Ishmael
by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh
06262004

 


I can't remember his name, so I will call him Ishmael.

It was hard to avoid Ishmael, as he was in most of my classes. Some of those classes consisted of little but heated debate between the two of us, as the other students sat dumbfounded and the teachers hid under their desks. Still, as little common ground as we shared, at least Ishmael was a worthy adversary.

On one occasion, Ishmael brought into class a paper he had written to prove that television cannot be art. Dutiful academic that he was, Ishmael had assembled a convincing enough case, with enough references to the thoughts of famous thinkers from Aristotle to Kant, common and obscure, within and beyond our curriculum, to show that he had the majority, or at least the authority, on his side.

That was Ishmael's method: straight academia. He was an excellent student, of the sort I could never be. He did his work, and was always on top of everything. Where I have no memory for names or numbers, Ishmael could cite pages and spit quotations without pausing to wet his tongue. He read everything handed to him. He memorized the exact position of every somebody, on every issue. He took well-organized notes. And he did it all with such a downbeat calm. Ishmael had his act together. He was a cool guy with a penetrating stare, impossible to fluster.

I, meanwhile, am distracted by my own distraction. I often find it a task to trace my own methods. My thoughts require so long to mature that it is difficult for me to hold a coherent conversation. It is perhaps this disconnected quality that explains why it was not until years later that I felt a need to ask Ishmael just what he was talking about, that day. What did he mean, in denying that television can be art? Offhand, his assertion is a vague one. What, for example, could he have meant by television? Surely he could not have meant the machine itself. I guess he must have been trying to explain his distaste for televised programming -- sane enough a gripe.

But what does this include? Film has long been acknowledged for its artistic nature, by every critic with a pulse. Are the differences between cinema and television really all that great? If they are, then is the fatal difference in the material itself, or in how its audience entertains it? What if Joe Someone were to watch, say, Orson Welles's Touch of Evil, on his own television (Joe's, not Mr. Welles's)? Would that movie lose its artistic merit, just because of how it was viewed? That sounds unlikely: it's still the same movie, Joe is watching; it still says the same things, the same way. As long as Joe holds up his part of the conversation, nothing is really different. Even if Joe does fail to pay Mr. Welles's opus the same attention he would in its intended setting, the theater, that says little of the film's potential to express itself to someone more ideal, in a more ideal circumstance.

What, then, if the movie were broadcast on a commercial network, and its flow were broken, from time to time, to allow for advertisements? Although surely annoying, would those interruptions mar the work so greatly that none of its message could be salvaged? Again, I assume not. Although not without some pain, I have watched plenty of movies on commercial television, without much trouble. They just seem longer. This is just me, of course. Perhaps I am an unusual case.

Perhaps I am straying. It seems sure that Ishmael meant to speak of programming specifically designed for television as a medium, with all its inherent constraints: TV dramas, TV sitcoms, TV serials. To keep from straying even more, I will skip the issue of TV movies, and the lines they blur (especially when cable channels like Cinemax and Showtime come into the picture, with their support of independent film, or when TV movies get distributed in a theatrical context). Let us explore a more traditional television show. Say, an episodic drama.

Now here we could have something. Were a person to take the records of well-known figureheads as ends in themselves rather than as works of their times, then Aristotle has something dismissive to say about serial drama. (Excuse me for not quoting him chapter and verse; you recall my problems with memory.) With some work, one could even stretch an argument with this kind of authority to fit the idea of commercial interruption, and to thereby damn the whole medium. Or -- if you prefer a more trendy, modern route -- you can explore the notion that the inherent expressive constrictions, or cynical capitalistic elements, of television production are antithetical to a pure artistic vision.

Of course, the novel is perhaps the best demonstration of serial narrative, and although dismissed as trash in the mid-nineteenth century, the form has long been accepted a means of artistic expression. Further, without restrictions an artist has little to fight against. And when is art ever really pure from the evils of practical concern? Fine artists have always had patrons. Shakespeare was a bawdy popular artist. Dickens wrote for money (and in a serial format, with all its constraints). As long as it influences in a positive way, there seems nothing intrinsically wrong with creation for profit.

The idea of Art for Art's sake is, for those unaware, a modern invention; it dates barely a hundred years. Before the turn of the twentieth century, art was considered somewhat a practical enterprise. Well, more or less. Science was called "natural philosophy", and philosophy itself was an art. Art was understood more as a process of interacting with the world, than as anything tangible; a verb, rather than a noun. Don't take it from me; just look at the way the word is used, linguistically. Today, however, Art has become something to objectify and idolize: to put on a pedestal and treat with reverence.

And that is the biggest problem with Ishmael's idea. He seems to imply that Art, as a form, can be instantiated and analyzed on an objective level. Yet of course television cannot be art. To say so brings to mind the little man with a rumpled lab coat who holds up a vial overflowing with foam and declares "Now this is SCIENCE!" Neither, for that matter, is the Mona Lisa, or Beethoven's Fifth Symphony art. Not Michelangelo's David. Not the Sagrada Familia, in Spain. Not Hamlet. Not Tetsuya Mizuguchi's Rez. Not Hitchcock's Vertigo. Not even Michael Crichton's newest thriller. These are all works of art, certainly (of varying degrees). Art went into their creation, and they are the product of artistic intention -- that is, the intent to communicate on a personal level through the medium at hand -- yet art cannot be crystallized like frozen oxygen. It is a process, not a thing.

Art is not substantial, even as an idea. You cannot look at art; smell it; objectify and quantify it; as it is a subjective concept. You can give and receive art, on an intuitive level. Once you have it, of course, you can always analyze its effects upon you and the possible motivations in the one who set this art in motion to start with -- yet that is a level of secondary rationalization, apart from the art itself. Art itself is irrational; it is a form of shared understanding -- the basis for all human communication. Either you intuit the message intended, or you miss it. Even if you miss it, you still might catch some message of your own, based upon your own experiences and tendencies.

Or again, you might not. But if you close yourself off, you certainly will miss a lot more.

It is not for us to judge what is, and is not art. The whole practice is a waste of time. Even if art could take form as or within an object, it would be futile to try to measure or verify that frozen art; reason is not just antithetical but also blind to the irrational. If you see art, if you feel art, then you are experiencing art. By perceiving the implicit, and by accepting it without struggle, you are communicating on a level beyond the objective surface, and are tapping into the simple complexity of the human condition; into the world for which there are no words. That moment is yours, and no one can deny it -- although you can do your part in confirming it. It is the same as love.

Why not be positive? Why not trust your own perceptions? Why not allow yourself love?

Let us not be cynical. Let us not be academic. Let us not be Ishmael.

Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh is a quarter of a century old, already