Sunday, February 14, 2010

Art, or Something Like It

“The age demanded an image/ Of its accelerated grimace” Ezra Pound, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley", lines 21 & 22

Most scholars agree that industrialization had a major effect on both the production of “art” and “mass culture.” This shift seems to have resulted in a lot of derivative, and some would say inferior, popular art, the kind of “art” which Pound would likely call disposable and reprehensible. The interesting question in all of this analysis is what precisely constitutes “art” in this new culture of consumption and mass production.

This question can productively be applied to the art of social realist Ben Shahn. Shahn was an immigrant and trained in lithography and graphic design. Although he did pursue “modern art” in his earlier career, he later turned to a more realistic style in order to better contribute to social and cultural critique. It is interesting to note that Shahn also worked for the government, painting murals which were intended as supportive propaganda for federal relief programs, a project which allowed federally sanctioned vent for Shahn’s social criticism.

In his painting Farmers, Shahn represents 3 men, farm workers. The misery and hardship of their lives in clear in the men’s grim expressions, but interestingly the piece contains no overt sign of the cause of the men’s discontent. The painting was created in concert with the efforts of the FSA to record the plight of American farm workers.

Shahn’s work is usually in forms which are accessible to the public, either in the form of murals or easily reproduced poster work. Shahn’s art is clearly not avant-garde as Clement Greenberg defines it in his essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”; the pieces are not art for art’s sake, and are designed for the consumption of the masses, placed as they are in common public venues. They are clearly art with a social purpose, and a very clearly defined subject matter. Further, his art is more easily uinderstood than Picasso’s, in that he is slightly more realistic in his imagery and presentation, so it could be said that Shahn's work “predigests art for the spectator and spares him effort, provides him with a short cut to the pleasure of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art.” The whys and wherefores are not immediately clear, but the genral discontent of the farmers is obvious, so the viewer need not struggle for the piece's meaning. The content and intent of the piece are immediately clear and accessible, essentially painted in the vernacular: the imagery is familiar, drawn from the lives of the very people it is meant to affect. The image is realistic in its representation and takes as its subject matter the common man and his struggles, a subject which should be immediately clear to his target audience: the working man and those sympathetic to, or at least concerned with, his plight.

Further, because Shahn’s works are drawn in a realistic style which borrows from graphic design, and because they are placed for broad public/social access, they essentially combat and/or address the mass culture product which Theodor Adorno is so wary of. Shahn uses the style of mass media, poster art and graphic design, to address and combat the oppression which Adorno feels is so native to mass culture productions. Adorno describes popular culture as a meal at which “ the diner must be satisfied with the menu. . . . Of course works of art were not sexual exhibitions either. However, by representing deprivation as negative, they retracted, as it were, the prostitution of the impulse and rescued by mediation what was denied.” Popular culture is all empty promises and no substance, a distraction from the very real deprivations of modern life, and Shahn’s work, as art, delivers real substance and critique while clothed in a kind of popular drag.

Works Cited
Adorno, Theodor and Max Horkheimer. "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception." Web.

Greenberg, Clement. "Avant-Garde and Kitsch." Web.

Pound, Ezra. "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley." The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter. Boston: Wadsworth, 2006. Print.

Shahn, Ben. "Farmers." Painting.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Run Fat Boy, Run: Smutty Jokes and Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud suggests that “throughout the whole range of the psychology of the neuroses, what is sexual includes what is excremental, and is understood in the old, infantile, sense,” and further, that jokes which treat upon these primal sexual fascinations, being tendentious jokes, that is, jokes with larger intent, must be “either a hostile joke (serving the purpose of aggressiveness, satire, or defense) or an obscene joke (serving the purpose of exposure)” (116, 115). Given this framework for understanding puerile humor, I have chosen to examine the comedy of the film “Run Fat Boy, Run,” which is primarily physical and excremental. In the film, stunted man-boy Dennis, having run away from adulthood and commitment, literally fleeing his own wedding, takes on a quest for manhood by signing up to run the London River Run marathon with only a few weeks of preparation. Unfit, slovenly, and a frequent smoker, (clearly suffering from some setbacks during his oral phase of development) Dennis first takes on this challenge in a juvenile attempt to one-up his former fiancĂ©e’s new man, but through the course of the film the race, and Dennis’ preparation for it, becomes a very real catalyst for Dennis’ evolution from juvenile lay-about to responsible adult. Most germane to the purposes of this discussion is how obscene, exposing, and sexual humor is used throughout the film to evoke laughter.

This film is riddled with excremental and smutty humor, lousy with fart jokes, sexual innuendo, simulated ejaculation and masturbation, and emasculation by way of a speedy transvestite. In one of the early scenes, Dennis, a security guard for an upscale women’s lingerie boutique, is shown running down a shoplifting transvestite. As if being the guardian of fancy women’s under-things were not sufficiently emasculating, one of the audience’s first experiences of Dennis is watching him being outrun by a giggling, taunting transvestite, who gleefully cavorts and flaunts her frilly stolen knickers in Dennis’ face, just out of reach. Leaving aside any questions of the figuratively castrating effect of being unmanned by a transvestite, the obvious sexual overtones of the scene elevate it to a greater level of arguably both hostile and obscene tendentious humor. In this case, Dennis is the object of the joke, despite Freud’s assertions that a woman is generally the primary object, and the transvestite is exposing both Dennis’ shortcomings as a man and guardian of women’s unmentionables, as well as quite literally exposing a pair of pretty panties (arguably this exposure does frame women as a secondary object of the joke). This exposure makes Dennis both pitiable and laughable, allowing the audience to acquire a kind of release of primal aggressive urges through the safe, culturally sanctioned mockery of Dennis. As Freud writes “the repressive activity of civilization brings it about that primary possibilities of enjoyment, which have now, however, been repudiated by the censorship in us, are lost to us . . . so we find that tendentious jokes provide a means of undoing the renunciation and retrieving what was lost” (120-21). Essentially, hostile, puerile humor allows people to vent the frustrations and inexpressible baser urges which must be suppressed in order to cultivate civilization. Therefore, by causing the audience to laugh at Dennis’ emasculation, his many pratfalls, and the physical suffering and abuse he takes throughout the film, the comedy of “Run Fat Boy, Run” allows people a minor kind of relief from the repression of socially unacceptable urges.

Another excellent, though rather disgusting, example of the base humor of “Run Fat Boy, Run” can be observed in the well-known blister popping scene. The scene is disgusting and childish, as well as cringe inducing. As Freud says, “the technique of such jokes is often quite wretched, but they have immense success in provoking laughter” (Freud 121). This joke employs a handful of smutty themes to create a disgusting, and therefore both hilarious and horrifying, joke. The gag is hostile, in that a large part of the humor comes from Dennis’ pain and his friend’s reaction to that pain, as well as sexual: after the blister has been popped, pus is discharged into the friend’s face, which leads to a premature ejaculation joke, as well as an allusion to seminal fluid in the eye. Further, this sexual joke has a hostile element, because the scene involves two men, and therefore lends the joke a homosexual overtone. Because of this multi-layered gag, this joke allows the audience to laugh not only at Dennis’ real physical pain from the blister and preparation for the race, but also at the implied sexual inadequacy, which satisfies both the infantile fascination with the sexual as well as the suppressed human drive for aggression against one another. The joke exposes Dennis, in several senses. Further, the scene employs a kind of slapstick humor, which is pervasive throughout the film, and echoes the physical humor present in old school Chaplin or Stooges routines, only the pie or seltzer water in the face has been replaced by… well, pus.

(seriously, this scene is gross. Consider yourself warned.)

The primary source of humor in “Run Fat Boy, Run” is the juvenile fascination with sex and pain. Throughout the film, Dennis, the protagonist, is continually exposed and emasculated, an exposure which allows the audience to vent their own suppressed hostility and puerile fascinations. Fortunately, the distinction between humor of this type in film, directed and inspired by the suffering and shortcomings of a fictional character, and the same humor derived in real life from the suffering of real people, is that the hostile, exposing need can be relieved without a living target, and therefore is a kind of victimless “crime”, offering all of the vindictive enjoyment, without any real harm or insult.

Work Cited
Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. New York: Norton, 1989. Print.

Seriously, When Are You Going to Give Me Some Grandchildren?

The archetypal Jewish mother and her often contradictory traits (her excessive love, smothering pride, embarrassing cultural rigidity, and withering disappointment) have become a major trope in contemporary entertainment, particularly in the work of Jewish comics. As Martha A. Ravits suggests in the essay “The Jewish Mother: Comedy and Controversy in American Popular Culture,” this stereotypic figure functions both as a kind of in for Jewish artists to mainstream (white) mass culture, as well as a projection of their own unease and cultural/personal insecurities. This larger than life mother figure becomes a kind of scapegoat, onto which the comic can safely project his own unease over his at times almost liminal role in modern culture, his guilt both for assimilating and abandoning older cultural models, as well as for failing to assimilate enough to attain the ideal of American success. The Jewish mother stereotype becomes not only a filter for the Jewish comic’s self-loathing and fears, but also a personification of his ambiguous relationship with popular culture. Therefore, although this portrayal of Jewish mothers, and mothers or women in general, is blatantly misogynistic, it is more important, when examining her role, to question what she represents of her creator’s own shortcomings and insecurities.

It should come as a surprise to no one that Woody Allen has repeatedly used or referenced this behemoth of ethnic parental stereotyping. In Allen’s landmark film, Annie Hall, several scenes center on flashback visitations of protagonist Alvy Singer’s childhood home. In these flashbacks, Alvy’s mother screeches at Alvy, his father, and other family members, demanding that Alvy become a better son, a higher achiever, and a good Jewish boy (in one scene, Alvy’s family is transposed against Annie’s Norman Rockwellian family ham dinner. Alvy’s family declares, when asked, that they fast for holidays, to absolve themselves of sins which they themselves cannot name). Much like Alexander Portnoy’s mother in Portnoy’s Complaint, Alvy’s mother is a major figure in all of Alvy’s recollections of early life. She looms large, much like the roller coaster Alvy’s family home is situated beneath. The roller coaster itself is a very interesting metaphoric expansion of the Jewish mother: it is a howling, ever-changing, rattling monster looming over every moment of young Alvy’s life, a colossal, oppressive and omnipresent mother hen, literally perched above Alvy as he grows up, rattling his nerves and destroying any peace in the household. Not only does Allen’s Alvy have a literal Jewish mother to heckle him and push him into deep neurosis, he also has the mommy-coaster literally shattering his nerves throughout his early life.

Of course, in using the Jewish mother trope, even expanding it into the roller coaster metaphor, Allen, or at least Alvy, is largely projecting his own insecurities and expiating his personal guilt over his own shortcomings and interpersonal failings. Rather than address his own part in the shambles of his life and relationships, Alvy retreats into mother blame, and “Jew” blame; of course he can’t fit in Annie’s family, he’s a Jew, and her Grammy is a “Jew-hater.”

Interestingly, Ravits proposes that the Jewish mother stereotype is a way for Jewish comics to transition into, and connect with, a wider audience. The stereotype functions as a way of distancing the comic from that which his audience may dislike about “Jews,” and renders him acceptable, different. It also creates a sense of camaraderie: “we’re all in this together, laughing at this silly backwards woman.”