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My Snapshot Theory of Art

For December I am going to resurrect an old theme of this podcast and my life that never gets old so long as we are living together on this earthly plane - aesthetic style and diversity and their relationship to time.

Time and again in these blog posts I have brought up disparate works of art covering many decades and spans of time.

To name one favorite example, I talked about these old Broadway and off Broadway playbills I have saved from the 70s and 80s. But expanding outward from this particular and peculiar example from my own artistic interests I would argue that all works of art partly partake of what I would formulate as a "snapshot" existence.

That is, in addition to their real or potential universality or communication across great expanses of time they are also recorded documents of particular moment in time, just like a photographic snapshot of a people or a place. Very recently someone I know who is an artist made a comment that I have heard thousands of times in my life about many works of art.

Describing the show Girls, my interlocutor said that it had become "dated" and had not "aged well". Now if you look at the show Girls from the lens of my "snapshot" theory, by definition, Girls has to be a document of social life in the years of its production and especially the demographic and milieu it is meant to represent.

All works of art in this sense are "dated" no matter how free they are said to travel from the dates of their creation. At the same time, no work of art is only dated because they are involved with our humanity and all of us do travel from era to era as humans if we are so lucky. At the time of the show I watched it fairly religiously, usually at the apartment of a neighbor I happened to be seeing romantically during those years.

Given that I have never been married, had any roommates, and had gown up as an only child this would have been one of the rare times I watched something on any screen with another person with any regularity, in this case on Sundays.

This woman was about fifteen years older than myself and had claimed to have been at Woodstock while she was minor (!) Often in between sessions of intimacy she would talk rhapsodically of Woodstock in particular and the sixties in general, as having had a special smell and vibe which she claims to have not experienced in any location or era since.

So here was a case in which two people from completely different generations and in two different genders watched a television show made by people from yet another generation all of whom were communicating something through means of technology. What I really want to say is that, to name but one example, Sosh or Zosia Mamet's tone of voice and mode of rapid speaking was found on some young women in life at that time, and this might be charming in retrospect or at the time of her delivery, or it might be disliked by many who don't care for it.

But human beings in fact have accents and dictions when they speak; you can try to repress that our put a spotlight on it. But there is no getting around it and it is aesthetic.

It's all a matter of style.

Susan Sontag :"There are no style-less works of art, only works of art belonging to different, more or less complex stylistic traditions and conventions." People had an enormous amount of children in the affluent 90s and eventually, when adult, those people would have their own culture with their own styles.

The reason our podcast gets the name that it does is that an aesthetic response to works of culture is set apart from other kinds of response. In truth the story and meaning of the show Girls, when looked at aesthetically, is basically the stuff of all drama over recorded history, and a lot of that has to do with dramatic representation more generally, specifically human emotions, psychology, for lack of a better word, and relationship and all sorts of formal principles of how that is constructed in drama. I feel that as a culture we have forgotten what this in fact is.

We are awash in representations as never before at the very time that we refuse to acknowledge what a representation is or is for, including the important distinction between representation and real life. But in a culture that is hostile to aesthetics the show Girls gets lost for what it is and has to become some kind of verdict or litmus test about a period of time and the people in that period.

An aesthetic approach understands that we are always getting a precious snapshot of something, that there is no getting around this fact, and any work of art is created by people of great specificity in a given moment. The ideal of art is to help us embrace, or "hug" something for what it is or was meant to be and not reject it because of how much life has changed since the initial creation of a thing.

By hug I do not mean endorse or support, but to love and understand - which is of a whole other dimension than the legalistic one that would have us endorse or reject or agree or disagree. It is more of an ethic of "owning" all we have been and done as a species more generally over history.

Indeed sometimes we want something to be the most dated, particular if we are interested in what is most representative of a particular time that is seems far away from us. Of course this is far from the only purpose of art but I am tempted by the proposition that it might be fundamental, all the more so in eras of extreme amounts of change in short periods of time and our era is undoubtedly like that.

Melanie Mayron remarked to me about the show ThirtySomething that some of its style and wardrobe were of the 80s and appears ugly to some of us now but that what was most important about it was what was not tied in particular to the 1980s. But people could not have worn the wardrobe of the middle oughts in 1986: it simply was not possible because it did not exist.

I am making a plea for a certain spirit of generosity which is connected to basic curiosity. If you think about the possibility of a future Girls reunion in twenty years or so you can imagine Jenni Konner and Lena Dunham looking back on their younger selves with great interest.

They might say something like what you would hear on a commentary track: "remember that crazy day of shooting? Remember how we all were that Summer?"

But we are all like this.

And I wouldn't have it any other way. In the era of the show's prominence it was incredibly divisive.

I am of the opinion that my friend's criticism of the show, and she had been a fan of the show at one time, which would be seen as the polar opposite of criticisms of the show from an allegedly "misogynist" or anti-feminist point of view, those at the time, many of them women, who felt that the so-called "privilege" of the characters on the show did not represent them who were not so privileged or reality in general, that these are all versions or variations of the same "category error": they are essentially anti-aesthetic.

The have a preplanned assumption about what they want from a television show (and usually everything else as well) and all evaluation is conducted accordingly. But these assumptions don't come from a place of curiosity or openness to life itself. They come from particular agendas. If all such evaluations did come from such a place or openness and curiosity, people would simply want to see a t.v. show about any kind of human beings you could imagine, whether affluent, indigent, male, female, non-binary and more. All art is subject to the desire of the artist to make a snapshot of something that matters to them and it is up to us us to be open to that or not. People today speak, for example, of Jonathan Franzen's novel The Corrections as a book of its time and there are lots of details in that novel of its era, the styles of psychotherapy and family life, and office culture; some even see it as emblematic of the post 911 world. But it doesn't really matter if the novel is "more" than that, because the "just that" contains within it the more, at least implicitly.

I have often spoken of John Updike's Rabbit Is Rich as as the ultimate novel about the late 70s and it opens with the iconic line "Running out of gas."

But it is very important to have a record of these periods for future reflection. The opening of Rick Moody's The Ice Storm from 1994 has the narrator recite a long list of cultural matters and facts that did not exist at the time of the location represented in the novel. The novel is meant to take place in affluent Connecticut in 1973 yet we all know that Rick Moody had likely worked on this novel in the early 90s or maybe late 80s so the awareness that is possible in the novel is restricted to those particular eras which are separated by fifteen or twenty years - in some views no time at all.

Here is an excerpt from that opening: "No answering machines and no call waiting. No caller ID. No compact disc recorders or laser discs, cable television or MTV. No multiplex cinemas or word processors. Or laser printers or modems. No virtual reality. No Grand Unified Theory or Frequent Flyer Mileage or fuel injection system or turbo or pre-menstrual syndrome or rehabilitation centers or Adult Children Of Alcoholics. No codependency. No punk rock or post-punk, Hardcore or Grunge." The most interesting thing about this list, of course, apart from the effect of such words themselves as they accumulate (the most important thing from my point of view!) is how quaint they are from the vantage point of 2021. We could write a book about the Connecticut of 1997 and say that it was remarkable for having no TiKToc and no Twitter. Art emerges from human culture and social life and these are ruthlessly and relentlessly discontinuous. Even the things that conservatives think are traditional and have been around for a long time, if you do the research, you find they too are recent or appeared at a specific date where they had not existed before, or that large amounts of people did not care for the tradition but put up with it or were resigned to it, or simply eliminated if they suggested otherwise. Some of the discontinuity that can befall the arts is even sought by artists themselves who want to rebel against patterns and so-called traditions coming from the past. But if discontinuity - and difference - is the norm and not the exception, as I am saying is the case, is this not an ultimate invitation to us to change our consciousness to one of unconditional love?

This is what art wants from us in fact. And part of that lack of condition is to look at our older and former selves and see these as as real and worthy of embrace as our current selves. And it is a reminder that what all of us are now is subject to the disavowal, chagrin or embarrassment of our future selves where we might feel that we are now getting it all wrong.

We can never know for sure.

But an attitude of love wants that snapshot to see where we have been and where we have still to go which is is one of the aims of all art, as well as this podcast.

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