Tuesday, September 24, 2013

After Dark, September 24, 2013

Pernicious Art
When art is not bad - just wrong
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

When I began to be conscious of feminist theory, I was still a big fan of Brian de Palma. However, when I saw his film Body Double and began to examine the oeuvre of the man, I realized he didn't like women very much. His much-praised Casualties of War was, for me, simply a relentless, entertainment-value depiction of a woman's torture, rape and murder not a necessary depiction of the horrors of war.

It was de Palma that got me to thinking about the concept of pernicious art. I know the very idea will raise hackles of many readers... so, come with me to my recent (and first) viewing of DW Griffiths' Birth of a Nation (BOAN).

I watched the film because everyone said I should, despite its controversial nature. So I tried to watch as two people: the leftwing crank and the appreciator of craft. The latter was told that modern film was born with the work - crossfades, multiple storylines, yadda yadda yadda - but this discussion seems to forget that many of the storytelling techniques film historians find innovative were simply iterations of emerging techniques of theatre; Ibsen's Peer Gynt and Wagner's Ring Cycle spring immediately to mind. So, no, I am not impressed by Griffiths' historic art. 

The KKK are good guys and Northern blacks and "Mulattos" are slimey.

I am, however, impressed by Griffiths' sure hand when it comes to his story: how can you not be impressed by his provocative and inflammatory political agenda rendered as an action melodrama. Because that's what it is: revisionist propoganda. There are the happy pickaninnies working for the slave owners, and then there are, as one of those happy pickaninnies (an actress in blackface) calls them,"Dem free-niggers f'um de N'of" and, she adds, they "am sho' crazy." The KKK are good guys and Northern blacks and "Mulattoes" are slimy. In passing...no white woman (including "America's Sweetheart" Lillian Gish) is safe.

What makes BOAN particularly horrifying is that the Civil War memories it evokes were actually perversions of life experiences of people still alive! 1915, when it came out, was a mere 50 years after the era. Imagine if, now, someone decided to make a serious - even "genius" film - about the heroism of the Einsatzgruppen. 

This, for me, is pernicious art - works arguably well-crafted which allow you to ignore their moral failings: the joyful night-riders of BOAN; the pornographic detail of a woman killed by an industrial drill in Body Double; the sensational use of light and shadow during Hitler's speeches in Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will.

Finally, what has to be asked about art is "What is its agenda?"

Present day popular culture has its own share of morally dubious content that many intelligent folk watch "ironically": Toddlers and Tiaras, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo - where, basically, future meth-whores are tottered out in high-heels. How about fashion photography - an art form in itself - and the development of the Heroine Chic look, or the hyper-sexualization of teenagers as models got younger and younger. (This is just one example.) 

And what about the art of Quentin Tarantino? Or, rather, his retellings of history, where the real violence of oppression is used as an excuse for a fantastical and bloody revenge drama? 

In the last two paragraphs, clearly, I am playing devils advocate but I do have to thank BOAN for sending my thoughts in 50 directions, every one of which tested my own ideas about art and current culture.

Finally, what has to be asked about art is "What is its agenda?" What sets Birth of a Nation, Toddlers and Tiaras and Heroine Chic fashion photography aside from the merely controversial may be that the works either have a political agenda that is abhorrent (read: retrograde) or, worse, that is mercantile. For all its historic value Birth of a Nation, with its relentless racism, is no more a wondrous thing than the worst works of Leni Riefstenstahl and to try to skip over its political agenda and consider it just for its cinematographic historicity is to be that worst of things in all considerations of art: disingenuous. 

1 comment:

  1. How about all the Western films and theatre plays that depict Native Americans as screaming savages standing in the way of civilization? The white man invaded their land, created perhaps the greatest genocide in history, then made art about how we were the heroes and the “redskin” was either drunk, or blood thirsty and had to be exterminated.

    As the saying goes, “History is written by the victors.” So is a lot of art.


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