Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart were quick to point out the limits of satire—US Republicans control both houses and the Presidency—but the influence of the arts can be seen throughout our lives, from the toys and clothing that appeal to us as children to the critical life choices that we do or do not make later in life.
Artistic influence has its limits. Most people will eat ham sandwiches while watching “Babe” or reading “Charlotte’s Web,” or attend a Seaworld show after crying at “Free Willy.” Some will join the army after the message of “Full Metal Jacket” or “Paths of Glory” passes them by. Some will put “Mary Poppins” on in another room so that they can keep their children occupied while getting on with their important work that puts food in the kids’ mouths.
Perhaps artists get more out of the arts than those that experience it.“Guernica” was a psychologically profound moment for Picasso and it touches viewers, but they may not make as much of it as he did and wars still go on. Actor James Cromwell famously became a vegan and animal rights campaigner through his experiences making “Babe.” Yet while “Free Willy” may not have had the same effect, the documentary “Blackfish” has lead to a large downturn in Seaworld’s profitability and their taking in no more orcas.
I see all the profound messages in “Babe” and “Charlotte’s Web” now, but when I was growing up (it is difficult to assess these things later) I somehow saw these stories as outside the sphere of my own moral concern. I certainly knew the shooting of the wolf in “Dances With Wolves” was bad, and a tear came to my eye when they shot “Old Yeller,” but our treatment of pigs is very ingrained and difficult to break free from. My main concerns as a boy were aspiring to be as cool as Michael J. Fox and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and to be easily lead by the blatant advertising of such (poorly received by posterity) efforts as “Mac and Me” and “The Wizard.”
I don’t know how anybody could see it as fashionable, but nothing seemed cooler to me than the “life preserver” that Marty McFly wears in “Back To The Future.” His blasé likeability, his peculiar but endearing walk and manners of talk and movement, were only outdone by the sheer muscular magnificence of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime.
How near to this overdone idyllic human form a small modestly athletic boy thinks he is going to get is a curious question to consider. Nevertheless, when the 1992 Barcelona Olympics were happening—beginning at about dinnertime and running overnight—I remember being inspired to more healthful activities, exercising even more than usual, and feeling a plain pride at the strengthening of my arm and leg muscles.
Not having been anywhere near as fit since, this could be seen as something, at the age of eleven, of a distressing highpoint. I knew that the aspiration was illusion (and not the true direction for me of professional ambitions), but there was a foreign yet familiar coolness to Arnie in those years that was oddly inspirational to a young lad.
Our perceptions are haunted so much by bits and pieces of phrases. Sting taught me how “fragile we are”; Crowded House of a lover’s “slow, turning pain”; Meat Loaf concerning what happens in sweaty teenager’s cars; Paul Simon that the “whores on 7th Avenue” can lead a lonely someone “to feel some comfort there.” I certainly did not hear the word “whore” anywhere sooner than that song, because I have listened to and loved Paul Simon’s music since I was a toddler. Cecelia’s lover underwent a weird bed-switch, and Simon once saw a “roly-poly little bat-faced girl,” and he wants Joe DiMaggio to return to the moral or popular landscape of his nation. Perhaps I learned more about the ways of the world, poetically, from no one more than Paul Simon and Neil Finn.
Even cutting so near, and absorbed so meaningfully and unforgettably, these words have their limits; they are beautiful, and in early childhood teach in roughly outlined ways about later life which may still be for us powerful reminders (like “Mary Poppins” or “Cats In The Cradle”). They can change mood, attitude, and style, but are they nonetheless taken rather apathetically? Or liked or copied superficially?
All of us, after all, are emperors with “new clothes.” It’s not uncommon to want to look hip like James Dean or Marilyn Monroe, but how many people nowadays have seen Dean’s three amazing lead performances, or Marilyn Monroe’s greatest films? If they had seen them, is there anything more to be learned—than the surface reminders in entertainment—of the general prompt to be good, and to nourish and nurture the unique experiences of life (sometimes with a healthy dose of scepticism)—that is to say, to direct us towards the things that we already knew?
Paul Simon is unlikely to be reduced to faded iconic images, but it may very well be that his extraordinary songs—nearly every one of them on over a dozen albums—become reduced to fans that love “Mrs. Robinson” and “The Sound of Silence,” and who considered once that it might be worthwhile to watch “The Graduate.” Even if they knew every song as captive fans do, what are such fans to the works of art but admiring onlookers, those that see the beauty but, like fans at a sports field (and sometimes jealously protective ones), just show up to admire it (and hear what they want to hear “and disregard the rest”)?
Beauty in itself enriches our lives—in a finally superficial and temporary way, except if we ourselves turn it into art—and is liable to make us feel a blank feeling, or mad, if it turns out it has no use to us. Men have treated women (or vice versa) that way, when they admire aesthetics over personality. And the question remains: If taste in possessions won’t do it (and shared interests in art are a frail thread to prop a relationship on), how does one show their true personality?
It is almost shameful to admit, but I have drunk scotch while watching “Mad Men”—something I only get now and then, and now almost never. I wanted to wear a stripped-back McFly-style parka as a child, and have the needless desire watching a pertinent show to take the edge off as an adult. I wanted to improve myself like Levin when reading “War and Peace,” and to make a go of things in the world reading “Old Goirot” or “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” I want to be friendlier than I may naturally be watching “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” and funnier or wittier while watching “30 Rock” or “Gilmore Girls” (which in most of us might quickly become insufferable).
The primary lesson of the arts is to take an interest in the consequences of our internal lives and our actions and also those of others—to be suspicious of some, the Iagos and the Claudiuses and the Macbeths of the world, but to know, as the Jean Renoir saying goes, that, from these characters to Anna Karenina to Jean Valjean, “everyone has their reasons.” Perhaps if we can pretend to care about fictional pigs, we can learn to say hello to our shy but kind neighbours; but these days, we are more likely to be streaming some new show, or reading and writing about it than to be compelled by art to seek them out.