This post is going to bore a number of you to tears. But, damnit, my dad paid good money for my English degree, and I’m going to use it if it kills me.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about art. Specifically, the satisfaction art creates for its audience. What started me thinking was a weird little movie I watched the other day called A Woman Under the Influence. It was written, directed and produced by John Cassavetes and stars Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk. You’ll think you don’t know any of these people except for Columbo, but you do. Cassavetes played the part of Mia Farrow’s husband, Guy, in Rosemary’s Baby, and Gena Rowlands made you cry in The Notebook.
Cassavetes wrote and directed a number of movies in the sixties, seventies and eighties, much to the disappointment of critics and moviegoers. He was generally not well-received during his lifetime except for a handful of passionate advocates who seem to think as much of themselves as they do about Cassavetes. He’s known today as a pioneer in independent filmmaking, however. He made his movies in cinema verite style, which means weird camera angles, bad lighting, lots of script improvisation, unconventional plotting and long, looong scenes. Basically, it’s art trying to imitate life.
Cassavetes is described by many people who knew him as a temperamental, moody con-man prone to fits of rage and crying in public. They also call him a visionary. A brilliant artist who was underrated and under-appreciated. As with most visionaries, he was never widely-recognized as such in his lifetime. It is only now when his signature style has been adapted by today’s directors, watered-down and made accessible to the masses do some critics appreciate what he was trying to do.
Yet, judging from the Netflix member reviews of A Woman Under the Influence and other Cassavetes offerings, most folks still really, really hate his movies. And I have to admit, I started it once, didn’t understand it and turned it off. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I wondered if I was missing something. According to Roger Ebert, I was. Roger and I usually have the same taste in movies so I gave it another shot. During my second viewing, I stuck with it and eventually became entranced, riveted. I saw what Cassavetes wanted me to see, and I think it’s a brilliant, brilliant movie. Possibly one of the best I’ve ever seen.
I told you all of that to tell you this: You’d probably hate this movie with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. In fact, you’d probably never take a movie recommendation from me ever, ever again. But that, as they say, is okay. Because, getting back to my original point, art should satisfy you.
Once art is expressed, its fate rests in the hands of its audience. Some may like it okay, some may love it and go see it in the theater 72 times and some may talk about how much they hate it at every dinner party they go to for the rest of their lives.
But what is great art? This is the question that puts the panties of countless liberal arts professors, critics and those guys at the office who think they know everything in enormous wads. Some may argue that great art succeeds flawlessly in both function and form, endures for centuries and sets the standard for everything after it. Well, who can argue with that? Who among you would dare knock Shakespeare, Picasso or Citizen Kane? Who can deny the Beatles’ greatness and influence or say that Mad Men really kind of sucks? Well, okay, there are some who will. But it’s always the guys at the office who think they know everything and also think hatin’ on something universally recognized as great makes them cooler than thou.
But what really is great art? I mean, I would never deny Citizen Kane’s greatness. But I didn’t feel that movie in my bones like I did A Woman Under the Influence. Mostly what I remember about Citizen Kane was that Orson Welles was surprisingly kind of a hottie. I would swear on a stack of Norton anthologies that Shakespeare’s like will never be seen again, but none of his stuff made me cry like The Help did. And I see what made The Rolling Stones awesome, but I always switch the stations when one of their songs comes on.
I think what makes art great is the satisfaction you, its audience derives from it. To me, the appreciation of art is a deeply personal experience. So, it’s not what you should like, but what you do like. Because life is too short to hang Matisse if you don’t like Matisse. Art should enrich your life not make you feel obliged. In fact, your only obligation to art is to surround yourself with the pieces of it that make you feel happy. That satisfy you.
I’m afraid a lot of folks feel they owe something to those considered great artists. Maybe they also think agreeing with what is considered great says something about them. Conversely, I think a lot of folks think disagreeing with what is considered great also says something about them. The older I get, the more I’m realizing that neither is true and both are a waste of time. Just like what you like. Art survives and thrives in the world because each artist brings his own experience to his art. His own likes, dislikes, visions, fears, dreams, loves, wants, desires. And, inevitably, there’ll be those who respond to his art. Who see their own experience reflected in it. They’ll like it, and they’ll buy the CD.
Like I said, watching the Cassavetes movie got me thinking about all this. I think he’d agree with me. Well, after he got through ranting to me about how the Hollywood studio system corrupts and ruins everything in its path. Watching A Woman Under the Influence wouldn’t be a satisfying experience for a lot of people. Okay, most people. But it was for me. To me, it’s great.