Monday, September 01, 2008

On Art, Art Criticism, and the Art of Avoidance

From the previously quoted essay "Have the Artists Gone Mad?", by G.K. Chesterton, here's an interesting line, regarding the question: How do we revive a popular interest in art? According to G.K. the solution "does not lie in increasing the number of artists who can startle us with complex things, but by increasing the number of people who can be startled by common things."

I am not totally sure of the context of that; or how sweepingly he means it; or precisely against what he says it---but I feel like it touches on my likes and dislikes in movies these days.

I'm tired of the elaborate action scene and I'm aghast at the depths of visual insanity which will be summoned up to provide the latest shock. Anyone can think up the craziest thing imaginable and then CGI it onto the screen for a scream. I'm bored of it. Maybe I'm getting old, but I'd much rather be startled by common things, and I think it makes for better art. But I'm not sure Chesterton is right that this will revive a popular interest in art. I think it can only rescue the populace from where the arts have gone.

But hold on now. While we're on the topic, here is a quote that takes it even further and really got me thinking. Especially because I can spend so much time debating (somewhat objectively) the craft of film-making, the subjective preferences of one film over another, and whether a film was rightly and properly entertaining or not. This is found in Dale Ahlquist's Common Sense 101. These are his words revolving around something Chesterton said:

"There is a famous saying that there is no disputing about taste. And it is true. But that refers to our relatively minor likes and dislikes that are simply personal preferences and cannot be changed by the argument. But in matters of art, the problem is that there are people who 'prefer to dispute about taste, because they do not want their disputes settled.' They are avoiding the things that can be argued about and the things that are really worth arguing about because they do not want to face the consequences of losing their arguments."

This one really gets me because I am a person who enjoys disputing about the ins and outs of movie making, my likes and dislikes, and such. It is fun, and somehow feels worthwhile because, well, we watch a lot of movies, and we might as well talk about why it is we like some and not others. But sometimes there is this nagging question in the back of my head: Why am I taking entertainment so seriously?

Part of the answer, and what I think Chesterton is not addressing fully, is that entertainment has become very important. It is, like it or not, from the stupidest pop-movie to the most artsy bio-epic, the most common and accessible medium for Western ideas. It is where worldviews collide and are presented. These are the stories that form our psyche, or at least pull at it from all directions. You can also express things in movies and music that you can't put so well in words.

Furthermore, because we need to be aware of the tricks and methods that can be used to get us to feel or think this or that, I would argue (against the Chesterton of 1927, who, let's be fair, was living in the very early years of cinema) that the finer points of story-telling, film-making, and audience-response are worth discussing because they enable us to think more clearly about those things which have moved us or bored us and why. The medium is worth discussing for the same sort of reason that epistemology is worth discussing. Besides that this can also be a legitimate past-time. Something to talk about, just because it is enjoyable.

But we should not write off this challenge too quickly. I should allow Chesterton's comment to ask me some questions. First of all: Do I watch movies simply to be stimulated? What does it take to stimulate me? How much of that do I need? How much is too much? Is entertainment itself worth taking this seriously?

Taking it deeper: Am I simply disputing matters of taste because I am afraid to dispute anything that could actually be settled? Do I only dispute that which can end in everyone saying "well, that was fun, now I've heard everyone's opinions, and now I leave unchanged and as rigidly fixed in my own"? Am I avoiding the things that can be argued about and are worth arguing about because I do not want to face the consequence of losing?

Lest I cop out and only ask questions, let me venture to say something: As much as I love movies, and the arts, and discussing them, I think that ours is a culture that is absolutely overdosing on entertainment for entertainment's sake. At its best, art is expressing and sharing and inspiring and moving. It is getting us to face the questions, and is startling us again with common things. At its worst this is our way of avoiding the questions.

I am reminded to limit the extent to which I allow arts and entertainment to simply be a mindless escape. I think this is okay to a degree and I'm not judging its existence as a form of leisure. But I don't want the overdose. I don't want the E-Talk lifestyle. If I am going to watch so much film, read so much fiction, and admire so much musical and visual art, I had better not let it be my avoidance strategy. I had better be willing to discuss what the art is saying and not merely how it said it.

This goes for philosophy and theology as well. You can only discuss epistemology so long. At some point you have to talk about something. What do you think?


jon said...

by the way, I would hate it if any of you thought I was directing this blog post at anyone in particular. that would be a horrible way to use a blog. i wrote this like a month ago when i came across these comments by GKC.

i do think that if i am going to spend so much time blogging and talking about the arts, i dang well better do some self-criticism at some point along the line. so if you feel so led, you can join me in a sort of blogger's diagnostic check. anyways, i'm putting it out there.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

initial, scattered thoughts:

I've been having an ongoing debate with a friend about which is better, truth or happiness. He said we should always choose truth. I said, "yeah -but at the end of the day I'll probably choose happiness." Then he motioned towards my film collection which is filled with melancholy, anguished, and existential angst-ridden titles and he said, "in art, you've already chosen truth."

I'm not sure what I'm getting at.

Lewis wrote a book called An Experiment in Criticism (which, for my money, is his most thought-provoking non-fiction) that posited the idea that rather than judging whether a book is good or bad we should judge instead whether the reader read it well or poorly. As in, was it read for escapism or to feel like one is "bettering" ones' self, or was it read in a spirit of genuine engagement -on the author's terms, not ours. Lewis doesn't condemn escapism morally (that would be ridiculous), but he does say it's a poor way to read a book. I know when I watch a film for escapist purposes it can feel good as a way of winding down, but it does nothing to nourish my soul.

I love hearing what my friends think of films, because I feel like the art a person responds to is a window into their soul. I don't think the discussions hold much value beyond that. But seeing into someone's soul is a tremendous thing.

jon said...

"in art, you've already chosen truth." Great line by your friend there.

Fantastic thoughts. I agree with Lewis, and you. that is very very well put.

"seeing into someone's soul is a tremendous thing."

yes yes yes

Bill Erlenbach said...


Interesting reflections. It seems to me that art at its finest explores the common. Anyone can do shock art. I would suggest that the artist must take the time to slow down and observe the "common", to engage with creation and the human experience at in its simplicity. To see what other people pass by.

I found this quote on creating art sometime ago attributed to Georgia O'Keefe. "Bait with simplicity, reward with complexity."

A rose is but a flash of red speeding by in a car, but stop, sit down and look at closely and you find far more.

Perhaps the real problem with shock and flash art/movies is that despite the complexity, they are shallow, mere "cotton candy entertainment," sweet to taste but virtually devoid of substance.

Colin Toffelmire said...

Great post Jon. I have so many thoughts bouncing around as a result that I'm not exactly sure what to say.

First, regarding the idea of authors: I don't know how either you or Matt has read about so-called "reader-response" criticism. This is a relatively recent branch of post-modern literary criticism that suggests that meaning does not reside behind the text in the mind or heart of an inaccessible author but is more accurately located in the mind and heart of each individual reader. In other words our readings reveal more about us than they do about the text itself.

I don't totally buy that line of reasoning but it is an interesting way of looking at the questions you pose. Regarding debates on the substance of films, I think those are the best things to discuss. The key in my mind is that all such discussions must take place in a spirit of love and not of condemnation. For instance, I don't appreciate being thought a fool for not having seen any films by Bergman. I don't think others fools for not having read Nietzsche. But I do think people should read Nietzsche because his work is interesting and has deeply influenced our culture. In the same way it's fine with me if someone tells me that they hated a movie that I loved. I just want to know why. This will hopefully give me insight into that person's life, my life, and into the content and message of the film itself (I tend to argue that content and message are so deeply related as to be all but interchangeable).

Like I said, lots of scattered thoughts. I have to go now, time to go back to watch Carnivale Ssn 1, which is awesome ;).

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

Bill Erlenbach:

I'm a bit uncomfortable anytime someone says "an artist must..." Although I am personally in agreement with the O'Keefe quote. But the word "must" is too strong.

Your objection to "shock art" is slippery I think. For who is going to judge what is shocking? This is a tired argument, I know. Nevertheless...

Catcher in the Rye, The Scarlett Letter, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Satanic Verses, Animal Farm, A Clockwork Orange, The Grapes of Wrath -these are all books that a lot of people do (or have) deemed very shocking, but they are also among the great works of literature of the past 200 years.

To be clear, I'm not particularly interested in painters urinating on canvases or the extreme violence of American action films, but I don't know that such exercises are completely valueless. Perhaps that kind of shocking for shocking's sake is the necessary path for some artists to take to achieve truly great work. Or maybe someone will urinate in such a way as to surprise the skeptics.

I'm probably reading too much into what you've said. Correct me where I've misunderstood you. I just get the sense that you think there are some sort of rules on the best way to make art, and I don't agree with that.

Bill Erlenbach said...


As far as "must", I merely suggest the "must," not demand it. It is however a personal conviction that informs my practice of painting and photography (albeit imperfectly).

As far as shock art, I would define that simply as art that has no other purpose but to shock (aside from financial gain perhaps). Many well conceived works are "shocking," but are not merely "shocking," including the ones you mentioned.

As far as "who is going to judge"... that line is too close to abdicating responsibility for my comfort.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

It's true that to ask "who is going to judge?" is an easy way to abdicate responsibility, and it is often abused by artists too lazy or irresponsible to think about what they're doing. But that doesn't mean it's not a legitimate question. I wish more artists would let ethics effect their artistic decisions, but that is the speck in their eye, not the board in mine.

So, seriously, who is going to judge whether a work of art is shocking or not?

Concerning art that shocks for the sake of being shocking, I see your point.

jon said...

this is what is great about blogging, not only do i get to interact with people i don't see much anymore, but once in awhile i even get to host a conversation between friends of mine who have ever met (as with matthew and erlenbach here). Fantastic stuff fellas.

My guess is that for Bill any "must" has to do with moral imperatives that he has submitted himself to as a Christian. Even then, however, the interpretation and contextual application of those moral imperatives requires discussion.

My take on how we judge what is shocking is this:

Shock is relative. I think we would generally discern what is "shocking" based upon our sense of societal norms. This is complex since society is more and more varied depending on what pocket you find yourself in. And whether something is deemed shocking to a certain group (as in the case, say, of the F-word), or abidingly and universally shocking (as in the case, say, of genocide); questions still have to be asked about whether that means it is right or wrong.

Even this may in many cases come down to context. For instance, the F-word doesn't really have the shock value it used to have for me, and so I don't notice it so much. I'm not even personally it is a word that is "wrong" to say in every context. However, I generally don't say it. If I did say it, however, I would deem it "wrong" to say it around my kids, or at church, or with my Grandma in the room, and maybe not wrong if I'd just witnessed a car accident in the presence of some close friends. See what I'm saying? FOr me, moral imperatives of the contextually interpreted variety such as this come down to the law of love, and what is most beneficial to others and Christ-like and in line with universal moral imperatives that I find compelling within my faith tradition. Much discussion still goes into the discernment process on this, but if I do use words such as "must" or what-have-you, at least within my faith community, that is what I am referring to.

Albeit, many in my faith community do not think very contextually about such things. For them, the F-word is as eternally and universally "wrong" as genocide. I don't think it is that simple.

Anyway, something might be shocking in one context or generation, and become less shocking over time. In some cases this can be a very good thing. In this way I think art can be rightly and appropriately provocative. On the other hand, based upon one's moral convictions, with thought one might determine the shock value in something to be unhelpful in the long run, and so might deem it inappropriate. This isn't all cut and dry all the time, despite what people like Dobson might say.

I myself enjoy making provocative statements when I am with other people who I think can handle it. I like to push buttons that way. sometimes I think that is good, sometimes it isn't very humble or gentle of me at all.

If I were an artist I would face this same balancing act. but that would be a balancing act based upon my moral convictions.

In our society, can I hold those conviction over other artists? Probably not. But I can still speak of their art from the perspective of my convictions, and especially if my tax dollars are paying for them to spread feces on a plastic hamburger, or something like that. Even then, I'm in favour of some tax money going toward art, and of having not tooo strict supervision of how that is used (within reason).

Good stuff here. Hope I'm making sense in adding my two bits.

I'll close with another quote from GKC that hints at the interconnectivity of art and ethics. Paraphrased, he said:

"Morality, as art, consists in drawing the line somewhere.

Good question Matthew. I'd like to hear from both you and Bill. How would you judge what is shocking? And from that, what is good? Too broad a question maybe.

jon said...

by the way, a caveat for some of my readers: i often wonder if i should post all my movie reviews on this site without comment as to which i would recommend on the basis of appropriateness, and so on. i suspect i have readers whom i have pastored, or even youth who read this (who knows?). I was admittedly more careful about this when i pastored (as I had taken a certain level of leadership in this regard). I certainly don't think i can abdicate responsibility because I don't hold that office, but I do think there is a higher expectation for those leadership roles, at least in terms of submitting somewhat to people's perceptions of you as a role model of sorts.

Now, a couple years removed from pastoring, and in the place I'm at, I have decided to assume or hope that any readers I have will discern what they should watch based on more than just how many stars I have beside the title, and will ask me if they have questions in that regard. I certainly don't want my good ratings of certain movies to be interpreted as wholesale recommendations of those movies to all people in all contexts. but i am trusting my fellow christians to be smart about that and to ask me if they have problems with what i say. this kind of mutual trust is important i think. but i still do want to be careful not to be wreckless, even if i do find value in certain levels of "provocativeness", and personally feel okay taking in a lot of different kinds of movies.

perhaps the blog isn't the place for someone to hold me accountable to that, but i trust that they would if they felt they had to. but i don't want to "abdicate responsibility", just because it is "just a blog".

i'm rambling.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

This is a HUGE topic.

How would I judge what is shocking? It's a difficult question to answer, as it should be.

The best way I can think of to answer that question would be to recommend the "non-fiction" film Grizzly Man by Werner Herzog. In that picture Herzog carefully walks the line between examining and exploiting his subject (a man who lived with Grizzly Bears in Alaska and was later killed -alongside his girlfriend- by a grizzly). He also encounters situations when he has to choose whether to show the audience some gruesome footage of the man's death. What he chooses to show, and the way he shows it, is an extraordinary example of moral film-making. Herzog has also been known to "lie" in his documentaries, in service of what he calls Ecstatic Truth.

I know that's not a very clear answer.

What it comes down to mostly is respecting yourself, your audience, and your subject matter. So as an extreme example I would say that Michael Moore is an immoral film-maker. He lies to his audience, and he only tells the side of the story that supports his point of view.

The things that effect a film's rating (bigoted characters, sex, violence, language, drugs) are COMPLETELY irrelevant in judging a picture's ethics for me. I might not let my young children watch Raging Bull or read certain DH Lawrence stories, but that's because they're too young to understand, not because those works are immoral.

I'll leave it at that.

Bill Erlenbach said...

Perhaps the problem here is debating what is shocking. As you said Jon, it is relative. I recall journalistic photos of the Vietnam War. The content of some of those photographs were shocking to those “back home” but commonplace for the soldiers on the ground. The shock value of those photos influenced the political landscape of the day and arguably shaped the out come of the conflict.

I would suggest that one should be shocked when they read the Bible—wars, exiles, famines, sacrifice…the cross. Personally I find God’s grace and mercy shocking too.

We are to speak the truth in love, but the truth can be shocking. Our speech is to be gracious, yet grace can be shocking.

On the other hand, is emotionally disturbing another person for no other reason than our own pleasure or profit an act of love or grace? What is perhaps even more unsettling to me is that people take pleasure in being “shocked”. What cheesy horror film would ever make money if people didn’t take some sort of pleasure in anxiety and emotional distress?

In the end, this is pastoral question as much as a philosophical/theological one. While I am called to say things that may shock some—isn’t the Gospel itself an offence to some—I must never shock and/or offend for the sake of some demented pleasure on my part. Likewise, art may be shocking, but does it pass the test of grace? Is it the truth spoken (painted) in love? I don’t think that is relative, except perhaps to Christ.

PS - you sure know how to stir the pot Jon :)

jon said...

i think there is general agreement about shock-value here.

that herzog example is a good one. i am reminded of the two 9/11 movies i've seen. one was a tv movie called flight 93, and it was offensive to me in the way it tried to add drama (read: cheese) to an already horrific and moving real-life event. it was embarassing to watch and tasteless. then there was united 93, by paul greengrass. that film managed to honour almost everyone involved as people(it even portrayed terrorists with dignity), avoided over-simplifying or even being preachy, and didn't glorify the violence. it represented something that i think i needed to face up to and think about. now that was a film.

ratings will never tell you how harmful the tv movie version would be for your kids to watch --- trivializing that day like one more after-school special.

anyway, yeah, this is a huge topic indeed. morals, ethics, shock-value, and so on.

one thing i think about a lot is how there is always a certain degree of shock when taboos and traditional ways of thinking are first pushed. sometimes this is very very necessary. but there is a big difference between the cheap buzz of trying to be avant-garde and the genuine questions or feeling that people are trying to express. it ísn't always easy to tell the difference, and sometimes i think we'd be surprised.

one thing i appreciate is that most of the people i talk to about movies (here, at home, and on other blogs) are very willing to talk about what a film was actually saying. that's good. that's the heart of what chesterton was challenging us to do, i think.

and talking about how a movie or peice of art says it is often very very intertwined with that.