Thursday 25 October 2012

Plays, novels, movies and TV stories are essentially bad art forms


Essentially bad, in the sense that most examples are bad - although with some shining exceptions; and bad in the transcendental sense of destructive of truth, beauty and virtue; subversive in their nature.

So, the invention of the novel was net (on the whole) a bad thing, ditto movies, ditto TV narratives.

(Plays were too rare to do much harm - but if you doubt their net harmfulness consider a random selection of actors - i.e. people who live by theatre, perform a wide range of plays across the canon, and imbibe the dramatic ethos most deeply.).

And these are very powerful things - so we ought to treat them with care; rather as we would take care in attending an evening session of carefully-crafted political propaganda which is most likely to be Communist, Nazi or nihilistic. 

This explains why I need a very good reason to read any particular novel (watch a movie, watch a TV series or soap) because the overwhelming likelihood is that it will be bad for me; at least potentially.


NOTE: This insight stems from about 25 years ago when, as part of a literature course at college, I was required to read Margaret Atwood, Muriel Spark and William Golding. I felt very strongly that, to the extent I engaged with these authors' novels, they were harming me.



dearieme said...

"consider a random selection of actors - i.e. people who ... imbibe the dramatic ethos most deeply": hold on; actors may be a bunch of drama queens but that's not quite the same thing.

I've often wondered about the significance of the fact that the chap who was probably the cleverest actor there's ever been was confined to minor roles.

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - it is only a small minority of actors that are decent human beings; most are considerably below that level, including many of the very best.

If living with great drama had an ennobling effect, then this shouldn't really happen.

Aside: Orchestral musicians are often very disappointing people too - although some of the great soloists and conductors have things worth saying.

I've always assumed that Shakespear was just 'helping out' in minor roles of his own plays; or perhaps it was rather like the cricket captain standing at slip to keep an eye on things.

dearieme said...

Your point, I think, generalises to the conclusion that exposure to Art doesn't elevate one's character, contrary to an endless barrage of propaganda. I realised this when I was a teenager. I put the point to my English teacher. "Oh dear" he sighed "ever the intellectual, eh?"

Bruce Charlton said...

Indeed - and intending to avoid the agonized self-importance of George Steiner noticing that some SS Officers enjoyed Wagner and Schubert in the evenings after a hard days torture and extermination.

The big thing nowadays among the middle classes is encouraging children to read *books*, how 'important' it is for them to read books etc.

Some attention may be paid to literary quality; but no attention is paid to the fact that many/ most children's (as well as adults) books are sugar-coated but poisonous PC propaganda - indeed for modern bookshops and librarians this is a feature, not a bug.

Bruce said...

Absolutely. WHich is why your kids are better off reading old novels. Not that old = good. But they tend to be less harmful and some are beneficial.

The other thing I've noticed about modern children's novels is they are never ending. With Tolkein, you get through the four books and you're done. My son reads these modern books and there seems to be no end to additional series and spinoffs. It's almost as if they're creating their own intricate universe that's always expanding.

Andrew said...

Bruce - I take you don't watch much TV, but every successful American show features that trait: it doesn't end as long as the ratings are up. As such, book series are not so much trying to convey an important message or story but act as a means of entertainment to extract wealth.

Bruce said...

I think you’re right. The endless book series is just a way for authors and publishers to sell a lot of books.

Bruce Charlton said...

I'm not too bothered about the endless series as a form - it all depends... There was Sherlock Holmes, Enid Blyton books such as Secret Seven or Famous Five, Arthur Ransome... quite a few decent books were long running in this way.

Many crime novels and murder mysteries (I don't personally read them) are also of this type of open-ended series, including many of the top of the genre (Chesterton's Father Brown, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers).

So I don't think it is wrong as such - although it does not reach the very highest levels of art.

But sometimes a successful series (whether of books or TV shows) is taken over by newer, cheaper, less well-motivated and less talented writers - and that isn't good.

Steven T. said...

As a filmmaker, how can I aim to make the highest form of art, given the medium? What are the criteria?

stephens said...

To avoid the Cultural Marxist propaganda you mainly have to go for the older stuff.
ITV recently did Daphne du Mauriers "The Scapegoat" and apart from having the title of a Holman Hunt painting I quite like, I was struck by it's fairly traditional morality.
Then there's "Brief Encounter" where weakness and circumstance meet but they do the right thing in the end.
Hard to avoid the PC stuff though.
I find it ironic that to minimize my exposure to Cultural Marxism in the news media, I find myself watching more and more of "Russia Today."

Anonymous said...

Traditionally, it was considered impossible for lawyers and play-actors to be saved.

As for lawyers, this ultimately proved only mostly true, since Sir Thomas More was beatified.

I thought actors were condemned because theatre in late Antiquity was basically pornography, but what you say suggests that there is some more fundamental fault.

AlexT said...

@Stephens. Good point about 'Russia Today'. It's weird that all it takes to sound intelligent nowadays is to simply say the opposite of what the western media is saying.

FHL said...

I have a question I am hesitant to ask, because I don't know whether or not it is provocative. I don't mean it to be. So I figure I'll just ask and you decided whether or not to publish it at your disgression.

But have you seen the movie Gran Torino? If so, what did you think of it? I myself liked it very much, even though I was skeptical of it at first due to the high rating critics gave it.

I ask because I read an article on (*

The article is an attack on the movie by someone who has not watched it.

"Somehow, I am guessing that the film will leave out the unpleasant aspects of Hmong culture, such as horse-eating, animal sacrifice, shamanistic medical treatment, marriage by capture, polygamy, gang culture (including rape gangs), disinterest in obeying the law, a highly misogynist value system, and an aversion to education particularly for women."

But the movie does (well, except for horse eating, animal sacrifice, and shamanistic medicine). In the movie, Thao and his family are the only Hmongs who are not criminals. There is only one scene with hispanics and only one scene with blacks. Both are portrayed as gangbangers. All the characters in the movie are stereotypes: Hmong gangers in a "riced out" car, Mexican gangsters in a lowrider, blacks harrassing girls on the streets, a studious Asian kid, a white racist (who is the good guy and the hero of the movie, even though he never stops being "racist," he just takes a liking to Thao, seeing him as the exception), as well as the white guy's detached and uncaring hedonistic family who want to place him in a nursing home...

What more does VDARE want?

It seems to me that the flaw in all forms of storytelling is this: you can only show so much, and people will come to conclusions on what you are attempting to say but what you show. "Why did you show that black guy robbing a man? Racist!" screams the PC crowd. "Why did you show that black guy helping a man? Liberal!" screams the anti-PC crowd.

But reality can't fit into a 120 minute segment of film. It is too complex and too personal. Mass media needs everything to be streamlined: "Do you think (such-and-such race) are good people or bad people?" Damn man! Is that even a valid question? How can I answer that? How can anyone make a film, novel, or TV series nowadays without having to make a statement at the same time- a statement they might not even want to make or don't fully understand, but are forced to make.

*a note: Personally, I agree with most of VDARE's articles and enjoy reading the thoughts of people such as Steve Sailer and Pat Buchanan. I am against mass immigration and would not mind if immigration into the U.S. was completely shut down. And so is my family.

My father once told me: "I don't know why America imports foreign doctors when they can just accept more people into their medical universities. Their priority should be Americans, shouldn't it?"
I replied: "But you're a foreign doctor who immigrated here."
My dad just shrugged and said: "Yes. But I still don't understand why they do it. Doesn't make any sense."
I replied along the lines of "United States med schools keep spots limited to keep demand higher than supply, and even though they know that many U.S. doctors are trained in foreign countries, U.S. med schools keep an elite reputation by limiting spots, making it an honor to be accepted, increasing the demand, and thus commanding such high rates. It's a money thing."
My dad said: "Impossible... the Americans wouldn't do such a thing just for money.”
"They might, the Americans of today are not like those of yesterday" was my reply.
Anyways, this argument went on for awhile, but you get the point: I'm speaking from a point of view that is against immigration.

stephen c said...

Margaret Atwood and William Golding? My heart aches for your younger self.
There is a funny line in one of the books, I don't remember which, about Tolkien and the Inklings:"Tolkien did not approve of drama."
By the way, in the US, several Hollywood actors were considered exemplary Christians a generation ago, and I believe there are still quite a few good Christians who produce and act in independent films.1

Bruce Charlton said...

@FHL - @FHL - I haven't seen Gran Torino - I see very few adult movies, but watch a few kids movies (with my kids - mostly). I can't really tolerate that kind of movies, as you describe it, no matter how well motivated. I find visual depictions of torture etc too disturbing.

I think it is the overwhelming, emotionally-coercive aspect of movies which makes the form suspect. Movies are an already-achieved virtual reality, and it is often/ usually disturbing to be immersed into this; rather like being kidnapped.

FHL said...


There is a part where someone is tortured, but it is not shown on screen, you only hear about it later. I should also warn to anyone who wants to see it that there is a great deal of profanity in the movie. Too much, I believe; to the point that it almost made Clint Eastwood's character unlikable to me.

But the ending is not depressing (at least I didn't think so) nor is it trivial, which is usually what makes it or breaks it for me.

But avoiding adult movies altogether is probably a wise decision nowadays so I don't blame you. (is it just me, or are most R rated movies marketed towards young teens? For example, I can't imagine any adult going to go watch "Harold and Kumar go to White Castle.")

FHL said...


Oh, sorry, just one more thing:

"Movies are an already-achieved virtual reality..."

This is sort-of what I wanted to say. They can't ever be reality; you only see what the director wants you to see, along with whatever music he wants you hear, and so on. In real-life, things happen as they do, but in the fictional word, the creator can make whatever he wishes happen and it is so- movies thus end up coercing people, perhaps even in a direction the creator did not mean to.

Ariston said...

If an art can be good, then how can it be essentially bad? It could be said to be difficult to do in a true/positive fashion, but we could say that the novel/film/play are effected more by the culture in which they arose (as the modern play is different from the ancient) than by their actual status as an art.

An interesting thing about film is that too much film is simply an elaborate play. Quentin Tarantino (who is no moral exemplar, to be sure) said about The Passion of the Christ that it was one of the greatest films of the talking–film era; that is, it took film seriously as an art unlike plays— I can also say that about Gibson's follow–up, Apocalypto. There are other examples of film–as–film that is not simply the masturbatory ‘art for art's sake’ of much Continental cinema in the popular realm; many Chinese martial arts films are more about kinesis & human form than anything else.