Thursday, August 14, 2014

Art, Defined: Any Beautiful Voice at a Suitable Volume

The other day I learned that some guy founded a religion based on The Big Lebowski. It's reasonably legitimate, according to Wikipedia and its official website, and in Ireland there appear to be more Dudeist priests than Catholic ones.

Becoming a Catholic priest is a slightly more rigorous process, I'd imagine

A wee bit of research suggests to me that merchandising might have been a not-so-small part of why this all came about, but I'm sure it brings pleasure to many and it doesn't seem to do harm. I'm not judging. Well, my first reaction was a leetle judgy, but then I went why not?

Because I'm starting to give some real thought to the nature of cultural artifacts. Art shows keep popping up based on "low" art concepts - shows for art of Bill Murray and Nicolas Cage, shows of reimagined video game landscapes, shows of 8-bit work. All of it looks like art to me, even if most of it is whimsical. This stuff seems like it's silly, but the more thought I give to it, the more I feel it's not, and that it instead reflects the concepts that matter to artists of our age, as art always has and always will. Why is an artist who chooses Link as a subject less respectable than an artist of the fifteenth century who chose Christ? I suspect that the problem for the viewer, trying to determine whether it's art, isn't actually the subject, but rather the arbiters who say that religion is a worthy subject for art and The Legend of Zelda is not.

It strikes me that every artist builds her pieces with not only her own ingenuity, but also (maybe more than she would like to believe or admit) from the scraps of what she sees and hears throughout her life. In prior centuries, religion was The Thing, so it was what an artist had to work with. Now, culture is infinitely accessible, from the Egyptians on out, so we have a rag bag that basically has no bottom from which to sew our quilts.

Movies are more than a century old as a form, and they still hold a funny place in the culture. There are Great Films just as there are Great Novels, but I think the majority of viewers see the majority of movies as entertainment, not art. Particularly not as instructive art, or art that will last centuries and matter to us as a species. That's evolving right now, as we live and breathe. Opera used to be entertainment, and now it's evolved into fusty old art, some of it art that represents the best of us. I have no doubt that movies will have the same fate.

This morning, Matt and I listened to "Take Five" in the car, and Matt remarked that he loved how other jazz artists refer to the main melody of that song, how they'll just riff it off in the middle of another song or use it to build something new. I feel that way when I read lines of Hamlet in other people's books or poems. Or when a film score makes a little reference to Wagner or Puccini (even if it's just hacking rather than really homaging). I also feel that way when I hear lines from Star Wars repeated in other people's movies or TV shows.

I start to wonder why Star Wars must be less important than Don Giovanni to artists of today if they're going to make good art. Giovanni was made for entertainment and money, too, in its day; that it has lasted two and a half centuries is not incidental, but it also might not be the most relevant thing about the comparison. Each was constructed in a popular art format in its day. The times are just different now than they were then.

So, I mean, why not Dudeism? Why can't a movie be as important now as a book was in the 15th century? I can't think of a reason that doesn't collapse under "so what?" - i.e., the Coens didn't write the movie with the intent of starting a religion, the movie doesn't have a serious tone, it's a fiction rendered with actors and sets, the philosophy in it is pretty slapdash compared to Kierkegaard. To all of that, so what? People saw something in it that spoke to them. Isn't that the whole point of art that's beloved and revered? It speaks to us, in a voice too beautiful to be ignored?

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