Expecting more from art


I sometimes struggle to “get” art. I seem to prefer modern or contemporary art museums where the message of the artwork is so blatant that even a complete dunce cannot fail to grasp it. Jasper Johns’ Flag forces me to think about America itself: the duality between the conception of the United States as a nation and as a confederacy of states; the fact that the states, like Johns’ painted stars, are nominally identical but in practice irregular and different from one another; and the context that surrounded the painting itself: the rise of McCarthyism, the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, and the end of a hot war and the inception of a cold one. With Monet’s Water Lilies, on the other hand, all that springs to mind is how I’d like to be transported away from this sterile and cold art gallery to a summer day in Switzerland, sitting on the edge of a lake and watching the sky ripple before me. Perhaps my weakness is my literalism and lack of aesthetic sense – I want the subtext to be text, and I’m somewhat frustrated when it is not.

Art in the age of Trump, though, has (perhaps) the opposite problem. There is too much text and not enough subtext. Everything is blatant, exaggerated, “bigly”. As the real world edges into satire, what room is left for art? And as the “democratization” of art proceeds apace – as everyone with a Youtube channel, Instagram feed, Twitter account, and Tumblr blog floods the internet with “art” – how do artists distinguish themselves and produce something truly meaningful and vital?

Particularly in the arena of comedy, I’m frustrated with much of the art world’s response to politics today. And it’s not because the content is bad, necessarily. Twitter is a perfect platform for brilliant comics like Kumail Nanjiani and witty millennial journalists at Vox and Buzzfeed and other places to unload their one-liners on the world. (For instance, “A man who boasted about sexual assault is currently escalating hostilities with a nuclear power. I mean how what why is this happening?!?!?”) SNL is having a banner year. The resurgence of late night comedy (and, speaking of which, thank god Leno is gone) – is a welcome sight when “real” journalists often seem to have abdicated their responsibilities.

But I suppose my frustration stems from the fact that the targets are too easy now, that these comics are wasting their talents pointing out obvious hypocrisy and facile incongruities. There’s a deeper rot in America, something that no number of pee-pee jokes and small hands jibes will address. I think Emily Nussbaum hints at the trouble in her article, “Wanting More from Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show””:

The truth is, hosting a late-night network talk show is a bit like planning a wedding. Even if you dress in jeggings and say your vows in Klingon, your anti-wedding is still a wedding: the shape dictates the content. Colbert has grown more confident in his role, and he’s a better option than Fallon: sharper and more grownup, less of a flack and more of a thinker. But that’s a low bar for praise.

Maybe it’s unfair to expect more “Colbert” from Colbert. There are nights when he’s still a marksman, nailing the day’s hypocrisies. But, in 2017, it doesn’t seem outrageous to long for a talk-show host famed for his ethical clarity to deliver something tougher: comedy more like reporting and less like op-ed. Peers of Colbert’s—many of them “Daily Show” alumni—have been doing just that, on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” and “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” as well as on the surprisingly aggressive and likable “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”

If the medium does indeed inform the message, then perhaps my complaints about political satire’s message are truly an indictment of the medium. I’m no longer satisfied with 140 character tweets and stale monologues in front of a studio audience. There are – there have to be – more authentic and truer ways of expression, of cutting out the rot of Trump’s America instead of merely scratching at its surface.

I don’t know much about art history, but I imagine this is why modern and contemporary art experienced such a proliferation of artforms. When I visit the Met, the period of art and the medium of the artist seem to be inseparable: the ancient Greeks did sculptures, the Ming dynasty porcelains, the impressionists paintings. But when I visit MOMA or contemporary art museums, there is no longer a defining medium. In the modern age, art can be anything, from a crucifix submerged in a jar of piss to Photoshop-created art that you can buy on Etsy and assemble yourself, before it all falls to pieces.

In fact, it was Colbert’s innovations in political satire that drew me to him in the first place. Jon Stewart pioneered the “Daily Show” genre of comedy that has been perfected by comics such as Samantha Bee and Seth Meyers. Stewart would play a clip of one of the lickspittles on Fox or one of the dunces in the Bush administration, and he would then eviscerate them with a well-constructed montage of their past statements, dug up by his team of crack researchers on the video version of LexisNexis. But it was perhaps Stewart’s success in carving out this niche that forced Colbert to find his own. The true genius of the Colbert Report was when Colbert didn’t simply critique politics or media as an external observer, but when he participated in politics, and embodied the critique. I’m reminded of when Colbert started his own SuperPac, with the help of the campaign finance lawyer Trevor Potter, or of when Colbert hosted the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, and roasted Bush while standing 5 feet away from him (“Everybody asks for personnel changes. So the White House has personnel changes. Then you write, “Oh, they’re just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” First of all, that is a terrible metaphor. This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!”), or when Colbert ran for president (sponsored by Doritos!), and the Democratic Party of South Carolina denied him a place on the ballot even though he was less of a joke than, say, Mike Gravel. As a Late Show host, however, “the shape dictates the content”, and he doesn’t have the ability to be nearly as experimental and edgy, and hence as funny or important.

But others can be. I particularly like Vic Berger, a sort of genius of video surrealism. Adrien Chen at The New Yorker explains his shtick well:

A graduate of Berklee College of Music, Berger started out by making music videos. He already had a habit of picking out unsettling moments in television and movies. “I’ve always had an eye to see the bizarre, always found it fascinating,” he told the podcaster Noah Lampert. Berger’s passion for weirdness apparently gives him a superhuman endurance for sifting through the boring to find it. His favorite technique is to isolate a tiny moment amid hours of video and work it over until it bulges with unsettling significance. “I boil down the candidates almost to their essence, in a way,” he told CNN. A fleeting expression of confusion passing over Marco Rubio’s face during a debate is digitally zoomed and repeated until it becomes a window into the emptiness of his soul. Jeb Bush peers over the shoulders of schoolchildren who are sitting at computers; the clip is looped to the sound of smacking lips, evoking the xenomorph stalking its prey, in the film “Alien.” Donald Trump opens and closes his fist for no reason. “Isn’t that nice?” he says to wild cheers. A Jeb Bush campaign-trail meet-and-greet abruptly climaxes in a flash of red, accompanied by low-pitched moans, as a voter’s face transforms into a mask of insane obsession. Three-hour debates are compressed into minute-and-a-half melodramas, in which Donald Trump repeatedly bullies his opponents into a collective punch-drunk daze to an infernal chorus of airhorns and chants of “Trump.”

Berger hones in on something that more conventional comedy, from Colbert to Twitter, has lost sight of: politics now is deeply weird and “unsettling”. I remember watching the 2012 debates with a friend. We’d buy a sixpack (or two), and drink whenever one of the candidates invoked Reagan or Tip O’Neill or talked about “job creators” or Benghazi. Those were the days of Obama and Romney, two staid and relatively boring politicians who operated within the confines of conventional politics. Sure, there was plenty of weirdness in Republican primary debates, but it didn’t seem all-consuming. Fast-forward to 2016, and I remember watching Trump’s first speech on CSPAN, where he announced his campaign for president. The weirdness began almost immediately, the moment the escalator transported him down from the mezzanine to the lobby at Trump Tower. The oddity wasn’t so much what he said – hating on Mexicans has been a staple of Republican politics for many years now – but how theatrical and nonsensical and postmodern and stream-of-consciousness-y it all was, and still is.

I have a friend who grew up in the same suburb of Arizona as I did, and was immersed in the same Republican nonsense politics that I was. But, unlike me, he’s a talented filmmaker and producer, and I think that, as far as conveying the true bizarreness of Arizona, his medium is far more suitable than my (humble) blog is. He sent me a video he produced (which I hope he finishes and publishes at some point). It’s a mashup of some of the truly bizarre moments in recent Arizona politics, from Jan Brewer’s apparent amnesia at the governor’s debate (during her opening statement, amazingly), to a fan club for disgraced governor Evan Mecham, which was run by a child molester. I quite liked the narration at the end of the video, about the Grand Canyon: “But if simple storytelling could adequately describe this geological wonder, it might begin like this: once upon a time, there was a slow, patient river.” It reminded me of the timescales in politics and life and art; how slow-moving currents in politics can carve deep channels, and how, conversely, the grand sweep of events somehow becomes clearer when radically compressed. This is what I find beautiful about art, and why its power fills me with awe: it’s that a 3-minute mashup can capture the essence of a 3-hour debate, or a 6-month-long primary campaign, and that an 11-minute video can spin out so elegantly the epic, ignominious tale of politics in my home state.


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