Saturday, 21 March 2009

Intrinsically Moral

In response to the last comment (see below) asking if art has an intrinsic moral dimension.

Caravaggio, a great painter – yes – with the help of a few mirrors and lenses though! Morally questionable - yes too (there's a very interesting essay on Caravaggio here), but I think it’s important to divorce the work from the maker. However, whilst I might admire his technical abilities, use of paint, light, colour, posture, gesture, etc I could really do without all the religious crap. I’m being unfair - the work was a product of its time and there’s certainly a lot more to it than Christianity, but few people would doubt that there are clear ideological dimension to the content. This is important though because content and maker are clearly different things. Hitler made dull but innocuous landscape paintings but I wouldn’t expect to find clear (if any at all) indications of his ideological leanings in these paintings. They’re pretty “conservative” but you’d be hard pressed to see anything more sinister in them.

But a distinction needs to be made - If I say “the car is blue” (skipping Benjamin Lee Whorf and Saussure for a moment) It’s pretty obvious that there’s very little ideology evident in the statement. However, if I say “motor racing is cool” then it’s possible to infer a number of ideological implications about the statement. By their very nature some statements (including paintings, films, novels etc) are more loaded than others – some deliberately and some involuntarily. Similarly some subjects are more sensitive and complex than others. It seems to me that if you take yourself over to a highly impoverished country and create a lavish spectacle for the consumption of your privileged fellow countrymen etc (Slumdog Millionaire) you’d better be damn sure you understand the complex social intricacies and post colonial attitudes involved.

It’s the same when marking student work. We don’t mark the individual, nor should we. There’s no box for the moral disposition of the maker. True, there’s no box on for the moral disposition of the work either. However, if a student starts making work which we find ethically questionable then I’d hope we’d at least engage them in a discussion about their principles. Last week for instance one of the students was making work which (amongst other more interesting things) peddled that old bullshit myth about the especial closeness of women to nature. (It never fails to amaze me just how many, otherwise intelligent people still cling on to this nonsense – but that’s another story). We had a very interesting discussion about it but there was no way that once I’d picked up on it that I wasn’t going to contest it.

"Artists are not independent socially, economically, ideologically, politically for all it suits some of them to pretend that they are.” Victor Burgin

or George Orwell:

"The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude."

Monday, 16 March 2009

All kinds of iniquities.

After posting the previous entry (see below) I got a reply which amongst other things stated:

I don’t think there is anything particularly insidious about the narrative, or its structure, and think it is there to be taken for what it is: Two or so hours of entertainment, escapism from the harsh reality of the world

Sure, narratives are an extremely valuable part of any culture – I’m not disputing this. However, what shocked me about Slumdog Millionaire was the fact that I came out of the cinema with two completely antithetical and irreconcilable responses: one emotional and the other intellectual. I had enjoyed the film, I felt emotionally uplifted yet I was acutely aware of a serious ideological problem. Sure, we could simply say that this is a well-made but highly problematic and exploitative film and leave it at that. In fact a simple search on Google for the words “Slumdog Millionaire” and “exploitation” will soon convince anybody of the outrageous cynicism with which the young actors have been treated.

But, as I was trying to explain in my post, I don’t think it ends there.

Narrative film, photography, language or any other medium or process which sets itself up as a “transparent” representation of the world has to be scrutinised incredibly carefully. Narrative itself is not a natural phenomenon – it’s a construct, a product of culture and we “take it for what it is” (or rather for what it seems to be ie “Two or so hours of entertainment, escapism from the harsh reality of the world”) at our peril.

Most of the time it’s all well and good simply to immerse ourselves in the diverse pleasures of narrative. We can even become highly engaged and critically aware of the complex encounters and ideas contained in narratives, but as makers, consumers and teachers of narrative we often have to look beyond these internal processes and examine the bigger picture. This is often fairly straightforward, in fact it’s often initiated for us by the work itself. But sometimes, and this was my experience with Slumdog Millionaire, the story is so gripping and so well told that you get caught up in the flow of it. This is one of the great strengths of narrative expression but I would argue that it’s also be one of it’s most insidious qualities because it can mask all kinds of iniquities.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Slumdog Millionaire and the Evils of Narrative

I‘ve been mulling over thoughts about something which came up in a Critique the other day. It was one of those moments when you realise the value of working beside people who often express radically differing opinions from your own, one of those moments when the students you teach are forced to revaluate their own critical position in relation to the arguments put forward and one of those moments which are such a valuable and essential part of art school education.

The disagreement centred around the Danny Boyle’s film "Slumdog Millionaire". My colleague brought it up as an example to illustrate a point he was making in relation to a film by one of the students. At this point I was compelled to interject and blurted out something like “that’s a terrible film!”. Then the whole emphasis of the discussion changed because it was clear that there was a substantial difference between our assessments of the film. I can’t speak for my colleague but I should say that he made a persuasive case. My point was that I feel the film is incredibly exploitative, telling a story of desperate poverty, suffering and abuse and sugar coating it as a classic rags to riches romance.

It turned out that very few of the students had actually seen the film so once we had made our points and the students had acknowledged that they really wanted to see Slumdog Millionaire “especially now!” we moved on.

Something still nagged at me though.

When I went to see Slumdog Millionaire few weeks ago I bumped into an ex student who works at the cash desk. I knew he’d be in the foyer when the film was over and I also knew he’d want my opinion of the film before I left, so as I passed the cash desk I was ready with my response: “Not bad for a glorification of poverty!”.

The truth is, I’d actually enjoyed the film – it was very well written, well told, funny, dramatic, visually stunning, spectacular even. But that’s when the alarm bells should have been ringing. Some small part of me had recognised that something was deeply wrong but the story had seduced to such an extent that I had barely been able to perceive the fact. It wasn’t until yesterday that it crystallised: Narrative or perhaps more accurately Narrative Closure.

Of course there’s nothing new about this – that’s not my point. My point is that despite all my scepticism and all the things I’ve heard, said and read about narrative it still manages to draw me in and pacify my senses.

That’s not to say that I don’t think narratives can be instructive, informative, enlightening or edifying but I do think there’s something very insidious about the way that narratives wrap everything up into neat packages which gloss over or distract us from many of the more disturbing realities of the world.

It reminds me of something Bruce Chatwin described in The Songlines where he discusses nomadic tribes and the fact that children are quieted by travel.

I think I see a short disjointed lecture forming “Narrative: the opium of the masses”.