Monday, October 27, 2003

What, my art?

Today's Bleat has some interesting things to say about accessibility in art while comparing The Rite of Spring to Night on Bare Mountain, following a viewing of Fantasia.

This got me to thinking about the whole subject of accessibility. Why is it that as soon as something can be understood by the masses it gets the middle or lowbrow tag? While there is certainly much great art that requires work on the part of the viewer, and rightly so, if something can be understood on a more visceral level should it be classified as somehow a lesser achievement.

Lileks describes the experience of hearing Night on Bare Mountain, "'Night on Bare Mountain' - now, that's different. It's less adventurous than 'Rite,' less experimental, more literal and kitschily dramatic. And hence more popular. I don't say that with rolled eyes: of course, the masses love it. They would. No, it's more popular for a reason. If you played 'Rite' for someone in a culture with a completely different musical tradition, it would probably baffle them: what the hell? But play them 'Night' and they'd get it right away: this is scary music. Is it about dragons? If so they are very powerful dragons. Many people die, I think. But it's not just disorder and evil - it's disorder presented in the orderly terms of tonal music. It makes sense. It even has a plot. Plus - and this just occurred to me - it clearly exists in a world in which there is an opposite force to the events we're hearing described. We know what is going on in 'Night' is wrong without being told; you just sense it. 'Rite' has no such moral framework. It's not amoral as much as pre-moral, and in a way that's worse. You don't even have the terms to describe why things are wrong."

I'd be interested in compiling a list of contemporary middlebrow entertainments that could still be considered Art (with a big A). Shakespeare was certainly written to entertain a broad audience, but the language has placed it solidly in the highbrow arena for modern audiences. This is actually true of many classics, that in their own time they may have been intended for a wider audience, but today are the domain of the literati. Does that mean that much of our contemporary popular art will be elevated in the future? There is the middlebrow that is firmly planted in the middle, the Ventriliquists, impersonators, comedy teams etc that have been discussed earlier. But there is also the popular literature that perhaps today is seen as a bit too middlebrow for the Universities to teach or serious critics to give attention. I'm referring to things like books by John Irving and Michael Chabon, musical theater, Coppola or Scorsese movies. Definitely popular entertainments, but of a quality that future generations may look at them differently.

Nominations are welcome.

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