Art and Pragmatism

3 06 2009

I have been trying to get my hands on a BBC doco called “This is Civilisation”, a four part BBC documentary hosted by Matthew Collings.  Matthew Collings interesting premise is that a culture can be judged by the prevailing art of the time and therefore art can be used to understand our civilisation.  http://www.channel4.com/programmes/this-is-civilisation
This idea isn’t new of course, and there are many who have used art to guage culture over the years, including Objectivists. 

Unfortunately I’ve only been able to catch excerpts of “This is Civilisation” but they were quite interesting, even though I’m sure Colling’s own ideology is most likely quite different to mine, and I’m a little worried his treatment may be a little superficial.  However I’ll definitely be making an effort to get my hands on this. 

From my perspective as a musician and composer, I have long tried to understand why so many people’s musical tastes are arrested at a child level.  They listen to such boring, formulaic, bland pop music and seem to refuse to embrace musicianship, inventive harmonic composition, rythmic development, variation, syncopation, exploration of alternate styles and sounds etc.  I think more people should give themselves a chance to really enjoy music as real art – to have a full experience from music – as opposed to a pop song played in the background designed to distract rather than to be focused in on. 

I was thinking about this again recently and two articles were on my mind.  The first http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,,25538628-15803,00.html was about how Warwick Thornton (director of the new Australian movie “Samson and Delilah”) has won the Camera D’Or and the other article http://www.news.com.au/adelaidenow/story/0,22606,25539061-5006301,00.html linked Corey Worthington, Clare Werbeloff, Chris Corker and Susan Boyle for achieving their 15 minutes of internet fame.

Quoting from the latter article: 
University of South Australia senior communications lecturer Jackie Cook said the scale of celebrity had slowly been “scaling down” since matinee idols hit cinemas in the 1920s.
“What used to happen is you’d have a hero elevated by social status or possessing qualities that were above the norm and became celebrities for a reason,” she said.
“But what we’re seeing now is an attitude of the more ordinary, the better.”

I think this is true.  And I think Susan Boyle is the perfect example.  She does have a wonderful voice, she also has guts to get up on TV and sing so well and I have nothing against her personally.  But I think her popularity says something about our culture.  Because, people who don’t normally listen to musicals or even solo singing are all of a sudden praising this women.  People who generally ignore the thousands of brilliant (many of whom are attractive) singers around the world suddenly think Susan is great.  I strongly suspect that people do not just like her for her voice, but for her ordinary, frumpy look. 

Regarding the first news article, I was reminded how “serious” art in our culture is never heroic, it’s grey and depressing.  Samson and Delila is most likely a well made movie with great acting (I don’t know, I haven’t seen it) but I am sceptical of the plot judging from the opening scene – the main character is unconscious due to his petrol inhalation habit. 
These days heroes are confined to “non-serious” genres such as Sci-fi, Fantasy or comic books genres.  “Serious” movies/books that we are told (by critics, media, the puclic and the artists) deal with ethics and tough moral choices are dismissed if they are not grey enough.  These movies represent the prevailing ideology of our time – pragmatism. 

Here’s a quote made by a commentor on the NoodleFood blog:
The producer of the now-canceled tv show ‘Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” had this to say about what he wants from art:
“I don’t want someone showing me what it’s like to be awesome in the face of hard times. I’m probably not gonna be awesome in the face of hard times. I’m gonna be scared and mediocre and I don’t need to feel worse that I’m not awesome. I want to know that scared and mediocre is a reasonable response to hard times and not something to be ashamed of.”
At least that producer has the honesty (as far as it goes) to cast his timid artistic motivation in terms of *his own* character, rather than deflecting the blame onto human nature in general, which is usually what you get in such cases.

The problems with modern music (in particular pop music) are I think explained well be looking at today’s art more broadly and noting the effect of our culture’s pragmatist and also hedonistic ideologies. 

Pop music is generally boring and ordinary, short ranging (in terms of song duration, band careers, scope for creativity, etc), sensory (ie: interpretation is so boringly easy it causes irritation – ie: it lacks conceptual elements), superficial, excellence in playing is dismissed, creativity in song writing is rejected. 

The music for the masses is not the music for me and has not been for a long time.  However there are many many great players and excellent composers around the world, most of whom are unheard of except by those who have an actual interest in music.  And I thank these people with all my heart because they truly inspire me and remind me the capabilities and beauty of humanity.  I wish more people would appreciate good art.  But the world doesn’t owe me and doesn’t conform to my desires.  So I try to be thankful for the intense enjoyment that other’s have given me.

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