Wednesday, July 6, 2016

My Sock Puppet Show Has Potental To Be More Culturally Significant Than Your Opera.

When I was in seventh grade one of our school librarians (the scary one) implied that the only comic book with any artistic merits was Maus by Art Spiegelman.  Of course she was right to suggest that Spiegelman's opus is a painfully beautiful work.  However, I remember actually rolling my eyes when I realized that she was so narrow minded about such a diverse art form.   

Granted, there are plenty of comic books that are trash.   No one can argue that there aren't plenty of comic book series that portray women as sex objects and revolve around cliche plots with wooden dialogue.  However, one would be able to point to just as many terrible novels, movies, TV shows, works of music and poetry.  Saying that all comic books are about exploiting sex and violence is as closed minded as saying that all TV shows are saccharine sitcoms or all novels are vampire teen romances.  

Many of us try to not be snobbish when it comes to different art forms, but some of us unintentionally (and others intentionally) divided the various mediums into a hierarchy.

Below are some examples of art forms listed from "High Art" and then descending to what is commonly considered "Low Art"













TV shows


Comic Books/Graphic Novels


Comic Strips


Video Games


Puppet Shows


 We could spend the rest of our lives debating the exact order that the above list should be in.  Obviously, it did not include all art forms.  Photography, web design and most forms of music are left out.  However, this more or less gives an overview of the order in which we rank artistic mediums from most to least culturally significant.  

Very often people who prefer "High Art" view comic books and video games with condescension while many who prefer TV and movies don't even bother with opera or ballet because they assume that they won't get anything out of it.

However, for most of my life I have been skeptical of an artistic hierarchy.

And no, it's not just because I grew up reading Calvin and Hobbes.

I have always wanted to ask, "Why would such an artistic class system objectively exist?"

Do supporters of such a hierarchy believe that there are laws of nature that prevent video games from being as spiritually uplifting as the novel Les Miserables or the opera La Boheme?  Do they believe that the human brain processes emotions clearer through some mediums more than others?  What (besides opinions of course) do they believe enforces that one art form will always be superior to another?  That the world's greatest comic book will always be weaker than the world's worst ballet?

Those who believe in such an artistic class structure would probably state that it has to do with accessibility.  When one goes to an opera or a symphony or even many plays they often need to bring extra knowledge with them to fully appreciate the work.  On the other hand if you go to the funny pages it's very easy to "get" that Garfield hates Mondays.

However this argument relies on the assumption that all examples of a medium are equally accessible.  There are tons of examples of films that are nearly impossible to fully interpret.  
 Many non-comic book fans might be surprised to find that there are Graphic Novels that can be a struggle to get through.  One example of this is From Hell by Alan Moore, which is denser than many classic novels I have read.  On the surface it is the story of Jack the Ripper, but it delves into a complex portrait of the various aspects of British society and the endlessly complex history of London.  

And the more you look at the great examples of graphic novels (like Blankets, Persepolis, Black Hole, The Dark Knight Returns and Sandman), the more you realize that From Hell is not a stand alone exception.  We have gotten well beyond the point where calling a work "the best graphic novel of the twenty-first century" should be (but isn't) as much an honor as being the best play or novel or album.    

Someone who believes that some forms of art are "naturally" better than others might argue that some forms of art are simply set at a grander scale.  Operas do tend to have more breathtaking sets and costumes and better trained performers than most sock puppet shows.  Ballets and operas have two to three hours in which to tell a story while comic strips have just a handful of panels.  

However, if we are simply going off of the enormity of a production then My Dinner with Andre and Waiting for Godot would be considered lower forms of art than this movie:

Another common argument for an artistic class system is that the average person could probably list twenty insipid comic strip series, fifty generic television shows and a hundred abominable movies. However, why aren't people able to rattle off titles of insipid, generic and abominable operas?  The assumption is that the world's worst opera is still better than the world's greatest comic strip series.
On the contrary, I am sure that history is littered with horrible examples of "high" art.   Our culture simply doesn't remember them.  I'm sure that an expert in the history of ballet could rattle off at least a few titles that were the ballet equivalent of Batman and Robin.  

We keep getting horrible movies, TV shows and comic book series because things like Sharknado make money.  However, if you're trying to make money for an opera you'd better put on one hell of a show because very few people go to those things for camp value and the returns are often very low for the amount of money put into the production.   

Also, we unintentionally place operas and ballets on a pedestal (while simultaneously complaining that they are boring).  The average person will just assume that an opera is great because it's an opera and will often be more critical of "lower" forms of art.  If operas took the place of movies and had potential to make billions of dollars their "standards" would (ironically) be lowered in order to reach a broader audience.  Then who knows what kinds of operas we would get.

(Full disclosure:  I would see this.)

The whole reason why we have an artistic hierarchy is because of preconceived assumptions about various artistic mediums.  Just because no sock puppet show (that I know of) has ever had as many characters or as complex a plot as War and Peace does not mean that one couldn't theoretically be created.  In all probability, a writer could create a story and script that delves into the themes of love, redemption and the desperate pursuit for survival.  He or she could reference mythology, history, literature and science.  A script could be written that would make us laugh at the cruel ironies of life and weep over its melancholy loss and then the whole thing could be played out with sock puppets.  

Of course many people would find this ridiculous and the artist would be expected to explain why she or he chose sock puppets, but this is only because we have the preconceived expectations that sock puppets are reserved for light, "childish" shows.  The "low" forms of art are often held down because many of us have low expectations of them.

Even today after Maus, Watchmen and Y: The Last Man there are still people who believe that comic books are inherently juvenile or even harmful despite the fact that it is a medium which combines visual art and literature, two things which by themselves are considered "high art."

I truly believe that a masterpiece can emerge out of any medium.  One of the best examples of this is Don Hertzfeldt's works of stick figure animation which possess a clearer window into the human condition than most live action films.

If you have not already seen The World of Tomorrow or It's Such a Beautiful Day I highly recommend them.

The more we look at the artistic hierarchy, the more we see that no medium is automatically superior than any other.  Just because some art forms have produced more masterpieces than others does not mean that these others cannot produce just as many in the future.  The only reason why we don't have just as many emotionally uplifting comic strip series as novels is because we do not set the same expectations for the comic strip medium.  However, we should have those expectations of all art form.   

The best thing for us to do would be to flatten the artistic social class, accept all mediums as equals with their own unique strengths and challenges with equal potential for success. 

This won't just lead to snobs accepting video games and comic strips.  Leveling the hierarchy is a two way street.  If we see all mediums as being equal, then people who would typically avoid operas and ballets would realize that those art forms also have plenty to offer them as well.

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