I have recently engaged in several arguments with a few people over the values of art. Some have complained about why I would waste time on blogs The Snyder Cut and some have told me they think Shakespeare has no value. Both viewpoints are silly. Now, most people will concede the importance of art for entertainment purposes in their own lives, and maybe for having a message so long as it is entertaining and the message is clear, again in their own life. But art, in almost any form, has far more important functions than just the personal entertainment aspect, it is, as Faulkner put it “It [creating art] is his [the artist’s] privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.” (Faulkner was talking specifically about literature, but I don’t think he would disagree with having his words applied to all the arts). Specifically, in the context of this blog, art serves to aid in both an understanding of ethics, politics, and philosophy in life.
Art is important for both political and spiritual reasons. Why? Because ideas have consequences. Major ones. And the single most efficient way to convey ideas is through art. High brow or low, it doesn’t really matter. Art is ideas, and ideas have consequences. So, caring about even movies and books you would like to dismiss as silly or trite is an important issue in life. But this brings up a few issues. What is the purpose of art? What makes good art? How deep should we dig with a work of art? And finally, why it’s important to look at art as more than just mindless entertainment but rather as a tool for the mind.
Let’s first deal with what the purpose of art is.
The Purpose of Art
As far as I can figure out there are three purposes to good art.
The first is catharsis. The second is what I can only call the ethical or mythic purpose. The third purpose is the philosophical. I will get into exactly what each of these is in a second but I would say that there are many good works of art that exhibit at least one of these purposes, there are a good portion of works that demonstrate two of these, and of course, the rarest of all are the works that can fulfill all three purposes. (And then there is, of course, the question of how well they fulfilled all of these, but we’ll get to that later).
The first purpose is catharsis. Catharsis is a psychological reaction to art that requires an emotional response. We smile. We grip the armrest in anticipation. We laugh. We cry. We scream in fright. We cheer and applaud. We have a strong emotional reaction. In other words, we’re entertained. There is a release of emotion. I dare you to find me a competent piece of art that doesn’t spark some kind of positive emotion. I say this because disgust and revulsions are not catharsis, even though they are the only sane reactions to most works of modern “art” (I use the word very loosely in this case). We may be angry at some movies or books, but if it is righteous indignation then it is a correct recognition to injustice and helps to stoke this virtue in the right sort of way. But emotions like revulsion or disgust are not as psychologically healthy as laughing and crying, and even sometimes anger, are. I would say that any work of art (music, books, film, paintings) should have to meet this requirement or it’s not really art. For instance, a novel that is long-winded and boring, has dull characters, and no enjoyment isn’t art—it’s a waste of paper, no matter what any intelligentsia hack critic says. If it is not taping into the emotions, at the bare minimum if it is not entertaining, then it is not art.
Art that simply covers this area of enjoyment would be the meaningless pop music we listen to, the quickly forgotten sitcoms and action films we see, and the cheesy romance novels some people read. Anything put out by Marvel would be a good example of this; it has no depth, no real insight in characters or society, no grand questions of life, but it is entertaining. And for what it is, that’s fine (but as we’ll get to later, it doesn’t mean that it only impacts is at the entertainment level.)
The second purpose provides a set of clear and simple rules for people and society to live by—ethical guidelines to follow. I call this also the mythic purpose as much of mythology wasn’t so much to explain the workings of the universe, it was to provide examples of archetypal heroism, the standards of ethics of how we should all live our lives. What is right and what is wrong. How should we act and who should we put up as a moral model. The ancients had Achilles, Odysseus, and Theseus. Nowadays we have Superman, Emma Swan, and Frodo. Just because I call this the 2nd level doesn’t mean it’s necessarily more sophisticated than the first level (there are some comedies that serve no purpose other than entertainment that are much more complex and sophisticated than a comic book which does serve the 2nd level purpose). At its best this type of art raises questions about what is right and leaves you for quite a long time in a gray area before offering you any resolution or answer, forcing you to take the chance to think for yourself about ethics and morality—hopefully a habit you use after you have left the work of art behind. And when it forces this self-reflection art begins to move into the third level.
The third purpose is the philosophic purpose. Literature has a habit of raising questions not just of ethics (and by extension politics) but also questions of metaphysics (Revolver, City of Angels, Winter’s Tale), epistemology (Inception and The Matrix), and aesthetics (Portrait of Jenny and more poems than I care to list). The Grand Big Esoteric questions that reality and life are based on. And it’s not just in movies. Go look at Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam,” it’s not a coincidence that God, the divine intellect, is depicted with a robe that is flowing in the shape of a brain. Might not seem like much now, but in a day when biology and anatomy were on questionable legal ground showing the brain as the seat of intelligence is a heavy philosophical point.
In this respect, Art can make us ponder the meaning and definition of existence and life. What is it all about? (Again, just because it tries to ask big questions doesn’t mean it’s any good…look at any piece of crap directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, a man who should be legally barred from ever getting near a camera).
So yeah maybe all movies aren’t that third level of philosophical genius (but really how often do we get that?), but, still, they are relevant. Why? Well for two reasons. First no one is ever going to have enough life experience to cover all possible situations they could come across. The ability to live vicariously through the situations found in art is one of its greatest benefits. In fact, when dealing with the issue of politics you need to know history, you need to know philosophy and you need to know psychology…and when it comes to psychology in addition to actually having experience with people, and maybe taking a psychology course or two, you need art to understand people (especially the masters like Shakespeare, Helprin, Hugo, Hawthorne, Whitman, Tennyson, and Faulkner). Thus art, any kind of art, becomes necessary to understanding politics (the primary purposes of this blog). And as cinema is the primary form of art in this era, I would have to be a damned idiot not to discuss any film that has relevant philosophical, political, and ethical implications.
So, those are the purposes of art. And for the purpose of art in terms of its social implications and dealing with the fact that ideas have consequences we first have to deal with what makes art good and great.
What is Great Art?
And before we can fully discuss why it is such an important feature, we need to set down some ground rules of how to judge art and decide what makes great art. “But it’s all a matter of opinion”, “it’s all subjective” “you like it but I don’t and you can’t argue that something is good because it’s just the way I feel” some will claim—nope, yes there is personal taste in what you may find enjoyable, but that doesn’t change what is great and what is not—I personally love some truly terrible books and movies, but I don’t for a minute think they’re great; conversely, there are works that I can recognize as great but which have little impact on my taste for them. There are standards that separate the works of Shakespeare, Beethoven, Michelangelo from all the rest and it’s not just personal taste. Whether you enjoy a work of art or not does not determine if it’s great. So, let’s start with the three purposes of art.
- It provides entertainment.
- It offers ethical examples.
- It offers philosophical discussion.
Now, these 3 purposes lead to 4 different qualities that art needs to be judged by. And these 4 qualities are not just my ideas, you will see these qualities if you review the works of Aristotle, Sidney, Shelly, Faulkner, or Barzun when they discuss what makes great literature, I’m just highlighting and distilling their points. It’s important to have an actual way to judge good art because otherwise, you have to deal with that liberal, post-modern BS that art is purely personal taste or that “well you simply don’t get it.” If you ever hear those words be careful. Sometimes it’s true, Shakespeare for instance, to fully understand Shakespeare takes a lot of time and effort to learn the medium and language, but if you don’t understand the intricacies of the humor, the tragedy and the passion almost always come out if performed by an even remotely competent actor and director. Which is why the first criteria of any art form is that:
1. Great art creates catharsis; effectively it mixes High Tragedy and High Comedy flawlessly. Good art will leave me with some kind of emotional reaction. With great art basically, I should be crying, either from having my heart ripped out and stomped on or from laughing so hard I’m hyperventilating or on the rarest of occasions because I am struck with a sense of awe…preferably all in the same work. Yes, there is a certain education level required to understand any work of art, but anyone with even a basic level of education listening, seeing or hearing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Michelangelo’s David, Shakespeare’s “St. Crispin Day’s speech” can’t help but be moved. If it doesn’t entertain at some level for someone, it’s not art, but to be great art it must not just entertain it must provide catharsis. This is the flaw of all modern visual art, modernist writers (E.E. Cummings, Pound, H.D., Salinger), and just a disgusting host of pompous movies as the only emotional reaction they cause is disgust or revulsion (and that’s when they cause an emotional reaction at all). If you have something to say but can’t bring it to an emotional level, we have philosophy and journalism and commentary for that—art is by definition something that causes emotional reactions. It can cause mental stimulation, but it MUST cause an emotional reaction to be art, and must provide catharsis, swelling of uncontrollable emotion, to be great art.
Now, this is the part that can be most influenced by personal taste. As I said already education can have an effect on your enjoyment. But, so can life experiences. If you see something in a bad mood, go in looking to have a terrible time, or go in looking for something other than what the work is meant to give you, you might not get the catharsis that a person in the right frame of mind would get. That’s the reason why so many great novels are ruined by bad high school English teachers—instead of teaching with passion they force-feed words down students unwilling gullets, turning art into streams of meaningless words. Works that have moved souls for generations do not stir the being of students forced to read it from a teacher who doesn’t really care…but that doesn’t mean the work doesn’t cause catharsis to those open to it. So, for this criteria more than most we have to look not so much to our own reaction but to the reaction of others, if we don’t particularly feel catharsis because even if it doesn’t move us if it moves a large numbers of others then we have to say that for whatever reason it didn’t move us, it still met the criteria of causing catharsis in others.
2. Great art has a deep understanding of the human psyche. It is accurately said that all good drama is character drama, and good character drama comes from understanding how people actually act. If characters don’t act realistically there can be no suspension of disbelief and thus nothing to do with point one. This is a bit harder to see in forms of art that aren’t literature, theater or film, but this understanding is there. Look at a Waterhouse painting and you will see the wheels turning in the brains of the people depicted there, listen to a Copland piece of music and you will hear the characters and people they represent and how well Copland understood them. The best art reveals something about the human psyche that reveals truth about yourself. Again, back to Copland’s music, the “Fanfare for the Common Man”, for example, reveals not only the greatness that a human being is able to achieve but upon reflection offers us a reflection of the person we should ourselves strive to be. By contrast, a painting by Picasso shows no understanding of how people think or act. There is none of the humanity that one would see in a Raphael, none of the complexity that exists in a Rembrandt, just chaos. And yes, chaos is an aspect of humanity, but it is not the only one.
And this is often the problem of the more pretentious and useless works of liberal drivel (and the little the alt-right produces). They portray people as these terrible cookie-cutter images that act for motivations that no person has ever felt because these liberal and populist loons don’t actually understand what motivates people.
The other thing to keep in mind here is that you are not the world. Just because you wouldn’t do something a certain way does not mean that a character is acting in a way contrary to human nature. The ignorance involved in the hysteria over a character with severe PTSD, which was tied to the death of his mother, being triggered when someone says his mother’s name is just bizarre — that’s how people with PTSD react. Just because a work of art actually portrays behavior uncommon from how you would deal with things does not mean it doesn’t have a clear understanding of human nature.
3. Great art must understand how to use the tools of the medium in a skillful way. This is a twofold requirement. It needs to look or sound good depending on the medium. It needs to at some level capture real-life accurately—visual art needs to look as close to a photograph as possible (with deviations from reality only for the purpose of meaning), film and literature needs to accurately capture realistic human experience (again only deviating for theme). But I said this was twofold, the second is the complexity factor. Faces are easier to draw than hands, but the artist who can do both is great, simple tunes like happy birthday may have melody but demonstrate nothing of the complexity of a Beethoven concerto, anyone with a video camera can film something, but it takes great skill to make it have meaning beyond a record of what is happening. Great art has a complexity to it, even when it is simple (look at the levels of some Shel Silversteen poems if you want complex but simple). For poetry, that means the use of language. For music, it means the mixture of the instruments to create melody. For painting and sculpture, it means the ability to create life-like representations mixed with symbolism. The more complex the art form the more elements that have to be mastered. This is the technical aspect. A person may have written deep and powerful lyrics and mixed it with superb music but if they can’t sing, the song is probably not great art (Bob Dylan is the artist I’m thinking of here…he is in the Top 5 of 20th-century poets…but he is not a great musician.) Why must art be technically accurate? Well because art, and especially great art, has layers. You’ll notice that the first two qualifications I had for great art match up with the first two purposes of great art. Well, it is in point 3 and 4 that we get the third purpose of art, the philosophical purpose.
What do the layers of meaning and content have to do with philosophy? As you know, philosophy is the study of reason and the truth (I mean real philosophy, not the hack excuse you get in Philosophy Departments which seem to have abandoned the search for truth and instead sought out in a search for the most convoluted bullshit). Life is not easily understood. The facts are all there around us, but they do not put themselves together on their own. You have to search for meaning in all the little breadcrumbs left for you by the universe and human civilization (especially since I believe there is a higher-order to existence, then looking for the patterns and themes becomes especially important because nothing is a coincidence and there is meaning in everything). And art that includes these layers is what can train your mind to see these patterns and small details that lead to a greater understanding. Even in the research of the social sciences like economics or politics, there is as much an art as there is a science to looking at data and deducing the motivations and causes of the reports and stats you see. Without the understanding that comes from seeing the depth of art, you can’t fully understand how humans interact even in the dismal sciences.
Aside from the psychological, moral, and philosophical benefits that art provides this is probably the most important function that art serves—it trains us in how to think. So why didn’t I list this in my three purposes of art…well because I’m not sure most artists think about this when they’re writing. They may be intentionally hiding a message under layers (as Shakespeare hid his pro-Catholic politics under layers of metaphors, tragedy and comedy, character development, and universal themes) but he didn’t think “I’m going to write something that will train people to think.” I don’t think the majority of artists have this thought when they create their works…they may pat themselves on the back for how skillfully they hide a theme, but I don’t think they view the layers qua layers as an end in and of itself. Granted, recently, modernist and post-modernist hacks have done this but, with one exception, I can’t think of anyone who has done that and is any good. The exception to this might be T.S. Eliot who intentionally wanted his readers to wade through the layers of obscure references to make them think about what he was saying…but given that his message was the modern world (i.e. all those hacks) are dead and lifeless and without humanity, he kind of is the exception that proves the rule.
However, I can think of artists who do come up with complexity for the sake of complexity and thus ruin art by doing it. James Joyce and Herman Melville come to mind. Melville, for instance, had a perfectly wonderful 90-page novella about a man bent on vengeance against a whale; it had human drama, stirring lines, and ethical statements. The problem is that Melville never wrote that book, instead, he wrote a 300-page monstrosity that has pages upon pages of information about whale blubber and sailing and harpooning and the history of Cetology at the time of the book. Within all this boring muck is embedded an even more dreary philosophy on the nature of epistemology and some metaphysics. And it quickly becomes one of the most overrated hack works in the history of human civilization. (A basic rule I find for art: the more meaty and in-depth the philosophy you’re dealing with, the more catharsis and emotional reactions you will need to hold your audience. If you’re going to raise in-depth points of epistemology I better be seeing Keanu Reeves in a black trench coat dodging bullets or Leonardo DeCaprio spinning tops and running through dreams, otherwise, just write philosophy and ignore the art because as dry as epistemology can get, it’s better than whale blubber.) But the worst ever in this category of absolutely putting style and layers ahead of content is James Joyce. Joyce wrote Ulysses attempting to write a book that no one would understand. He failed, people got it, though it didn’t really say much. So, then he spent 20 years writing Finnegan’s Wake, and succeeded. No one understands what that thing is about, probably not even Joyce. Frankly, there is no point. In music, you should look at Mozart, technically complex and detailed harmonies, but no meaning, just notes. In visual arts, you see this in 18th-century portraits and 19th-century realism—all very lifelike, all very dull and meaningless. For the film counterpart to this look at the worst of Orson Wells, who valued pretty camera shots over plot, characterization, theme, dialogue, but he had some nice shots. All of these value style over substance, which is what makes them inferior works.
This is an important part of art as it is a process that teaches people to think at deep levels, but the process should never be more important than the message.
4. Finally, great art must have an underlying hopeful, positive, and ethical philosophical base.
I start from the premise that the universe, human nature, and civilization are more or less is intelligible, reasonable, ethical, and leading to continuous human progress and evolution.
This comes from my conservative and spiritual beliefs. As such, for art to be great it must mirror these philosophies—it must mirror the truth. There is an Aristotelian principle that art should capture life as it is (my second and third requirement) and as it should be (this requirement). If you are a conservative in the vein of Burke and Adams to Coolidge, Goldwater and Reagan you believe that life has a purpose. That human beings can rise above whatever their present condition through force of will, self-education, and the goodness of their humanity. You believe that freedom is the highest of all virtues in human society. That the good society seeks to balance justice, order, and equality and not sacrifice any of those three at the expense of the others. That the cardinal virtues of Prudence, Moderation, Fortitude, Justice, Faith, Hope, and Charity are what should lead a person, and the political virtues of a rule of law, limited government, free enterprise, and liberty should lead a government.
And art, great art, MUST reflect these values.
Or again, as Faulkner put it:
“The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”
Why? Because ideas have consequences. Most people do not constantly question and reassess their ideas. So offering small little ideas here and there against what a person might usually believe is like holding a magnet near a ship’s compass. It won’t immediately take you off course, but after several days you’re nowhere near where you want to be.
Literature, film and paintings need heroes, poetry and music need passion for what is right and good and true…or at least the tragic absence of these things. Nothing else is worthy of being called great art. And any form of art that contradicts these principles can’t be great because it’s endorsing a lie. Now rationally since we don’t know all the minutia of the truth of human existence (if we have a vague idea that it’s in the direction of hopeful, ethical, rational, etc.) we should be willing to give a wide latitude for a variance in belief so long as it does not depict the world as utterly chaotic (the works of Picasso) irrational (the works of Joyce), dreary (the works of Mozart), that humans are inherently evil (the works of Dickens) or that life is pointless (the works of Camus). So, to review, great art must cause a cathartic experience, understand the human condition, show great skill of the form, and point to a higher ideal. There can be good art that meets two or three of these requirements. There can be enjoyable art that meets one or two of these requirements. There can be endless debate about whether or not a work actually meets these requirements. But there is no great work of art that does not meet all four of these requirements. Now we can get on to discussing why art is important to live in a political and sense….
A Question of layers
But we always have to be on guard to give any work the right amount of attention.
Art is something that no person who wishes to think deeply (be it politically or spiritually) can long avoid. One of the often-overlooked reasons that art is important is because of the skills it teaches us. It teaches us to think, to examine to look deeper. No, I don’t mean the philosophical skills. Yes, good art raises philosophical questions of life, ethics, politics and attempts to answer these questions or get us to answer them for ourselves. But I’m talking about something deeper. The peeling away of the layers of meaning one after the other, the stripping away of the surface meaning and even the meaning after that…the analysis of small details, and word choice, and metaphor and symbolism.
Right about now most of you are rolling your eyes. You’re thinking back to your high school English class and your English teacher telling you that the cup on the table, or whatever random and meaningless detail they want to focus on, was supposed to be symbolic of some major political upheaval and you just stared at the page thinking ‘is she on drugs?’ Let me get something out of the way, your reaction was likely not one of ignorance or stupidity…most English teachers are terrible at their jobs. I’m an English teacher and I can tell you without a moment’s hesitation, most English teachers are hacks. They really are. A disturbing portion of English teachers just want to pile onto their students endless heaps of obscure crap and modernist shit that they think is oh so deep…and why do they think it’s deep because they have been taught by other terrible English teachers that anything you can’t understand is deep and meaningful so they parrot what they have been taught and teach crap that amounts to nothing. They believe because they can’t understand it, it must be great. Don’t believe me? Go listen to an English teacher talk about their favorite work. Four times out of five they trying to justify the fact that they don’t get it by saying it’s just so damn wonderful because they don’t get it. And because they believe it is great they search for meaning where there is none, and since they believe it is great they create meaning where there is none. But they have this theory because they misunderstand great art. Art is supposed to be difficult and art is supposed to make you think…but what they misunderstand is that just because you don’t get something on the first round doesn’t make it great…it’s only great if there is something underneath all the work. For instance, both T.S. Eliot and Herman Melville do not give up their depth easily…but where Eliot has some rather harsh and pertinent critiques of human civilization buried under obscure references and complex metaphor, Melville only has pompous musing about knowledge buried under whale blubber. The ideas have to be valid if you’re going to bother hiding them under layers. And then these terrible hacks get into the problem of thinking that everything written must have layers upon layers. Yes, Shakespeare is the greatest writer ever because he hid a pro-Catholic plea to the Protestant rulers of England under universal themes of the human condition under complex character development under rich and exciting plots and great comedy under rich metaphor and language…but just because Shakespeare could master that many levels to be perfectly balanced at all time, that doesn’t mean that it’s in every book or work of art. Sometimes a rosebush is just a rosebush in a story and not a complex symbol for the imprecise use of symbols (and sometimes it is), it depends on the author.
Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot have layers…Stephen King not so much. And in between those two extremes is a whole lot of layers of authors who use different amounts of layers—the intelligent person realizes this and doesn’t try to force more layers on something than it deserves. And this often has to do with the intent of the artist, they will often signal in some way how deep they want you to go, but you have to get used to a lot of art to recognize those signals. But back to the central point, good art has layers upon layers, and it does not yield its answers immediately to the first passerby who only gives it a cursory review. Great painting should require hours of study, great music should require multiple listenings, great literature should require you to read it three, four, five times over. Each time finding some new idea, some new detail, some new insight, some new thing to apply to your life or your understanding of the world. Because that is what good art does. It’s important because it is training for life not just to dig through these layers, but to recognize how deep to dig and recognize when you’ve gone too far.
I sense eye rolling again, stop it…This kind of art is important for life because life is not simple. Life does not give up its answers easily—even when they’re staring you in the face. The problems in life for most people come from the fact that they only look at the first level of things. And politics is often the same way. Real solutions are not simple ones. Yes, saying that we’ll get rid of the bad politicians through term limits, but when you peel back the layers and look at the data that this has never once led to better legislation in ANY legislative body it has ever been tried in begins to tell us that the problem runs deeper and can’t be solved with feel-good statements like “drain the swamp.” The same is true of any solution in politics it takes time, research, comparisons to other policies, looking at patterns, at history, at human nature…and this is what analyzing great art teaches us to do, to look for the deeper level and go the extra step in our thinking. It allows us not to be comfortable with the shallow hack politician who offers catchphrases because our mind has already been trained to look through their words to the deeper meanings.
Why the discussion of art is important.
“Politics is downstream from culture.”—Andrew Breitbart
Before his name became a byword for everything he fought against, Andrew Breitbart realized that the culture wars were more important than the political ones. Why? Because the way culture moves determines how politics will. And unlike every failed attempt to change culture in history which traditionally is thought to only ban things it didn’t like or scream at them—which never works because it only makes the government more powerful thus giving your enemies the power to put you down when they grab the reigns and it makes that which you’re attacking cool for being attacked—Andrew realized you have to confront the ideas head-on.
You have to talk about the ideas being pushed in culture. You have to offer high-quality alternatives, and you have to defend those alternatives when they are of superior quality but being attacked for the very reason that they do support ideas that those who do stand for virtue support.
Now some will claim that we should not waste our time with popular culture, but that ignores two very important facts. First that everyone from Plato and Aristotle to Shakespeare to Breitbart realized that it was popular culture, not the distant works of the intelligentsia, that drive culture and thus drive politics. The second is the lie that popular culture cannot be great art. Homer was once popular culture. Shakespeare was once popular culture. Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Oscar Wilde…all once-popular cultures. Granted not everything popular is great, but just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s not great. Thus, we need to look at popular culture because it is where the most influence comes from, and where the greatest works are born.
The number of times liberals and progressives have used culture to further their ideas are so numerous and well known, it doesn’t need to be bear repeating.
But it’s not just the variations of the modern Left, but the return of fascism and fascism’s “useful idiot” populism are there too but less known.
So, what do we see in pulp culture from the other side? We see shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones which glorify absolute monsters as our main characters…and people try and defend why they love the shows…gee I wonder if treating the ethically deficient as heroes in a story has any effect on culture…I mean it’s not like we would ever put a sociopath of that level in charge of the country, oh wait we did, we elected Joffrey (I realize that is unfair, the Trumps are far worse than the Lanisters).
It’s not like the reboot of Star Trek which turned Kirk from a great leader in the mold of Horatio Hornblower into an inept sex-crazed James-Dean-wanna-be had any effect on what we were looking for in a leader.
The modern obsession with horror films at record numbers helps both the left and alt-right as it helps to stimulate the fear that both sides feed on, but the high levels of zombie survival tales, exemplified by The Walking Dead make some very fascist lessons, like all people not in our tribe our bad, the others cannot be trusted, free trade and relationships built on trust are always disastrous, and of course, might makes right.
And of course, it’s not like a movie that questions the one good thing from Hobbes, the part that Locke and the Founder realized needed to kept around, that is, the Leviathan—the government monopoly on the use of violence—to ensure the stability of society not breaking down into chaos, was questioned and the heroes were shown to be the people who didn’t want to follow legitimate government control on the use of force. No, he has America in his name, so to hell if his actions are against the very foundations all government since the Enlightenment. (The other series had the decency to admit that such vigilantism makes our characters “criminals” or showing those with power coming to talk to those in power.)
Nor should we overlook the fact that the villains are showing that getting away with it makes it right in How to Get Away with Murder, Scandal, and dozens of others.
And dare we talk about the love of idiocy that is reality TV. Christianity used to be a religion of thinkers and philosophers from Augustine to Aquinas to Dante to Milton to Adler, it has a rich and distinguished history of depth and reflection…and what is put by culture as the pinnacle of Christianity: a bunch of braindead hicks who make duck calls. The most inane and worthless version of a great tradition lauded as the best and the depth and richness the religion deserved all but ignored. Do you think this valueless, ethic-less, brainless manifestation of Christianity being put up by numerous different sources helped these so-called Christians, modern-day Pharisees, tell themselves that voting for the deal that would gain them the world at the cost of their soul was a good one?
And those are just a handful of the major examples. The smaller subtler forms are everywhere. In pandering to the lowest common denominator to try and get every last penny the media has ended up seeking the to the lowest form of perversion: populism and fascism, and all the lies that this entails. They’re small things, but when an incorrect belief system is reinforced a million different tiny, almost unperceivable ways they do lead up to a death of a thousand cuts for the truth.
There has always been very little that actually speaks to the best in humanity…but now it seems to be attacked. Granted no movie is perfect, but it now seems that if a movie is actually hopeful and speaks to the best in humanity it is attacked mercilessly (Winter’s Tale, Hancock, Tomorrowland, Age of Adeline, Firefly, Wonderfalls) while movies that speak to the worst in humanity but with far worse flaws are allowed to pass or are even praised (Mad Max, Star Trek reboots, an endless train of teen-novel movies with heroes just as detestable as their villains). I’m not saying we shouldn’t recognize the flaws in a film, we should, but we should view the work as a whole and balance nitpicking flaws against thematic greatness. We should think about the films as more than just brain candy—brain candy is nice, but to give our brains only a diet of candy will rot them. And it’s especially unforgivable when the work that can be both entertaining and deep when if you only take the time to think about them so many films can reveal layers upon layers of depth and when you see the depth you see the quality and easily forgive little things in plot. (Oh by the way, if you had a bad English teacher you probably think plot is important. It’s not. The only thing less important is setting—in serious literature be it in print or on film, theme and character are the most important, plot is merely there to make sure that theme and characters have somewhere to go.)
And these are the works that we as individuals not only need to look at at a deeper level, but which we need to encourage others to do the same, because while most people’s conscious minds don’t run through the philosophy, their subconscious does run through. Ideas have consequences. And the idea of popular culture does run downstream into politics, and if the core ideas of progressivism and fascism are allowed to stand as the “great” enjoyable films and anything with depth is attacked and ignored not because it’s lacking in quality but because deep down those who want those progressive and fascist ideals at some subconscious level understand that these are a problem, and those who are just followers understand that these works promote an ethic that requires them to think and act and not just follow.*
So, we return to the question of why care about comic book movies like Dawn of Justice? Because those are the films that reach people. Because those are films with the ethics that we need to get more into the consciousness of the culture, those are the work that not just entertain but move us, that provide catharsis and thought. They are the great works and they need to be treated as such. To just treat everything as “I enjoyed it” or “I didn’t enjoy it” is to both insult the work of artists and to insult your own brain which is capable of so much more. Yes, there are some works that can be dismissed as enjoyable or not…but to not treat each work with the level of depth it deserves is to either admit the shallowness of your own mind and your surrendering culture and thus politics to that shallowness, or to willfully not give the work the thought it deserves which means you are actively working for the effects such an action results in overtime. And that may seem like a rather sweeping suggestion, that something so small can have such great results…but no single raindrop thinks it’s responsible for the flood, and yet those small little drops add up to a deluge. Small acts of thoughtless behavior by numerous people over long periods of time do add up. You know that’s true. And this is one of those small acts we must all work to stop in our own lives and do what we can to convince others to do the same.
*A note here. If the movie attempts the right ethics but isn’t just flawed in the nitpick stupid way of some very good film, but DEEPLY flawed like those Atlas Shrugged movies where they are so bad they should never have been filmed, those you don’t need to defend. Real trash should be treated as trash. Minor nitpicky shit in the face of thematic genius should be discarded.