Saturday, December 26, 2015

some links for the weekend, a theme and variations on art as propaganda reflecting the anxieties and aspirations of empires

Perhaps this has only been brought back to my memory because a friend recently showed me one of his favorite films, Babette's Feast. 

The Myth of 'Easy' Cooking.

That said, many a guy who doesn't cook or says he can't cook has simply lacked the will or interest to cook or considers it the work of others (hint).  Cooking isn't easy but it's something you can do if you set your mind to it.   As culinary competency goes I'm probably more on the end of blues and ragtime for forms rather than fugues, sonatas or fantasias.  But I'm able to cook the stuff I need to get by.

Over in the realm of Oberlin there's plenty for writers to talk about.  Some propose that students are learning the ways to interact with the world to address injustice they see.  Well, every student generation gets to do that.  Friedersdorf's concern is that students at places like Oberlin may be learning ways to address what they consider to be social ills in ways that will be too specific to the academic world and not be useful for the world beyond the walls of the academy.
Freddie de Boer put it more pointedly:
an undergrad at a $50K/year liberal arts college berating cafe workers making $12/hour in the name of social justice on a human face forever
— Fredrik deBoer (@freddiedeboer) December 19, 2015
These critiques may be harsh, but are not grounded in antagonism toward the students. Were I an Oberlin administrator, I’d diligently inquire into any complaints about poor food quality and negotiate for the best fare possible, given cost constraints, even if students expressed their dissatisfaction in an off-putting manner.

But I like to think I’d call them on their nonsense, too.

It seems to me that staff and administrators at Oberlin ill-serve these students insofar as they accommodate behavior of this sort without offering any critique in response. After all, beyond allowing them to persist in their highly dubious and wildly unpopular beliefs, they’re training students to air grievances in a way that will be counterproductive—and thus serve them ill—everywhere except college campuses. As de Boer wrote, “I'm a college educator. It's the only job I ever wanted. It's my job to take college activists seriously. And this reflects bigger problems … life is full of political injustice, but also full of just sucky and disappointing shit, and you need to know the difference … I have this crazy hang up: I care about student activists so much, I pay attention to whether their tactics can actually win or not.”

A few old links from Richard Brody, whose angle on film I often don't agree with (but particularly the assertion that Michael Bay has and gives more fun than George Miller). However ... Brody's crankiness can still at times be interesting in its aims to illuminate.  Brody has been writing about the dangers he considers the real threat to independent film and to liberalism in cinema and it's not movies by Michael Bay and it's not films made by people who aren't very liberal.
But there are also aspirational movies—those of the art-house consensus—that feed what might be called “upmarket” or “sophisticated” viewers a pre-packaged set of comforting verities and soothing moods that are, in relation to the rarefied cinema of classical inspiration, what Mantovani is to Beethoven. These movies join a faux-objective aesthetic of ostensibly humanistic realism with comforting, politically liberal enthusiasms to match. The problem isn’t with the point of view (which is one I share) but with its jollying. The large-scale, mass-market demagogy of movies such as “Transformers: Age of Extinction” is no worse than the niche-market demagogy of, say, “Obvious Child.” Both movies appear tailor made to their target audience’s expectations and prejudices.
You won't find that link to his take-down of "Obvious Child" by the way.  The New Yorker team pull it down but if you want to read his brutal but terse beat down of what he considered the smug self-congratulatory blue state high-five of the film, the Way Back Machine can help.
It’s natural to worry that the colossal success of a tightly formatted movie such as the new “Transformers” will only stiffen the resolve of studios to repeat it, or will only solidify the shapes of existing pigeonholes and sideline unusual and distinctive movies even further. Yet such concern reduces to a mere snobbery of taste, a straw-person diversion akin to an opera house blaming low attendance at a production of “Salomé” on a Miley Cyrus concert. The most audacious low-budget American independent filmmaking is threatened much more significantly by misplaced critical praise for art-house mediocrities than by Hollywood.
Elsewhere Brody wrote that liberal cinema is in danger, paradoxically but perhaps inevitably, from its own self assurance of the rightness of its notions
The greatest political filmmakers, from Charlie Chaplin to Jean-Luc Godard, are masters of the imaginary. The uninhibited inner life and the power of art to delve into fantastic elements that grant characters dimensions possibly unsuited to a constructive political program are themselves aspects of a higher politics. That’s why there are so few good political films these days, and why such comedies as “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” and “Norbit,” with their messy (even chaotic) boundary-blurring, are superior to the films listed above as approaches to hot-button issues. And, in an entirely different and grander and finer register, Spike Lee’s “Red Hook Summer” faces the deep unpleasantness that can mark characters who are, in many ways, admirable; revels in their extravagant expressivity, whether to ecstasy or to self-destruction; and dramatizes the warping and self-warping force of the will to document the supposed facts.
The facts do not speak for themselves, and there’s a remarkable and disheartening correlation between those who film as if they do and those who, imbuing these facts with a built-in point of view, are unwilling to stand in front of those facts and state that point of view. The underlying question is why movies made by many filmmakers whose point of view is, by and large, so sympathetic, tolerant, and liberal (and whose point of view I tend to share, by the way) are built on such a painful narrowing of experience and a surreptitious attitudinizing—why they’re films of personal commitment that remain, nonetheless, impersonal. It’s as if filmmakers (and, for that matter, critics, playing a surreptitious role as op-ed columnists) were protecting viewers from the potential effect of nasty or regressive or hateful thoughts; their own cultivated selves are are immune from them even if angered by them, but the poor bewildered viewer needs some protection from loose ends of imagination that could potentially lead in the wrong direction.

Which, in its way, is saying that liberal cinema has the same problem that "Christian" cinema does.  Only perhaps we could propose that liberal cinema is more evidently able to be seen as propaganda promoting an ideology to even one of its advocates.  Brody has liberal sympathies and so he's willing to endorse liberalism espoused in cinema. 

But perhaps the distinction between art and propaganda is not whether or not something constitutes advocacy for an ideology but that art is what we call it when we are able to fail to recognize the propaganda for what it is because it embodies our highest ideals.  "Your" art could be "my" propaganda and vice versa.  Take how authors at Salon declared Christopher Nolan to be a fascist on the basis of his Batman films.  Is Nolan actually a fascist?  We've had decades to find out.  In response to a recent piece at The Stranger about the Christian pop music scene that touched upon the history of Mars Hill a commenter stated flatly "Christians should not attempt to make art."  Yet the history of written music in the Western tradition began because of the Church.  The idea that the Christian tradition that did so much to promote literacy and helped to formulate the written customs of Western musical notation is somehow exempt or ineligible to contribute to the continuation of this enterprise is not a claim about the arts so much as an ideological assertion; perhaps for those for whom the liberal arts is itself a religious and ideological commitment those who adhere to a more traditional and formally recognized religion you aren't allowed to love both God and art. 

But it's not like William Byrd didn't write some remarkable choral music as an expression of his recusant Catholic faith.

Brody may be right about his concerns, and it may be the core of the problem is that liberal cinema has simply arrived at the place that evangelical American Christian cinema has never been able to transcend, propaganda.

We live in an era where a movie depicting football as an evil empire Will Smith has to face down ...

I'm reminded of watching Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises a few years ago.  Let's note but not in passing that there are liberals who are worried about how if some red state darlings get more influence we'll be facing down another Dark Ages.  But what do we mean by another Dark Age?  The Dark Ages began in the West when ... the Roman Empire collapsed.  Do liberals necessarily think through that this necessarily conflates the existence of liberal arts and politics with a massive globe-spanning military-economic empire?  If the neo-conservatives seem to liberals like paranoid war-mongers perhaps Christopher Hitchens was nonetheless right to throw his hat in with a bit of that cause, if only in the sense that as someone who was part of the British empire he was better able to observe what Americans stubbornly evade, that the arts flourish in empires.

Miyazaki's film, to get back to that, has been described by film critics as a meditation on the life of the arts.  It can be that, too, but it's formally about an aeronautical engineer who designs a warplane.  It could be said that Miyazaki, having built a kind of artistic empire and legacy of his own, has been confronting in one of his late films the realization that no matter how beautiful it mayh be, all art that reaches a high level is in some sense a reflection of the aspirations and anxieties of an empire.

Caproni asks Jiro, "Tell me, Japanese boy, which would you choose?  A world with ... or without the pyramids."  The art that survives long enough to be preserved in a fixed form (as opposed to, say, folk art) since the dawn of humanity has not just been art but also, if you will, marking a fence post, staking a claim, declaring a presence.  We can talk on and on about the potency of art for the sake of art in the West because since we long ago moved away from high art that was funded by kings and bishops and cardinals to corporate ventures and do-it-yourself indie projects we've had the luxury of imagining that high art is NOT propaganda.  This is not because it ever STOPPED being propaganda but because we've formulated an ideology that lets us convince ourselves that OUR ART is not propaganda because it promotes ideals we take for granted as universal liberties and rights.

This may be what Richard Brody was getting at in his discussion of a crisis in liberal cinema.  It can certainly explicate his conviction that you have to say what your point of view is up front and not take it for granted.

One reason that this kind of commitment can be so perilous is that, as Jonathan Haidt put it in The Righteous Mind, morality both binds and blinds.

With the closing of Fitzgibbon Media a person could propose there was a "nice guy fallacy" at work, per the title of the Slate piece (which, given how things work in journalism, may no have been the author's idea for a title at all). Having blogged for half a decade about the life and times of Mars Hill and its leadership culture I think there's a potentially better way of describing what happened with the Fitzgibbon Media situation.  It's not necessarily "just" a nice guy fallacy, it's a "not my team" fallacy.  Just as for years it was not open to consideration among conservative evangelicals that Mark Driscoll's writings may have featured a whole lot of second-hand insight (to put it mildly) until the plagiarism controversy emerged, so it was apparently not open to discussion within the progressive camp that a man well-known in that camp was a bad dude when it came to how he treated women, again, to put it mildly.  What it seems like I'm seeing here is that people on the left and right can easily succumb to the temptation to think that "their" team is full of scoundrels while "my" team is on the side of angels.

The internet hardly helps things here when authors can damn Gandhi for being a racist and a misogynist in a way that can take it for granted that what Gandhi did in advocating for Indian independence is not in itself valuable.  In an era where the fallibility and imperfection of every human being is more easily established than ever in the era of the internet we want our heroes and our victims to be ever more perfect.  Back when I began to discuss the matter of how much of Allender's work Mark and Grace Driscoll used without credit, I noticed that at a web discussion venue that the topic came up and one woman's reaction was "So maybe Grace Driscoll is a plagiarist?  So what?  What about her being a victim of abuse?"  So what?  Does being a victim of abuse, terrible though that is, excuse Grace Driscoll from not giving credit to Dan Allender in the first print edition of Real Marriage, a book that was rigged a spot on the NYT best seller list? 

Back when Mars Hill was distributing God's Work, Our Witness, it was not difficult to suss out that this was a fundraising pitch.  The thing was distributed along with an annual report.  The film was well put together, told an interesting if remarkably selective narrative of Mars Hill and featured stories shared by people I know and like.  I still like those people, by the way.  But what I knew I was looking at, thanks to more than just a couple of years of experience working in supporting fundraising activities in non-profit, was that this movie I was looking at was propaganda.  Maybe it was not "just" propaganda but the idea that an artistic creation can only be just one or the other may be one of the grand delusions of the post-modern West. 

What was striking about the Driscoll plagiarism controversy as it played out was seeing evangelical Christians say that basically copyright is unchristian.  Really?  This is proposed in spite of the history of conflation of church and state in the West and the life-threatening risk of producing English translations of the Bible?  If anything the progressive and conservative evangelical wings are more committed, at a functional level, to a basically authoritarian approach to the press and media than in many a time since the dawn of the Reformation.  The plagiarism controversy connected to Mark Driscoll highlights, for those who kept track on how pervasive the matter was in Driscoll's published work, the question of ethical constancy  was or wasn't in play for an entire industry, the popular Christian publishing empire.  To say that journalists at Rolling Stone have invented things is to misrepresent and misunderstand what happened there.  In both cases we can simply propose that what was going on was propaganda.

Liberals and conservatives have ideological commitments they want to stick to that highlight difference and minimize overlap.  A Mark Driscoll will stick to a heteronormative biological determinism in which any guy who has a boner needs a woman to put it in, most likely. A Rob Bell can stop pastoring and go Oprah.   But both men can still be reflections of the Emergent church and where it has gone, and Alastair Roberts' surmise that Rob Bell's is the "Ad Man's Gospel" can apply to Driscoll.  If the sixteenth century theologian was a lawyer, per Roberts, then the 21st century theologian is a marketing representative.  Neo-cons will stick with the idea that war in Iraq was necessary for promoting freedom.  A contributor to Salon will celebrate Planned Parenthood helping her get the abortion she sought and both the neo-con and the abortion champion end up championing the same American luxury of pre-emptively employing lethal force to preserve a consumer set of options.  The trouble with their respective ideologies is that they are able to see each other as more different than they may ultimately be. 

It would seem we live in a world in which the difference between art and propaganda is not just about production values but also about whether or not I already agree with the ideas.  If I already agree with the ideas I think are in the product, then its art.  If not, then its propaganda.  In a culture that values art for the sake of art I wonder if we've thought through that one of the potentially unavoidable end points for art for its own sake with the reproduction technologies we have is that the commodification of art is unavoidable.  The way to counteract the complete objectification of art, however, can seem to be, itself, an ideological gambit.  The ideologies that we embrace that the arts may express are the ways in which art can be sacralized beyond being "just" a commodity.  It isn't propaganda if the art is made by the team you've gained admittance to, is it?

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