Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A good article for Halloween, sorta

I found this link posted on Facebook through a fellow actor's page, and I think it's a really good follow-up after my (very) brief references to monsters in my last post.

The author is basically saying that monsters serve an important and permanent feature within our social imagination and moral framework. I especially liked his references about "imaginative rehearsal..."

It's like Frederica Matthewes-Green once quoted as the curse of the writer, once you get a good idea you always end up finding someone who said it better than you possibly could, before you had a chance to try. ;-)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The two levels of being in Art

Editorial note: This post is no-holds barred, it's not a sythesized argument, it's just letting my mind go loose, and what streams out is what is being processed, realized, corrected as I type it. The end will likely be sudden, and I may even contradict myself halfway. That's how I roll sometimes...

In the past few years, the strongest theme in my aesthetic of narrative Art has been one of reality. I would strongly make an argument that Art, when properly done, is ontologically true on a very deep level, despite being a "fantastic" story. The choices made by characters need to be real, otherwise we wouldn't go along with them. The themes they address need to be real, otherwise we'd have no reason to watch them. And on the deepest level, our witnessing them has direct implications and consequences on our lives. Therefore, a story is not "just a story." The story is real.

Now, you can quibble with that plenty, that's really a very condensed summary of pages and pages of old essays I've written and wrestled with. I posted them on my old blog, and I still have them archived, though it's been a while since I've dragged them up and revisited them. My main point is that this view of Art as real has two major consequences. One, it elevates its significance to more than just passing entertainment. Two, it requires more ethical responsibility in the telling. If a story is real, then creating evil within it has an intrinsically ethical challenge that needs to be addressed.

Again, this is all prefatory. But I think that gives you enough of a starting point to hear where I want to go next. Recently, I've started considering a second level to this scheme. Art exists on an primary ontological level, yes. But I'm starting to think it also exists on a second-order level as well, one which is more symbolic or representational.

When you see a young boy playing make-believe, he is engaging with forces bigger than himself. He is killing monsters. We laugh at this if we're cynical. But many would argue that the child is doing something very real here. He's living in a world which has evil in it. Where things go wrong. Where there are scary things he knows are bad, but cannot prevent. When we make monsters, we are physicalizing those abstract ideas into a single thing. An entity we can fight and kill. Or, maybe like Jim Henson, we make them comic, and so we no longer fear them, we laugh at them, and gain master that way.

The jump between that child's play and our theatrical works is not a large one, I don't think. The secret, I think, lies in the fictitious element. We create a kind of "unreal" space, wherein we can change the rules to do a kind of otherwise "real" thing. Where the bad guys are completely bad. Where evil has a form. Where the hero can get hurt, but can still stand up. This also lets us do things that mean bigger things. To "kill a monster" is on the primary level an act of violence against a creature, something we would identify as bad and seek to avoid. But on the second-order, it's the act of eliminating the evil which ought to be destroyed.

This leaves a lot of questions regarding where the line is between the first and second order of things. I don't really have the answer to that, this is all something of a new realization to me. This paradigm seems to have something essential in it... but I haven't figured it out.

One of the big caveats which I think definitely needs to be said in this mode of thinking, is an intelligent and self-aware audience. If the audience does not see the second-order, then something has gone wrong. It is in these deplorable cases where we make an ultra-gratuitous film and pass it off as art, using the pretense of an unengaged second order to simply give us the excuse to enjoy the violence and sensual content. But this is a failure in the artist and/or the audience, not a wholesale failure of the work itself.

Another theory I might put forth. (...this one really undeveloped as yet) It seems the biggest thing this symbolic view of Art affords is a certain license to do things on stage which one wouldn't do in real life, only since it is universally understood by the actors and the audience that it is in an "unreal" space... precisely because the actor who gets killed will get up at the end. But the question always comes back to the same bottom line, how far is too far? What is that line?

I'm beginning to suspect that it may have to do with that other trend thrown around a lot lately: realism. In the older comics, the heroes didn't bleed. Not even the badguys. They just got beat up. In Elizabethan drama, if a horrible act of violence happened, it was offstage and referred to... today, we see blood and guts and everything. Now, if the message is to say "violence means people get hurt, and that's bad" okay. But if the message is more second-order, then I think that violence does more to pull the audience out of that higher frame, and more into just seeing violence plain and simple.

Here's an illustration of what I mean. It used to be that cartoons and such were "fake" and we liked action and adventure. We got our virtuous encouragement, but we weren't exposed to all the blood and guts. Then, someday came along that a real fight had to happen. And we saw blood. And we were rightly horrified. Then we made the connection that sometimes fights have to happen, but they have bad consequences and real risks. These days however, it seems that we see so much violence all over the place, we don't mind it so much anymore. "Oh, the other guy gets brutally maimed? That's not too bad, he deserved it anyway..."

So, it's complicated. It seems to me that I do land in circles, since they all come back to "what is actually happening? "What is allowed?" and "Which is good, what is okay, and what is harmful?" To some extent, that always lands on the audience's self-awareness. But I also think the debate just got a lot bigger in scope in my own perceptions...

PS Comments on this one are definitely encouraged. I'm trying to figure this out as much as I'm trying to "share" it. So do you horribly disagree? Show me where. Think I'm on to something but missed it? Fire away...

Friday, October 16, 2009

Style shift

So I'm still getting used to the style of this blog. I like that it's not about me but about my ideas, and my writing (usually) has a pretty specific direction I want to get across... but I'm finding myself stuck on one point. See, now that I'm not just randomly spewing ideas, I find I have all these posts I want to write, but don't, because they lack conclusions.

In other words, many of my posts so far have been directly expository, saying "hey look at this! Here's an important point I want to affirm!" And I definitely have those moments. But there are plenty of subjects I don't have distinct clear-cut answers to. Sometimes I just want to verbally process... so I might throw some of those in every once and a while.

Stay tuned.


PS I could definitely use some comments so I know people are reading this or not. When I first jumped on this train, a lot of people left wall comments, but sometimes this page feels almost as barren as the Gobi desert. I can't know if I'm striking a chord in silence...

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Hello there stranger: Or, the unknowable essence of personhood

If you ever get close to a human
And human behaviour
Be ready, be ready to get confused

There's definitely, definitely, definitely no logic
To human behaviour
But yet so, yet so irresistible

And there's no map
and a compass
wouldn't help at all...

When I was a young teen, and the Internet was just getting popular, one of the things I spent a lot of time on were e-mail personality surveys. My band of friends did dozens of them, and I kept in a file all the answers my friends ever put down. At first glance this may seem like an odd thing, to keep entire pages of superfluous questions and answers like "If you were a fast food item, what would you be" and "what is the last sentence you said out loud?" (One of those single-serving apple pies, and "nothing wrong with that!" by the way...)

But I did this because, on a very deep level, I was doing what all young adolescents do. I was trying in whatever way I could to connect with other people. To reach out and gain a sense of these other people I cared about. I wanted to know them.

It had taken me years before I learned my essential mistake. For all my paying attention, I knew things about them. I did not know them. That is a fundamentally different thing. It wasn't until my senior year of college that I learned the next step. That you cannot know another person completely. And often, even after years and years of shared space, companionship, cooperation, intimacy... we only catch the smallest glimpses.

I took a class under a professor in the psychology department (whom to this day I still think belongs in the philosophy department) who first put it best into words for me. He said that love was, at its deepest level, the realization and acknowledgment of an Other. That is to say, when we can actually see a person as a person, not as an extension of our ego, not as a means to an end, not as a stereotype of predictable behaviors, but as someone who sees differently, thinks differently, and is at a profound level exists outside of ourselves... there is the beginning of real love.

There is wisdom in that observation beyond my ability to rhapsodize at this keyboard. We can live alongside people for decades, remember all kinds of events and actions they've done, but when you look into their eyes, you can't see their essence. You can't classify them. You can't truly know what they are thinking, how they are feeling, what makes them tick. That's still a mysterious thing beyond our abilities.

But what an amazing thing to look at them, and see someone looking out at you. In those moments we get flashes of something, the evidence of that deeper mystery... And it's a powerful and precious thing that we don't appreciate nearly often enough.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Said better by another long before me...

Just as that puzzled savage who has picked up - a strange cast-up from the ocean? - something unearthed from the sands? - or an obscure object fallen down from the sky? - intricate in curves, it gleams first dully and then with a bright thrust of light. Just as he turns it this way and that, turns it over, trying to discover what to do with it, trying to discover some mundane function within his own grasp, never dreaming of its higher function.

So also we, holding Art in our hands, confidently consider ourselves to be its masters; boldly we direct it, we renew, reform and manifest it; we sell it for money, use it to please those in power; turn to it at one moment for amusement - right down to popular songs and night-clubs, and at another - grabbing the nearest weapon, cork or cudgel - for the passing needs of politics and for narrow-minded social ends. But art is not defiled by our efforts, neither does it thereby depart from its true nature, but on each occasion and in each application it gives to us a part of its secret inner light.

But shall we ever grasp the whole of that light? Who will dare to say that he has defined Art, enumerated all its facets? Perhaps once upon a time someone understood and told us, but we could not remain satisfied with that for long; we listened, and neglected, and threw it out there and then, hurrying as always to exchange even the very best - if only for something new! And when we are told again the old truth, we shall not even remember that we once possessed it.

One artist sees himself as the creator of an independent spiritual world; he hoists onto his shoulders the task of creating this world, of peopling it and of bearing the all-embracing responsibility for it; but he crumples beneath it, for a mortal genius is not capable of bearing such a burden. Just as man in general, having declared himself the centre of existence, has not succeeded in creating a balanced spiritual system. And if misfortune overtakes him, he casts the blame upon the age-long disharmony of the world, upon the complexity of today's ruptured soul, or upon the stupidity of the public.

Another artist, recognizing a higher power above, gladly works as a humble apprentice beneath God's heaven; then, however, his responsibility for everything that is written or drawn, for the souls which perceive his work, is more exacting than ever. But, in return, it is not he who has created this world, not he who directs it, there is no doubt as to its foundations; the artist has merely to be more keenly aware than others of the harmony of the world, of the beauty and ugliness of the human contribution to it, and to communicate this acutely to his fellow-men. And in misfortune, and even at the depths of existence - in destitution, in prison, in sickness - his sense of stable harmony never deserts him.

But all the irrationality of art, its dazzling turns, its unpredictable discoveries, its shattering influence on human beings - they are too full of magic to be exhausted by this artist's vision of the world, by his artistic conception or by the work of his unworthy fingers.

Archaeologists have not discovered stages of human existence so early that they were without art. Right back in the early morning twilights of mankind we received it from Hands which we were too slow to discern. And we were too slow to ask: for what purpose have we been given this gift? What are we to do with it?

And they were mistaken, and will always be mistaken, who prophesy that art will disintegrate, that it will outlive its forms and die. It is we who shall die - art will remain. And shall we comprehend, even on the day of our destruction, all its facets and all its possibilities?

Not everything assumes a name. Some things lead beyond words. Art inflames even a frozen, darkened soul to a high spiritual experience. Through art we are sometimes visited - dimly, briefly - by revelations such as cannot be produced by rational thinking.

Like that little looking-glass from the fairy-tales: look into it and you will see - not yourself - but for one second, the Inaccessible, whither no man can ride, no man fly. And only the soul gives a groan...

One day Dostoevsky threw out the enigmatic remark: "Beauty will save the world". What sort of a statement is that? For a long time I considered it mere words. How could that be possible? When in bloodthirsty history did beauty ever save anyone from anything? Ennobled, uplifted, yes - but whom has it saved?

There is, however, a certain peculiarity in the essence of beauty, a peculiarity in the status of art: namely, the convincingness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable and it forces even an opposing heart to surrender. It is possible to compose an outwardly smooth and elegant political speech, a headstrong article, a social program, or a philosophical system on the basis of both a mistake and a lie. What is hidden, what distorted, will not immediately become obvious.

Then a contradictory speech, article, program, a differently constructed philosophy rallies in opposition - and all just as elegant and smooth, and once again it works. Which is why such things are both trusted and mistrusted.

In vain to reiterate what does not reach the heart.

But a work of art bears within itself its own verification: conceptions which are devised or stretched do not stand being portrayed in images, they all come crashing down, appear sickly and pale, convince no one. But those works of art which have scooped up the truth and presented it to us as a living force - they take hold of us, compel us, and nobody ever, not even in ages to come, will appear to refute them.

So perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth? If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, not allowed through - then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar to that very same place, and in so doing will fulfill the work of all three?

In that case Dostoevsky's remark, "Beauty will save the world", was not a careless phrase but a prophecy? After all he was granted to see much, a man of fantastic illumination.

And in that case art, literature might really be able to help the world today.

selected from "Beauty Will Save the World"
-Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Prize in Literature, 1970