The Art We Disdain

BEGINNINGS

I’m gonna take you on a trip with me. Not literally, as I’m fairly certain we’ll be at each other’s throats over the aux cable. Rather, to a time not so long ago, on my couch, watching TV. Freshly subscribed to yet another streaming service, I began a new show, brimming with eager optimism.

And then it began to falter, only a little at first, because they just couldn’t help themselves; it “had” to become a platform for something other than the story. And as with any platform, people perch upon it to preach from the lens they see the world through, or perhaps more honestly, how they’d like to see it. They pushed an agenda. To be clear, it was less political than social but it’s an agenda nonetheless. The frustrating thing is that I didn’t disagree with it, per se, but it was just unnecessary - completely and utterly shoehorned into the plot in such a jarring way that all suspension of disbelief went out the window. One minute I was engrossed in a fictional world, waiting to mash the “continue guiltless binging” button and the next… reminded of the sometimes-less-appealing world we still live in. They couldn’t let a compelling story speak for itself and as a result, delivered a pretty weak climax.

GRAPPLING

It reminds me of the infamous Paul Schrader quote featured in our First Reformed article: “With these spiritual kind of things, you can’t really push anybody into the mystery. All you can do is guide them. But those steps they take - they have to take.” And while he was grappling with a spiritual context, I think it’s a philosophy that is applicable to just about anything in entertainment. The point, case, or cause is often strongest when we’re able to come to those conclusions ourselves, even if it’s just a simple matter of piecing together the puzzle we’re given.

If you’re on our site, reading our content, I imagine you’re very likely a person of faith. You have convictions and beliefs, spiritual in nature, that guide your life. I would also venture to guess that for some of us, it began as more of an adoption of parental beliefs than freely chosen conviction. Speaking from my own life, that mere adoption falters pretty easily when faced with the most basic intellectual challenge or emotional hardship. It’s parroting. It’s skin deep. You were told to think something but do you? Do you really? While no conviction is immune to the fog of doubt, it’s another story when it runs deeper than second hand theology. When it’s in your bones.

But why am I taking you down this road? Well, simply put, I think that even the least spiritual ideology can benefit from Schrader’s approach. So let’s get back to the couch, being disappointed in television.

RESUME

The credits were rolling and I just… I felt a little conned. And given this tumultuous culture of outrage, especially as it pertains to entertainment, I don’t think I’m alone in this frustration. To sell the rich immersion of a world at the surprise cost of telling you how to feel - how to think - people don’t seem to care for that. It’s almost as if they just want a story. Like they want to escape for a little while and get lost in another time and place because literally everywhere they look there’s cause for ire: policies, candidates, news outlets, preventable catastrophes, hate crimes, and your favorite contestant losing The Voice. I feel it, too, and I felt it that day. The last thing I want to add to that list is my new favorite show.

Especially coming from entertainment, it feels manipulative - like I was just swindled out of my time so that a faceless corporation could sell me trendy, back-pattable philosophy when all I asked for was a story. To overstate it a bit, it feels abusive of the medium. What’s more is that it seems increasingly condescending, setting up this implicit ultimatum of “agree or be shamed.” It can suddenly feel personal and implies that my value and perceived goodness is at stake. And as all this went skipping through my brain I froze.

iS thAt a pErsOnaL atTaCK oR soMeThiNG?

Comically absurd words the internet will forever use as a tongue-in-cheek response to laughably un-hostile situations, echoed through my mind.

Difference of opinion?

iS thAt a pErsOnaL atTaCK oR soMeThiNG?

Prefer Toy Story 3 to Toy Story 1?

iS thAt a pErsOnaL atTaCK oR soMeThiNG?

Voted for someone else on The Voice?

iS thAt a pErsOnaL atTaCK oR soMeThiNG?

You get me? The point is, I’d somehow arrived at the outlandish question and in that moment, I’d been played. And I caught myself in the middle of some kind of entitled fume. A television show fell into the most predictable rut imaginable, and it suddenly got to me. Forgetting all the quality story arcs of other serials that came before, I was suddenly questioning whether the medium as a whole was a lost cause.

What did I expect? After a breather, I was no longer asking that question from some dramatic despair of modern television but as more of a cautious pulse check. What was I actually looking to get out of this that gave me the license to feel so hot under the collar? After some thought, a few sloppy drafts of this article, and a late night coffee, I realized two things.

1.) There are still good stories out there. Even if I feel that many fall prey to the commercial machine, there are film studios, and indie directors, and amateur documentary filmmakers out there that tell stories with passion and transparency. Their own passion. Not beholden to the ratings of a particular time slot of network television.

2.) I feel that art absolutely has the right and the power to deliver a message, project and idea, or provoke thought, I just don’t want to commercialize my ideals or sell my time for outrage. It’s rampant enough. I’m not super keen on the entertainment-as-platform routine even when I agree with the message.

EPILOGUE

Let me take those steps. Because how much more powerful is that?! It’s discovery and brilliance. And perhaps the most beautiful thing is that we have the luxury to celebrate stories like that. To elevate them as art. Give me sorrow and joy, make me weep, make me cry. (I like sad stuff.) Give me a good story that speaks for itself. But don’t ask me to spend my energy on fruitless anger and cheap storytelling.

Listen, if you don’t want to take my word for it or “adopt my beliefs,” I get it. That’s the very ironic nature of this tension. After all, I’m just preaching my own personal vision - my ideal - of art in communication. But if I haven’t made a compelling case then allow me to offer one final suggestion. What if Paul Schrader wasn’t the first to employ this idea? What if Christ told stories that carefully wove together meaning and subtext - parables, perhaps - and wasn’t burdened to spell out the finer details with a condescending glare? Not without purpose and not without meaning, but without pushing anybody into the mystery.

Disclaimer: I have no idea how The Voice works. I don’t know if viewers vote or judges vote or they just cast lots to see who wins. It’s just a running gag and I promise it’s not a personal attack or something.