Thursday, September 29, 2011

Rant and a Half

A preface: this quarter, I'm taking English 313, Theory and Criticism. Not only is the class sufficiently oblique and vague for the nature of its title, there are some interesting participants.

Today, we were discussing Plato's Ion and, more relevantly, Arthur C. Danto's Dangerous Art, published in Demetrio Paparoni's volume Eretica: The Transcendent and the Profane in Contemporary Art (173-201).

Danto's essay, or at least what I was able to grok from it, had to do with art, censorship, politics, and how they're all tied up together. What I found most interesting was his assertion of a rather curious conundrum: whether or not censorship is in place, art is assaulted, and if the state of censorship changes, art is assaulted again.

His best example on the side of change was a passage about Rock Music in the Soviet Union in light of Glasnost. Rock, he tells us, was dangerous and underground due to censorship and was therefore powerful. When Glasnost was put into place, that necessity, therefore the danger, and therefore the power of Rock n' Roll evaporated. "To legitimize rock is therefore to rob it of its form and hence its meaning:" he writes, "an officially condoned rock is precisely rock that the state has conquered" (176). So art under censorship is powerful and the transition to transparency destroyed that meaning, that function. The same, I am sure, could be argued for a change in the opposite direction.

Likewise, his example of art under censorship was in context of the Soviet Union, but before glasnost. Focusing on Literature, his main argument was that, since everything was considered a potential threat, both author and audience had to examine what wasn't said, rather than what was said: that the skill of reading between the lines, or "deep reading," as Danto terms it, was the only way to get a message across.

He then goes on to analyze what I will term, in reference to him, 'free' art. His assertion - which he drives home over and over again - is that to put art on a pedestal is actually to put it in a prison: that in a country where expression is free, the label "art" derives the work of all its danger, significance, function and power. The idea is that no matter how offensive or controversial a piece or its content is, it can immediately be waved away with the phrase, "Oh, it's art." He credits this to Plato himself, who originated the idea that anything material at all is only a copy of an idea, therefore imperfect, therefore not real. And since art is a copy of life and therefore a copy of a copy, it is doubly un-real. And naturally, anything unreal can't do real damage. So what is its significance? For Danto, the state of 'free' art means art which is not free at all: art which has been stripped of its meaning entirely.

In light of all this, the class was discussing what could have contributed to this phenomenon of powerless art. Guy#1 speculated that the availability of materials through the internet could have contributed, especially where music is involved. He brought up how anything can be cut, sampled, mixed, and posted without need of a studio, rights, regulations, any of it. Our professor reacted by asking if we thought this process had taken the political nature out of music. Guy#2 jumped on that question, talking up and down about how music wasn't worth it any more, that it had been drained of meaning by the internet, that it no longer had a message.

If my brain was't full of snot due to my Bronchitis I just might have sworn.

Item one: How do you possibly think that free access and distribution of music could have the capacity to hinder meaning? Distribution has nothing to do with content at all. Some of the best music in my library (The Dimes, to name one) is readily available on the internet and that doesn't affect their content in the slightest. Hell, most of their early music was written and recorded separately through use of digital microphones on their personal computers and they sound fantastic, both on CD and in real life. Musicians out there have plenty to say, regardless of whether they're as popular as can be or in your back yard (Decemberists, Abney Park, Lady GaGa, Jessie J, Green Day, Airborne Toxic Event, Rebecca Drysdale, just to name a few.) And guess what? That long list can all be got through the internet.

Item two: Now that we've established that music can still have meaning, what kind of logic do you have to use to think the internet is detrimental to that meaning? There is a lovely interview - that's right, available right here on YouTube - by Neil Gaiman discussing the benefit of advertising through the internet. While it's a little off topic, the point is the same. Your work reaches more people in less time through use of the internet. Over the internet, any message aimed at any audience is bound to reach hundreds if not thousands more people than would ever encounter it if it weren't on the web. Hell, we can jack that number up to millions provided the item goes viral. If that isn't sufficient evidence, the Oregonian ran an article last year about an author who, after being repeatedly rejected by publishing companies, decided to cut out the middleman and self-publish for, you guessed it, the e-book market. Her readership (as well as her bank account) jumped up immediately. Through clever web marketing, she's now significantly contributing to her family's expenses with her art.

Item three: Nothing exists in a vacuum. Early on in Dangerous Art, Danto proposes as a thesis that "our art and our political reality are made for one another; that each, one might say, is the same set of symbolic forms differently embodied" (175-6). In that light, how could it be possible that music isn't political? Just because we don't have an heir to Zack de la Roca's approach of up close and personal confrontation of what I might even dare to call "the system" doesn't mean that music inherently has no political meaning.

Item four: Perhaps most importantly, art as a whole, including music, is what you as an audience make of it. This is reached by what I now regard as fact: that artist's intent in inherently less important than audience interpretation. There is such a thing as interpretation without grounds, however, once someone makes something and puts it into the world, they are no longer there to mollycoddle it or justify it. It's on its own, becomes its own entity. If you as a viewer or listener assume that music is dead and has no meaning, you'll be proven right every time by grace of the stale interpretations of your perfectly closed mind. This is a two-way street, of course, and you can find sunshine and rainbows in pretty much anything if you look hard enough.

The point is, please be discerning, and perhaps give music as a whole another listen.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Double Whammy

Two books in two days, BAM!
And did I mention I finished Sherlock Holmes? No? Oh. Well then.

Sherlock is awesome. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is awesome. Look into it.

Book no. 1: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman.

Suffice it to say that my initial response to The Graveyard Book was:
"The Graveyard Book is over and done -
one of the best I've ever read -
and now that day is long past gone
I'm ready to sleep like the dead."
Reading fiction, especially children's-to-young-adult fiction, doesn't usually inspire me to write poetry, let alone rhyming lines, let alone at three o'clock in the morning.

Get thee to a bookstore. NOW.
Especially if you have a love of ghost stories. Gaiman is a wizard, I swear.

However, the volume that currently consumes my thoughts is none other than
Book no. 2, Brom's latest work: The Child Thief.

Do you, dear reader, recall how the 2003 film version of Peter Pan, starring Jeremy Sumpter (Peter) and Jason Isaacs (Hook), sought to re-inject some of the darkness of faery back into the tale which had been inevitably candy-coated through mediums like Disney? Brom's retelling of J.M. Barrie's classic novel gives that film a cold, back-handed, lip-splitting slap to the face.

This overhaul begins in modern New York, in Brooklyn, steeped in its drugs, thug violence, and urban brutality and desperation. Cue Peter, the Child Thief, ready to tempt his newly-found runaways into the Mist and out of this world, into one which is different in every way and yet equally cruel. Welcome to Avalon.

Like Brom's other works, The Child Thief is impossibly dark. In a way, rightfully so. Brom invites his audience to re-examine J.M. Barrie's own Peter, the first Peter, the true Peter. Brom quotes Barrie's novel, “The boys on the island vary, of course, in numbers, according as they get killed and so on; and when they seem to be growing up, which is against the rules, Peter thins them out; but at this time there were six of them, counting the twins as two.” And if that was't enough, he found another gem: ""I forget them after I kill them," he (Peter) replied carelessly.”

Personally, I had forgotten those lines. In light of them, the world of The Child Thief seems a logical, even a natural, inference to make. And while Brom's Peter occasionally shows the flippancy and the childishness that might excuse his predecessor - for surely a child would not understand death, not really, not the way an adult would - he has no excuses. He asks for none. He kills and has been killing all his long, ageless life.

Which brings me to a word of caution: this book is graphic. Terribly graphic. The kind of graphic that should never be translated into visual representations of any kind. If you can't take the thought of glistening entrails being anywhere other than inside one's body, close the book, put it back on the shelf, this one's not for you. (For the record, the language is also vulgar as hell.) Furthermore, whether or not your are opposed to the language, the portrayal, the violence, anything, this is the kind of book that once you're hooked, you're sunk, it's over, goodnight. The novel is 480 pages long. I read more than half of it today and forgot to eat. That hasn't happened to me before.

And yet, as much as it - as he - is terrifying, Brom's words and Peter's winning nature are enchanting. I found myself hoping, wishing for a reason for all the brutality, for the battles and the senselessness, and at first I thought there was. But Brom has a way of bringing out the painfully human in things which are portrayed as superhuman: of tearing away all artifice and illusion, of standing the most charismatic leader beside the most corrupt tyrant and stripping them both down to nothing more than greed, and lust, and grit, and pain. Identical. And, for some reason, it's impossible not to watch.

As harsh as I am toward Brom's Peterbird, I have to admit, he did a marvelous job in crafting him. The only spoiler I will give is a phrase used throughout the book: "...because Peter's smile is a most contagious thing." Sociopath or not, kidnapper or not, Peter is charismatic as hell. I fought with the concept of his faults all through the novel, wanting to make him into the simple hero minds like Disney's made him into, to make him into a person who was good, and only good. It wasn't possible. And that's okay. If I'd been a runaway, I'd only have had one answer, and it was the same, beginning of the novel to its end:

"I go willingly."

So if you have a mind, and a strong stomach, and perhaps even a touch of dark humor about you, pick up The Child Thief. But beware: it's not like you remember it.