The emotional toll: or when Art hurts or rewards us.

I don’t know why, but the amount of passion that I have  invested in art has increased with age. In my macho youth I would have never cried, at least not publicly, when listening to music; but the first time that I heard the Flower duet by Leo Delibes it brought tears to my eyes. It was really an unwanted emotional response at the time, but I couldn’t help myself so I suppressed my feelings. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized that it wasn’t a matter of a lack of masculinity, it was a matter of being moved by a really beautiful work of art. I was once told by a teacher that the purpose of art was to elicit an emotional response. This happened to take place during a somewhat heated discussion about D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms and Birth of a Nation.

My argument was  that both movies were more propaganda than art, because they inspired such negative responses against a perceived enemy, i.e. the Yellow man and the Black man. His counter-argument was that I had just proved his point because the purpose of art was to elicit an emotional response, be it negative or positive.

He must have left a lasting impression on me because, this has been my yard stick for determining art good or bad ever since. This raises a problem for me. Does a neutral emotional response mean that something is not art? My primary examples of a neutral response to art, is the work of Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. It’s not because I don’t understand the concept behind their work, it’s because to me, they are in  sort of an artistic limbo. Objectively I see them as art because they are on canvas, but subjectively I struggle with my own definition of art. I would have to study an entire library of books defining aesthetics to answer this question, are they or aren’t they art?

What I am positively sure of is my subjective opinion about what is good art and what is bad art and what separates  art from kitsch. Following the simple rule that art will always elicit an emotional response, is for me the best way to sort things out. This rule covers every medium and every genre.

Let me start with a very contentious subject that always gets people’s dander up; Heavy metal music. In my opinion what they refer to as metal or stadium rock is pure trash without any artistic merit or value whatsoever. The original genre was spawned by artist like Jimi Hendricks and Carlos Santana and the tradition branched off in the seventies to groups like Iron Butterfly, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, Jefferson Airplane, Osibisa (which is now considered afro-fusion) and let’s not forget the Grateful Dead, Black Sabbath and Iron maiden. That’s right boys and girls Heavy metal has its roots in the psychedelic movement of the late sixties and early seventies. No matter how much the hate rockers and the noise rockers deny it, it has a very culturally diverse and rich history. One of the reasons that it has become so mundane and redundant is its lack of diversity and growth. It has been in a state of stagnation since the early nineties. Modern metal groups depend on ear blasting music and scratchy vocals screamed at a mostly drug fueled audience that are already partially hearing impaired.

I’m not saying that my generation were angels, the phrase Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll was popularized by the Baby Boomers. What I am saying is that the music was evolving and had heart and meaning and every group had its own signature sound. You could actually discern one group from another and Identify them by there differences. There is no experimentation and therefore no growth in modern Metal. Most of it doesn’t even deserve to be called Metal. If you compare any of these oldsters and the crop of newbies out there, there is no comparison. One is art, the other is the musical equivalent of a plastic flamingo, as compared to a Frederic Remington sculpture.

The other point of contention with me is popular fiction and classic fiction. some titles that we consider as classic fiction today were once considered pop fiction. Stories like Silas Marner, the pickwick papers, oliver twist, Sherlock Holmes and little women were first published as serials in news papers. They were pure entertainment, akin to the pulp novels the 30s, 40s and 50s. Although series like Lester Dent’s Doc Savage, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm series,which were very popular,they probably won’t go down in history as classics. All of these authors have written entertaining series that were enjoyed by their fans so subjectively they are good but in the context of history they could be considered mediocre, pulp or even bad. No matter how you look at it, the readers are to some extent emotionally invested in the story. The more powerful the story the more the reader is tied to the characters. we feel emotionally connected and care what happens to the protagonist.

Willard Motley’s 1947 novel Knock on any door was the first adult themed book that I had read as a 14 year old boy. I had found it hidden away in the attic; and when my father discovered that I had started to read it, he said that I shouldn’t be reading books like that. I wasn’t sure what he meant but soon discovered that it had sexual imagery and that the main character Nick Romano was a teenaged hustler (male prostitute). Suddenly the book became very real and personal for me. I had heard rumors about certain guys around the neighborhood like Nick Romano. They were always well dressed even though they came from dirt poor families and hung out on the street corner a lot.
Even though the novel was already old when I read it in 1964 it resonated with me because the same things were still happening. Poor boys and girls were still being sexually exploited and going to reform school and coming out with all of the wrong lessons. This was more than just a novel to me it was a slice of reality; so when Nick Romano and his young wife come to a bad end it was heart breaking.

On the other hand The demise of Catherine and Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights seemed more like tragedy for tragedy’s sake; a melodramatic device more than anything else. As a literary classic it is haunting and atmospheric but it’s hero and heroine are non sympathetic and dysfunctional. There was no emotional toll paid although it was a good read. The character of Pip in Great Expectations is actually sympathetic even though Estella isn’t. people usually like to root for the underdog.Rooting for the underdog is also an emotional investment and if the hero doesn’t make it we tend to get upset.

As I mentioned in my opening statement the genre or medium doesn’t matter. You can be emotionally moved by any art form; but are movies really an art form or should they even try to be artistic or are they purely entertainment? Is Michael Bay a good director or merely a successful one; and the same question can be asked about Steven Spielberg. I chose these two directors because I believe that one is not only good but will long be remembered; while the other is merely a popular hack. If you haven’t already guessed My sympathies tend toward Spielberg as the good director and Bay as the hack. when you make a movie a like Empire of the sun you deserve all of the praise that is bestowed upon you. However when you make a live action cartoon with ear splitting decibel levels you don’t deserve anything including a paycheck. I know that the subject matter is not really serious in the Transformers movie, but that doesn’t matter because I was not drawn in. However I don’t know anyone who wasn’t pulled into the original Star wars saga, and cared wether or not Luke Skywalker Princess Leia and Han Solo made it out alive. This to me makes George Lucas a better film maker than Michael Bay. In the hierarchy of film makers Spielberg would be superior to both Lucas and Bay and not just because of subject matter, he has done his fair share of popcorn movies. I would love to see Bay flex his muscles and attempt anything serious.

Not all movies offer positive reinforcement or have rewarding endings. I tend to stay away from negative movies like the Anime classic Grave of the Fireflies, because of past experiences. I’m not saying that Grave of the fireflies is a bad movie; it was just so emotionally draining and heart wrenching, that the emotional toll paid was too much for me to bear. Children are always the most tragic victims of war.

Not all movies that have sad endings are a total loss. Some movies like saving Private Ryan have a sad ending that is palatable or like Sophie’s Choice, understandable. Other movies like Midnight Cowboy and Seven are heavy handed, wretched and depressingly vile. I don’t care if Midnight cowboy did win 3 academy awards I can’t think of any other movie that is less deserving of this award. It won best Director, best picture and best screen adaptation from another medium. Are you S#%&*ing me. 1969 was a year of such great films as Anne of a thousand days, Z, True Grit, The Prime of Miss Jean Brody, Hello Dolly, The Wild Bunch, Easy Rider and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid. All of these films are a thousand times more entertaining and enjoyable than Midnight cowboy. They are high on entertainment value and can be enjoyed again and again without leaving a disgusting aftertaste. I admit that this movie had so disturbed me that since its first viewing I have never watched more than five minutes of this film before turning the channel on my television. The negative emotions I harbor toward this movie negate any value that it might have as either art or entertainment.

Should art be painful just for the sake of shock value, like a Bret Easton Ellis novel; or should it have shock value for a purpose like Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. In the realm of entertainment, apathy or revulsion and melancholy are painful and alienate some of the audience that the art is aimed at. Any art that you can not get some emotional reward from, or at least some sort of understanding is intrinsically worthless as art.

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