For the second round of the Spring for Music’s 2012 Great Arts Blogger Challenge the question is: “We live in an aggressively visual age; images dominate the popular culture. But which art form has the most to say about contemporary culture, and why?”
This is my answer.
We are an aggressively visual species – our sighted sense overpowers us, leaving us deaf and dumb.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Early people decorated their dwelling walls with scenes from their lives – the movement of stars, successful hunting trips, their handprints. Gothic cathedrals, serving and subverting an illiterate audience, celebrated and advanced art through mural, sculpture and, especially, stained glass. These vibrantly hued panels illustrated the stories and lessons imparted from the pulpit. As the sun shone through them the Son of Man’s halo glowed in ecclesiastical glory.
So what art form has the most to say about contemporary culture? At first I thought film. It is so encompassing – it’s modern day opera without all the caterwauling – and is an amalgam of many art forms and technologies. Acting, of course, but music sets the tone, and tells you what your emotion should be. Design and color scheme (“O Brother, Where Art Thou” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” come to mind), along with architecture and costuming, are integral. There may even be some singing and dancing, even philosophy, too.
But from whence did that film spring? From writing…from a script, a book, or a scratch on paper of an idea someone had after three fingers of bourbon. Writers are observers, note-takers, adventurers. They see a bit of the world that hasn’t been noticed yet and shine it up and display it for their friends.
Pick up a novel and you hold contemporary culture in your hand. The vernacular is there, the style of dress, the paintings on the wall, the food to be eaten, the relationships, the heartaches, the philosophies, religions, politics, even the music…it’s all in the pages in your hand.
This is because writing, an agent of communication, is the distillation of imagery.
Writers struggle to create a direct conduit to the imagination of the reader. They stay up late to labor fruitlessly in the hopes that this crop of symbols, this series of words and syntax and metaphor, will address the question the reader didn’t know to ask, will fill the need they didn’t know could be sated.
Even now, as you read this, your eyes are controlling your brain, making it process these symbols, to coordinate the lines and loops, to conjure meaning, recreate sounds that only you, reading silently, can hear in your head. The writer would have just now opened a snare to draw you in, pulled a blanket over your head and whispered “be still” while the words poured into your eyes and filled up your brain to the point where there is no possibly distraction.
Suddenly, now, you can hear the clock tick again.
What gets written is determined by the bravery and honesty of the writer; what gets read is at the discretion of the reader. These are not mutual exclusive activities, there exists a necessary symbiosis.
How does that support my theory? It is because a writer, no matter how much time spent bent over the keyboard or scribbling along the page, no matter how much sleep lost, or how many messages unanswered, friends and family members ignored, meals skipped, reference materials misplaced, the writer still cannot exist except in the culture they live in. Their writing is inevitably seasoned by this culture and affected by it.
Even now, in this era of instant publishing and self-publishing (traditional publishing notwithstanding), in a universe of memes and tweets and status updates, the written word is more ubiquitous than ever. It’s tossed around with little concern, with next to no thought, and yet … with its fragility comes its power. The blurb-length statements require clarity of mind, brevity in style, and a broad social context.
Novels have been written in this format, 140 characters at a time. The Library of Congress records all tweets, recognizing that this form is a contemporary cultural phenomenon. Perhaps someday scholarly examination will determine the greatest tweeter of our generation.
Furthermore, even the physical act of writing is art if we consider the calligraphic form. Long form handwriting, once a sophisticated skill honed by many, has become specialized and accessory in the Western world, though arguably even more artistic than when it was more culturally relevant. And while creating typography is art, the average user needs it more as a tool. Script resonates in its hand-wrought confines within many cultures, especially in Arabic, Hebrew, Gaelic, Chinese, etc.
The written word can only be – and has always been – a comment on its contemporary culture.
If for no other reason: we weren’t asked in this challenge (though I guess, in fairness, probably wouldn’t be disqualified) to make a video about contemporary culture, or paint a picture, or write a tune. We were asked to write about it, to sit and ponder and throw some thoughts at the page and see what stuck.
Therefore: writing. Writing is the art form that has the most to say about contemporary culture.
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