Sunday, February 15, 2004

On the Function of Art

Friday night I found myself doing something I don't often do anymore: take in 20/20. And while I usually find John Stossel and his "Give Me a Break!" segment obnoxious and showy (ie. instead of getting a chemist, he used a magician-turned-investigator as his "expert" decrying the values of homeopathy), Friday night's segment proved thought-provoking for me.

Using the factual inaccuracies in the Patty Jenkins' film Monster as a point of departure, Stossel asked what an adaptation owes those affected by the real events. In his defence of the film, Brad Wyman--one of Monster's producers--said that the filmmakers were trying to achieve a "kind of a greater truth rather than a ... a factual truth. [sic]"

This, in particular, is what made me think. All the questions I have had been asked before, but--given that the traditional answers are generally uncertain/unclear--I felt these questions needed asking again.

What happens when art abandons the little things for a "greater truth"? What happens when art becomes disinterested with the world around it? What happens when art exists for itself alone?

Theodor Adorno asks these same questions in his exploration of the possibility of art in a post-Holocaust society, the essay "Commitment." The essay is a personal favourite of mine and it's one I find myself coming back to time and again.

In this essay, Adorno argues convincingly, "The artistic principle of simplification purifies the real political dynamics of the illusory differentiations they take on in the subjective reflection of social objectivity; [...] a representation of essence that fails to take into account its relationship to appearance is inherently as false as the substitution of the lumpenproletariat for those behind fascism." For Adorno, to simplify, to try to depict that "greater truth" the Monster filmmakers are searching for, is to risk out-and-out lying. It is to risk propagandizing art.

But is it okay for art to lie? Oscar Wilde and his ilk believe that all art lies, and the best art is the art which lies most, is most disinterested in the world around it. For Adorno, this is unacceptable. The disinterested sneer of l'art pour l'art is frighteningly similar to the perverted "greater truth" scenario: both cases lead to the audiences' spoon-feeding. With TRULY disinterested art (and even the most Decadent work cannot claim complete self-interest!), the audience is forced to believe in an aesthetic and thematic free-for-all; it is forced to accept an "all art is valid; there are no standards" dictum. The audience must accept all art--truthful or not. This is the same problem with art that seeks to universalize.* The audience must accept generalizations which are just that: generalizations. And how easy it is to move from generalizations to stereotype to complete perversion!

Rather art, as Adorno astutely asserts, "is not a matter of pointing up alternatives but rather of resisting, solely through artistic form, the course of the world, which continues to hold a pistol to the heads of human beings." Art must challenge; it must make its audience think critically about the work of art itself and the world around it.
Just how art must do this remains unclear in Adorno's essay and, I believe, the world of criticism today.

So I ask--feel free to answer!--how should art relate to the real world? What does art owe--what debt has it to pay?

* = Yes, there are universals in all art; however, I believe--and it seems to me that Adorno agrees--that these universals should rise from a depiction of the specific. Shakespeare's Hamlet is a wonderful example of a study of the universal nature of humanity that arises from a depiction of a VERY specific situation.

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