24 March 2013

Academic Discourse

So here's a thing I learned in early 2009 from the late Professor Jeremy "Sweetwater" Mullins, the "Sweetwater System for Academic Discourse".

In what terms do we talk about art? That's like listening to two fanboys (and for sake of argument, let's call them Joe  and Paul ) argue about which movie was better: Dark Knight Rises or the Avengers.

Joe : The Avengers is the best movie of all time
Paul:  Nuh-Uhh, the Dark Knight Rises is
Joe: The Dark Knight Rises is filled with poo and so's your mom!
Paul: Well, the Avengers is Lame, because people who like Firefly are Lame
Joe: Nuh Uh
Paul: Uh huh
 etc. This conversation isn't going anywhere. on what grounds do we base this?

Isn't art just subjective anyway? 

"I don't know much about Art, but I know what I like."

Oh yeah, well There's no accounting for taste. My favorite movie is "Kung Pow: Enter the Fist".

When critics and scholars speak of comedies, either if it's Shakespeare or the Simpsons: they aren't talking about how funny they are(i.e.: how much they like it personally), but about three different (and variable) factors like:

Profficientcy of Craft
  This is the simpliest measuring stick. Every craft, profession (and sub styles and movements) have their own rules and standards.
  For instance, in Architecture, one of the requirements of a structure is that it's stable, and not liable to fall down in the environment in which it's built, or in auto design, that the car run, and not explode.

There is a little homework involved with applying the rules of the correct school of design.

 "How to Draw Comic Books the Marvel Way" by John Buscema with Stan Lee's name slapped on the cover to sell copies, has a chapter on 'Storytelling'. Which maintains the BEST way to draw comic books is with exaggerated, heroic poses, exciting compositions with large depth of field and plenty of dutch angles !!

 A comic book page that uses dynamic, changing camera angles and compositions doesn't have to be a fight scene, either. Like this David Mazzucchelli page from Daredevil.

  It's a good sample from a great comic book, and if you read through "Daredevil: Born Again" you'll find that it is indeed drawn "the Marvel Way'.

 But that's no the only way to make a comic.Would this Calvin and Hobbes strip really be improved by "the Marvel Way"? No, because Calvin and Hobbes is crafted due to a different set of rules, a different school if you will.

Profundity of Meaning in (and out) of  Context
  In an earlier post, I ranted about the insistence of meaning and depth for 'legitimate' works of art verses sequences designed just for "pure entertainment". 

   Generally artwork has meaning, sometimes this is very literal
  Such as the clear labels on the objects and elements in this March 2013 Stuart Carlson Political Cartoon.

 and often, that meaning is something different, and more universal than the subject matter. Say you're watching "Finding Nemo". And you see a bunch of full grown adults crying.
Here, adults crying.

  "Gosh" thinks you "All these folks are way into Fish".
Here, not so much crying.

Were that the case, all of these viewers would get misty eyed every time they saw an aquarium: "Fiding Nemo" may feature fish: but it's not about fish...more like parent/child relationships and stuff.

 Let's go back to that Political Cartoon...

 ...pretty easy to understand, huh? I mean, the events are common knowledge, I know what the Boy Scouts are, and I'm familiar with the BSA's reputed and disputed tolerance policies. I even know that the Boy Scouts' motto is "Be Prepared", so I get a bit of the wordplay. I can evaluate not only where this cartoon is coming from,  but also if the viewpoint is better expressed than others: a unique observation, rather than a common slogan.

Let's look at a different political illustration, this one from 1909...

 What the hell is exactly going on? Who are these people? It looks like a midget bellhop with a giant dildo is escorting a forest ranger out of a nondescript building while they leave behind a small clone with a cross-dressing fat maid-man. 

  It helps to know that these are specific likenesses to William Loeb, Jr. Theodore Roosevelt and  William Taft.  It also helps to know that in 1909, that Taft succeeded Roosevelt as President of the United States. Knowing about Roosevelts' public image as an outdoorsman helps explain the forest-ranger type outfit, and  his famous "big stick" policies explains why William Loeb is literally carrying a big stick.
  Like Carlson's 'Boy Scouts' gag, the Roosevelt cartoon personifies an event, and through metaphor, gives an opinion on what transacts. For instance, it seems that the editors of Puck think that Roosevelt's relationship with Taft is agreeable, but moreso on Roosevelt's terms, imagine an alternative magazine cover where william Taft is kicking Roosevelt out of the doorway...it changes the meaning.
It helps to do some homework, because simple context of "Who was President of the United States in 1909 and what did he look like", changes the image from  some kind of 'WTF' meme, to an understandable period opinion piece.

Pure Emotional Reaction on the part of the viewer

This isn't about whether the viewer particularly likes the piece, but if it elicits a reaction.
 Along with awe, arousal, laughter, warm fuzzies and excitement, there's also horror, revulsion, sadness, and disgust.

So it's a safe bet that a picture of a bunch of puppies will evoke a reaction.


And a picture of dead babies will definitely evoke an  emotional reaction.

picture not available

Neither Puppies or dead babies alone will make Art with a capital A... but taken alone, neither will well-crafted, but meaningless technical excersise, or a meaningfully clear, but perhaps sterile political observation.

 For Art to take hold, enlighten minds and do all that cool stuff that Art needs to do, stuff's gotta have a combination of all three.

So back to the earlier argument.

   Now, Paul and Joe may still argue about their favorite movies,  but it will be about terms like whether "The Avengers" is a well-crafted action movie according to screen tradition, or if "the Dark Knight Rises" has relevance to the Occupy generation. Is Robert Downey Jr. sillier than Tom Hardy? Does Tom Hardy's silliness run contrary to "Dark Knight Rises"  otherwise serious presentation? Does Chris Evans' seriousness run contrary to "the Avengers" otherwise silly presentation? 

 I doubt this would actually change anybody's mind about their favorite movie,  but Paul may find out stuff about "The Avengers" he hasn't thought about before,  and Joe might agree that although he doesn't like "Dark Knight Rises" personally, that the film does have merit.

 Which is the difference between a whining competition and Academic Discourse.