Sunday, December 20, 2009

Read this and agree...OR ELSE.

Aesthetics was the first philosophy course I took after the introductory one. Aside from some interesting pedagogical choices, the class was very enjoyable. Even though a lot of the reading we looked at were from reformed thinkers, and even though I didn't always like the things they had to say, talking about aesthetics is something I will almost always make time for. I mean, I'm writing this on a film blog...

An obvious question for aesthetics is, "What is art?" Or, "What makes good art good?" There are a number of provocative answers to such questions. Cal Seerveld, in his all-knowing-contemporary-reformed-demi-godnessity, posits that "allusivity" is key. Basically, this means that art should be suggestive. It should show glimpses of beauty. In other words, it should always be subtle and ambiguous. At the time I remember scoffing at this idea. Honestly, I was scoffing more at the presentation of the idea, than the idea itself.

Fast-forward a few years, I'm having a variety of aesthetic conversations with Agust. His passion for film strikes a clearly similar note to Seerveld, railing against pretension in films. I don't think I've known anyone so acutely sensitive to manipulation in film. We've debated many a film based on this sole piece of criteria. Ultimately, I'm more likely to offer leeway for manipulation, than Agust is....just because I think, to some degree, it is just as essential to art as allusivity. (However, when we sit down and hash out our terms and definitions, we essentially agree).

Lately, I've been considering a distinction within manipulation - moral pretension vs. aesthetic pretension. Both are basically telling the audiences how they should think or feel. Moral pretension manipulates the audience into thinking that certain people or actions are bad, without giving the matter due consideration. Whether or not the given stance is legitimate, the film does not let the audience decide for itself. Instead it says, "This is right way of seeing the world - PERIOD." If you disagree, then you are wrong. This form of pretension can get away with vast oversimplification and moral bullying of a uniquely deceptive kind. The main critique against the recent OSCAR-WINNING movie Crash, seems to be that it is morally pretentious. It simplifies race relations and people in America and leaves no room for other opinions.

On the other hand, there is also aesthetic pretension. By this I refer to films and elements of film that stylistically manipulate the audience. It is the director saying, "Oooh, look what I can do. This is clearly a great film." Flashy audio/video effects are used to almost distract the audience from what is going on elsewhere in the movie. Accordingly, both types or pretension are often used together. The Dark Knight uses pretty stunning visuals (especially action scenes) and the unique character of The Joker to distract the audience from pretty stupid "moral dilemmas" both general (e.g. the normal Batman fodder) and specific (e.g. the scene with the boats near the end). Part of the aesthetic pretension is that it does not seem justified with the rest of the tone, feel, and scope of the movie. Ok, The Dark Knight is an action film - accordingly, I wouldn't be that harsh on it in this respect. And to say that Nolan is using the aesthetics to cover up the moralizing is overly-suspicious and skeptical. However, whether or not that's what he meant to do, I still get the feeling that it is what is happening in the movie.

So, I'm obviously still fiddling around with these distinctions. Of these two, I'm more willing to forgive aesthetic pretension than moral pretension. And I think part of the conversation should include mention of the validity of these concepts. Are people reading these things into Crash and The Dark Knight? I know I can be pretty good at reading too much into things. Part of the fun of talking about art and movies is that there is much room for differing opinions. Hopefully, though, these opinions can exist in the give and take of honest, self-reflective conversation.


agust symeon said...

These distinctions are very helpful. I do think that the two often go together in very integral ways. A morally didactic film will often attempt to achieve its sermonizing through aesthetic manipulation. But I definitely see the difference you're pointing to here. Even though I think Aronofsky is extremely manipulative I am much more willing to forgive him his aesthetic maneuverings than what someone like Paul Haggis tried to do in Crash.

I still think that Heidegger in Origin of the Work of Art came closest to formulating a sensible aesthetics. Good art somehow participates in "aletheia," a kind of unveiling of truth where we strip away the bullshit and pretensions and manipulations (!) that plague our lives. To do this art must created a space (a "clearing") where it allows these truths to unfold, naturally, without forcing them into the open. This is why good art always seems to be, to at least some extent, participatory. It relies on the sensitivities of its audience to manifest what is beautiful and true. There is something communal in all good art, which is the exact opposite of the solipsistic (even fascistic) manipulations of crappy art like 'Crash.'

--------- said...

nice post reid. nice comment agust.

I think allusivity, the lack of pretension, and the absence of manipulation (whether in asthetics or morality) is often found within art that shares in truth because truth in life reveals itself in this allusive way, that is, unless we're manipulating life itself.

If good art is true and beautiful, then something should be said about the nature of the true and beautiful... and I'd say the true and beautiful are not concepts which reveal themselves in definitions or formulas, which is essentially what manipulative art does.

although, trying to think through this now, i'm curious what the difference is between manipulation and creating affects. Often when I write a poem I want it to communicate something... a feeling at least. Am I manipulating? If I do it subtly, and suggestively, aren't I simply more cunning than the person who says it out right?

HM Baker said...

Yes, --------, I think you are. All art, on some level, is a kind of contrivance... when you eliminate contrivance altogether - or "manipulation" as you put it - you get what we have now on every major station in america: "reality" television. Isn't this in some ways a gross consequence of the postmodern rejection of presenting any overt or "absolute" moral? I actually remember liking the film, "Crash." Yes, the drama was amplified. The degree to which people "crashed" into each other wasn't "realistic" - and yet it was based on certain premises that do exist in our world. In that sense it was "true" - provoking the viewer to consider their own actions and the possibility that they can have consequences far beyond what we will ever see.

I just reread Tolstoy's short story, "Martin the Cobbler," which presents a very didactic message in many respects... proposing that we who are alive should find contentment in looking outward, loving God by loving others. There are moments of heavy-handedness in this story and yet it feeds the soul - why? I think because there are certain transcendent truths - truths which defy culture, religion, politics as it is traditionally expressed - which allow the human spirit to find a means of soaring above the sordid, hopeless mess that is (most-times) human existence.

Is this "cheating?" Can we really be proud to say we have embraced an art form that is "beyond Tolstoy, beyond Dostoevsky" and all the other greats of old? Is it too much to ask that art not only imitate life but that it inspires us - to see life as it is, yes - but as it could be?

It shouldn't be...

PS I LOVE Ida Lupino and was thrilled to see you highlighting her on a previous post!

R Logan L said...

I don't think I'm necessarily talking about a piece of art being heavy-handed, per se. While it is unfortunate when that happens, it's preferable to the kind of manipulation I mean. The beef many critics had with Crash wasn't so much that it was heavy-handed, but rather that it was self-righteous. I guess this is more of what I mean to point out. A piece of art can have the most wonderful themes and ideas, but if they are handled poorly then a disservice is done on the audience and those ideas. I didn't think a lot of these things about Crash or The Dark Knight when I initially saw them. I think I sometimes will overlook such problems in movies, because I want to give them the benefit of the doubt. So I'll ignore the problems and try to have a salvaged cinematic experience, which I think I can accomplish many times. However, in retrospect, the negative things do tend to stand out.