Art For Art’s Sake?

In a recent New York Times column, Anne Midget suggests that art must look beyond crisis. She critiques the point of view that artists have not fulfilled their responsibility in reacting quickly enough to catastrophic events, such as “911.” The real crisis, however, goes far past any singular event and to what extent artists have an obligation to respond to that event. The real crisis is embedded in the politics of corporate economics that ultimately confines the scope and mass distribution of creative works challenging the status quo of consciousness.

Here is an example. Several HBO shows have, in the last few years, become the standard for excellence in televised drama. The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Oz, Sex in the City and various other shows, such as the ten part mini-series, Band of Brothers, are testaments to the new “cinema verite ”of subscription mass culture. All these shows are endowed with excellent direction, acting, and meticulous attention to detail.

Although they are not hanging in museums, or being performed in great halls, these works of art should be applauded for their unadulterated understanding and portrayal of who we are as a people, at least in the most visceral execution of our more demonic natures. But no matter how tempered they are with empathy, humanity, occasional humor, and intimate sensitivities, none of these dramas take us beyond the brutal, corporeal and psychic violence of our social-political cultures, to any significant extent. Nor, despite occasional, nominal allusions to broad public concerns, do they guide us into the realm of serious confrontation with the systemic forces that continue to shape our self-image and perhaps our destiny.

What they do accomplish, with grit and craft, is to ensconce us in a world weary nightmare of negativity and hopelessness without ever presenting a viable hope of transcending the sorry state of human nature that manifests daily in killing after killing, in misery upon misery  ¾ in an avalanche of fractured lives and relations. It is no less than a complete potpourri of wretchedness that is recycled, show to show, season to season. What is more to the point is that there is no evidence that the corporations producing these telematic tour de forces would have it any other way. No wonder so many people are walking around popping anti-depressants. After all, there barely is a discernible light at the end of the tunnel, and even if there was, the American economic engine is so riveted to the bottom line, it is doubtful that it will ever turn its avaricious eyes upward toward that light, unless it is flashing almighty dollar signs.

We might imagine shows that evince movements toward economic justice, material restraint, sexual responsibility, and community-oriented lifestyles, free of the chronic criminality and personal neurosis that are understood to be “ratings friendly.” Instead, we are absorbing onslaughts of admittedly breathtaking, but essentially solipsistic, alienated, nihilistic and desperate situations in the name of “groundbreaking” reality TV.

But while corporations revel and profit in the art of reproducing the worst of the status quo, this ‘groundbreaking’ look at our lesser natures will inevitably just compound the agony amongst us. These shows are subtlely but surely dissuaded from taking on the need for essential societal transformation. The last thing these mega-media giants want is to nurture imaginative energy that advocates consequential political-economic change. Nor are they receptive to creative entreaties demanding we recreate ourselves as human beings, becoming anything but passive, complacent victims of the larcenous superstructures that continue to choreograph our information and sense of possibility about becoming basically civilized…not to speak of achieving anything resembling happiness. No, such creative agendas threaten the corporate quarterly portfolio and are thereby relegated to the periphery of commercial culture…if even there.

Perhaps, one day, we’ll finally and definitively gag on our own image as individuals amidst the decadence we are repeatedly reminded of. Maybe then, we will understand that the system distributing the images of who we are, is invested in crisis and likely to remain so. As long as we allow ourselves to ingest political inertia in the name of  “art,” what we’ll get will be nothing more than stasis. Ironically, that stasis is now being accompanied by a keener mass awareness of ourselves. But because of the media’s complicity with our stagnant social-economic superstuctures, and no doubt our own natural inertia, that awareness is partnering with a concomitant political paralysis. Just take note of the voter turnout these days for a quick reality check.

Those of us who have done some serious viewing lately,  know that “art, simply for art’s sake,” is no longer good enough.

Marc Twang

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