Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The (f)Utlilty of Art [UPDATE 1]

During a long weekend of camping, I can lose myself in thought about things I don't normally get to think about during work. This weekend, I've been turning over something about art and creation that I read on SA last week. In the thread discussing Inland Empire, someone commented that Lynch's latest movie was nothing more than "masturbation" - a charge I've often seen leveled against art in many forms, be it movies, poems, abstract sculpture, whathaveyou. It's also something wielded in more academic circles (and those Puppeteers who run in such circles have a much better concept of this than I do, to be sure), with the label "academic" or "intellectual masturbation."

This label is something used almost exclusively as an insult, as it was originally used in the SA thread about Inland Empire. But this got me thinking about something near and dear to my heart as a writer, and one working in a creative field: what does "artistic masturbation" mean, and why is it an insult?

Masturbation has a lot of negative connotations, and this post isn't designed to be a discussion of sexuality and whether those connotations are deserved or not, so I'll leave it at that. But it's a selfish, solo action designed (most of the time, I'll grant you) for the pleasure of the person doing the deed. It's for no one else; it's (again, usually) a private affair and one that specifically pleases the individual nature - likes and turn-ons - of the masturbator.

So what is a movie created as "artistic masturbation?" Read the definition again, but instead of imagining some scary guy with his hands down his pants, imagine a painter standing in front of an easel, and replace a couple of sexually charged words. "It's a selfish, solo action designed (most of the time, I'll grant you) for the pleasure of the person doing the deed. It's for no one else; it's (again, usually) a private affair and one that specifically pleases the individual nature - likes and taste - of the artist."

Isn't that what we want from our artists? How many times have we heard the refrain "well, he's sold out. George Lucas sold out with the Star Wars prequels. Billy Corgan sold out when he released the new Smashing Pumpkins album without two key band members. Cormac McCarthy sold out when he went on Oprah to promote "The Road."

So which is it? Do we want artists to create art solely for themselves, or do we want art that "sells out?" This was a conflict I ran into at WizKids quite a bit: what role, if any, did the marketing department play in game design? On one hand, I heard game designers claiming that marketing interfering with the game design process ruined the process, the "purity" of it. On the other hand, if a game failed, it wasn't because of bad design, it was marketing's fault for not selling it correctly - even if marketing raised some serious concerns about the game.

I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the middle, for a multitude of reasons. You may not be "selling out," but you have to pay your bills. You may not be "selling out," but if you're working for a game company, it makes sense to work with marketing to make a game that will sell so you and the fine folks over in marketingland will both continue to work for said game company. Should you write exclusively to pay your bills, or design exclusively to sell? No, because that invites a kind of cynicism that ruins the "spirit" (for lack of a better term) of what you're creating. Something designed only to sell will sell, but it's the Backstreet Boys compared to the Smashing Pumpkins. Seven years later, which would you rather listen to?

And to loop it back to David Lynch, making movies like A Straight Story, Dune and The Elephant Man give him the leverage to make the movies he wants. True artistic "masturbation" is a luxury afforded only by the rich (or the financially sound), the absolutely principled, or those too poor to give a fuck. For the other 95% of us, we have to continue to ride that middle road. But just as the principled and the rich should consider that we're putting food in our mouths when we work, so too should we consider that the principled and the rich are doing what the fuck they want. Neither "sell out" nor "masturbation" should be wielded in weaponlike fashion as they are; both can be compliments, or at least signs of respect.

Update: Roger made an excellent and informative post in the comments worth repeating here, both for context and fact:

    "Intellectual masturbation" is nothing more than a reactionary non-argument against a work of art because the one making the argument can't connect to it. I never listen to those arguments because they are self-affirming prophecies. There is no argument that can counter an "intellectual masturbation" claim.

    The phrase was first coined, incidentally, by Byron when he was first reviewing Keats's poetry. Keats's poetry, to him, was "a sort of mental masturbation" and he thought that Keats was "frigging his Imagination." Byron also referred to Keats as the "self-polluter of the Human Mind." Leon Waldoff argues that Byron was reacting to not only the language of Keats's poetry but to the fact that Keats was trying to rise from his working middle class background and become a leisure class poet like Byron. Not surprisingly, "intellectual" and "mental" masturbation is often an argument reserved for lower class or young upstarts who are trying to enter into the inner sanctum of the art world.

    Ironically, after Byron used the phrase against Keats, it was eventually used against him by reviewers in a literate middle class who was tiring of poetry in general and turning to the form of the novel. Poets started to be labelled as "highly sexual" producing work that did nothing and created desires that were hardly kosher with the increasingly conservative values of the proto-Victorian world. The novel emerged as the literary form for the working bourgeoise and poetry became increasingly marginalized, a process that continues today.

4 comments:

grey_zealot said...

Well stated. And definitely agree with not tossing the term "sell-out" around, and that the audience can't have it both ways.

I'm not an artistic type. My own interests are pretty pedestrian. But, I don't think I'd ever heard "masturbation" used like that! Is it really used that often in the, um, "higher" circles?

grey_zealot said...

Wait a second! BLOGS don't count as any sort of "masturbation" do they?

And, does reading too many blogs make you a "voyeur"??




;) :P

Jason said...

I don't know about "higher" circles (SA isn't exactly ivory tower comedy) but I usually hear the term thrown around when someone is trying to devalue a work of art, and I admit I heard it more in college than anywhere else but I'm not sure if that's just a function of being in college as opposed to being somewhere else.

Roger said...

"Intellectual masturbation" is nothing more than a reactionary non-argument against a work of art because the one making the argument can't connect to it. I never listen to those arguments because they are self-affirming prophecies. There is no argument that can counter an "intellectual masturbation" claim.

The phrase was first coined, incidentally, by Byron when he was first reviewing Keats's poetry. Keats's poetry, to him, was "a sort of mental masturbation" and he thought that Keats was "frigging his Imagination." Byron also referred to Keats as the "self-polluter of the Human Mind." Leon Waldoff argues that Byron was reacting to not only the language of Keats's poetry but to the fact that Keats was trying to rise from his working middle class background and become a leisure class poet like Byron. Not surprisingly, "intellectual" and "mental" masturbation is often an argument reserved for lower class or young upstarts who are trying to enter into the inner sanctum of the art world.

Ironically, after Byron used the phrase against Keats, it was eventually used against him by reviewers in a literate middle class who was tiring of poetry in general and turning to the form of the novel. Poets started to be labelled as "highly sexual" producing work that did nothing and created desires that were hardly kosher with the increasingly conservative values of the proto-Victorian world. The novel emerged as the literary form for the working bourgeoise and poetry became increasingly marginalized, a process that continues today.