Thursday, November 12, 2009

"What Is Art": Fixation in Art

So, there's that ugly question there, "What is art." Somehow, any time I hear that question, I instinctively flinch. For a while, I believed that art was an irrelevant label--people can decide for themselves how an act or an object impacts them.

Earlier this week, however, a classmate of mine showed us something in self-scripting that led to a pretty incisive discussion on what's appropriate to present to an audience. It wouldn't be appropriate for me to say what it was, but suffice it to say that it was a powerful and disturbing moment.

My self-scripting teacher started a discussion with the question "What is art" (which I hated) but then asked, "What does it do to relive such a moment? Why make an audience go through that sort of a moment? It's a powerful moment, but I wonder what the use is to watch it again and again."

That was on my mind when I saw this video:

I was with it with the first half. It's a really truly moving moment, there's no question about it. One of those few things that really warms your heart.

And then it is replayed again in slow motion.

For some reason, when I saw it again in slow motion, my stomach turned. Why were we watching this moment again? The moment, when stripped away of its spontaneity, suddenly became disturbing because the expression on the child's face is not one of joy, it is one of pain. We're watching a child dissolve into tears. When I see that child's face, I'm not thinking about his father being home, I'm thinking about all the pain that child has been carrying for not having his father there.

Then it suddenly struck me: who was filming this? My first thought was, oh, it was the soldier's wife or something. But if you look past the soldier, you see two different people taking flash photos. The moment feels staged. And that's what's somewhat disturbing about this.

Right after that, I saw a video of Susan Boyle singing on Dancing on the Stars. Now, I was one of those people who was deeply moved by that original moment when it happened. And I saw it more than once. But then I watched her singing the same song in a completely different context--noticing how much less the song moved me when it wasn't tearing out of her with the same passionate need--and I wondered why everyone was getting so excited.

The problem is this desperate need to relive highs. I think our culture is very good at that. When we have the memory of a joy, we want to relieve that joy--that same exact joy in the same exact way. Rather than learning from the Susan Boyle incident that there's surprising beauty in everyone, we instead clamor to hear from her again and again and again.

Now, I'm certainly guilty of this myself. I had such a cathartic experience at The Lily's Revenge that, the next day, I bought tickets to go again. Will it be the same? I don't know. I do hope I am moved to the same degree again. I have watched the movie I Heart Huckabees more times than I'd like to admit. I listened to the song In The Waiting Line after seeing the movie Garden State probably hundreds of times. After the Gnarls Barkley concert I went to, I listened to the music with increased zeal.

I'm not sure exactly what has become so troubling to me about the repetition of moments. I suppose repeating positive moments has less wrong with it. But watching a child run into his father's arms, collapsing into tears of pain, over and over again... I feel like that's the problem.

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