Sunday, December 17, 2006

Thoughts on Borat and the religion of pop-art

A few weeks ago, I followed the hype into the theater and saw Borat.

I care about the idea of decency and decent behavior and I also care about art. I’d like to think that the two can co-exist somehow. Unlike some among the secular avante-garde, I don’t believe that decency is ultimately the enemy of truly great art – even thought the two might rub each other the wrong way sometimes. Art that is worth something contains a refracted bit of truth and/or beauty that has, at least the potential, to be taken captive to make people, ultimately, that much better, more thoughtful, understanding and decent.

Of course, we live a culture where transgressive pop-art is given a great deal of largess to break continually push and break all sorts of social boundaries and conventions. This is a “tradition of the new and shocking” that extends from Dada to spray-can graffiti to George Carlin to gansta rap and more. Each of these art forms have better and worse elements to them and contain bit’s and pieces of valid aesthetic novelty and refracted pieces of truths about life, society.

The thing that separates the good versions of these from the bad is that the shock value was a byproduct of the statement that they were making. Unfortunately, lesser artists have tried to advance the “tradition of the new and shocking” and think that they have made great art if they have succeeded in shocking people. Of course when so much is shocking it is no longer shocking, and second rate avante-garde artists must do ever crazier things to shock people, and shock becomes as much a sport and a business as an “art”.

For reasons that would take another several essays to explain fully, many in our society have made pop-art into a secular religion. It is from this ultimate value placed on art that they have decided that the good transgressive pop-art can’t be had without the bad, and so it is better not to question any of the shocking pop-art that comes along. In the society that has made a secular religion out of pop-art, there is no social boundary valued by civilized people that sacred enough to be free from the potential the intrusions of transgressive art.

Of course Susan Sontag might have said once that it’s philistine to try to explain art. Others have said that only future generations have a right to decide what the good art of our present age is anyway. Since we’re the future to the past, the question of what makes good art good is relevant for those who want a society that is not given over utterly and completely to the largess of transgressive art. As philistine as it may be to some, I still say that it is worthy to try to take the truth and beauty of good art captive to the realm of decent thought and behavior. I say that the only alternative to taking art captive is to operate as a “feeling jellyfish” going from art to art, entertainment to entertainment, hedon to hedon.

It was one thing when transgressive art was the province of thinking bohemians who discussed amongst each other what they were doing and the changes in society that they wanted to make. Now, several decades later, there is great money to be made shocking people, and there are so many people willing to buy what is shocking, or at least mildly shocking, to be cool. Back in the day, the bohemians and beatniks had something to rebel against. These days, the shock infrastructure has become so big that it is part of new establishment. The shock establishment and its cousin, the “push the envelop” establishment spans all manner of music and movies. Meanwhile, as epitomized by Starbucks, the coffee house where bohos once examined life has become a commodified and hollowed out shell of its former existence – a hedon central where one can sip a latte, check one’s bank account on one’s laptop and hear Bob Dylan pumped in via satellite radio.

Back in the day long before Starbucks, bohemians might actually sit down and discuss what they were doing and why. In the sixties, and it was the transgressive surrealist agit- prop and pop-art that coincided with a zeitgeist were people questioned and largely abandoned the very idea thoughtful dialogue.

And yet the transgressive art apologists want to defend Borat on the idea that it will “get us to think” and spur discussion” about our social mores and our latent evils. They say this in the midst of a social and economic infrastructure in 2006 that is not oriented around dialogue or around the act of thinking, but is rather oriented around a continuous supply of low-grade shock entertainment.

To respond to this charge, the transgressive art apologists—the same one’s who defended Eminem as he slandered his own mother—have a nigh religious mystical belief in the all encompassing power of art to tweak our consciousness. To them, all we need to do is to allow ourselves to be subjected to the art and go about our lives and pursue our bliss as best we can and let it be. To them, the truth that is contained in the good in transgressive art will rise up in our consciousness like bubbles from the bottom of a lake, and enlighten us even despite the ubiquity of all that is bad and quite apart from our making any effort at a sense of mastery over those passé ideas of truth, decency and beauty. To them, we should just sit back, go along for the ride, sip our lattes and let the art-produced hedons light up our pleasure centers and let the shock do what it must to our nervous systems.

Of course, humor in particular is a complex thing that is connected to our pre-articulate selves. Even so, it is like any other art that can be taken captive. George Carlin, for example, does not believe that anything words are sacred and takes his belief to a logical conclusion wherein he does not recognize the difference between harmful pretenses and those that negotiate any sense of innocence or sacred space. Nevertheless, there is a point that any decent people can take from his famous rant on “post traumatic stress disorder” vs “shell shock”. Like George Carlins rant about “post traumatic stress disorder”, there is all manner of humor that has the edge that it has because it unleashes a catharsis of something that we hadn’t examined and that we should.

In regard to Borat, I’ve read commentators that he is making a point about latent anti-bigotry and anti-semitism in the heartland of America. When I saw the movie, what I actually saw were many people who were just ignoring his remarks and/or humoring him. It’s hard to know precisely how where their humoring of him ends and where their latent bigotry, if any begins. As Dennis Prager said, there is real and virulent anti-semitism to be found elsewhere in the world. I suppose that there is something to be discussed on that particular point in regard to the nature of courage, and whether one’s silence in the face of bigotry of any kind is tantamount to agreement. Then again, I wonder how much anyone can be expected to confront a big, strange, loud, clueless and possibly crazy man like Borat when they are caught by surprise.

Aside from the oblique questions about the latent bigotry, the question that kept popping into my mind as I watched Borat is this: what human cost, in the way of hurt feelings and humiliation of others is worth the price of trying to be funny? There is the transgressive tradition of Any Kaufman/Clifton and Doug Hendrie who make humor mocking their unwitting audience. At that least in their comedy no one was unwittingly and permanently plastered to a screen for all to see, and for the comedian to profit from. There is also the tradition of confrontational and humor laden documentaries a la Michael Moore, who wears his social commentary on his sleave. I suppose the best one can hope for in regard to transgressive artists such as these is that they are held to finding a balance between minimal human cost for maximum social commentary to make their point. In this regard, people were right to criticize Michael Moore for bothering an Alzheimer ridden Charleton Heston to make “Bowling for Columbine”.

So I’ve asked myself, is Borat the thinking man’s “Jackass”? Is there a deeper social commentary to Borat? And what is the point of making transgressive art if it is not to spur change or to unveil something in our society that which needs unveiling? Is it to make fun of civilized people?

As for the USC frat boys in Borat, I went to USC and knew the beer blathered set of frat boys. Watching them commiserate with Borat’s bigotry and sexism was more sad than funny.

As for the Romanian townspeople who were duped into getting paid next to nothing and felt humiliated for being made to look like debased and wretched Kasahkstanis – is that funny? Does the funny factor justify it?

Was it funny that Borat was taking a crap in public space in New York, jacking off in front of a mannequin? Sure it was funny for anyone who already likes “Jackass”, and at the end of the day civilized people still won’t do those things, nor even consider them.

What about Borat mocking the bathroom conventions and hospitality to strangers? Was it funny to anyone beyond the “Jackass” set, and is there a deeper point that wiser, future generations will see that I missed?

Was it funny running around naked and wrestling naked in a hotel convention to anyone beyond the “Jackass” fans? After they get over their shock, civilized people will still not be running naked in a hotel, or even consider it.

Was it funny watching Borat ruin $200 worth of antiques in an antique shop? At the end of the day, civilized people will still not wontonly ruin antiques.

Was it funny that kids were scared by a bear after running up to get ice cream? At the end of the day, kids will still be scared of bears and civilized people won’t subject kids to it.

Unfortunately, it is also part of the religion of pop-art to hold to the idea that our uncivilized selves are a more real, true and authentic expression of ourselves than our civilized selves. I think that Sasha Cohen belongs to that religion and is an evangelist for it. And as for him making fun of the “thin veneer of civilization” in Borat, what could be more primal and authentic than his need to promote himself by any means necessary? At the end of the day, each of the social conventions that he mocked that are upheld by civilized people will swallow up around Borat’s outrageous behavior like a tree that grows around and envelopes a rusty nail punched into it. This is because these social conventions have a claim to truth, while Borat’s behavior only has a claim to shock.

At the end of the day, few if any of us will be very much more enlightened. And Sasha Cohen will be richer, cooler and more notorious while those that he used to get there will be more humiliated.

Ha Ha.

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