tried them at length).
Secondly, I found more and more often I was able to see that I could be happy, I could have a good time, doing a great variety of things. That is, I could see someone and think, 'yes I might like going walking with them' or 'I could enjoy going to the theatre actually' or all manner of other activities. Partially this is because I am a people person and with the right personal accoutrement I could see myself enjoying almost anything. However I think it is also partially an example of just how wide the potential space of my enjoyment is. My point here is that although there is a lot available to me, it is actually surprisingly difficult to rank those things against one another in my mind, especially something like learning to a skill, where it may be difficult and I have no idea how long it will take before it starts to become enjoyable.
Finally, there is a problem whereby it is difficult to ascertain the long terms 'fun' returns on any particular activity. This is especially true of dating, because experience teaches me that someone I get on well with in the short term may end up being a mortal enemy in the middle to long term and often vice versa. I might commit a lot of time to learning to play the piano, but the end result could be either that I have a new relaxing fun activity or that I'm never very good and don't ever come to like it. All of which comes to a head when you balance it against short term activities which I know to be fun (should I watch one more video of a kitten falling over, or make a start on writing my novel?). I tend to think that this category of problem is the reason that most people are quite static in their likes and dislikes. They know that they enjoy science-fiction or long distance running so it doesn't seem worth the cost or risk to attempt to branch out and explore even similar activities.
Hopefully all of this indicates why when I think 'what will make me happy?', I find more and more that question actually poses quite a difficulty.

My instinct, as with most problems, is to see what happens when you take a step back, what the problem looks like when I attempt to look down upon it from a little further away. Honestly from this position it is obvious to me that there is no real difference between how happy it will make you to spend your Friday nights doing martial arts or dancing your pitoot off. That is, they both fulfil some need, but they are interchangeable in doing so. Though people may feel some connection with or attraction to certain activities, I feel that the reality is that other activities would substitute just as well.
The question is then which needs can we best fill to make ourselves happy. Once that is answered, we can find activities and ways of filling our time that suit these in a pretty much paint by numbers fashion. Obviously most of you are probably now thinking that I'm treading old ground and that Maslow's heirarchy of needs suits this purpose rather well. Honestly I was a little worried that it did myself that's one of the reasons that this entry has taken so long. However having looked closely at Maslow's set up I feel that it is inadequate to truly describe a path to happiness. Ideas like self-actualization seem poorly defined and frankly the top end of the hierarchy seems woefully thin to me.
Obviously then it's time for me to try and define my own set of needs. Of course this is sheer arrogance, Maslow was quite a while ago and I'm sure psychologists and their ilk have expanded his ideas significantly since then, but I think it will serve as an interesting personal exercise to try and define them myself. Here then are my list of human needs to achieve happiness:
Novelty – I think the way our culture and society is organised caters to this quite well generally. We get new films, television and gossip on a daily basis and I think in a rudimentary sense, these are enough. However I believe our drive towards new experiences is one of our strongest and most vital and although the daily mush which appears on our screens is enough to fulfil that desire, we can make ourselves so much happier with a diet of richer novel experiences. I think this is one of the main roots of peoples enthusiasms towards holidays, they provide a concentrated burst of fresh input and that is extremely exciting to us.
Social interaction – I've written an entire entry on this and I am sure I will write more. What I want to add to that discussion here is that social interaction can mean any number of things, from dancing, to a deep conversation about the universe, all the way to a water cooler conversation about the weather. The common element which I think is necessary for happiness is for it to be explicit that other people are recognising you as a separate agent, that they show they are aware that you are another full human, like them. This is why some types of interaction do not satisfy this urge, for instance when somebody ignores your input into a conversation in favour of what they want to say. I think it is also why being patronised is so annoying. I'd also guess that it is why people who do not feel they are getting this interaction often act out in very strange ways which ensure they will be recognised and reacted to. Additionally I used to believe that the deeper a conversation the more it satisfied this urge for a social connection. I now no longer believe this, I think that any connection, so long as it has a required level of novelty*, fulfils this need whether it is a two minute conversation or an eight hour one.
Physical activity – There is a lot of research about how physical activity helps to improve our mental state (here's a nice simple run down article). My feeling is that this is because while you are exercising emotions are naturally damped down by the body and that this allows the breaking of what can otherwise be self-perpetuating cycles of depression or anxiety. Whatever the reason (I'm probably wrong) it is clear that exercise is a good thing for us. Having said that I am not entirely convinced that it could be said to contribute to our happiness. I think an argument could be made that this need, above any other, could be subsumed into other categories (that it's effects come from them, not from something inherent to exercise).
Personal action within the world - I'm not sure how clear that term is, but it's the one I've been using in my head for months so I'm afraid you're all stuck with it now too. This originated from my thoughts about Magik (here) but I realised it has an effect in many different areas of life. The fact is we like to feel as though we have some power over the direction of our own lives and when we don't it is extremely frustrating. We can lose this sense of control through any number of ways. Coming to terms with our lack of it is one of the aspects which is most difficult about any personal tragedy. At its worst when we feel powerless against our emotions it leads to all sorts of attempts to take it back, such as cutting or even contemplating suicide. However I think it is a mistake to think of this only in terms of the lack of it. I feel it is noticeable that for even very stable individuals the more that they feel they have a sense of personal action over the events around them, the happier and freer they seem to be. In that sense, it is always worth striving for more of this (yet another reason why picking a book from your bookshelf or the library is a better option than accepting whatever dross is doled out on television that evening).
Achieving excellence – Almost anyone whose ever done anything really well knows how good it feels. Beyond wanting to achieve success and become popular I believe that simply doing a task well is a joy onto itself. One side of this is in the awareness of how much we have personally improved, this gives a sense of progression and accomplishment. The other side is that I believe any skill, when taken to a certain level, enriches and deepens. A master furniture maker may understand and appreciate things about furniture which I don't even understand, and that will naturally add whole new vistas to his enjoyment of the process. I have my suspicions that this extra depth also does something strange to our brains, that once an obsession has taken hold it allows us to reprocess and re-frame events in our lives in a completely different manner. I don't want to get too bogged down just now though, so for now I'll just say that doing things well is fun. Whether it's building an intricate chest of drawers, or playing Pacman, seeing ourselves do well is a powerful feeling.
Achieving flowFlow is a psychology term which I've generally seen explained as being when you are so involved in an activity that your awareness of both yourself and the outside world falls away, leaving only that activity. The classic examples given are dancing and martial arts. In both of these thinking about what to do first and then doing it will likely be too stilted, to be truly proficient you are forced to let yourself react instinctively, through learned responses. Still, I think most human activities can allow this kind of deep involvement and loss of self, even sedentary ones like fishing or intellectual ones like writing, though they may both produce it less often and to a lesser degree. It is fairly known that flow is an extremely enjoyable process to go through, however there seems some argument as to why. As far as I am concerned I tend to think that it is because we spend so much of our time dedicated to our inner dialogue and sense of self, that putting it aside for a few moments is a huge mental relief.
Long term goals – All I mean by this is that we like to be able to see beyond our current horizon. That we have a tendency towards short term thinking and having something more long term (whether, actually, it is in the future or the past) to look at outside of that short term bubble allows us to see ourselves as more permanent and well defined within our worlds. It also provides perspective, allowing us to see beyond local mishaps. Again I think these kinds of goals could be something as simple as a holiday or a bigger task, like learning to play the piano.

That then, is my list of needs. Honestly I learned a lot just from writing those definitions. It concerns me a little that I can't see any specific space up there for either sex or love, both of which I think are fairly central to human lives, but then I'm happy to leave myself at a stage of incompleteness as I think even attempting this list was an act of severe foolishness and arrogance (both admirable qualities in their way).

I expect that I will revisit many of these over the next few months, as nearly all of them warrant their own entry all to themselves.

I thought it was worth taking a paragraph to apologise for the lateness of this new entry (not the best start to the new season). Also to point out that I know this reads like every self help book ever. I suppose my defence is that I think talking about these things in a strictly “this is what I think” way can be helpful and illuminating, even if it is a little silly.

*[when I say novelty what I mean is that a simple: “How's it going?” “Good you?” “Yeah okay” is often not enough for us, as there is no room for either player to act as their own agent]