Thursday, September 08, 2016

Today we sit momentarily in our thinking chairs with notebook in hand ... and consider how Blue's Clues formulated the conceptual realm of television criticism that Richard Brody has lately weighed in on.

Come now, sit down in your thinking chair with your handy dandy notebook and pause to reflect upon a milestone.

Today marks an anniversary of a television show.  Yes, that television show, too, and we'll get to that one in another post.

For this post we're going to briefly look back at a television show that was a tour-de-force of the Socratic method and whose narrative premise was predicated on breaking the fourth wall so constantly it was as if there could never be a fourth wall to break. 

That show, of course, was Blue's Clues.

One of the things I've had fun doing as a writer and blogger over the years is to take childrens' entertainment seriously as an art forum because the critical mainstream by and large does not regard it as worth talking about to begin with.  The sorts of people who breathlessly keep up with whatever degradations Sansa Stark deals with on Game of Thrones (for folks who have never heard of these books or this show what Sansa Stark gets subjected to might be likened to a set of experiences only slightly more pleasant than those bestowed upon the Levite's concubine) probably don't have even two words to say about My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic or Rugrats or Blue's Clues.  MLP might get a mention from someone at Slate as an opportunity to talk about the oppression of mainstream gender roles, maybe, or about how guys who are familiar with the show are probably lame.

There's basically zero chance you'll see someone at Salon or Slate riffing on how "Rarity Investigates" provides a light romp in which the glamorous pony investigates a mystery that is the archetypal parlor mystery but incongruously set in an arch film noir/hard boiled tone.  Rarity solving the mystery hinges on her attention to sartorial and procedural details that seem so dreadfully picayune to everyone else in the episode it's only when she reveals the strategic significance of all those details in forensic terms that the mystery is solved and its significance established. You might have a few authors at Slate going back and forth about episodes of Archer but that's obviously a "grown up" cartoon. 

If we live in some kind of golden age of television it's because there are the kinds of shows on television that grown up journalists feel excited to talk to each other about.  If for a time it could be proposed that feature cinema was the "grown up" art and television was the punk kid sibling that time may have passed.  Or not, or perhaps not everyone thinks it has.

We could have someone propose, or rather assert, that something matters because it matters to an individual and not because of "the conversation".

...  Raftery’s fixation on “the pop-cultural conversation” and the “zeitgeist” is one that’s shared by the era, by the critical community at large, and this fixation yields its own predestined results. Modern cultural criticism gives rise to its own cultural artifacts, and the two fit together like a lock and key. As a work of criticism, Raftery’s essay is exemplary of the very phenomenon that he’s documenting—and that circularity, that self-fulfilling critical criterion, is the defining trait of the time.

The rise of so-called quality television has coincided with the advent of widespread access to the Internet, which is closely correlated with consumers’ level of education. The serial nature of serial television lent itself to online discussion—blogs, comments, e-mails, and then, a few years later, social-media postings—in a way that the one-time-only and freestanding experience of going to a movie doesn’t, at the same time that it also locked specifically into the new habits of the educated in a way that moviegoing didn’t.

The principal quality of quality TV has proven to be its ability to generate discourse—not just on the part of critics and viewers but on the part of journalists. As particular series, and television over all, became the subjects of widespread public discussion—discussion in the literal sense, of writers and viewers responding to each other—that discussion became news. Suddenly, television was propelled from the arts page to the front page, and that trend was accelerated by the nature of the shows. Their emphasis on stories and characters involving iconic phenomena in cultural history and hot-button issues of contemporary sociology and politics grabbed—and still grabs—hold of journalists’ nose for stories. Many series seem to exist only to present topics in ready-to-debate form; they are built to give rise to “think pieces,” which have become the dominant, if easily parodied, critical mode.


But I doubt anyone sees much need to write about the significance of Steve constantly breaking the fourth wall in every single episode of Blue's Clues he was in because the didactic nature of the program is so obvious to anyone who has seen even a single episode it would seem scarcely worth commenting on.

But it is worth commenting on because there's a sense in which no matter how arcane or somber a discussion about what happened to Sansa Stark on such-and-such an episode of Game of Thrones was there is a sense in which we're talking about a distinction of degree rather than quality between Game of Thrones-inspired conversaion on the one hand, and Blue's Clues-inspired conversation on the other.

And if Richard Brody had at some point been a viewer of Blue's Clues he could have made precisely this point in his recent piece at The New Yorker, although the difference might be that it might not seem urbane enough, perhaps, for an author at that august magazine to even admit to knowing what Blue's Clues is.  There's something else Brody hastened to mention about what he considers the distinction between politics and art, between culture and art:
Ultimately, democratic politics are a numbers game. Politics are what concern everyone, which is why “everyone” (i.e., those who create the “online chatter” and the “countless essays and arguments” by which Raftery measures importance) talks about politics. Art, by contrast, is what concerns one person, intimately. Culture is a matter of power; art is a matter of beauty. It’s also a matter of freedom—of spiritual freedom, of free-spiritedness—and so it’s also political, though not in any immediately recognizable way and, above all, not in any way that lends itself to the think-piece brand of discourse. The power of beauty, the impact of beauty on a single person, eludes discussion and invites silence, even as it incites something radically different from analysis: ecstasy. That’s the force behind the side of criticism that, if it’s any good at all, converges with the work of art by being itself a literary, poetic, philosophical inspiration.

To this someone could, perhaps, propose that in the end all art is political and perhaps Richard Brody could reply that if that's true then all art must also be propaganda.  That might even be true.

But we don't want to believe that "our" art is propaganda, do we?  Or do we? 

Brody gets at this idea that television is a medium suited to editorializing and if he's familiar with Jacques Ellul he might be familiar with Ellul's proposal that television, as part of mass media, was one of the tools available for propaganda and that education itself was a necessary pre-propaganda component of preparing a population to receive the real deal.  Ellul described film and television alike as a type of sociological propaganda promulgating the myths and ideals of a society.  A Richard Brody could scoff at specific iterations of film or television or criticism that purport to have "conversation" about any number of subjects, but the actual ideological values of American liberalism are probably not going to get thrown under the bus along the way.  They will be reaffirmed and a Brody will be concerned less that there might not be a foundation for these ideals than to be concerned that the ways they are promoted falls short of "art".

So, if the individual who perceives beauty can be affected/effected by it and this is what art does then what happens when a grown-up watches a Blue's Clues episode with a three-year old and notices that every time Steve would talk about how if Blue skidoos we can, too ...

that that jingle is remarkably similar to Thelonious Monk's Rhythm-a-ning:

Now I happen to love Monk's music so, for me, that the kind of musical ideas that Monk composed could so permeate a culture that they can emerge within the context of a show like Blue's Clues (not that I can clearly establish an influence), interests me.  Art depends on the power of associative long-term memory that can cooperate with and be directed by an experience.

Blue's Clues was, obviously, an explicitly didactic program. If you want to be curtly dismissive about it as a show you could say that the whole point of the show would be to fit into that taxonomy of propaganda Ellul might graph out as sociological (a television show for children) with integrative purposes (instructing children on how to work out cause and effect, employ the Socratic method, and to inculcate them in the ideology that says "you can be anything that you wanna be!  Do anything that you wanna do!"  There is arguably no more fundamentally American sentiment than that.

That there will likely be no parade of film critics and television critics spilling thousands of words about the show on its twentieth anniversary (though I could easily be proven wrong) isn't necessarily the thought I have here.  Blue's Clues is just one case of a larger pattern, and that pattern seems to be that film critics and television critics and cultural pundits, should they have so little to say about the show, may do so because in some sense there is a "grown up" belief that the purpose of "art" is so that grown-ups can assure themselves they have been disabused of the lies they were told by the educational programs they were exposed to as children.  The stuff for kids was propagandistic pap and now we get to trade out Blue's Clues for Game of Thrones

But if Brody's remarks about television criticism are anywhere close to on the mark ... then a whole lot of people have simply changed which television show has become the basis for talking about "here's what I learned today watching this TV show."  In that sense Blue's Clues might have had the honesty to admit that's the whole point up front.  Or perhaps when Steve pulled out the notebook and sat in the thinking chair he did all that for us so there was basically no point in grown-ups doing that because, let's not forget the obvious point that this was a show that emerged before the internet was widespread and relatively easy to get to.  But when we talk about TV or film on the internet and have a conversation it's not like we aren't in some sense those little kids watching the TV screen, listening to Steve and watching him as he pulls out his handy notebook while sitting in his thinking chair and connecting all the clues together for the observable message for that week. 

So if you're a twenty-something television critic or film critic you live in a conceptual/critical world that Blue's Clues played a role in creating, a role you may never have stopped to consider.  While you graduated to writing and talking about the grown-up TV, you may not have stopped to consider that this was all presented in its prototype form by a television show you may no longer even be able to remember watching when you were little.

I mean, if we want to have a conversation about the significance of television why talk about Game of Thrones or whatever else is on these days?  If we want to talk about the long-term impact of cisgender heteronormative white male patriarchal privilege we could talk about what Steve has to answer for and his brother Joe after him, right?  Of course the original idea was to have a female host but a good deal of television critical discourse tends to focus on what was made as distinct from what people wanted to make.  Exceptions can apparently be made for some shows with loyal followings a la Firefly.   But it seems doubtful so many years after that show wrapped that it can reignite as a franchise the way another television concept did that premiered fifty years ago today.

Blue's Clues was not the last word in integrative sociological propaganda nor the first.  If a television show can be described as a classic and defined as a formative cultural influence by the rabidity of its cult following then Blue's Clues is a mere also-ran in comparison to that show that said it would boldly go where no man had gone before. Between the 20th anniversary of Blue's Clues and the 50th anniversary of Star Trek I wonder if the TV shows that really sink in and saturate culture aren't the ones that aspire to be taken seriously but the ones who have a floor-level directly propagandistic educational message and never veer from it.  I mean, both TV shows went on to have movies, even if Blue's Big Musical Movie was kinda more direct-to-video than Star Trek: The Motion Picture

We can close with one of Brody's thoughts:

The possibility of making films independently and on a low budget is greater than ever, at exactly the moment that studios, following the lead of television, have turned their movies mainly into political allegories and statements precisely calculated to leap to the front pages and the op-ed section.

At the same time, the democratization of criticism online has had a crucial and positive effect on cinematic events. Today, there’s both more and better film criticism than ever; as a result, it’s less likely than ever that an extraordinary movie will go utterly unnoticed or be dismissed. But the breadth of a film’s distribution and its box-office take are no more measures of its merit than is the quantity of online discussion that it inspires. ...

Where Brody didn't go because he was only discussing filmed narrative is to a place where we can ask about whether or not "all art is political" holds water.  If all art is political then there's no point in not being as directly propagandistic in your art as possible, is there?  But then there's this other thing ... take experiments at arriving at a fusion of jazz with classical musical forms and idioms.  When we see that this aspiration toward that fusion began on both sides of the Iron Curtain we should ask what people are getting at proposing that art is political or necessarily engages the political;  if we grant that then what is the political significance of attempts by American and Soviet composers to arrive at a fusion of jazz and classical music despite explicitly political/ideological differences?  Brody has a proposed answer, the quest for beauty.  Whether or not people buy that potential answer can, this being the internet, be subject for conversation and debate.

Still, musing upon Brody's musing upon film criticism has had me thinking--what if twenty years ago today Blue's Clues laid a foundation for people to talk about what the TV episode just showed them and today's twenty-something arts bloggers and writers and TV critics don't realize that the "conversation" they may be having about whatever they're talking about today was shaped by a back-and-forth they may not remember having had as tots with a guy named Steve decades ago every day for a week? 

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