In a dark and twisted world too much of pleasant and cheerful aesthetics is escapism.
Last time I talked about happiness-seeking and how it relates to apathy toward societies. As an artist, it’s only natural for me to stem from that in to art, entertainment, and escapism. As I said before, we need just a touch of the pleasantries here and there as we go along, brief periods of escapism in to things that give us a sense of what an ideal life (for all) should feel like, but hanging there or chasing that artificial high in a reality that’s oozing prejudice, corruption, spite, and indifference ought to offend any one who’s seen the terrible things that humans are willing to do to each other in order to chase their own personal satisfaction.
Now, a lot of people get angry about what they perceive to be bad art. Reboots of movies that were released only five to ten years ago, far-fetched film sequels, rushes to copy trends in all mediums down to specific sound design techniques, plot twist types, and actor/genre match-ups. Every one wants to complain that pop music is all the same, that stadium country ‘sucks’, that we don’t need to see the story of King Kong for a fifteenth time. But why? Most people who enjoy pop music probably enjoy it in large part because they were not exposed to any thing else while they were developing their tastes, so aren’t even capable of the relative comparisons that allow for such a judgment as ‘it all sounds the same’. As far as I can tell, classic black and death metal are super samey genres, as well as the modern hard core punk derivatives. Even underground dance music artists are guilty of copy-catting what is popular, it’s just only popular on a certain level. Film reboots don’t just sell because there is a demographic of nostalgia-suckers who can’t get enough of their favorite characters and themes. It’s also an ingenious business model because there are always young people growing up without having seen the originals, kids who are being exposed to these characters and themes for the first time, be it iteration two or iteration five hundred. To put it plainly, these people simply don’t know what they are missing, and can we really expect every one to research every piece of entertainment that they come in to contact with? Even I only look up whether a song is a cover/remix when I suspect that it’s not enough like the performer’s style to be otherwise. I only check to see if a movie was based on a book, if it was particularly inspiring to me, and what piece of pop culture drivel is inspiring enough to excite any thing greater than a few moments of smiles? What’s more, pop culture is designed to appear as the be-all, end-all, showing its audience every thing that they need to see, providing the very best. When convinced of this, why conduct one’s own search for novelty?
We can talk about bad art in terms of how much money-grabbing was a greater influence than expression, but even that vague term ‘expression’ can imply useless things. A song or story that genuinely expresses an artist’s struggle with a bad break up is still pretty uninspiring. What’s it going to do? Remind people of their own bad break ups, and make them angry about bad break ups? Who cares? If what you are introducing to a society is a copy of a response to a trivial thing that already gets plenty of response, you are not inspiring that society. It’s still just entertainment at its foundation.
So yes- I would rather talk about whether art is good or bad in terms of whether it is more entertaining or more inspiring. Certainly the greatest art is both! But we have enough pure entertainment. Plenty of old entertainment can be reused without being remade, and it often is: theaters bust out old reels; nightclubs host regular retro events; Netflix collects shows and films both old and new. We have enough entertainment, but we can always use more inspiration. I am tired of seeing new bands pop up whose lyrical focus is ‘tragic relationships’ or ‘dreams’ or ‘Scandinavian folk lore’. I am sick of movie reboots and variations on a theme. Regurgitating the same old, tired crap- but why is this a problem? Because, more often than not, old and tired ideas are reused without useful metaphor, or hard facts in advice- they return without meaningful improvement. Scandinavian folk lore can teach people important life lessons. How to have a healthy relationship can be explained in song, film, and fiction writing. If you’re really clever, you might even pull it off in a single, still image! Or at least a bit of it.
Big business media aims to please the lowest common denominator, so ‘art’ becomes simple and meaningless, which is in a way amusing because it is that lowest common denominator that needs the strongest, most inspiring message. It’s not like meaningful art is destined to fail. Just look at the commercial success of Rage Against the Machine, a musical act defined by its anger and political perspective. Take a look at the classical science fiction authors. Moral play after moral play, existential quandary after epistemological experiment. Since science fiction’s inception, there have always been best-sellers in that genre, even after Star Wars went and tried to drown science fiction in space fantasy opera. ‘There’s just no money in it’ is no excuse, especially when philosophy can easily survive being soaked in entertainment. Take a look at Rick and Morty, for goodness’s sake!
Indulgent. Needlessly redundant. Hedonistic. There is such a thing as bad art, but it’s not just some childish matter of subjective taste. Stadium country doesn’t suck because of the twangy vocals and the repetition of subject matter; it sucks because the whole of it exists to promote a self-indulgent life style that depends on being completely alienated from modern society. It’s escapism in the most direct sense, in encouraging people to escape to the ‘simpler’ life of tractors and sweet tea, devoid of information technology and universities. Concerning fantasy and ‘paranormal’ stories, the source of the escapism is no secret. Wouldn’t life be better, if we could just will away all of the shit we don’t like with magic? Wouldn’t it be great, if there were no facts, no logic to the Universe, and weird stuff just happened for no reason, so we’d never have to be held accountable for any cause-and-effect relationships? But fantasy can be useful, if used in the same way science fiction can be used for good. The two general genres share the title of speculative, and real life problems can easily be explored from fantasy perspectives that grant extra emphasis to this or that unlikely detail.
So, okay. Inspirational. Meaningful. Still pretty vague. What are artists supposed to be doing, under this narrative, exactly? Well, there are two kinds of inspiration: cognitive and emotional. With a vague, catch-all ‘love’ ballad, you can inspire people to feel affectionate or lonely, and think that the best close relationships are defined by a few tender moments and physical attraction, and only loosely defined even by those terms. With a powerful sci-fi epic, you can move one to tears, anger, compassion, confidence- and attach all of these feelings through passion to some noble cause. Rage Against the Machine is an ingenious project because the lyrics raise all sorts of social issues, make the audience feel the, er, rage of a disenfranchised, disenchanted, and frightened populace when faced with such issues- and it pulls all of this off over funk riffs. Groovy, downright fun instrumentation, so even if some one isn’t interested in the lyrical content at first, they may- and many have (I know that I was)- be lured in by the vibe and absorb the message as they get used to the records.
Some songs and stories, though with plenty of lyrical content and plot points, only serve to inspire emotionally. That is fine. Some times we need a little pick-me-up, a little hope with an uplifting melody or a simple story of triumph over evil, but again, escapism is a dangerous lure to apathy. What is better for us is angry, aggressive music. Dark music. Stories where the bad guys win. Stories where the villains are intelligent, kind, and difficult to accuse. Emotionally, we need art that drives us to care about evil, to care about the suffering of others, and to learn about how to deal with these things. We need sad and melancholy art that doesn’t inspire self-pity, but an empathy toward the pain of those less fortunate.
And all emotions are in response to complex phenomena. Love songs can have a thing or two to say about relationship psychology. Party tracks can shed light on the perils of hedonism (I’ve heard it before!). The form need not even be deviated away from by much, thanks to satire! Any story with characters living in a society have potential to involve issues of prejudice, politics- does the fictional society have a government? A history of colonialism? Don’t just write about the king’s quest to defeat the local dragon; touch on his struggles as ruler, the disconnect between royalty and peasantry, how the dragon threat impacts the economy, and the treacherous misconceptions of who is to blame. Dragons are supposed to be intelligent; what is the dragon’s perspective? How does it justify its motives? Shed light on how background and expectations shape perspective. And, for your audience’s sake, study your chosen subjects. Returning to the love song trope, if all you write about is physically intimate human relationships, but you don’t know a single thing about the history of romanticism or the reason for this or that marriage statistic, well, go fuck your self.
There. I did it. This piece of writing at least inspired me to anger about the issues!
Aesthetics are important. Art is important. Entertainment pacifies. The truest form of art critiques our lives and directs our passions to improving the world that we share. I am not here to tell artists that they should never create for their selves ever again, that they should avoid using art to explore their selves and their abilities, but I do share concern for our priorities. Are you here to please your self, or are you here to attempt to improve the world around you? If your priority is the former, then you are but a happiness-seeker masquerading as a purpose-driven creator.