Art is a tricky damn thing. It’s almost impossible to define, to begin with, and it’s pretty damn hard to decide who the owner ever is. I mean, sure, there’s often the original piece of art, like with a painting or a fresco or a sculpture or whatever. Things get much more complicated when you consider other mediums like music, where that piece of art, be it Beethoven or the Beatles, can be recreated and redone (or even duplicated) by a third party. Read the rest of this entry »
I had the good sense and fortune to watch The Artist, a film that netted star Jean Dujardin Best Actor at Cannes 2011 and which has six Golden Globe nominations going for it, the most of any film for 2011 (not that, you know, Golden Globes mean anything).
The artist is about silent film star George Valentin, his relationship with up-and-coming actress Peppy Miller, and the decline of silent films and the advent of “talkies”. Valentin, like perhaps any professional scared of a new medium of art (like Ebert’s fear of video games or the fear of 3D films), insists that these talkies are just a fad and that silent film is here to stay. Obviously, he’s proven wrong.
The movie is, itself, mostly silent. There is a musical score, like a silent picture would have, and aside from a few (very, very few) lines and sound effects at key places, we’re left only to read lips and read the occasional card on screen. Our focus however isn’t entirely on why Valentin won’t star in a talkie, but why Valentin refuses to talk. And that is exactly how he phrases it. He “talks” with his fellow stars, but the audio is always on mute: the silent-film era audiences don’t hear him talk, and neither do we. Valentin spends his career talking to the audience using gestures and intertitles. Talking, we’re meant to learn, is as much about being heard as talking itself. If no one hears you talk, you aren’t talking.
And I think, to some extent, that is the problem that silent-film stars who, like Valentin, refused to adapt to talkies faced. It’s what happens to new directors, new artists, new actors. You can write the best novel, paint the best portrait, or sing the best song in the world, but if no one reads it, sees it, or hears it, it is nothing. When movies are all about being seen, well, everyone sees Valentin. When movies are about hearing and seeing, and Valentin refuses to be heard, he loses that.
Something that I really appreciated, and I think writer and director Michel Hazanavicius deserves a ton of credit for this, is that we are made to feel pity for Valentin, but never meant to hate him or think he’s an idiot. We’re in a position of dramatic irony: we know that Valentin’s refusal to talk is going to spell the end of his career. We know that silent-films die in the era of talkies. While people who say(/said) things like “computers will never catch on” or “the internet is just a fad”: we treat these people as rubes and with scorn. It’s funny for us, here in the digital era, to hear people say that. But throughout The Artist, I only found myself feeling sorry and sad for Valentin. And that’s how, I think, the film manages to maintain its humanity. It’s a movie about a man’s futile struggle against technology (and ultimately himself), but doesn’t end with his complete ruin or with us hating him. And while some have tried to argue that making a silent-film about silent-films is gimmicky, it isn’t. Hazanavicius manages to convey everything that we need with a few intertitles, gesture, music, and a couple lines of dialogue (star Dujardin as Valentin has but a single line in the film, and only two words; his co-star Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller has none). And in that regard, it’s absolutely brilliant. Show, don’t tell, is almost always a good rule of thumb, and Hazanavicius spends almost the entire film showing. Maybe audio killed the silent film (and maybe video killed the radio star), but we’re meant to remember that an artist is always an artist.
If you can find a theatre still playing it, go watch it. It’s awesome. Oh yeah, noted heroes John Goodman and James Cromwell also star and are magnificent. If you were on the fence before, that should seal the deal.
Anecdotes — even more spoilers ahead:
I had the displeasure of sitting beside some clowns during the film. While my girlfriend was between me and the worst of them, we still had to endure their whispering throughout the film. There is a moment where Valentin is seconds away from eating his gun. The audio track has gone silent and, one row back, two morons are whispering.
After a pause “BANG!!!” appears as an intertitle. Some boobs who were likely still alive during the silent-film era read the card out loud, for the illiterates in the audience. It cuts to Miller, who has crashed her car outside of Valentin’s home. The obvious conclusion is that the “BANG!!!” refers specifically to her crashing her car, and not Valentin eating lead. Alas, these fools were still surprised.
What shocked me the most, the absolute most, was at the very end when Valentin utters his only line: “With pleasure.” Jean Dujardin, if you haven’t guessed it, is French. George Valentin is not a very American sounding name. Valentin utters his line in a French accent: when he does so, the tools beside me gasp in surprise, one even says “huh?”. Yes. A man named George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin, has a French accent. Deal with it.
If you go to the movies, please shut the hell up. Especially if it is a silent-film. I didn’t pay money to hear your bullshit.
A VERY BRIEF HISTORY OF THE BOOK:
While a lot of people take it for granted, the book as a proper, commercial item per se is relatively a new thing. A whole host of things contributed to the rarity and scarcity of the book prior to around 1450, almost all of them having to do with the actual creation of the thing. Until moveable type, you essentially just had scribes (typically monks), copying over texts. These were rare and usually only owned by individuals who were rich enough to commission such a thing (imagine today, for example, hiring someone to copy out, illustrate, and bind by hand The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or A Song of Ice and Fire or whatever — that wouldn’t be cheap, even today). In the mid fifteenth century, Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized printing with his moveable type — suddenly, printing became, well, easy to do. And while it still wasn’t incredibly cheap, it was possible for less rich and influential people to read their own books. While Gutenberg and the press were met with scorn, it’s hard to deny that he improved the printing world for the better.
THE CHAPTERS EFFECT
With that context, taking a look at the big box book retailers Chapters or Barnes and Noble can be a useful exercise. While book sales saw a dip in the mid 2000’s, the situation was nowhere near as dire as the music industry. With the proliferation of big box retailers, in fact, book sales have gone up. There are two important things to note regarding that, however:
1) Chapters/B&N/etc have caused the shutdown of small bookstores. On the one hand, were you the type to frequent an independent bookstore (unlike myself), and were you the type to get all of your book recommendations there, this is certainly bad.
As a rule, small businesses, though they typically get less revenue than the big ones, tend to pay better and have better benefits for employees. This might be something that’s important to you or might not. The fact is that it’s impossible to deny that smaller retailers are hurt by larger ones. Whether or not you agree with the concept of big box stores itself is another matter, of course. On the one hand, they tend to be great for consumers (better selection, prices) and incredibly lucrative. On the other, they’re bad for employees and death for competition.
2) Chapters/B&N/etc have in some ways hurt publishers. Big box retailers can afford to get books for cheaper from wholesalers (and to, because of their dominant position, force publishers to acquiesce to which they wouldn’t normally), which means per book, the publisher makes less money. Add in the fact that the larger chains can print their own books and not rely on a third party altogether, and you have some upset publishers. While the profits in the book industry the last few years have been going up, the overall percentage going towards publishers has diminished. Considering the fact that authors are typically at the bottom of the totem pole, typically getting shafted in the revenue department, that’s not good for them, either. But, again, given that publishers routinely screw their writers, it’s hard to get upset when their profit margins are down.
THE UPSIDE… AND WHY TWILIGHT IS AWESOME:
Personally, I dislike stores like Chapters and Barnes & Noble. As a book nerd, I don’t like the idea that small, mom and pop bookstores are getting shut down, and the idea that someone named “Heather” down at Chapters HQ is picking out books for the masses gives me an uncomfortableness. It bugs me that I can walk into a Chapters and find a Kids section that rivals a Toys “R” Us or that I can get a Doublemochafrappachinotwopumpcaramelonepumpmintovericeplease (in a venti, which is Italian for twenty, because of how fancy this coffee is) while I’m deciding which piece of gimmicky stationary I want (though, to be honest, I got a bunch of really neat Christmas presents for family there!). But, this is the most important thing in the world to me: these stores get people to read. I’m going to be honest: the staff at the local bookstores I go to are next to useless, are snobby, and typically don’t know what they’re talking about. They seem to see themselves as guardians of an elite font of knowledge, that only the most qualified people should have access to. And it’s bullshit: knowledge should be for everyone. If everybody on the planet was literate and read a book a year, even if it’s Dan Brown or Charlaine Harris or Tom Clancy or J. K. Rowling, the world would be a better place.
Consider this: one out of every three high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives, 42% of college graduates never read another book after college, 80% of US families did not buy or read a book last year, 70% of US adults have not been inside a bookstore in the last five years, and (the least surprising for me, actually), 57% of new books are never read to completion (see more stats here). With numbers like that, anything that gets people to read more is a positive thing. Which is why booksnobbery is one of the worst things in the world. There is nothing wrong with Twilight. I’ve never read any of the novels and very likely never will, but every single art object has value. Maybe the literary content of Twilight isn’t that great, but surely there is something to be gained, and surely there is some value in just reading for reading’s sake. Say what you will about J. K. Rowling, but she got millions of kids to do something that many hadn’t done unless forced to — she got them to read a book. Booksnobbery, i.e., only reading critically acclaimed books because it makes you feel smarter, isn’t so great. I read often — I wrote my English honours essay on a late-nineteenth / early-twentieth century autobiography, a book that is rarely taught in schools and when it is, usually in the form of a single chapter. Despite that, the last ten or so books I’ve read have either been written by George R. R. Martin, or had “Star Wars” somewhere in the title. Reading for reading’s sake is just good for you, whether it’s “pulp” or literary gold.
Which is what certain publishing houses seem to be catching on to. They release e-books at lower prices than their physical counterparts and make them easy to access. While Amazon/B&N/Chapters etc all have different rules and so on regarding the use of the thing you have bought, it remains pretty similar. The fact is that it is terribly easy to pirate books: find a .torrent, copy and paste onto your device’s drive (this may vary from unit to unit, certainly), and you’re set. But on the other hand, it is incredibly easy to buy them legally, especially when your typical ebook is just a couple of dollars, if that. And people are paying and eReaders are getting more and more popular. Add in self-publishing and the amount of control certain companies (I’m thinking of Amazon) give authors to self-publish, and what you have is a new kind of book industry: the books are all there still, but publishers are being edged out. And this, I think, is where a lot of the opposition to eReaders comes from: the publishing industry industry itself. eReaders edge out the big box retailers (which themselves edged out small bookstores, so it becomes hard to feel sorry for B&N having to close its doors or whatever) and publishers, and put eBook distributors like the kindle store in their place. Good for readers, bad for everyone else, I guess.
THERE ARE BRICKS, BUT NO TEMPLES
Reading is awesome. As someone who reads regularly, there are very few things I find more satisfying. I like it when people read. I don’t care if it’s Stephanie Meyer or Charlaine Harris or Emily Brontë or Oscar Wilde or J. K. Rowling or Stephen King or Chuck Palahnuik or whoever — just as long as they’re reading, I’m happy. Reading is power, after all. Ignoring the fact that Wikipedia is, well, written by a tight-knit group of contentious self-aggrandizing pedants, the core goal of making knowledge accessible to everyone is incredibly noble. Opening up knowledge by making books so very accessible is noble, too. eReaders and their producers aren’t without their faults, of course, and just as how we’re critical with the publishing industry with its price gouging, we should be conscientious about Amazon and remember that even if their goals are altruistic, money — and lots of it — is at stake, and so we should be careful.
At the end of the day, we also have to remember that reading is, at its core, about the reader. One’s reaction to characters in literature, such as Darcy in Pride and Prejudice or Grand Admiral Thrawn in the awesome Thrawn Trilogy set in the Star Wars Universe, is, in a sense, one’s reaction to oneself. Reading is a mostly introspective act: sure, you’re reading something else and maybe you’re talking to other people about it and so on, but at the end of the day reading is an experience or a journey. It’s an act of self-discovery. Sure you learn things about other things, but how you react to what you read is incredibly telling. Reading is always about the reader, and that’s a good thing.
Reading isn’t about the publisher, or the author, or the thing you’re reading on. It really is about the reader. Writing, as a profession, isn’t at risk. While writing is relatively new, storytelling has been around forever. It will always be around. The fearmongering that you hear, that you need to support your local bookstore or that every time you buy a kindle a cat dies, is missing the point, I think. We should be somewhat careful about what we read, of course, and avoid stupid revisionism and egotistical gangsterism, but at the end of the day, reading is about the reader: reading for reading’s sake should be the goal.
As an English major, a writer, and someone who has been reading prodigiously for years, the issue of art and what is art is an issue particularly close to my heart. I’ve found, from my own experience, that the field is wide-open. The simplest explanation, I think, is that when an object is meant to inspire thought (or even lack of thought, I guess), that object can be considered an art object. Clearly what that object can be to be an art object is practically limitless. For example, Seoul’s “The Cloud” can be considered art. It is designed to be functional, certainly, but one cannot deny it holds an aesthetic beauty and inspired considerable philosophical thought from some (and thoughtless outrage from others). It can be ridiculously easy to consider just about anything art, from this perspective. A very simplistic tower, in contrast to The Cloud, could inspire thought about austerity or modernity or even man’s inability to copy nature or whatever. In the visual arts, a happy face on a canvas or a single black line or even a blank canvas can be considered art. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t or can’t judge art (“good” art, “bad” art), but that we should keep in mind both what is art and that very frequently, what we consider to be good or bad art is completely arbitrary. Some of the greatest art from the medieval era of painting, for example, was commissioned by nobility and was described by them to the exact detail: because it is strictly commercial and because what we consider to be creativity isn’t of huge importance, do we not consider it art? Do we only consider it art if x number of dollars have gone into its production, or if the artist spent y hours of time? These are all very important questions, and I guess when it comes to art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But I think restricting what is art is negative and leads to elitism of the worst kind.
Given all this, I was pleased to read Tycho’s take on the thing over at Penny-Arcade:
I don’t think I’ve ever read a definition for art that wasn’t stupid. Generally speaking, when a person constructs a thought-machine of this kind, what they’re actually trying to do is determine what isn’t art. I have always been white trash, and will never cease to be so; what that means is that I was raised with an inherent distrust in the Hoity and a base and brutal urge to dismantle the Toity. This is sometimes termed anti-intellectualism, usually by intellectuals, when what it is in truth is an opposition to intellect for intellect’s sake. The reality is that what “is” and “isn’t art” is something we can determine with a slider in our prefrontal cortex.
If this thought-machine had any purpose other than to create a world with less art, I could cut it some slack. But it doesn’t. Its entire purpose is to rarify art, controlling expression thereby. The aperture must be cinched, and quickly, before someone creates a cultural product without elite imprimatur. Its effete and its fucking disgusting.
I would of course argue that art is a thought-machine, itself. Art is, or should, or can, or might, allow us to view the world from a certain perspective (or no perspective at all). Art is, or can be, or might be, an expression of an idea (that idea, at times, being art). Whether or not that idea is beneficial, or useful, or unique, or anything like that, is a different issue (and perhaps not an issue at all). It becomes so hard to draw a dividing line that it is pointless to do so.
One of the biggest drivers seems to me the intentionality and even authenticity of the piece of art. Regarding authenticity (which itself is such a nebulous term, only by taking it at face value with only the most cursory examination is it useful as an adjective), art that is made for the express purpose of making money, for example, is not considered art by some. This would, for those that hold that view, exclude such things as Harlequin romances. By that same token, however, do we then exclude movies and video games and TV shows automatically, or do we take it for granted that the creators are simply trying to tell a story rather than make money, whereas pulp novels written a dime a dozen are less about story and more about dollars. But, given that we know in today’s day and age at the very least anything that is created that can be considered art can be commercialised, where can we even begin to draw the line?
Regarding intentionality, what does it matter what the artist thought? I’m an artist in that what I create is intended to have some aesthetic value and is meant to impart some kind of message and impart some kind of thought. An interpretation of how I write, for example, is useful but why I write it, my intentionality, is much less so. My intentionality is useful in terms of my argument, of course, but in terms of any sort of aesthetic appreciation it becomes next to useless. A great example that always comes to mind is one from an English course I took a year or two ago. Reading Edgar Allan Poe, the issue of intentionality popped up (as it did in a discussion on Henry James some weeks earlier). When the professor asked us what we thought the author thought, I stated that I didn’t care what the author thought and that it doesn’t matter what he thought, what matters is what we think his art is expressing. In this sense, the artist is kind of a hero. He, or of course she, has the potential to harness a brilliant idea and spill it out on canvas or paper fresco or .doc, but once they leave the picture, what they thought ceases to be of great import. They can interpret their own art, and we can take that as being important or relevant or helpful (in that they may be an authority and in that any interpretation can be helpful), but we certainly don’t have to take it for gospel.
I think that when philosophy ceases to be useful for mankind and begins to be useful only for philosophy, we may be missing the point. I don’t mean to be like some douchebag first-year philosophy major who walks into a bar and says what… is? like some pocket Rousseau. Sure, what is is an important question if we’re talking about what it is to be sentient, or to think, or to just be. But the goal should be to come up with a practical set of ground rules, or to at least recognize that we don’t have a practical set of ground rules, and what is and isn’t art varies from day-to-day based on current sociopolitical thought, market trends, education levels, and even the weather. More importantly, I think, we should be more mindful and more critical of thought itself. We should assess and evaluate not just what is art, but why it is art and why we think it is art.
But limiting what is art with bullshit elitism is probably not the way to go.