Sunday, October 22, 2006


The real basis of art, I've decided, is delight. Some might say it has more to do with profundity and point to some grand moral achievement, but I think that where art goes wrong, when it tries to be "heart-breaking" or "passionate" or "moving" or to "provoke thought" or proclaim "a message," is that it mistakes the reason we turn to art. It isn't to be shaken by the pain and suffering of the human condition -- for God's sake, the human condition itself displays quite enough of THAT. Look at Katrina, look at Iraq, look at Dafur... No, the news can show us a world that is heart-breaking and moving, if we care enough to be moved. What art shows us is the human capacity to rise above not only suffering (after all, it's life and life only), but above all the bullshit of what, supposedly, it means to be human and moral and fallible and fallen and in need of saving. Art shows us a world controlled by human skill, wit, resourcefulness, resilience -- yes of course that includes pain and suffering, but no one admires Van Gogh paintings because a suffering human made them, but because a supremely gifted draftsman made them. Vincent's talent simply over-rode the mess that was Vincent. That's what inspires us.

And think about the great tragedies for a moment: I'm in complete agreement with the glib and oily Alan Alda character in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors when he says that Oedipus' situation in Oedipus Rex is hilarious. The irony of it is truly Olympian, and the dialogue between Oedipus and Tiresias is vastly entertaining. It's only terrifying if you, the viewer, wish to walk away with a moral about fate, a "do" or "don't" so as to escape Oedipus' tragedy. As the factotum in Sydney Pollack's Out of Africa says to Isak Dinensen (Meryl Streep): "God is happy, sabu, he plays with us." That is the Olympian outlook and it's what you find in Hamlet -- the playwright devises a mousetrap in which everyone is caught, in which everyone dies, and the delight of the language lets us know that what's at stake is a theatrical response to life. Only the groundlings worried about whether ghosts really walk and whether or not there's a purgatory need to take seriously the metaphysics of the story. And, as I was made aware for the first time while watching Peter Brook's gloomy 1970 version with Paul Scofield in the lead, the Olympian touch in King Lear is the irony -- the delight -- in making a British audience have to root for Cordelia and FRANCE! Such are the digs in the side from a great artist, such is his knowing wink at all we hold dear.

The idea of delight occurred to me while watching two films recently: Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog (1949) and Martin Scorsese's The Departed (2006). Neither is a great film, but both manipulate their material so much that you are forced to consider what the film-maker is doing to you -- and the answer is: toying. In Kurosawa there are touches that made me laugh aloud, a short gasp of delight, as when he slows down everything in getting the girl to the phone while the detective hangs by a thread on the other end of the line, or when he has the woman stop playing the piano at the sound of a gunshot, look out the window at the antagonists, then resume playing, or when he displays the fortuitous construction that brings about the detective's shooting. We're in the hands of a master making the most of the material, maintaining its taut suspense but at the same time winking at us, inviting us to enjoy our own fear and unease. Many find this kind of thing in Hitchcock, I rarely do. Hitch is much too hammer-handed for the subtlety that delights me in these moments.

In Scorsese's film I found little delight in anything the characters did or said. All that testosterone-heavy, homophobic banter which "plays" with homoeroticism (as when Jack says, "give him a whiff of my ass and he'll crawl right up it," only to have his girlfriend point out that it might be such metaphors and not herself that is giving Jack a hard-on) gets tedious, if only because there's nothing new in it. And that both "snitches" (the cop as criminal and the criminal as cop) should have sex with the same girl is so manipulative as to be funny unintentionally (I suppose) -- though I think it's meant to show that, in love as in war, we never really know which side the other is on and all of us are out for ourselves. Indeed, there is an Olympian playfulness along the lines of Hamlet in the fact that all "the rats" end up dead, but it felt a bit too deus ex machina and not nearly nimble enough. No, where I found the Olympian touch was in Marty's use of music: "Gimme Shelter" playing when Jack comes into the diner where he will begin the process of taking Matt Damon's character under his wing; "Let It Loose" playing when Jack and Leo DiCaprio first meet in a bar ("who's that woman at the bar/all dressed up to do me harm?"), a brief shot of Badfinger's "Baby Blue" (I forget exactly where in the film, but it drilled me). Like the use of Donovan's "Atlantis" or the "Layla" coda or "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'" or "Jump into the Fire" in Goodfellas, the choice of soundtrack was more than inspired, it was a wink, a point made.

The musical moment that scored most heavily for me, in The Departed, was the scene when Leo seduces Matt's girl -- the song is Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb," but it's not Pink Floyd. As I listened I realized it could only be Van Morrison singing -- the moment brought tears to my eyes like the time, first hearing "E-Bow the Letter," I realized that the voice accompanying Michael Stipe's was Patti Smith's. The emotion comes no doubt from "the recognition," but also from the intrusion of an unexpected emotion into music, Pink Floyd's, R.E.M.'s, I thought I knew. Don't get me wrong, the Olympian touch can sometimes be touching ("in the very temple of delight/ Dame Melancholy hath her sov'reign shrine" after all) -- but even then it has a lurking "gotcha" element like the look on Jack's face when he sneaks up behind a jittery Leo to get a light from Ray Winstone.

Ay, "the play's the thing, wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king" -- every viewer/reader is the king in that phrase, every artist the "I" -- and it's all about the delight in play.


Andrew Shields said...

Reminds me of an old quotation I have lying around from Louis Menand (lost the source): "Art and literature are a means of providing a particular and complex kind of pleasure—and nothing more." The "nothing more" is probably exaggerated, but the first part is accurate.


Donald Brown said...

That's the idea, and "nothing more" is one of those rhetorical flourishes one could do without. But I also don't really like that "means" and "ends" language very much. A quibble, maybe, but it makes art sound like the gas in the car to get you somewhere, or the mustard on your bread for a certain piquant experience.

Rick said...

Much as I hate those that would elevate feeling to the essence of art or those that place a premium on their own feelings and contend that that in itsel is art ; I think the lasting effect of anything good is to make one feel that they've lived in the world , that they've seen ,heard , touched , tasted and smelled it.
To invest that kind of energy into an object that can convey that sense of the world , that sense that transcends it's time and even it's author's intent that is it's thingness it's wholeness... Art can stand for the whole of the experience even when it is limited by it's particular medium.
Yes we can read text books in the sciences , conjectures in science and religion but that knowledge is often disconnected from the experience of those things.
The pleasure principle applied to literature and art is hedonism and there are certainly enough things that the masses derive pleasure from that aren't art.

Donald Brown said...

Thanks for the comment, Rick, but I'm not sure what you're responding to. The idea of "thingness or wholeness" can certainly be a quality of a work of art that one takes delight in, and certainly with a permanence that is not possible in one's experience of actual fruit or a scene or a face, all of which will change.

I'm not sure what reading textbooks has to do with the topic, but your mention of the pleasure principle, I take it, means to indicate the idea of delight in art. I don't follow that, since the pleasure principle has to do with seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, in life, as instinctive. It has been argued that artists use art in that way but that's not something I was commenting on because it's a kind of psychologism I tend to avoid.

As to what "the masses" derive pleasure from that isn't art, sure, but what has that to do with the discussion of delight in art? I take pleasure in long walks and in driving my car but neither are relevant to the delight in art, even if I find pleasure in the quality of the car, the road surfaces, or my skill in driving. None of those are art or involve the kind of play I'm talking about. Being playful while driving the car invites accidents and a playful car manufacturer would be one to avoid. By seeing "delight in art" as "the pleasure principle" (if that's the point you're making) you're missing out on a key difference that separates life from art.