Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Art as Politics; Politics as Art

photo borrowed from

WATCHING SAMURAI X or a similar anime series on TV the other day, I noticed a certain resemblance to the Peter Jackson-helmed The Lord of the Rings trilogy effect---effect on me, at least, as a passer-by viewer. So, you can just imagine its effect on the anime fan! The effect I'm talking about is anime's potential propagandistic charisma value that the Japanese probably are aware of. Now, I am not so much talking about the content, which may vary from anime to anime (albeit a constant pattern may be gleaned by any curious social scientism). I’m more inclined to talk about and celebrate the virtue of fantasy in the hands of The Good, wherein some Hitlerian (or Hirohito-ish) grandiosity must be restrained from temptations that might allow it to express either some inner Big Hate or some Gargantuan Intellectual Philosophy of Greed. Because, believe me, this charisma value can be quite charming.
    Anime cartoons are fantasy cartoons in more ways than one. They neither pretend to be realistic comedy cartoons nor do they kowtow to the category of children’s programming. Anime is considered an art in itself, involving a fantastic plot and a fantastic power object portrayed via another Japanese fantastic achievement: the anime eyes.
    Now, anime eyes are a Japanese vehicle for escape from the global stereotype on Orientals as squinty-eyed, but its design goes further than the Western man’s larger eyes to produce in the end a different nation that’s ultimately quasi-Japanese and quasi-Western, the citizens of which Different Nation inhabit a globally-marketable art. Add to this, anime characters’ hair color try to eschew ground level by exploring the possibilities of dis-blacking. This style propagated a trend in Japan of color-dyed hair among the youth (and later the middle-aged) previously only plausible in the urban planet among so-called fashion punks.
    Much has been said by many a lay philosopher today about the escapism of fantasy literature and art vis a vis the boldness of realism and allusive expressionist passion. The Lord of the Rings trilogy of the Lord Dunsany school of literature which was delivered through the genius of J.R.R. Tolkien have influenced fantasy lovers way before the book's story was made into three special-effects breakthroughs, as had the pioneering progressive rock of Yes and King Crimson and Uriah Heep and the psychedelic blues-rock of Led Zeppelin, as have later oeuvres of high-tech special effects such as the George Lucas-written and -megged fantasy classic Star Wars. However, in the liberal press today, fantasy art is given credence as serious art only when driven by artists and authors surrounded by a traffic of political oppression (within a geo-political or ethnic boundary); these artists’ works supposedly hide or enhance a political satire or symbological value. When flaunted by artists in happy surrounds, however, fantasy art is often deemed by the liberal or even conservative snobbish critic as simple fantasy devoid of any socially-redeeming significance as art.
    In the age of post-structuralism and Marxist criticism, however, reviewers have been given easy license to read (or over-read) almost anything into anything, thus the term cultural studies, the only universal rule being that the reading maintains integrity within the construct. This certainly went further than Marcel Duchamp's now-lame proposal that anything exhibited in a gallery may qualify itself as art. (Certain thinkers decry integrity in reading, meanwhile, celebrating entropy and disavowing criticisms against "unintelligent" readings by the masses.) So Star Wars can now be taken into a classroom and deconstructed to fit any personal or political agenda into the work, and that is not anymore considered shameful. Indeed, we can say that in our age artworks are liberated from the author-dictated (or New Critics-proposed) moral, and are now surrendered to the intelligence or lack thereof of the masses or the masses’ favorite authority critic (who may then offer various readings or approaches to the consumer masses), thus, finally, dis-glamorizing snobbery. So why, we ask, does fantasy art still manufacture frowns from authorities at Cannes or Stockholm? Perhaps because post-structuralism, supposedly masses-friendly but ridden with academic gibberish of a new snobbishness, didn’t exactly create a trickle-down effect upon magazine reviewers. In the end, it's as if post-structuralism has yet to happen and history continues to flow on unhindered as a manifestation of the law of God consisting of repetitions and second comings devoid of academic views and lessons. Devoid, that is, of both the fantasy of a hermeneutics from a campus distance or the social hermeneutics delivered through a distantly fantastic construct aided by alcohol or drugs or the naturally imaginative individual.
    There will always be the divide between realists and expressionists, but the divide between these readily-popular alluders and their fantasy art counterparts are wider still. And this will remain an interesting kind of divide, with the former not confronting the latter but ignoring the seriousness of their lot, never mind that this lot comprises the higher percentage of the mythology of the populace.
    Realists will, however, not begrudge fantasy artists their "rightful" place in society. Today's anime cartoons, along with fantastic movies like The Lord of the Rings, not only create entertainment offering momentary escape from our dirty laundry and the depressing art films from the festivals and the subtle artistry from Congress' halls, they also inspire creativity with measure. Such measure is easy where the art (with its accompanying creativity) is almost an end in itself. As in clothes fashion. L'art pour l'art. Many fine cinema techniques can be traced to comics art, in the way technology traces its achievements to basic science. Were anime not fantasy, I doubt that it would come up with the visual quirks (lighting, color, lines, etc.) that are in the level of what theatre people and fashion ramp aficionados proudly refer to as meaningless creative faggotry beloved of Broadway.
    But what do we make of it when certain fantasy artists, beyond the academicized critics, proclaim on their own their arts’ realist side, that is, their social significance beyond the merely entertaining or l’art pour l’art (read: decorative) value? Do we take them seriously? Have we really taken science fiction seriously beyond the claims of the college curriculum, at this same podium where we’ve regarded magic realism with awe?
    Perhaps the answer is that fantasy is simply too much of an achievement of metaphors. The "real world" already abounds in perceivable metaphors . . . so, why create another mythological world? And, conversely or accordingly, everything is fantasy anyway. A paragraph that describes a coffee break in a Milan sidewalk café might read as fantasy to a University of the Philippines Diliman student from the province who saves up on his allowance to be able to sip at Starbucks on his weekend.
    As for realism, I wonder how realist it really is. An early literary movement called Naturalism claimed more real realism in the portrayal of the helplessness of the individual as victim of his surround, beyond salvage by the fantasies of revolutionists. And although this genre (as in the talents of a Eugene O'Neill or Alexander Solzhenitsyn) clamored for a kind of counter-revolution (Solzhenitsyn against a continuing communist "morality," for example), the Naturalist’s art itself had to portray a reality first; not the reality of omniscient organizers of reality but the reality of the imprisoned denied vision of anything beyond the four walls of his cell (and inner cell). Therefore, to the Naturalist, so-called Realism is fantasy. Ernest Hemingway’s own type of quasi-inner naturalism already regarded realists as suspect.
    But fantasy art's role, like anime, will continue to be equated with the functions of background music, chandeliers, relaxant drugs, tapestries, or postcards. Entertaining tools, mere artisans’ produce. Which does not exactly sound demeaning or insulting, but yet decidedly relegated to a lower echelon in the kingdom of criticism.
    Perhaps this is all cultural. The miracles in the Bible are not viewed by Christians as fantastic but rather as historical (or quasi-historical). And as for being a matter of degree, with realist art having more reality in it than fantasy, fantasy having less, this theory likewise turns suspect when we start to consider the claims of science fiction or fantasy literature authors that humanity exists purportedly not in the world of the "real" but in the inner landscape we carry with us everyday. This inner landscape could actually be in any setting at all, they'd say. So, a Milan café is no more real than a cave in Mars. And wherever fiction is located, the same real human principles apply, as it did among the power-brokering and struggles developing in The Lord of the Rings or Spiderman or Winnie the Pooh. As it does in the amazing cartoons of anime art. They might claim that an utter removal from readily-allusive reality creates that distance that allows humanity to focus on the principles by themselves, not on some trivial facts of everyday politics.
     For, sure, imaginativeness or creativity is probably exercised fully in fantasy literature and art (being armed with a freedom like those on the shoulders of basic-science researchers, unless pressured by a direct corporate or market demand). But one’s understanding of human behaviour is also exercised here. Wouldn't present human behaviour be better exposed in a sci-fi novel? These same exercises among fantasy authors and artists are also operational in fantasy readers and viewers. After all, when we come right down to basics, seeing the category "Fiction" in a magazine automatically relegates pieces in this zone to the level of fantasy vis a vis the claimed realism or objectivity of the news, and the reader accepts this fantasy, suspending disbelief in his submission. It’s time we admit that all art is nothing but fantasy, and that therefore our first obligation as artists is to art itself, avoiding being boring or un-fresh, especially when ready realist allusions realistically point to boring trivia about figures in current history, veering away from the distance of the mythologizing process of art.

THE RECENTLY-concluded US elections were full of fantasy and realism. A lot of real facts about George W. Bush’s and friends’ businesses in the Middle East were touted by his camp’s defenders as mere lies, and a collection of political measures and war-machine restraint in contender John Kerry as unrealistic. Meanwhile, some of us in the social liberal side of the globe were amazed at the restraint that Kerry displayed in avoiding mention of such red meat potentials against G.W. Bush as United Defence or Unocal, which Green Party candidate Ralph Nader (armed with the l'art pour l'art freedom to spill the most conservative-offending beans) would have no qualms mentioning and offering to the media head-on. Which filmmaker Michael Moore, as critic of both Republican and Democrat meta-narratives, had no reservations in exposing. Which Fox News, for all its denials of being a Republican propaganda bus stop, made open efforts to deny.
    Fantasy and realist portrayals are two approaches to the same thing---Art, which draws the myths and illusions of every profession and its accompanying uniform, of every business enterprise with its marketing, of every political career with its restraints and compromises, of every greed with its blueprint scheme and impending grand architecture, of every religious mission, and---finally---of every nation’s delusion, escapism, or self-imaging designs.
    But the only truly realist portrait is an inner one, because it draws the mythological and propagandistic face of a winner. This winning, however, is made possible by the art and lie of the imagination, combined with a restraint towards realist allusion. It is what makes all fantastic realities succeed. They succeed by virtue of an acceptance of their own mythology, which acceptance gives them the moral license to bare others' myths.

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