FULL BLEED: EAT ME
Yeah, I'm really supposed to be jumping back to work on stuff that'll be due sooner than I think. Not quite ready to be doing that yet.
So instead, I'm going to think about the consumption of art. Mostly about how I hate that word when it comes up in relation to art. I suppose I should be using the capital A Art here, indicating a huge sweeping whole. This is prompted by a number of things, mostly by my general stance on things, but also the swirling cloud of issues around "Helicopter Story," stirred up by that Vox article yesterday, and by a short thread from Anna Biller about a comparison THE LOVE WITCH once got from a viewer, comparing the film to an apple.
I suppose that a lot of my views on this stem from the fact that for the last very long time (*ahem* thirty years now) I've been a person who makes artwork (in various media/forms) as much as I've been a person who spends time engaging with art. Note I didn't say "consume." I'm done with that word, except as a way to describe a certain type of economies or behaviors. When you consume a thing, you annihilate it and derive some kind of nourishment or at least flavor from it and then you do with it what you do with food when you're done and we're all grownups here.
Consumption turns the art object into a product, separating it from however it was made. This by design, ever since the introduction of the assembly line, where the final product was not alienated from its many makers but that whole process hidden from the final purchaser/consumer. You don't care how a sandwich is made, only that its there when you want it. Or a book. Or a movie. (I'm using the global "you" here -- of course you personally do because you're a thinking human, but not everyone is.)
Art as consumption object is a reductive equation. It's how we get content. A big and flat endless stream of stuff that we flip through little postage-stamp graphics of and maybe read a tagline for or maybe just jump into. Who cares where it comes from? There's going to be more. Lots more. More than you could possibly watch or listen to. Or engage with. Because that's what we're after, right? We want something to poke us in the emotions or brains or both. Maybe it leaves space for us to fill in the blanks or it asks uncomfortable questions or maybe it's "mere" entertainment (and that last one, why I put the scare quotes there is a whole 'nuther essay or five. Maybe I'll drop a note about it at the end. Remind me.)
Let's talk about the first place where consumption as metaphor falls down, particularly in this world we find ourselves in. When you consume a thing, say a tasty pastrami sandwich, what's the first thing we notice about the sandwich once we're done?
Right. There is no sandwich anymore. Depending on how thorough you are, there may not even be crumbs. The sandwich is gone.
When you look at an ink drawing by José Clemente Orozco and you take that in, are you eating it? Have you consumed it? I mean, if we're talking the RED DRAGON watercolor by William Blake and you're in a Thomas Harris novel, then maybe I guess. But yeah, when you take in a piece of art, when you engage with it, the art remains. Hell, the art doesn't know it's been engaged with. It's a one-way transmission. The art comes in by whatever senses you're operating on at the moment (synaesthetics, unite!). I suppose you could argue that a rented (rather than streamed) film or show sort of disintegrates once you finish with it, but that's strictly a transactional disintegration. That artwork still exists, you just gotta pay for it again.
Once you read a book, the book still exists. Unless it's what was attempted with "Agrippa" by William Gibson some thirty years back (and apocryphally, it didn't succeed -- its encryption stripped and bypassed before the poem even made its debut.) I mean, you can read the book, but then there's probably lots and lots of other copies of it (and I don't want to tread into Benjamin territory here, though I suppose I already have.) Orozsco's paintings and drawings still exist after I've taken them in.
Consumption as the metaphor is bullshit. But it does make middlemen feel better. They can balance that, tweak their algorithms, boost their numbers. Engagement is better, but still feels like it's missing something. Particularly as now we try to use that word to describe the emotion (almost always anger/irritation or bias confirmation) that content publishers are stirring up and harvesting their clicks to determine how much they're collecting from people trying to advertise by way of their content.
That said, "consumption" at least implies that you as the consumer are getting something out of it. You're eating a thing and it's sustaining you. Hell, that's noble, right?
Yeah, I'm gonna say no. Though art and even mere entertainment can nourish, not the body necessarily but certainly the soul. Yeah, I'm not particularly a materialist in this regard. There's too many things that become ineffable and numinous too quickly for me to say that materialists are totally right. Or more than partially (and a friend just reminded me of anthropologists for gods sake stating, quietly, that early humans only did stuff on the basis of utility and COME THE FUCK ON.)
To use a weird metaphor, it's as if art transmits, eternally, so long as there's someone to pick it up and apprehend it, engage with, be touched by it. This isn't to say that there's art particles or whatever weird and tortured metaphor a physicist would come up with to make their equations balance. Maybe there's more to life than those numbers, right?
Okay, getting off-track. Let me return. There's the consumption of art by the viewer, and yeah, that metaphor is pretty yucky, but it's not as bad as those folks who insist that art is there to be broken down or solved or beaten by the viewer. "I totally saw that coming!" is not a victory cry. It's an admission that the art didn't work for you, that you didn't really meaningfully engage with it and maybe that's a you problem as much as an art problem. (Aside: Yes, I run into this with myself a lot, particularly when the art is making no bones about the fact that it's running a borrowed structure and maybe isn't that great so I'm not losing myself in it, so yes I'll see the story beats before they fall and I'll know where they're gonna lead. But this is nothing to celebrate. It's not even worth a single gluten-free cookie.)
Art as target of domination, unfortunately, is a very popular mode in the internet age (I saw a lot of it in USEnet and that was more than thirty years ago now.) It carried over to chatrooms and discussion forums and to Delphi and MySpace and Facebook and Twitter and I'm sure it's in lots of other places, just being dressed up a little differently. Lots of folks just pleased as punch to dissect and defeat and vivisect the art, slice it into ribbons and then weave their own blood-stained tapestries out of it. They won. They beat the game. They ground out all sixty hours of gameplay. Yeah, the whole thing about AAA shooter games trying to become narrative vehicles does dovetail into this. Games are there to be beaten (and then play again at higher difficulty level so that you can talk about how great you are at them and you're not real unless you play on HARDCORE MODE.) This is quantification. Stripping the spirit out of a thing, just leaving the strategies and power moves and optimized talent builds. You beat it.
You can't beat art. Art doesn't give a shit about that. But this also destroys the ability of people to put out explainer episodes of their video reaction series and smash that like and subscribe so that they can keep the sponsor clicks rolling in. You can argue that this destroys criticism as pastime. I'd counter that the best critics are really commentators who can effectively relay the experience they had in the presence of a piece of art (whether or not they expand the context or history of the piece). They know that the real thing they're looking for isn't a material piece of art or whatever, but the *experience* they had by way of the art. An experience that, yes, it's possible that the makers of the art didn't particularly intend (not to mention the dangers of bad-faith readers/viewers trying to impose a meaning that wasn't there). Or, even worse, attempting to police the work of art.
But let's go back to art-as-thing-to-be-vanquished. That set of reactions is easily quantifiable, maybe even easy to break down into tweets and therefore you get a big readership and maybe get to jack up your status some. Hell, you explained the end of TWIN PEAKS. You must be smart. That's status right there. And now you can put out a whole bunch of videos showing those smarty pants directors who really knows whats what. (Namely your viewers for being so smart as to trust you to tell them what's going on at the end of THE RISE OF SKYWALKER, a movie which needs no explaining.) Even worse are folks who insist that they know how to fix a piece of art. "Ten classics that would be so much better if [they just did this thing.]" Art sure as shit isn't there to be improved by someone trying to sell clicks. You wanna improve it, just go ahead. Oh but that's hard work.
You bet. When you try and make art, you experience some un-alienation from the process that you didn't even think about. This isn't to say that artists are all elevated personages blah blah blah. Nope. They simply spent time and energy and strength in making this thing that they intended to be experienced and not tormented alive, or used as a platform to attack the maker of that art. "Oh but that never happens--" And I'm going to stop you right there. Those policing art have always done that. They still do. It never ends.
But see, they can only police art that they refuse to be in awe of. (And what a lot of them are in awe of, well, yeah, not great stuff.) But that awe, that sense of touching something bigger than you, of an actual experience from the art? That's tough to reduce to numbers, tough to materialize, tough to encode into flesh (to subsequently slice up.) You can't dissect the ethereal. And this fills these folks with fear. You can't subjugate the numinous. You can only experience it. And you may not have control over that. And this fills these folks with fear. There's no cheat code for dealing with TWIN PEAKS season 3.
Art is there for the experience. Not consumption. The systems in play want you to think it's all fungible consumable DLCs. That's good for commerce. But that's not what art's about.
I'm about done and not sure I've made much of any sense. Was going to hit another point here... Oh right. "Mere entertainment."
That's usually (an unspoken) insult levied against what, populist, entertainments? Something that exists only on the level that it presents itself on, maybe? I'm not sure. Anyways, go watch SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS by Preston Sturges and you'll understand it more clearly. It's about time for me to do some actual work now.