Friday, August 17, 2007

Harry Potter, Ricky Gervais, Marcel Duchamp, and the Preconditions for Great Art

A comment by Gwydion in the Harry Potter thread the other day (that launched quite a discussion), touched upon the topic I had intended to bring up for discussion while writing that post: "What are the preconditions for creating great art, work that advances its artistic community or that impacts the broader society?" Gwydion expressed cynicism about the quality of art that generated tremendously high sales.

At the risk of putting words in the mouth of my dear friend, one could make the argument this way:

-- Great art is dangerous art in that it is both innovative and challenging of the status quo either in society or in the art itself.

-- Most people, being part of the status quo being challenged, at the time the great art is produced and first performed/displayed will be baffled or insulted by it.

-- People do not lend monetary support to art that baffles or insults them.

Therefore, great art will not be richly compensated early on.
The logically equivalent contrapositive of this claim then would be that if someone is made filthy rich off of their artistic endeavor, it won't be great art. It may be fine entertainment, but that it something entirely different from great art.

We have the stereotype of the starving artist and we have arts advocacy groups combing the culture for funding. The question then is whether significant funding would produce more art, but at the same time suppress the creation of great art. Is it more than a caricature to say that novel, exciting work requires artists with an edge, with an axe to grind and if we flooded the arena with funding, you'd see artists become complacent, become accustomed to comfort and therefore create only the art which would maintain their newly found lifestyle? By bringing artists inside the bubble, would they become invested in keeping it inflated instead off playing their real role of gadfly trying to burst it? Neil Young's "Sixty to Zero" includes the lines:
And he picked up the phone
And said, "Send me a songwriter
Who's drifted far from home
And make sure that he's hungry
And make sure he's alone
And send me a cheeseburger
And a new Rolling Stone."
The idea here is that even TheMan is well aware that if you want really good artistic work, you need someone hungry.

The question then can be moved from the personal to the sociological. On the BBC's program "World Update," there was an interesting meditation on Wednesday from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival concerning the fading influence of British humor. At one time, Brits were the leading edge of comedy world, but no longer. with a few notable exceptions like Ricky Gervais, the Isles are not the go-to location for innovative humor as it was for several generations.
One English comedian blamed it on New Labor. British society had lost its edge, post-Thatcher there has not been the sense of anxiety that currently exists in the States and this is why American comics were now funnier. Americans tend to be louder and more in your face and that style of stand-up is now more the rage precisely because there is more rage in America.

One could find evidence for this line by pointing to the rise of Dada and Surrealism as a direct response to the horrors of World War I. If we see art as reactive, does it follow that the figure of great art requires the ground of social or personal upheaval, oppression, or starvation? Can we say anything meaningful about the preconditions for the arising of great art? Does feeding an artist kill off the drive for artistic innovation?