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.

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