8.05.2011

What I Want from Art

We no doubt want, and find, different things from art — from images and films and books and such. Sometimes, it's nice to encounter something that feels like coming home, that makes you feel less alone. When I first read Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, I laughed so hard it literally hurt — it was so close to home it hit my exact vibration and nearly melted me. I feel the same way about Curb Your Enthusiasm. Both Portnoy-era Philip Roth and Larry David — not coincidentally, both hebes like me — speak my language. They don't teach me anything new; they don't lead me astray of myself. They make me feel at home and I love it.



But that's not the only experience of art that I like, that I crave, that I need. Sometimes — albeit rarely, I want an affective intensity, an emotional reckoning, an intensity of human emotional experience that makes me shudder in every fiber. Joni Mitchell's Blue, Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks: these have rocked me (when I was much, much younger; I find that kind of emotional intensity through art harder and harder to come by — because of me, not because of the art).



And then there is the experience I crave the most, the one that really turns me on. This is when the art creates a kind of vertigo as it cannibalizes its own frame, throwing structure and form into the mix. I'm thinking of William Burroughs, David Lynch, Godard. These are the ones who most push my buttons as they don't use the form to express themselves (as Roth uses the novel and Larry David, the sitcom). No, Burroughs, Lynch, Godard each refuse to take the form of their medium for granted. As they create, they assume nothing; they question everything; they make art a question, a questioning, about what's possible.

And this vertigo, this infinite play, moves me in profound ways. Perhaps I don't cry when I watch Godard's Weekend — although I could cry it's so fucking smart and funny and cool — but I am moved. How? I am moved by the interrogation itself; I am not allowed to be complacent as I watch the film; it never wants to confirm me. On the contrary, it asks what it is to be a viewer, what it is watch, to record and be recorded — just as Burroughs asks, with each sentence, what it is to write, to read, to speak, to be in and of language.


This is one of the greatest scenes from a film ever.

Burroughs, Lynch, Godard: they don't let me rest easy. They don't reassure me. And yet, in a funny way, they do — they let me rest easy knowing that they get it: they get that life is in flux, that we can't take environments (in McLuhan's sense) for granted, that life is best lived when it's not anchored, when it's set free to roam.

Cassavetes is interesting: he is a formalist who reinvents cinema by privileging affect over character. That is, he seems to give us representations of human beings. But that's not the case at all. His films don't shoot action in real space and then represent them: they use affect in the way Pollock uses paint. Frankly, this makes the casual or frequent watching of Cassavetes difficult. Rare is the evening I think to myself, "Well, perhaps I'll just kick back and watch me some Faces."



I like kicking back sometimes and watching some silly Hollywood narrative film. It's easy. And, sometimes, the films are very good — have funny moments, smart moments, a great line of dialogue (I am a fan of Tombstone, a film with a great screenplay).

But when it comes to art, I want more than a nice, easy experience. I want to be made to sit up and pay attention, to heed the moment, to reckon sense, to risk nonsense. I don't want to be distracted; I want to be turned on to life.

8 comments:

Ruby said...

I find that I want those things too but I am less and less inclined to risk being bored or disappointed so I can't imagine regaining the fervour I had for consuming art when I was 15 – a perfect age for fervour as there aren’t any adult demands on time. Nor is there any kind of knowingness to consumption because 15 year olds know nothing but have the enthusiasm to want to know everything. It’s exhilarating. Now, I like to just happen upon something rather than seek out art.

drwatson said...

Good explanation - I'm basically with you on most of this. I would say that Annie Hall is probably my perfect example of my favorite kind of film. It's breaking rules - Woody talks to the camera and what not - but the story is moving. Charlie Kaufman films are also like that for me - Adaptation, Being John M. Eternal Sunshine, Synecdoche NY. The films are always commenting on themselves, but they are still moving because of basic existential components.

drwatson said...

http://philosophicalmatters.blogspot.com/2011/08/art-and-taste.html

I'm going to edit this tonight - but man you've got me banging my head against the wall in a way that hasn't happened in a while. And I mean that as a compliment. This is such a hard issue for me to think about.

(I posted this under the wrong essay)

Zane Cassidy said...

I like the bit about finding something that makes you feel close to home. I read your article "I Am Metabolism" on Thought Catalog earlier today and I experienced this feeling. I kept chuckling as I read, the words seemed to come straight from my own mind. It's nice to know that you have been on the same frequency as others without trying to be.

Lauren said...

Thought provoking. Interesting that you say you find it more and more difficult to find the same kind of emotional intensity in art that you were able to find when you were younger. I've been thinking a lot about this idea recently- the change of emotional response and feeling over time. I think about what I was like as a teenager- how sharp and fresh my desires were. Now in my mid-twenties, I’ve accumulated more experience, but I find that particular type of raw response to art- and to life- to be more and more elusive. Absolutely I find myself moved- but the movement is somehow different than it used to be.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Zane: thanks for the post. The interweb is amazing for letting people with strange ideas find each other....

@ Lauren: It's as if our senses dull with age. As a kid, I couldn't understand how my grandfather could drink Chivas (scotch) and eat herring and onions. Now, I understand: my taste, dulled with age, craves more emphatic flavors. It seems we dull affectively, as well, as those events that move us all the way dwindle towards none.

Lauren said...

I remember as a kid when I didn't like the taste of something (avocados, beer, raw tomatoes...), adults were always saying "it's an acquired taste." I hated that expression. But at least it gave you the idea that you were developing something. Now I feel more that perhaps the opposite is true- that rather than developing taste, flavor and sensation just doesn't affect you as strongly as it once did.
This sounds depressing and I keep looking for some sort of tradeoff. Do we get anything in return for this loss of intensity? I don't know.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Lauren: Well, I suppose when the ecstasies comes now, they are more intense, more thorough, more resounding. That's gotta count for something. Or else it's just a rationalization.....