Sunday, July 24, 2011

Adaptation and the Death of Culture

Sure, it's a melodramatic title. Nonetheless I think it's a problem which demands a little bit of an emotive response. It's becoming increasingly evident in my opinion that art is starting to degenerate in Western culture. I think it's a side effect of a number of issues; I could blame consumer economics or capitalism but I'd probably be better off blaming human nature and our tendence for slipping. What I mean is that we're becoming lazy as a culture. People's lives are so easy that we expect recreation and pleasure all the time, and the simpler and more direct it is the better. What this results in is an environment where people are apathetic about quality; as long as something is entertaining then it doesn't need any greater value. Of course this is a great boon for the corporate sector because as long as people essentially want to be exploited then it's a great source of profit, and greed drives the engines of consumption at both ends. So much creative product exists solely for the sake of playing off people's base emotions, the primitive human urge for awe-inspiring spectacle, cheap thrills or any other form of exploitation you could think of. Then again the other side's not in the clear either. Opposed to popular culture we have the literati, the educated elite with inscrutable novels which are written for the sake of being studied, works where if you enjoy yourself then you're either not appreciating it on the same level or completely failing to grasp the purpose of the art in question.
This is perhaps poorly explained. To summarize essentially what I perceive is a widening gap. On one side we have mass entertainment: simple, digestible and profiteering. On the other we have what I will questioningly term "high art": impenetrable texts, literary snobbery and egoism. Both sides disdain the other; the entertainment side sees high art as pointless, dull and existing only for the self-aggrandising gratification of the authors and critics. The literati side sees entertainment as crass, facile and stupid: intellectually irrelevant, manipulative and valueless. In the middle we have a kind of no-man's land. I think that's where I'm standing at the moment, wondering if the ground will just completely give away.
Why can't we have both, I ask? It's not that this situation's deliberate, really. I suppose you can blame profiteering on one hand for entertainment becoming more brainless and movements like Modernism on the other for making art inscrutable and tedious. The problem is that both factions are dominated by the worst examples possible of their respective camps. On the entertainment side of things this is where Adaptation becomes problematic. Look at things like the films of The Lord of the Rings or the 2009 Star Trek film. They were wildly popular, but both of them completely missed the point of their respective source materials. The Lord of the Rings wasn't about big drawn-out flashy battles and being 'cool', it was about an adventure, and sacrifice, and the folly of trying to seek permanence in a mortal world. As for Star Trek, well... the numerous TV series' had something to say in a vast number of episodes. In 2009 we received one film which was about turning something inherently meaningful and artistically charged yet also engrossing and entertaining into a film about nothing, a series of fight sequences and explosions which were always so much more powerful in the television series due to their rarity and consequences. In a matter of relevance to this blog's previous entries, consider Doctor Who. I know I look back on the Classic Series with blinding nostalgia but once again it has numerous examples of a fulfilled argument artistically as well as successful entertainment. Consider the notions about bigotry and fundamentalism in The Curse of Peladon, the horrors of war in Genesis of the Daleks or turning real people's pain into entertainment in Vengeance on Varos. Now I would struggle to find any examples from the New Series which really say anything apart from the sadly abandoned threads of possibility we were given in Series 5. The problem is that having something to say doesn't get your average punter into the cinema or watching the show. Look at Avatar, a ridiculously successful film with absolutely nothing to say which hadn't already been said and with vastly deeper and better examination by others but was lauded based on visuals alone. Is this all we are as a society? Have we become so lax and degenerate that all it takes are some explosions and flashing lights to make us feel like we've experienced something truly incredible?
But look at the other side, for instance. My favourite whipping boy for this is James Joyce's Ulysses. I was once legitimately told by a Modernist professor in a University English class that those of us who didn't find Ulysses to be anything special apparently hadn't grasped it or somehow hadn't read it properly. Joyce himself said he deliberately made it overcomplicated just so that academics would struggle for years to figure out what he meant. Parts of it are borderline incomprehensible and for significant sections you can lose all sense of who's who and what's going on, all in the name of self-conscious literary crypticness. That's not to say that it doesn't have some value, but it's vastly overrated, and so much of its praise clearly derives from an elaborate academic competitiveness seeking to outdo others by purporting to understand more about the novel. I could mention a number of the short stories of William Faulkner as a different example. I can't imagine how anyone could legitimately sit down, read them and derive any substantial kind of value from their content. They're mostly just beatdown tales of cynical nihilism and human degradation in the most perverse scenarios imaginable, and while I'm sure such situations do exist and have done throughout history the idea that they hold some kind of special place above other works is ludicrous. Indeed the very concept of "high art" is a ridiculous one, grounded in snobbery and pretension, egoism and self-gratification. If you could be bothered to read the whole thing then you can pretend you derived some unique artistic insight about reality or human nature and that makes you better than everyone else. At a basic level it's just as bad as populist entertainment. One is cheap and encourages human mediocrity and the other is at least subconsciously exclusionist and self-deceptive and is too emotionally dead to inspire or move.
The problem is that a human is a multinatured beast. We're animals, but we're also thinkers. It's in our makeup to be both pleasure-seeking and critical. In my view critical thought is irrelevant unless its attached to emotion and emotion is pointless and degrading if we're not critical about how we experience it. It is through the combination of the two that we learn and improve ourselves. That is why I seek the increasingly deserted middleground. I'd no more enjoy watching Avatar ever again in my life than I would having to suffer through rereading Ulysses. Give me Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? any day of the week. Give me Watchmen. Give me Dawn of the Dead. Give me something that will entertain me and make me think, and something that will make me think by entertaining me and entertain me by making me think. I consider that lately to be the great value of the speculative genre, as people broadly label science fiction, fantasy and all their permutations, in their best examples at least. Their unreal component entertains us and engages our imaginations, but it also lets us rethink and reinterpret our own nature and our own society and deliver an artistic message. And those examples up there, by the way? Give me all of them in their original format, after they were given limited attention by those scholars busy reinterpreting some inspid Jane Austen novel again, but before corporations took them and made them into mass entertainment (although I do like the film of Watchmen). To hell with entertainment and "high art" I say; give me True Art, which should do entertainment and argument better than either of the other two separately.

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