I have just read with interest and pleasure, an article on AWN written by Karl Cohen titled, “What is Great Animation?” In the article Cohen discusses not only his views but has asked a number of luminaries to provide their personal thoughts on the topic. Cohen is a teacher and historian with an impressive background. I found all the various opinions and observations irreproachable and yet, illusive like all attempts to define something without first knowing exactly what it is your trying to define. It brought to mind the old story about the blind men describing an elephant after each touched a different part of the elephant’s body.
My interest was particularly drawn to Cohen’s article as I have been wrestling with similar questions for a while now and just started to wonder aloud about them in my last blog. I tried to start looking at how we entertain ourselves and wondered why we so often set the bar so very low. My thought was to begin with a genre that on the surface was far less than ‘great’ and certainly a long way from ‘art’. I could have started with animation or film in general but I think a lot of us would concede that there are great films and great animation and many examples of those are arguably art.
So continuing on, I want to keep poking around staying on the same general path but I’m not sure I want to weigh the question of something being ‘great’. I want to make it even harder on myself, and anyone reading this and willing to share an opinion, and ask if something is art even if none of us can unanimously agree on what art is or define it? The more I think about it the more I wonder if a kind of Heisenberg Principal isn’t at work. You know, the very attempt to examine something alters it and so makes it impossible to qualify or observe.
Undaunted I turn to the Socratic method, heck with this Heisenberg guy! I’ll just follow the trail by asking myself questions and wondering about stuff.
I’ll start by asking why Fantasia is considered by many to be art and Bug Bunny shorts considered more as funny cartoons? Or why, when Marlon Brando cries out Stella’s name in obvious anguish in A Streetcar named Desire, the critics rave - But when a soap actress moans in torment and weeps over the loss of a lover, we think of her performance as par for the course, just a piece of fluff in a huge sea of fluff?
Betty Davis can glance around a shabby room, and deliver three short words, “What a dump!” and critics and fans swoon in delight. In Gone with the Wind” Vivien Leigh vows with such powerful resolve, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again”, and we are lost in her performance.
Questions abound – Do excessive repetitions such as the daily airings of soap operas or weekly dramas reduce the strength and emotive power of an actor’s performance? If, as an example we saw Marlon Brando on television every week grinding out some inner conflict in a cheesy television series, would we still hold him in such high regard as an actor and artist? My bet is probably not, regardless of the quality of the performances. But hold on now, what about Picasso, didn’t he paint thousands of canvases? One modest estimate puts this number at over twelve thousand originals with thousands upon thousands more of prints. Should we think of this entire body of work as art? Is everything Picasso did including sculptures, furniture and pottery automatically art due to the great esteem we hold for him as an artist? Am I getting value all mixed up with worth? Wow, I’m giving myself a headache.
Moving on I wonder if anyone thinks baseball can be as artistic as ballet? If you have ever sat in the bleachers at Wriggly Field on sunny summer day and looked down at that perfect blend of grass and dirt watching two teams compete with athletic wonder over nine innings of unscripted drama, you might very well think so.
Is the intent of the artist important? What if I mean to paint a cow due to some strange bovine fixation but because I’m a lousy artist, my cow looks like a blob of black and white paint that someone interprets as an individual’s existential cry for help against the dehumanizing forces of modernization? Or something like that. Viewers of my cow painting are genuinely moved and before I know it I am discovered and my cow is bought by MOMA and hung in the museum. If enough viewers and critics are moved by my cow, even though they don’t know it is a cow, does that emotive interaction in and of itself make my once cow painting a piece of art, even if I am not really much of an artist?
Even more questions - Is performance a form of art or does art need to be a painting or a sculpture or what? Literature, Architecture, Dance, Music certainly, photography probably, ceramics, or fashion (can a dress be seen as art and it’s designer an artist?) You may answer, “Who cares? But what fun is there in that? It leaves nothing to think or talk about. Like a road trip, the fun is in the trip itself, not the destination and so it is with any discussion about art, philosophy, film, baseball, politics and even religion.
Trying to separate art from craft and meaning from accident is no easy task, but that is exactly what I want to think about and to share my thoughts as they occur to me – sort of a poor man’s stream of consciousness. Certainly it is far easier to pose these questions than to answer them – in fact I do believe that many questions are really not legitimate in that like the search for Pi, they represent a transcendental quest that can never be completed. Others defy clarity because they defy definition. Ask a thousand people to define art and you will be given many similar answers but many dispirit ones as well.
Ok I think that’s enough for now. The more I look at it the more it seems that anything and everything can be art of a kind and all of us artists, of a kind even if we’re the only ones that think so….
Next blog will be a return to thinking about animation as an art form. Lot of things to think about - I am curious about the qualities a film must possess to be thought of as art while others are simply movies. We use the terms all the time and since I’m on this art search, how do we brand these efforts almost from their inception? Are there prerequisites that must be in place to make an art film, and if so what are they?
Anyway, next time if you have the fortitude, read on…
And finally the six imaginary reality shows listed in my last blog were: Dumpster Divers, The New Confederacy, Wigged Out, Bunker Families, Stripper “U” and Coin Battles.