Monday, October 26, 2015

More on Art, Entertainment, and the Mafia

This image created by an artist identified as Chewu on Deviant Art.

In response to yesterday's blog post about my feelings when auditioning for "mafia stuff," Socionaut of Las Cruces, New Mexico writes:
That is what separates entertainment from art. I believe there is a distinction, and in the case of film and theater that distinction is bad writing. To be shocked at the amount of italians playing mobsters neglects the amount of blacks playing streetwise thugs, whites playing arrogant businessmen and women playing helpless, lovelorn solipsists. As a German American who spent the first half of his life in Germany, surrounded by German culture, i could make the same argument about the lack of German characters in film who are not explicitly or implicitly making one handed salutes.  
To complain about what is understood in mass culture is a futile enterprise, and to give a shit is equally Sisyphean. If you want something different create it, just don't expect the masses to throw Benjamins your way. 


Thanks for commenting, Socionaut. I hope you won't be intimidated if I make your comment the topic of its own blog post.  

The distinction of "art" from "entertainment" is an interesting question because I suspect people approach it with very different impressions of what these categories might mean, and their relative values.  I don't have any intellectual need to divorce entertainment from art. Art is often quite entertaining. Chekhov, a playwright with a reputation for being very high brow, wrote plays that are often funny when performed well. Likewise Shakespeare (whose audiences were not "high brow"). 

For a modern example, take a well-written situation comedy intended purely for entertainment. It may or may not be executed well, yet the cheesiest and most inept example you can find still involves writing, acting, choice of costume, set design, lighting, and photography. We can debate its value and purpose but I'll call it "art." The Cosby Show - decades before Bill Cosby's recent fall from grace - was on a surface level a simple situation comedy about a family. It was, in addition to that, groundbreaking for American culture with respect to media representations of African Americans.

Somewhere in my piece you seem to have the impression I am "shocked at the amount of italians playing mobsters neglects the amount of blacks playing streetwise thugs." If you go back and reread a little more carefully, you will not find a single complaint that actors of Italian heritage would play a mobster. I'm not "shocked" or angry about it in the slightest; I simply discussed my own feelings about it. I also don't agree that talking about this "neglects" other ethnic stereotypes or gender stereotypes. I chose to write about an example close to me. From the personal example the reader can extrapolate the broader theme. That doesn't mean I'm ignoring or erasing other groups' experience.

"To complain about what is understood in mass culture is a futile enterprise." Preposterous. You've just dismissed entire fields of sociology, cultural studies, and media studies as without value - not to mention art that concerns itself with culture. "To give a shit is equally Sisyphean." That's up to you, I guess. I care about the world in which I live and in which my children are growing up. I also care about human lives in faraway places. 


Human progress is rife with tragedy and farce alike, and certain patterns that repeat, and social forces that can make an individual doubt her agency in the world - all true. Whether this is like Sisyphus's punishment is matter of what you value. Remember, Sisyphus was being punished by a God and truly had no way out, whereas human beings make their own suffering and there is a way out.  

A great deal of harm is justified by the need to make money. Actors acquiesce to playing roles that perpetuate - teach - stereotypes that contribute to social harm because "work is work." I can understand that reason (worrying about money is a daily struggle for me too), but the actor is still responsible. Artists don't get to use a Nuremburg defense and say, "The industry made me do it." Sorry. When we cash the check and play the role, we are involved.

Creating new work is an answer, you're right about that. Where and how are commercial tastes made? Harlan Ellison's old argument about television was that if you feed people a diet of Hamburger Helper, they will expect Hamburger Helper for dinner; if you feed them filet mignon, they might develop an appreciation for that, too. Network television probably wouldn't have predicted that a quiet, non-violent show about people rebuilding New Orleans and preserving its culture after Hurricane Katrina would attract much of an audience, but someone did it and that show ran for four years on HBO.  I could write a drama about Italian railroad laborers and maybe someday I will. 

But whether I do that or not doesn't prevent me from observing and pointing out the presence of stereotypes in popular media today. Requiring people to change an entire industry for the right to criticize is simply an exercise in shutting down critique. It's like saying to a political protester, "Why don't you unseat your military dictator instead of complaining about him?"

Neither does it prevent me from being openly curious about why mafia stories grab so many people's imaginations - including hip hop culture's fascination with it. I could speculate that maybe there is something appealing about aspects of these organizations as they are portrayed in movies. Tight-knit organizations, a sacred code of honor, a sense of style and panache (la bella figura). I can understand the appeal of these depictions. Perhaps there is some sense of cultural solidarity, too, with ethnic groups that were despised in the dominant 'white' culture of the U.S. (Italians are 'white' now but it wasn't always so.)

But compare these depictions to the real-life mafias - to the Sicilian organizations, the yakuza, the cartels of Mexico, the mafias of eastern europe, the life of real-life participants like Maurizio Avola (who admits to committing 80 murders in an 11 year period and some 40 armed robberies - bella figura?), certain people I met growing up in Rhode Island, the ultimate nihilism of their greed and violence, and the romanticism becomes rather distasteful. Or trite, if you've lost taste.

1 comment:

Socionaut said...

Perhaps you are interpreting either of our opinions as something more than opinions?
Now, to interpret futility in complaining about mass culture as saying anything about academic pontificating is reaching. Sisyphus found meaning in his punishment. That said, I stand by my statement that complaining does not do anything. But people like to complain, and it is easier than action. Social media is full of complaints, and my point was that concerning oneself with what is popular (“Big Bang Theory”, Kardashians, Progressive politics) is to throw yourself behind the big rock.
There is nothing in my statement that even suggests reducing art to its commercial value. The main point is that if you want something different, create it. MASH? I have seen a few episodes, but not sure if any of them approached the biting satire that was Altman's work.
I'm interested in how “i need money” is different than “just doing my job” as far as your example goes. They seem to be in the same territory.