A Chaos of Taste in the Arts

By Bob Litton

“To judge rightly of an author, we must transport ourselves to his time, and examine what were the wants of his contemporaries, and what were his means of supplying them. That which is easy at one time was difficult at another.”
Samuel Johnson, Lives of the Poets, “John Dryden

It is virtually impossible for me to imagine anything that so completely informs ourselves and our environs as taste, both physical and mental.  The subject is so vast, in fact, that it cannot be covered adequately in an essay, only possibly in a very large book.  It is necessary, then, for me to circumscribe my topic to a fairly small part of the idea of taste.  Perhaps as I proceed, though, we might find that that small slice will be fertile for extrapolation to other areas.

I was agitated to write about dramatic irony by a friend who forwarded to me an essay by Stanley Fish, a professor of Humanities and Law at Florida International University.  Fish’s essay was a rebuttal of reviews he had read of the film Les Miserables. After having read the reviews, Fish went to see the film — twice; he said he “loved it”.  Two common criticisms of the film to which he took exception were (1) that the music was unrelievedly repetitive and emotionally manipulative, and (2) that the close-ups were too much “in your face”,  so much so that the audience could see the actors/singers’ larynxes.  (A third criticism — that the “prosaic lyrics” were sung directly rather than lip-synced — I will ignore because it is a purely technical matter and, to me, of minor importance.)

I, too, saw Les Miserables, although only once and on a 9-inch by 12-inch computer monitor.  Early on, I recognized what the critics meant by “repetition” and (intended) emotional manipulation.  The continual drumming of refrains, which I will paraphrase as “O look down and see what you are doing to us!” and “Oh woe are we!”, I began to feel would never end; but I was not manipulated into feeling sorrow for those folks, only pity for me  because I was going to have to sit through nearly two hours of this wailing.  As for the “in your face” close-ups, however, I did not perceive any of that; the film seemed fairly regular in distancing, in line with other modern films I have seen.  (However, I will note here as an aside that I have been annoyed of late by TV commercials where “customers” were so excessively up close that I could see the pores in their skin: there is such a thing as a “comfort zone”, people!  Also, in a video tape I treasure of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Concert in Central Park”, the segment where Art Garfunkel sings “Bridge Over Trouble Waters” —a great song! — is marred, at the point where he holds a high note several seconds, by a close-up that practically peers into his throat.)  What I did notice in Les Miserables, negatively, was the general darkness throughout the film; I also had noted even worse lighting in the new film Lincoln the day before.  Available lighting is reportedly part of the new cinematic philosophy: a part that disgusts me as much as the other new principle: indistinct dialogue — virtual whispering at times.  Thank God for closed captioning!

Fish argued that the critics were holding onto an out-dated theory of “dramatic irony”, which he defined as “…a brief against affirmation, against the unsophisticated embrace of positive (unqualified) values”.  He broadens that definition, relative to the theater and plastic arts, to mean a distance between the performers and the audience that allows knowledgeable viewers (i.e., the critics) room to evaluate their performances.  In reaction to irony, some modern painters have adopted a philosophy called “Color Field painting”, which, according to Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, involves “‘flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth…figure and ground are one, and the space of the picture, conceived as a field, seems to spread out beyond the edges of the canvas.’”  Fish adds: “As a result you are not encouraged to engage in higher-order thought about what you are viewing; it’s all very elemental; it hits you straight on.”   In other words, “Vamoose, you middle men, you low-down higher-order critics!”

Now, I wish to dispose of Prof. Fish’s arguments as quickly as possible and get on to more substantive aspects of the audience vis-à-vis the stage and the characters upon it.  Firstly, a dictionary’s definition of “dramatic irony”:

The dramatic effect achieved by leading an audience to understand an incongruity between a situation and the accompanying speeches, while the characters in the play remain unaware of the incongruity.
From The American Heritage Dictionary (2009)

The most telling example of this literary element is Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, in which Oedipus unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother.  I won’t take up space here relating the plot of this classical play, only note that it is full of surprises for the characters and accumulating tensions for the knowing audience.  How could anyone, now or in Hellenic Greece, argue against the dramaturgical need of such a device?  It’s almost as basic as the stage itself.  Of course, fashions and languages change over the centuries as do subject matter and acting technique.  Aristotle’s dogma of the “unities” (a play’s action should be restricted to a single place and a single day) was ignored by Shakespeare and has been even more radically but naturally abandoned by today’s space-age script-writers.  However, I cannot recall hearing about, or reading any convincing argument for, abandoning dramatic irony, although I will acknowledge that I am not broadly read in the subject.  As Samuel Johnson remarked in his “Preface to Shakespeare”:

The truth is that the spectators are always in their senses, and know, from the first act to the last, that the stage is only a stage, and that the players are only players.  They came to hear a certain number of lines recited with just gesture and elegant modulation.

This whole direction in avant garde arts is, to me, a sign of the exhaustion of artistic creativity.  It shows up everywhere: obscenities in the scripts, second-time remakes of movies, TV series copying other TV series’ themes (e.g., vampire loves and crime scene procedurals), reality TV shows running over fictional shows, movies with loud and now trite special effects, and minimal dialogue.  The plastic arts are no better: painters trying to convince us that their single horizontal line across a canvas is a work of genius because there’s little to nothing there except its pattern, two colors, or texture.  (One painter especially seems to have taken the old demurrer of “I can’t draw a straight line!” as a personal challenge to do just that…and only that.)  As in the continual radicalizing of clothing and haircuts, so the younger generation seems so bereft of a generative self-concept that they grasp at the outrageous to make themselves noticed.  I can imagine one young sculptor now who, after defecating, invites his patrons into his bathroom to admire his latest creation in the toilet.

But now let’s step up to a more philosophical plane — that level which Fish calls the “higher-order thought” — and thumb through some old questions about taste.  The 18th Century empiricist philosopher David Hume held two seemingly conflicting beliefs at the same time: that beauty is in the mind of the beholder (i.e., subjective) and that nonetheless there is a standard of taste which is universal though only so in its most abstract or extreme forms.  He notes, in his essay “On the Standard of Taste”, that:

Beauty is no quality in things themselves: it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them, and each mind perceives a different beauty.  One person may even perceive deformity where another is sensible of beauty, and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment without pretending to regulate those of others.

On the other hand, he wrote:

Whoever would assert an equality of genius and elegance between Ogilby and Milton, or Bunyan and Addison, would be thought to defend no less an extravagance than if he had maintained a molehill to be as high as Teneriffe, or a pond as extensive as the ocean.

(John Ogilby [1600-1676] wrote translations of Homer and Virgil that were ridiculed by John Dryden and Alexander Pope.  John Bunyan [1628-1688] was a popular preacher and the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, which, although considered low literature in Hume’s day, is now considered a classic work.)

I would hazard a guess that Bunyan is read by more people now than is Joseph Addison.  Ironically, as Hume said, centuries pass by and taste changes.  But that is not to say that Hume and Addison are not worth reading; Hume’s style, particularly, is precise and his content is informed.  He tried to be as tolerant as anyone could be and very likely was more so than many others of his day.  He acknowledged that he was limited by the conventions and values of his age and country:

[W]e are more pleased in the course of our reading with pictures and characters that resemble objects which are found in our own age or country than with those which describe a different set of customs.  It is not without some effort that we reconcile ourselves to the simplicity of ancient manners, and behold princesses carrying water from the spring, and kings and heroes dressing their own victuals.

But back to the question of the audience and the stage.

In 1947, Margo Jones opened the first professional theater-in-the-round in Dallas, Texas. Amateur stages of the type had existed at colleges since the early 20th Century but hadn’t been used for professional performances for nearly two millennia, according to Wikipedia.  “In 1972, RG Gregory,  (a British dramatist, actor and producer), started the Word and Action theater company in Dorset, England, to work exclusively with theater-in-the-round.  He sought to create a grammar that would enable actors to maximize the form’s potential for connecting with the audience, both as individuals and as a collective.  All Word and Action productions were performed in normal lighting conditions without costume or make up.” (Wikipedia) Aha! So that is where all this dim lighting and whispering I complained about originated!

Gregory preached that the dominant Proscenium stage is “analogous to the seat of power”, that it places the audience in the role of passive receivers.  The theater-in-the-round effectively eliminated the “fourth wall” (i.e., the front of the stage through which the audience viewed the action of the world existing on the stage).  The theater-in-the-round format was a bit hard on actors trained to consider it bad form to turn their backs to the audience.  However, according to Gregory’s theory, the audience was now positioned to have to react to the play, to become part of the action.  I recall a New Yorker magazine cartoon of the 1970s showing an actor in period costume standing in a theater aisle and asking an audience member if he was going to just sit there and let one of the other characters abuse a third one.

It appears to me that we are talking about three degrees of ignorance here: the character ignorant of his fate; the actor ignorant, at times, of the audience; and the audience ignorant, until the denouement, of all the facts in the drama before them.  Oddly enough, this was not usually the case in ancient Greece’s tragedies because the plays were derived from well-known myths and epic poems.  However, it is quite common in modern detective TV shows and movies, where much information to which the audience  had no access is suddenly presented in the last scene during the detective’s wrap-up of the mystery.  That, I agree, is an irritating use of dramatic irony; yet, we all can accept the fact that it is very difficult to compose a plausible mystery that remains a mystery until the end while having presented all the relevant facts piecemeal and camouflaged throughout the story or play.  And mysteries are generally accepted as “low-brow” escapist entertainment, so it hardly behooves us to complain about what is simply an amusing recreation, like an Easter egg hunt.

As for more serious dramatic productions, I haven’t the power or authority to dictate to directors or other artistes how they present their works.  All I can say is that, until they return to making their products visible, audible and less dependent on grossness and special effects, I won’t attend to them.



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