And Another Thing

by Andrew Baker

When TNC first approached me about doing this, I knew I was going to say yes, but I really had no idea how the week would go. All things considered, I'm really pleased. I knew from the start that mine was not going to be the most accessible topic for all readers, but I tried my best to make things interesting and to keep the topics related but diverse. My hope going in was that my contribution would help to foster some good conversation down below, and I was very pleased when it did. I wanted to be more responsive to comments, but the week has been more hectic than I had anticipated, and I regret that my contribution to expanding the discussion has been borderline nonexistent. Now that we're at the end of the week, I want to try to follow up on at least a couple of things that some of you had said.

From the Cloisters post on Monday, muckelba had the following to say:

Since I'm reading the post as distinguishing between "art that's made for the work itself" and "art that's made in order to garner attention/fame," I'm curious whether or not we might want to complicate that distinction. That is, might we be able to read the "attention/fame" as simply a different (and perhaps more expansive) style of art. Not just a social, self-centered add-on to the work itself, but a shift of focus onto the cultivation of self, such that "the work" is as much about creating a persona for the "artist" as it is about the resulting "object." Hence, the fact that...say Warhol's paintings leave one "cold" might be because Warhol's paintings were merely part of the process of artistically creating something larger: a persona or character of "the artist."


While I talk about celebrity as a motivating force, I didn't intend for that to be the primary distinguishing factor between the groups I was discussing. My real point, or what I intended to be my real point, had more to do with celebrity being less of a motivator and more of a consolation prize. What I think most artists of ambition still want is to make something like an indelible mark, but we've come of age during a time when everything is either disposable or in the process of being made obsolete. Warhol, and all of the pop-philosophy for which he's credited, is a product of that and of the conceptual lineage of Marcel Duchamp, but I'm not sure to what degree artists are still following his example or even thinking about it. Although denying the lingering effect would be silly. Still, I'm more persuaded by the idea that we're just a few generations deeper into the crisis of our own stifling obsolescence, and that, starved for some recognition of self worth, we've lost sight of the greatness of art's potential or our ability to tap into it, determining instead, that it's best to consider ourselves lucky to grab from the lowest of the hanging fruit.In the second Moving Pictures post, the one in which I talked about Frederic Church's Heart of the Andes, a number of people drew a parallel I had, perhaps to the post's detriment, intentionally omitted. abk1985:

On a contemporary level, people who found the canvas vertiginous and sublime are probably the same who felt that way about Avatar.


A point repeated by cynic:

...almost all the same tropes were recycled in the public reception of Avatar—a record-setting, expectation-defying blockbuster in its own right, and the lineal heir to Church's Heart of the Andes.


It will probably come as no surprise that I had considered this comparison already. Not only does the presentation—a darkened room with an audience of viewers sat, entranced by the glowing light reflecting off of a big rectangle some distance away—seem to directly presage modern cinema 50 or 60 years ahead of time, there are distinct similarities in the language used to describe the effects purportedly caused by the Church and those attributed to 3-D films like Avatar. I had actually written a good amount on the subject for that post. Indeed, it was a major factor in the original conceptualization of the week and the choice to follow that piece with the bit on artists in film from yesterday, but for a number of reasons, I decided to cut it and replace it with the Lehrer/Stravinsky bit.

It's not that I don't believe it's an interesting discussion to have, but the similarities seem almost misleading to me, and I decided that I'm just not prepared to draw that conclusion, even when it seems so obvious on its face. Despite the similarities, I'm just not convinced the same words are being used to describe the same physiological response. More than that, I sort of suspect that they aren't. But when I attempted an explanation as to why, it turned into a convoluted tangent that, in the end, still wasn't very convincing. But my inability to frame a convincing argument didn't lead me to the conclusion that I was wrong. I freely admit that I may be wrong, but I feel as though I'm right about this, that we're talking about two distinctly different types of response. I'm just not sure I can persuade anybody else to feel that way, so I dropped that bit and went with the Lehrer which, ironically, I suspect has more in common Avatar than either have with Heart of the Andes.

Maybe it was a mistake on my part, but I was also wary of spending too much time and effort trying to draw an ultimately unconvincing distinction between the effect caused by a work of art and that caused by a new film technology. That's the sort of thing that leads people to infer that I don't respect film as art, which just isn't the case at all. But rather than leave that hanging out there, or preface anything with an obligatory, "I really like film, but..." I decided the post would be better served by a subtle tipping of the hat to the theatricality of the presentation of the Church and quickly moving on. Whether or not it was a good idea, I wanted to give some insight as to the though process that led me there.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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