“I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.”
That may seem like an odd statement for a critic to make. We’re somehow supposed to be above everyone else, full of knowledge of every “important” piece of media from Shakespeare and Tolstoy to the Beatles and Picasso. Is my opinion less important because I don’t see Romeo And Juliet or “Bohemian Rhapsody” as the greatest works ever? That I prefer Jules Verne over H.G. Wells (although I do like The War Of The Worlds)? Or that I don’t agree with what this or that media format “should” be?
That word: “should”. It’s a word I feel is horribly misused by critics and the critical. “Should be allowed” I could deal with, or “it should be this for me to enjoy it”. However, it gets used more like “this should be what I think it should be or it isn’t art, and thus shouldn’t exist because it’s taking space away from what I think it should be”. This is the usage of a close-minded, almost snobbish if not full-on snob, perspective on what media should and shouldn’t be, which means if you want to create something that doesn’t match this criteria, regardless of the quality of the performance, writing, or talent on display, these people want nothing to do with it and will not only rob themselves of a more relaxed experience but would rob you of it as well, whether you like it or not. Let me give you the three examples I tend to see most often in discussions.
“Science Fiction should be about examining the human condition.”
Science fiction is an amazing genre for two reasons. The first is the ability to play in other genres. War stories, comedies, action pictures, romance (although I have yet to hear about a pure romance sci-fi story; the best I’ve heard of is subplots, fanfic, or porn)–they all can be told within the science fiction genre and outside of gear or aliens are still the alternate genre.
The other is the ability to (done right, anyway) stealthily explore the human condition or make a social/political statement. Star Trek is often referred to as a morality play in space, and although some episodes are heavy-handed some are sneaky in pushing their message. The re-imagined Battlestar Galactica has fans who praise its more realistic portrayal of war and people while the original was an analog of a spiritual journey based on the creator’s Mormon beliefs as 70s family-friendly TV would allow. Many a science fiction writer explores humanity through robots or aliens, or sometimes even other humans in strange environments that push them to become something other than how they started. Since it takes place in the future or an alien planet science fiction can explore things other genres can’t (although fantasy could try if it wanted to) by being just shy of the real world, coming off less preachy–depending on the author or director.
And yet you have people who will complain if sci-fi (which for this group is less shorthand and more “righteous” insult) doesn’t explore humanity it somehow isn’t living up to its potential. They’ll push the original Godzilla for its anti-nuke message and serious examination of humans under attack from a giant monster than the later, sometimes goofy (depending on the movie) tales where Godzilla fights other monsters, either to protect Japan, defend his turf, or because it’s standing in his way. And yet it’s the latter than made it an international hit and sometime I grew up with.
Or look at something like Star Wars. While you have people who try to emulate being a Jedi or wondering how to make a lightsaber work in real life, most people just watch the movies for fun characters and awesome space battles. And yet they may still enjoy Star Trek’s morality plays and shun J. J. Abrams’ rendition of Roddenberry’s creation because it’s more action oriented. In fact I saw reviews saying Abrams was better suited for Star Wars over Star Trek and guess what his next movie is going to be? Star Wars: The Force Awakened.
Some days you’re more in the mood for Harlan Ellison or Isaac Asimov. I never cared for Ellison but I like Asimov’s stuff. And yet sometimes you’re more interested in Transformers or Jayce And The Wheeled Warriors (we’ll discussed licensed shows and sci-fi another time) or some cheap B-Movie from the 1950s. Sometimes you want thoughtful solutions and deep examinations of life, and sometimes you just want to see @#$# get blown up. Science fiction CAN explore humanity in a way no other genre can, but that doesn’t mean it’s somehow less of a science fiction product just because they want to see cool spaceships and fantastic weapons. Sci-fi can also create things no other genre (except maybe fantasy) can.
Music (and other forms of art) should come from pain and emotions.
Ah, music. The universal language. (Especially songs you can’t even understand if you’re a native speaker.) It can convey emotions like no other form of media. Even instrumentals, with no lyrics, can convey the emotion the composer is going for, which makes it so important when it comes to movies, television shows, and audio dramas. A proper group of songs can make for a great movie soundtrack, or the soundtrack of our personal lives.
The comment for this section is something I’ve seen in other art styles as well, for example paintings. That art comes from passion and passion comes from either lust/love or pain and suffering. Only from the stronger emotions can one get true art or true music. I say that’s bull maneuver. Pain and lust are not the only emotions of the human race and thank God for that. What about having fun? What about being silly? What about hanging out with your friends or dancing in a club. Why are happy emotions excluded from art or music nowadays? There is never a day I want to sit and listen to a song about some guy in a car accident sitting next to his wife’s corpse and hoping to be good enough for heaven so he can see her again. I appear to be the only person on the planet who hates Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” although I like plenty of their other songs, and K.D. Lang’s “Constant Craving” makes me want to plug my ears with cement. I don’t listen to music to be depressed, although I can point to songs I enjoy more when I’m sad because they speak to me (Hanson’s “With You In Your Dreams” has taken on a different meaning since losing my mom and grandfather, my last grandparent, this year), yet there are people who would tell me I’m wrong and that only in pain is there music or only in lust is there art.
I will never be the guy who says “this shouldn’t exist” unless it pushes past the boundaries of good taste or against the laws of God and man. If it isn’t to my liking, then I don’t play the game, watch the movie, read the book, or listen to the song. To tell me that a song about a guy chilling with his friends is somehow less of a song than singing about couples getting by tough times on their love (by the way, not just both Alan Jackson songs, but off of the same album) is wrong. Music, like everything else I’m discussing here, should reflect what’s on the writer/composer’s mind at the time. If that is a tribute to a lost friend, emotional heartache, a connection to family or God, or getting payback on a cheating lover, that’s fine and some of my favorite songs fall into those categories. However, if it’s a relaxing song about doing nothing, a dance song about partying the night away or just feeling good about life, or just some silly novelty song they are no less likely to come from the heart. If you’re in a good and happy mood, you have just as much right to be an artist as someone having a bad day.
Comedy should provoke and offend.
This is one I’ve been hearing a lot of lately and why this went from an art discussion to complaining about the misuse of “should”. Comedy has one purpose and one purpose only: to make us laugh. We need laughter. It breaks up a tense situation, gives us stress relief, or just makes us happy. (Remember when we were allowed to be happy as a species?) In the commentaries I’ve been seeing lately on the subject a comment by George Carlin that all comedy comes from pain gets brought up. I don’t know if that’s completely true, but at the very least a large part of it is. Comedy becomes a defense mechanism to laugh at all the problems, both major and minor, that come along in our lives. It also leads to the “provoke and offend” line above, which also seems to come up in these commentaries.
I find that funny considering how many people take pop shots at Jeff Dunham, a stand-up comic/ventriloquist who seems to offend quite a few people, usually of the liberal persuasion. Most of the vile against him seems to come from Achmed the Dead Terrorist, a suicide bomber who seems to have lost his brains with his body…if he ever had them. The puppet is criticized for being offensive to Muslims or Arabs…and yet he brought the puppet out to a group of Arabs (I don’t know if they were Muslim) and unless there was some clever editing in the world tour video, Dunham not only survived the performance but the audience found him hilarious.
On the other hand there’s Uncle Yo, a geek comic who frequents conventions, including ConnectiCon, who also slips in some social/political commentary, maybe more intentionally than Dunham. However, he’s more on the liberal side. And yet we get along when we see each other at ConnectiCon and I’m sorry I missed him this year thanks to the scheduling issues I was having (among other problems). A number of online comedians, both among the reviewer community or gag videos, also take shots at conservatives and conservatism, as well as Republicans who may or may not be conservative but they’ll call them that anyway. I roll my eyes and laugh at the rest of their act because I find them funny or interesting. And I’ll even admit some of it makes sense whether I agree with it or not, or if they actually do strike a cord with me. Comedy, much like science fiction, has the ability to explore the human condition in ways other media cannot.
My problem isn’t that comedy can and often does provoke, sometimes on purpose and sometimes just because the person with an opposing viewpoint offends easily. If you want to make a statement or want to parody a stereotype for fun, go for it. The problem is, again, the word “should”. That comedy should provoke, that it should make you think, that it should offend others. If they say comedy shouldn’t be afraid to provoke and offend, that it should be allowed to make you think, this commentary would be a section shorter. I don’t think any comic should have the intention of offending anyone. It tells a portion of your potential audience that you aren’t wanted here, that your unwelcome at “our” performance and you should just leave until you think like us. While my social, political, and spiritual beliefs are obvious and I don’t shy away from it, I would never in my work go out of my way to make someone who doesn’t agree with me feel unwelcome on this site, watching my videos, or reading my comic. I won’t shy away from making a Obamacare joke if it comes up. I won’t be afraid to say something worried I’d offend someone unless it sounded THAT offensive to me, intentionally or otherwise. I want to make you think. I want to give another perspective, whether it’s defending Cy-Kill as a better evil leader than Megatron, superhero marriages, or that Christian media can be just as good as any other despite a religious message. I want my voice heard on whatever it is that matters to me regardless of the level of interest I have. So does anyone else who opened a WordPress or Tumblr account and started writing stuff.
But what if the comedian just wants to help you forget your troubles. Like our music examples, comedy used to be just fine making us happy or putting us in a better mood than we were before the performance started. Can comedy make a statement and do it well? Yes. Should it be allowed to? Yes. Should it be afraid to offend? No. But shouldn’t it also be allowed to just make us relax, to make our troubles seem less of the world ending, that someone else is dealing with the problems of raising children or dealing with bosses or that jerk at the store/fast food counter? Shouldn’t it also be allowed to help us forget about the latest world crisis or political campaign and just give our minds, and our stress levels, a time to not so much be “shut off” but relax and recharge so we can tackle the problems of life from a fresh start?
Is media really any less special if all it does is entertain and relax us? And shouldn’t the listener/viewer/audience member get to decide what experience they have when they push “play” or enter a theater? Here’s a “should” for you. You should be allowed to have whatever experience you want in your media. And so should the rest of us.