Tuesday, June 01, 2004

More to the point

Yesterday I drew attention to two young men who, in 1927, had come to certain conclusions about the purpose and value of art. Oddly enough, on another continent another young person was expressing much the same point of view at much the same time.

I have on my bookshelf a collection of essays first published in America in 1928 and entitled The Art of Playwriting. One of the contributors to this book had an acquaintance called Jennie, who worked long hours in a beauty parlour. Jennie had this to say:

‘When I go home at night I’m too tired for anything. I can’t sleep, I can’t read, I can’t speak, and I don’t want nobody to speak to me. But for five cents I can go to the movies and sit and rest and see things I never could see any other way -- grand people, wild animals, foreign cities, wonderful houses and strange beautiful things. And I forget about myself and go home all made over. And the things I have to stand from him [her husband] don’t seem half so hard.’
Now that’s not very difficult to understand, is it?

My friends, art is all about alienation, and the alleviation of same. Marx was right (Karl, that is, not Groucho): in industrial society, man lives in a state of alienation. (Feminists please note: man, as the old joke has it, embraces woman.)

We need go back no further than 1750 to find that lives then were lived quite differently. At that time, most people lived in the country, and worked in agriculture. They were, literally, close to nature -- ever conscious of the weather, the changing seasons, the progress of the crops. And the novel, please notice, had barely been invented. Cinema, radio, television, recorded music, all of these were not even science fiction.

Move on to 1900, and you find that most people now live in cities. They frequently work in factories, undertaking repetitive work for long hours. They may very well go to work before dawn, spend all day with barely a glimpse of daylight, and stagger home in the dark. Office workers and those in the service industries don’t fare much better.

If that isn’t a state of alienation I don’t know what is.

Today, many of us no longer work in factories which concentrate on mass production. But we travel long distances to work; once there, we rush from meeting to meeting, grabbing a sandwich at lunch, answering the mobile phone as we go. We develop headaches, ulcers, and back problems, and we have what used to be called nervous breakdowns.

In my judgement, it is no coincidence that the process of industrialisation and its associated alienation led, simultaneously, to a tremendous growth in the entertainment media.

Over the 250 years since 1750 we have seen the development of radio, various formats for recorded music which can be played at will, cinema, television, and of course the print media. We have hundreds of satellite channels, computer games, video-recorders, DVDs. The average person spends over 20 hours a week watching television alone.

The output of the entertainment media is hungrily consumed because such consumption helps to combat our sense of alienation. I think we have to accept that most of us simply cannot do without the constant doses of emotion which the media provide. Judging by our behaviour, most of us can no more survive without such intake of entertainment than we can survive without water. Thus the purpose of ‘art’, as young Theo pointed out yesterday, is primarily to provide pleasure. It is valued in direct proportion to its capacity to perform this function.

What are the implications of this for the working writer (or artist in any other medium)? Of that, more, perhaps, tomorrow.


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