clap clap blog: we have moved

Wednesday, March 09, 2005
My dad sent me an article from the 2/7/05 New Yorker called "Gross Points," written by Louis Menand. It's a review of three books about the movies, and isn't particularly interesting on that score, mainly rehashing things other people have said before about how blockbusters are bad etc.--I love ya, Louis, but this was starting to get old in 1997.

However, there are two interesting quotes that apply to genres that aren't movies. Number one:
The contemporary Hollywood movie is what Harold Rosenberg once called an "anxious object." Rosenberg was referring to art after Pop, to a time when, suddenly, a painting of a soup can, or a pile of stones, or a wall of Polaroids was worth a lot of money. But were these works of art, or were they commodities? The distinction had become blurry.
Now, I'm going to be straight with you: I have never heard of Harold Rosenberg before, much less read The Anxious Object. But I'm going to go with Menand's interpretation here, and hopefully Janine won't come in and tell me I'm full of shit.

And Menand's interpretation is interesting because it says this anxiety, particular to "contemporary" movies (although later in the article he reverses himself on this point and admits that movies have always been commercial), is a bad thing, which is roughly what Rosenberg (from my hasty Googling) seemed to think about modern art--there was a different anxiety before, which was good, but once it got translated to commercial anxiety, it had a negative effect on the art. Menand regards it as natural and inevitable for art that has entered the world of commerce to have this anxiety, and so thinks the only solution, were it possible given the current realities etc., would be for it to back away, to avoid being a commodity as much as it would be able.

I, obviously, think the opposite. The anxiety of being commodified is not a natural thing, but an anxiety foisted on art by its critics and contemporaries, and the best solution to the problem (we agree, at least, that it's a problem) is to work through this anxiety and come out the other side, to produce art that does not see its commerciality as fundamentally a concern, nor is it viewed as such.

This is precisely why I (and, I think, other people, all of whom seem to be members of my generation, for whatever reason) fight so vigorously about criticisms of commodification or "selling out" or mass appeal. It does produce an anxiety, one that I simply don't think would be such a concern were those arguments not so widespread, and that anxiety is fundamentally detrimental to the quality of the art. It produces a focus on this concern that tends to preclude discussion of other subjects and to restrain movement, often out of fear of the reaction of your peers. This is not good. We all need people to tell us when we're sucking, but we don't really need people telling us we suck for what we're doing, you know?

There is no doubt that the degree to which a piece of art fights against outside commercial forces in the course of its creation is a useful indicator of its vitality. (Although, as Menand notes, outside commercial forces can sometimes have a better idea of what's good for a movie than the participants do.) But in no way is the black-or-white characteristic of commercial or non-commercial a determinant of something's artistic worth. Its artistic worth is what it is; ultimately, the way in which it is transmitted can be a guide, but never an actual basis for judgment. I think we've gone a long way in ceasing to see these divisions, and we wish other people would, too.

What I realized is that it's actually this "anxiety" I was talking about two weeks back, calling it "self-deprecating genres." The reason there's this defensive posture all stems, fundamentally, from the fact that the genres in question are wholly commodified: TV, comic books, pop music, teen magazines, and, as Abby put it, "commercial fiction." The defensive argument basically comes down to, "I know this form isn't very artistic, but what I'm making is art." It isn't really an argument that should have to be made, but it is, over and over again. It is the guilt of the bohemian in a capitalist system, hahaha, the cultural version of "liberal guilt" which transmogrifies itself into grumpy self-righteousness, i.e. "the clap clap blog default stance." But it kinda sucks. I think we'd all be better off without it.

Quote number two:

[P]people no longer respond to movies the way they once responded to The Big Sleep. This is not simply an argument from nostalgia; it has an empirical corollary. In 1946, weekly movie attendance was a hundred million. That was out of a population of a hundred and forty-one million, who had nineteen thousand movie screens available to them. Today, there are thirty-six thousand screens in the United States and two hundred and ninety-five million people, and weekly attendance is twenty-five million.
Gee, a medium experienced by over 2/3 of the population on a weekly basis. What would that describe today?

Could it be...TV?

I dunno, I just get this feeling sometimes, you know? I read something like this and think, huh, sure seems like in a few decades people might be looking back at this era and calling it something like a golden age while treating the medium as a whole with the kind of reverence people currently reserve for "the cinema." It just fits: crassly commercial setup somehow producing great art, an abundance of auteurs, fast-paced, etc., etc. I'm not sure quite what the quality difference is between The Big Sleep and any number of contemporary TV shows. And believe me, that's not a rip on The Big Sleep.

If our yardstick is caring, TV's winning by multiple football fields. It's something we watch and love and discuss and get angry about if they change. Of course, this could just be because it's "addictive"--but weren't movie theaters "dens of sin" in their time, too? Ultimately, the addiction thing is a cop-out, a way of countering the fact that you're criticizing this thing so many people love so much.

But hey, I could be wrong. A lot of very intelligent people are quite convinced that TV, and pop music, and lots of other commercial genres, are in and of themselves unworthy, and that anything that comes out of them that approaches "art" is "subversive," an anomaly, something produced in spite of the system it emerged from. It just seems to me that neither good stuff nor the bad stuff should be unexpected from any medium, because the medium doesn't have much to do with it.

And now I must go kill zombie McLuhan.