Every week, Landon Palmer and Cole Abaius log on to their favorite chat client of 1996 as Raptureness316 and TMal4TheWin in order to discuss some topical topic of interest.
This week, the pair try to avoid being pretentious at all costs while discussion The Tree of Life, dismissive reactions to art we don’t understand or like, and the nature of randomness in creation.
What is art? And what does Hitler have to do with it?
Cole: So the reaction at Cannes to Tree of Life was unsurprisingly mixed, but more than a few people reached deep down in their bag of bad words and pulled out the A-word. Some actually dared to say that the movie wasn’t art.
Instead of making you define art right off the bat, I’ll simply ask you: why do you think that sometimes people have such a violent reaction to things they don’t like?
Landon: I think it’s difficult for people to find value in something that they don’t find meaning in, so a lazy critique is then to denounce the idea that the movie could have any value for somebody else coming away with a different interpretation.
I’d say that the opposite critique, however, is just as lazy – saying people who didn’t like the film”just don’t get it.”
Cole: So we have two sides of the same coin: It’s not art vs You just don’t get it.
Neither of which advances the conversation about movies.
Landon: As the both shut down rather than consider any other possible opinion. Which, oddly enough, defeats the subjective experience that is supposed to define art.
Cole: Since we know that calling Tree of Life (or any movie) non-art is absurd, the real question is why people are calling it that – and it seems to be because it’s “random.” Can something seemingly random be art?
Landon: Absolutely. In fact, I think “randomness” defines a great deal of great art from the paintings of Jackson Pollock to the films of John Cassavetes, because they try to build off the notion that there are things that are best expressed without calculation.
Cole: That there’s something natural that can happen when we shut off our minds and just let our bodies create.
Landon: It’s art that allows you to say something without knowing ahead of time exactly what that is or how you’re going to say it. Though I understand if that gives people the impression that such art has “nothing to say.” Random art is always an experiment. And that experiment can fail.
Cole: That’s the most important distinction, and it’s one I don’t quite understand, especially when the benefit of the doubt is given to the artist. There’s no denying that some people have an emotional response to Pollack or Cassavettes, but when something is random, how can you even tell if it succeeded or failed?
If the artist doesn’t have a goal in mind, how can you tell if he/she reached it? If the goal is simply to be random, isn’t it a self-fulfilling one? If so, why does some random art “work” while some “doesn’t work.”
Landon: In a way I think all of these examples of art are ones in which the reach consistently exceeds the grasp of the artist in that they’re trying to do something beyond cognition. So in a sense, no art of this sort “succeeds” wholly in doing so, because it’s built so much on the particular experience in which one engages in it (one Pollock painting would look different if he chose to do it on a Monday or a Tuesday, same with an improvised scene by Cassavetes). The value, then, might be the process of trying to reach for the stars more so than the result, even though both have value.
But now thinking back on it, for the sake of this particular debate, whether the art itself fails is a less important question than why some people don’t accept that type of art in cinema to the extent of calling it worthless. And I’d like to hear what you think about that.
Cole: It stems from what you just said about going beyond cognition. Even that phrase sounds stuffy and academic. We like art that challenges us, but doesn’t exceed us. So when someone makes something complete abstract (usually because it’s supposed to be an act of “pure creation”), it becomes ungraspable (no, you just don’t get it), and art that’s not understandable is art that doesn’t work for people.
In that sense, it’s scary because people who don’t get anything from it might fear that they SHOULD be getting something from it, and that they’re somehow flawed for not. That’s why you see people react strongly to it either to denounce it or claim that it was sheer genius and that they totally, definitely “got it.”
On the other hand, there’s the Emperor’s New Clothes effect that comes with this type of art, fine wine, and paintings done by elephants. We want to believe we can touch Heaven, but oftentimes we can’t tell the Two Buck Chuck from the Chateau Mouton-Rothschild Jeroboam, which means a filmmaker can easily mimic something profound without having to create anything profound, and an audience might still lap it up.
Please make me stop talking now.
Landon: So how do we know if the piece of art, or the artist him/herself, is genuine or sincere?
Cole: Ask him if he can sympathize with Hitler.
Landon: Haha, so THAT’S why Malick is such a recluse.
But that has a lot to do with the “pretentious” debate which I think is what’s at the center of what we’re talking about. It’s a dog-chasing-tail kind of debate because in all art that has these types of ambitions, the artist possesses some pretense. They have to.
And I don’t necessarily mean that in an insincere sense, but in the fact that the artist assumes something can be accomplished through the medium in which they work.
Cole: To pick up a camera is to presume.
Landon: Exactly My favorite thing about abstract art is that it’s not abstract at all, it simply reveals things for what they are. Pollock’s paintings are paint on a canvas, not a false representation of reality.
Cole: But “pretentious” is its own genre. The “poignant film” has so many of its own tropes that it’s 1) easily identifiable and 2) easily mockable.
Landon: I would say that’s true.
Cole: I think what people, including (oftentimes) me, react so strongly to is when someone presumes to make something profound and deeply humane. Filmmakers don’t necessarily have the ease of medium that comes with paint on canvas – they have to represent something. The “it’s just people and things on a screen” argument wears thin when you have to spend 2 hours looking at it.
That’s why no one has ever seen the entirety of Sleep, not even Andy Warhol. Maybe his mother, but you know how they are.
Landon: And I do think filmmakers who try to achieve something more transcendent with their work, like Malick or Bela Tarr for example, should be held to a different (i.e., higher) standard. Because you’re right; there has developed some repeated aesthetic codes for what constitutes art cinema. But art cinema, in of itself, is not automatically profound.
Cole: That’s what makes it exciting and scary and challenging.
And perhaps why people tend to bristle when those tropes are repeated. If art cinema is supposed to be pure expression or something new or something beyond cognition, it seems like a naked Emperor walking around the town square when it features the elements every other arthouse director uses.
Landon: But that’s a far better criticism than saying it’s not art.
Cole: Which leads us to another, more honest critique phrase: I’ve seen it done before, and I’ve seen it done better.
At least it leaves the door open for conversation, and that’s the bottom line. Speaking of conversations, you and I never plan these out at all (something that the readers must realize while scratching their heads). How did we do as an act of pure, transcendent expression? Is this column art in its most raw sense?
Landon: I would tell you, but it’s impossible to express how I feel about it in words. Just know that I’m doing an interpretive dance at the moment.
Cole: I’ve been releasing bodily fluids onto a canvas this entire time.
Oddly enough, they chaotically came together to make the Face of God. Do you think that means the world’s going to end tomorrow?
Landon: If it doesn’t, I have some real groveling to do at my job on Monday.
Cole: Same here, and I still don’t get what art has to do with Hitler, except that he was bad at it. Which, and I know we’re trying to wrap up here, leads me to one last point about “poignant art.” I personally judge art partially by technical skill, and with a lot of “poignant art,” it’s difficult to assess the level of technical skill.
As a simple caveman, that frightens and confuses me.
Landon: I guess I judge a lot of art by what it attempts to do rather than what it accomplishes, and I think art that divides people can never be a bad thing, even if they have a hard time having a conversation about it.
Cole: Either way, I can’t wait to see Tree of Life and call it “good, but not great.”
Landon: That’s so punk rock.
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