Art’s Social Reflexions

Not too long ago, in a reddit comment on r/Bioshock, I found myself entering into a bit of an exegesis about the nature of art, and its social function:

“Ultimately, “art” is any thing a human has created which is a “reflection” of that person’s world (for art to be non- or anti-representational is a choice; I doubt we’ll ever find a society whose art starts out as abstract). But “reflection” is not the best word, as that feeds into one of the main ideologies of art, that art can be passively considered and observed; an example of this is when artists (I think of Christopher Nolan and Kathryn Bigelow’s comments on their most recent films) say that their work merely reflects back at the spectator the culture which the artist and the spectator share. This is ideology, in the pejorative sense, insofar as all art is necessarily more than just a reflection of the society which gave birth to it: it is an instantiation of this culture, and an intervention into it. (One of ideology’s main functions, it seems to me, is to cover over the intricacies of this process by which supra-individual, societal things, from art to religion to gender to the market to politics, exist only by why of the actions of individuals who presuppose their existence independently of said actions.) In other words, art is political–moreover, the notion that a piece of art can be non-ideological, “purely for entertainment,” is, I believe, in fact the most ideological notion of art possible. (I say “I believe” specifically because I did not come up with this point about ideology. The credit for that belongs to Slavoj Zizek.)” (I’m sure BioShock: Infinite will get its own long analysis here in the future.)

In yet other words, art can be either reactionary or revolutionary: in extreme versions of the former case, it presents the world as a set system in which “each part has its place” threatened by some foreign invader (Scorcese’s Hugo is a good recent example of this), or on a more liberal level, as an open field in which one is able to peacefully hash out one’s differences towards the most pragmatic solution (liberal art post-9/11 generally focus on the need, in moments of emergency, to suspend this open field in order to ensure its continued existence; Nolan’s Batman films focus on this heavily)–that is, art as a mirror reflecting back a dialogue already going on, effectively reminding the (cynical-apathetic liberal) spectator that that dialogue exists and inviting them to participate in it. Revolutionary art, on the other hand, does not present the spectator with such a closed system, but with an open one, the abstract model being some system facing the possibility of its own collapse against the ascendency of a motley crew of the variety of those excluded from the operation of that system. Personally, I’m always fascinated by the strategy of “opening” the system presented in the work of art by directly including the position of the spectator in the work of art, “breaking the fourth wall” as is said. In comics, Grant Morrison is the most well-known and consistent user of this strategy (Alan Moore does it in Promethea but not much else; Promethea is his trying-to-be-Morrison work anyway), from Animal Man to Flex Mentallo in superhero works, or The Invisibles and The Filth.

Lately, I’ve been watching the new TV-series adaptation of the Thomas Harris novels we all know and love, simply titled Hannibal. It’s quite well done, and while perhaps merely a reflection of my own incipient psychoses, often seems to come to the edge of such self-recognition or reflection. Hannibal, being about insanity as it of course is, would perhaps present one of the better possible ways for a television series to self-recognize in this way. Unlike comics, and like film (drama is similar but more extreme in this way), television “enjoys” a certain overlap with its community of creators, a certain lack of autonomy as an artistic object. That is to say: isn’t the only honest way for a television (or film) character to become truly self-conscious of their being a character to do so in the mode of insanity? And moreover can’t we delineate different modes of such “insanity” along political lines? I’d argue that the liberal mode would be insanity as a sort of dissociative disorder, where the personalities of the actor and the character struggle for hegemony over their shared body; the right-wing or reactionary mode would be the character’s awakening to the constructed nature of their surroundings as a set while remaining a character, and perhaps struggling against the purely profit-base motivations of the producers and the like; while a more left-wing version would entail the first character to make this realization to recruit all his/her comrades in televisual voyeurism (the actor-characters perhaps suffering the liberal dissociative disorder, but they would hopefully also unite with the more proletarian elements of the show’s crew; such a thing would of course be nigh-impossible to pull off since it would have to be a real analysis of the show’s own productive conditions) in order to unite in struggle against both the enemies within the show’s reality and the producers manipulating the events (who of course would themselves be in cohoots).

But Hannibal does allow us a bit more of a concrete case than this more abstract construction. The left-wing analysis provided above is the more marxist-authoritarian one; Hannibal itself, for whatever reasons, lends itself to a more anarchist version of the metatextual self-recognition scenario. I can imagine the main character, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), having a “eureka!” moment, perhaps during a a session with Dr. Lecter, or in reaction to one of the more absurd moments of coincidence that being a character in a work of art sometimes entails (such as the narrative symmetry in the show’s fourth episode between the killer-of-the-week being driven insane by a brain tumor and his boss, Jack Crawford (Lawrence Fishburne)’s wife being revealed to have lung cancer). Such a moment entails his complete psychological breakdown, the interesting question of how to simultaneously “reveal” the inner workings of the show (sets, cameras, crew, etc.) while also presenting them as hallucinations, up to and including the moment, so well done in Morrison’s Animal Man, of the Meeting with God–which has the additional possibility, here of being a meeting with both or either Thomas Harris and Bryan Fuller (who created the TV adaptation of Harris’s novels). In either case, I would imagine this anarchist variant ending, after perhaps explicitly stating the radical message of the show (capitalism creates insanity among its members which is simultaneously the only subjective position able to destroy it) only to end with the creators murdering their character, insofar as, strictly speaking, his job, of providing a revolutionary message for the audience, is impossible, necessarily a fantasy. But then–couldn’t we take this as a sign of the liberal limitations of anarchism, of its inability to make the leap of faith necessary to escape liberal cynicism?

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