Friday, March 8, 2013

It's Possible I Didn't Write This Post

I recently rewatched Shakespeare in Love, the 1998 historical fiction about Shakespeare’s love affair with the utterly fictional Viola De Lessups and subsequent crafting of Romeo and Juliet. The movie, while not exactly a faithful reconstruction of the historical figure, clearly has a genuine love for Shakespeare, his plays, and the difficulty of writing—no doubt due largely to the influence of co-scriptwriter Tom Stoppard, who was already famous for (among other things) the Shakespearean absurdist play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

           Because this is often how things go, the rewatching of Shakespeare in Love reminded me of another historical fiction film that came out recently that does not have a genuine love for Shakespeare, his plays, or the difficulty of writing. Anonymous, Roland Emmerich’s 2011 film about Edward de Vere, takes the “Oxfordian” view of Shakespeare (i.e. that de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays under a pseudonym) and gives it a “Tudors”-like entertainment value. It was panned by both critics and popular audiences for its campiness and lurid, overacted qualities, and has spawned legions of comments (read: arguments) on the Internet about the ‘debate’ that apparently rages in academic circles over the “Shakespeare Authorship Question.”

            I have no interest in discussing the relative merits of “Oxfordian” versus “Stratfordian” or “orthodox” scholarship, nor in laying out the complex issues of exactly who is backing each claim on the Internet and with what authority. What does interest me is the fact that no positive discussion has come out of Anonymous. You can track any of the comment pages, forums, or blogs on the movie, and you’ll see that the majority of the ‘conversation’ is as vitriolic as anything else in these kinds of sections on the Internet.

            Generally, I find the idea behind adaptations or “inspired by __” works to be a favorable one. Texts like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead take up the notion that even the most minor characters could have something meaningful to say in different hands. Texts like W;t, by Margaret Edson, deal with great tragedy through the intricacies of the English language (in this case, through a ‘lecture’ on the use of wit in John Donne’s metaphysical poems). Texts like E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel challenge our relationship to history and to national consciousness.

            Even when we move outside of “traditional” adaptations and interpretations, we find similar moments. “A Very Potter Musical,” the viral hit from University of Michigan students and alums, combines most of J K Rowling’s books into a remarkably winning parody with catchy musical numbers. The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged) is a highly popular show by the Reduced Shakespeare Company that combines all of Shakespeare's plays into an interactive theatrical experience that is adaptable to the venue in which it is performed, and requires constant improvisation. Toby Turner, a Youtube phenomenon known as "Tobuscus," creates what he calls "literal trailers"--a dubbed version of film trailers in which he draws attention to the idiosyncrasies of both the movies and the editing itself by narrating the literal images onscreen (See his recent version of The Hobbit, for instance, which currently has over 4 million views).

Unlike Anonymous, the texts in these examples have fostered the creation of humanistic communities by 1) drawing on existing work to inform and enhance their own, and 2) doing it positively. They are representations of what happens when we approach the humanities without the antagonism of something like Anonymous. While I am by no means arguing for an uncritical treatment of texts or humanistic work, the kinds of creations that emerge from an appreciative approach to literature, drama, film, and authorship—appreciative, that is, of the idea that a given work of art is part of the larger set of humanistic inquiry, and deserves fair treatment—are creations that generate meaningful and productive discussion.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Pussy Riot (SFW)

Today—March 3rd, 2013—is the one-year anniversary of the first arrests in the Pussy Riot case. For those who aren’t familiar with the band, information can be found here, and a timeline of the events surrounding their arrests and convictions can be found here. Because the band members were jailed as the result of an artistic, religio-political protest, most American media outlets have castigated the Russian government for their censorship, and criticized the majority of Russia’s citizens for supporting the same anti-art rhetoric.

             The latest of these is Gordy Grundy’s blog for The Huffington Post, which makes several very good points about the shelf-life of artistic revolution. He argues that “going to jail is glamorous,” but “sitting in jail just isn’t newsworthy,’ which is why we haven’t heard much about Pussy Riot since last August.
             There was always a glaring deficiency in the American media’s take on the whole situation, however, and Grundy reproduced this quite perfectly almost a year after the fact.
At the time of this Anniversary, we Americans might take a moment to celebrate our artistic liberties. To create. To exhibit. To speak. How lucky we are. A lot of solid thinking went into these rights and freedoms. It is a shame when government can be used to punish five wild girls singing a song that might lambast the President.
There it is. The “how lucky we are” speech. The reminder that American superiority is ever-provable by our uninhibited access to First Amendment rights. The implicit discrimination between freedom of speech as a tool for political protest and freedom of speech on a local, individual level.

Let’s talk about “American artistic liberties” for a moment. In December of last year, a 16 year-old boy in New Jersey was removed from class and had his house searched by police because a teacher saw him doodling a flaming glove in his notebook. In November, Alan Moore’s award-winning graphic novel Neonomicon was banned from the shelves at a South Carolina public library. In May, a children’s book called In Our Mothers’ House was placed on restricted, parental permission-only access at a school library in Utah because it featured a lesbian couple raising an interracial family. In February of 2010, a comic book collector was sentenced to six months in prison and five years probation following that for simply owning manga—an act the U.S. government deemed a form of “sexual deviancy.” He is only one among many artists, collectors, store owners, and writers who have been arrested for similar charges in the last fifteen years.

I’m all in favor of celebrating American humanistic expression and the freedom we have to criticize our leaders without real fear of reprisals more dramatic than shouting matches over the dinner table. Americans draw from a vast array of cultural backgrounds and have an enormous capacity for art-making, and we should definitely feel lucky to have access to it all. But the next time we want to make an argument about how America is better than other countries because we have First Amendment rights, maybe we should stop to think about how censorship on a local level in this country is alarmingly widespread. Maybe we should stop to question how much American art is indebted to a nationalistic idea that doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. Maybe we should expand our model of humanistic expression to include instances that aren’t predicated on one side of a binary relationship to government or the other.

P.S. Remember the Dixie Chicks? In 2003, they were pulled from multiple radio stations for criticizing then-President Bush’s push toward war in Iraq. Turns out we censor that, too.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Essential and Meaningful

A few days ago, I noticed a post from the New Yorker’s Culture Desk that talked about “something essential and meaningful in the Walmart universe.” This caught my eye for several reasons.
1)   When did Walmart become a universe? Is that like the Marvel Comics universe? Can a person become a Walmart ‘fanboy’? Is Walmart so prolific now that it has become a system of interconnected narratives from which infinite possibilities of character can arise, as long as they don’t contradict previous iterations?
2)   “Essential and meaningful?” What intrinsic quality of Walmart could be so inspiring (especially since Walmart is notorious for being attached to things like horrible working conditions and incidents in its overseas factories)?

The latter question is what concerns me here, though I would be very interested in opinions on the former. According to the New Yorker, what is essential and meaningful in the Walmart universe is its customers, whose narratives have been revealed through art. The post is actually about artist Brendan O’Connell, who has been painting scenes from Walmarts for a decade—the implication is that his art, which originally got him thrown out of the stores, has been able to uncover some deeper meaning in the lives of Walmart shoppers, or in the life of the store itself.

The connection between art and commerce is not surprising. What is surprising is that art is not being appropriated here to make Walmart seem more humanistic—in this world, Walmart is already humanistic, already exists as art, and O’Connell’s paintings are merely taking up its artistic spirit.

Consider a slightly different example: The Huffington Post recently linked to a Tumblr called “Swoosh Art” that inserts the Nike logo into famous paintings. While some may object to the defacing of classical artwork with a modern, commercial imprint, the intent of the juxtaposition doesn’t appear to be anything other than general whimsy. It, like the artist’s Walmart, does make a curious observation about the intersection of art and commerce, however. A quick Google search of “swoosh art” brings up a page full of art blogs and news sites that have mentioned the Tumblr, suggesting that simply pairing art and commerce (as opposed to commercializing art) attracts a wealth of attention that isn’t ordinarily paid to classical paintings by anyone other than art enthusiasts, historians, or Wikipedia. Though the popularity of the site may be due mostly to its novelty, the burgeoning taste for these types of combinations indicates that there is some inherent quality about both art and commerce that makes them suited to an aesthetic union.

We spend so much time—as producers and consumers of Art—believing that its deep capacity for inspiration and change defies commodification, and that it loses something when it becomes commercialized. What if, however, we were to place them alongside each other without asking one to create value for the other? What if we were to imagine them as forming a natural alliance? Maybe that is the answer to my first question as well—maybe the artist’s Walmart and Nike’s Caravaggio are really a system of narratives that work together to form the 21st century universe.