It’s very important for the creative community to support each other, especially in the Internet era. Since at least the Renaissance, the arts have functioned primarily on a patronage system: those with money who appreciated the arts financially supported the work of artists in whom they believed. Some of what we consider to be the greatest works of art in human history have been funded or commissioned by patrons. Our economic structure doesn’t really support creative projects, in the sense that many artists struggle to find finances to support projects that they are passionate about…and which often have something important to contribute to our culture. Of course, some artistic mediums are more expensive than others. Film and music recording happen to be among them.
Over a dinner party with friends Monday evening, the conversation turned to athletics. Specifically, college basketball, and the commentary and analysis of Charles Barkley. A friend thinks his analysis of the game is incredibly in-depth and deserving of respect. I’ve never been able to stand Barkley, from the first time I saw him play to the time he retired from the Phoenix Suns. I suppose I was never really interested in his commentary. He just irritated me. My friend says that that he projects a “tough guy” image, but that he is very good as a commentator.
Sort of a character in a play.
When I was an undergrad student and incredibly involved in nearly every production that came down the line in my theatre program, I discovered that I was a bit of an anomaly amongst my fellow theatre students, because I enjoyed watching sports. Specifically, I liked professional basketball. I wore Orlando Magic t-shirts. They had difficulty understanding why, and I had difficulty communicating the theatrical thrill of the opening introductions of the players (light show included) through the (hopefully) nail-biting close calls and amazing shots that kept me glued to the screen.
I realized, even at the time, that learning to love basketball was a way to connect with my father. He had played basketball through high school and in college, and we had difficulty understanding each other. He didn’t really get the theatre thing, but he tried very, very hard, for my sake. I thought the least I could do was to work toward an interest in basketball, as a way to connect with him. It worked. It was the launching point for a renewed relationship with my father.
I haven’t watched basketball since a few years ago, around my first semester of grad school, I think, when the L.A. Lakers had an historic starting lineup and couldn’t pull out a championship season. I determined then that it had become about the individual players, and not the love of the game. Sort of like how a prima donna ruins a production by robbing the play’s cast of its camaraderie. In any cast, I haven’t really watched professional basketball since. Perhaps not so coincidentally, neither has my father.
I don’t think I’m all that odd for being a “creative type” that enjoys athletics (I’m still a big tennis fan). In fact, I have many artist friends who follow various athletic seasons with much more intensity than myself. I’ve theorized that there’s a theatrical quality to athletic competition, something deeper than just spectacle. The spectacle, though, was okay in itself, and I didn’t explore the thoughts too deeply.
Todd Johnson solidified my theory that athletic events are, in fact, theatrical. The drama of the competition is, of course, the reason that those of us who watch sports are engaged (I’ve come up off of the sofa yelling at many a buzzer-beating shot in my life). Johnson says that this is framed, though, in the larger context of the story…the “through-line,” if you will…behind the game. Michael Jordan’s incredible game winning shot was incredible in itself, but stunning against the backdrop that it won the game at the last minute, and that it was the last game of his career (well, until he returned from retirement), and that he had succeeded despite the family tragedy he had experienced. Johnson says that this story is told through the commentary surrounding the actual competition of the game, and attributes this to the explosion in popularity of various sports commentary media outlets in recent years. I think this is also why many sports fans remember specific games like we remember great movies or plays, looking back to a particular performance with great nostalgia. Following the stories can have a positive impact on the audience, such as my relationship with my father. Participating in the story builds a camaraderie that is easily equivalent to the cast and crew of a play.
So my love of watching basketball was no contradiction to my theatrical bent. I was simply a spectator to a different type of theatre, one that told the drama of fellow humans in the same time but a different space, rather than fictional characters. I’ve always suspected that theatre explains a great deal of life. This just goes to prove that point.
Photo Attribution: ToastyKen
Or watch something the second time, as the case may be. Several years ago, a television series called Third Watch grabbed my attention. In case you’ve never become familiar with the series, it was a drama based on the lives of police officers, firefighters, and EMTs working the third watch (the evening shift) in New York City. This was really good television, capturing what first responders deal with each day, and how it impacts their personal lives. The show appeared before September 11th…that is, it aired from 1999, before programs about first responders were as fashionable. It continued through, and long after, September 11th, going on to win a Peabody Award, among other critical acclaim.
I think that I was attracted to the show because I briefly entertained the idea that I wanted to work in law enforcement when I finished college (go ahead…laugh). While law enforcement has rightfully held its place as an interest and not a career choice for me, I’ve always had a soft spot for police dramas. They’re sort of a guilty pleasure. I recognized Third Watch, from when I first enjoyed the series until it tragically ended while I was in grad school in 2005, as great drama, and well acted.
I was either too busy to see the depth of the writing, or else my rhetorical skills just weren’t developed well for television viewing, in the show’s early years. I recently re-discovered the show through Netflix, and began watching season 2 again. There’s some fascinating writing at play, here.
The over-arching theme of the program, at least in its beginning, was everyone’s need for a hero. From the opening credit music (a techno piece called “Keep Hope Alive” by The Crystal Method), the viewer is set up to realize his/her need for a hero, for someone to come to their rescue when the worst occurs. We are then introduced to the real-life heroes of the first responders, those who risk their own safety to help those they don’t know. The heroism is depicted is well-shot, edge-of-your-seat action sequences that come from nowhere and end just as abruptly…just as though we were experiencing them in real life. The first responders sweep in and save the day, and we see their camaraderie develop as they have to deal with what they’ve experienced. We see this camaraderie grow even more when they don’t manage to save the day, despite their best efforts.
Season 2, however, opens with a series of episodes dedicated to specific characters. In these episodes, we are walked through how each character’s personal struggles and flaws have a reciprocal effect on how they do their jobs, and what their jobs do to them. We see a paramedic who gets into trouble because he can’t reconcile an ideal with the reality of racism he sees (and sometimes imposes over reality) around him. We see a police officer who can’t make ends meet financially, and lies to her husband and her partner to cover an abortion because of her fear that she can’t afford another child. We see a police officer haunted by his deceased father’s infidelity, and a paramedic who stands precariously on the edge of instability in her longing to put her failed marriage back together.
These episodes are interesting, because they present the heroes as not only very human, but sometimes very questionable in their motivations. Later in season 2, in an episode called “Know Thyself,” one of the police officers tells another, “Sometimes the things that make you a good cop make you a bad person.” The heroes we turn to in our time of need, those who we rely on to make us safe, are unable to be heroes out of any sort of pure benevolence. Even when they are close to the ideal, their own lives are crumbling when they are not “in costume,” as it were, as heroes. Thus, Third Watch assumes a theme similar in many ways to The Watchmen, in that we are presented with a sort of anti-hero; each doing their best, but hopelessly tainted by the very evil they fight.
The episodes dealing with individual characters’ struggles move into a gripping episode early in season 2 called “After Hours.” In the beginning of the episode, the characters have arrived on the scene of a fiery car accident, seconds too late to prevent the vehicle from exploding and all of its occupants dying. Despite their hidden grief, life moves on, and the shift ends. After the shift, groups of them (characters we haven’t previously seen spend time together outside of work) go out, some for coffee and some for alcohol, in an effort to cope with what they have seen. One gets hopelessly intoxicated, one tries to sleep with another, one drives recklessly through the streets in his muscle car, returning to the scene of the accident. All of them encounter teenagers in their outings. The teenagers help them in some cases, and in other cases they lead them into situations that they are able to affect positively (two of the off-duty police officers are able to intervene in a mugging while walking a girl unsuccessful in catching a bus home through the park). One officer, who is about to resign after what he has seen tonight, walks a teenager home, and encounters a man he saved from committing suicide who thanks him and tells him that he has a successful life now. Others see redeeming things about themselves. All end up back at the scene of the accident, and go to watch the sun rise on the beach, standing by each other in their time of need. Ultimately, through flashback, the viewer realizes that the teenagers that the characters have encountered are the ghosts of the people who died in the car accident earlier that night…four high school students driving intoxicated to their homecoming.
After seeing the characters presented as hopelessly flawed human beings who are attempting to somehow be heroes to others, the viewer is now presented with an image of grace for their flaws…just as they fail in their heroism, even as the characters struggle to forgive themselves (two of them insist to each other, “We got there as fast as we could.”). The ghosts of those they couldn’t save come back, as though to recognize that the characters did their best, and help them to recognize why they do what they do, even leading them to further acts of heroism. The episode closes with a song called “Give Me Strength” by Over the Rhine, asking for “strength to find the road that’s lost in me,” and “time to heal and build myself a dream.” The lyrics seem to embody both the voices of those saved by the heroes, and the cries of the heroes themselves.
Third Watch presents a idealistic image of a hero…almost of a super hero…in modern society: those who risk literally everything to routinely go out in search of evil, and attempt to protect its potential victims. In doing so, they lose themselves, unable to live a full life because of the sacrifices they make for others, and often unable to even protect themselves from the very evil they battle.
What’s so fascinating about Third Watch is its gritty exploration of the spiritual truth that we all find ourselves in need of a hero, and we all take that hero for granted. We also see than no human being is capable of the superhuman heroism that we will all long for at some point in our lives…that we are looking for a hero who is more than human. Third Watch brings the best of super-hero fiction and places it in the context of the daily lives of first responders.
There’s so much more to this series than I saw the first time through.
Did you ever hear the adage that most of the lessons you learn in college are learned outside of the classroom?
Well, some lessons that you wouldn’t expect are learned inside the classroom, as well. One of those I learned very vividly during grad school: academics can take a beautiful concept, dress it in academic jargon that isolates it from everyone outside of the discipline, and treat it as something meant only for the intelligentsia. Sometimes, I suspect that academics do this to help themselves have an “ivory-tower,” exaggerated sense of self-importance. And, when I say that, I readily confess that I’m just as guilty as any of the rest of them, because the jargon becomes embedded in your psyche after a year or so of study. Soon, you have little “common sense” left and a lot of elitist terminology that leaves people outside of your discipline ostracized from conversation that would only help everyone grow. This happens in every discipline. I guess I just noticed it more doing graduate work in theology, because I secretly suspect that theologians are the worst at this.
But, I digress.
The point of that ramble is to mention a discussion I read over at Transpositions this week on the concept of “high art.” I wonder, sometimes, what determines whether a painting or play or novel is considered “high art.” The post I referenced here (reviewing a book) mentions that art holds a certain subjectivity because it is always seen through a cultural lens. Think about this: what would be considered of a certain quality and declared “high art” in the Western world would possibly not be received as such in Eastern culture, at least not as easily. Think of the differences in European or American music and Chinese or Indian music, for example.
High art is a term derived from the concept of high culture. High culture is defined in opposition to popular culture. Thus, those who gravitate toward high culture in certain art forms tend to eschew popular culture expressions in the same genre. The first time I really experienced this was, after having read exclusively novels that would be considered “literature” for months, I read a mystery novel. Classic literature and modern fiction to genre fiction in one day. I struggled with the change. And I didn’t like myself for struggling.
As much as I can be a total snob about certain pop culture art forms (I’m unapologetically so about “pop music”), I think that we must recognize that popular culture is still culture, and is still just as valid. The same is true of art. What U2 composes is just as valid as any symphony Beethoven ever penned. And it was, as I recall, an Inkling who adored writing detective fiction (what we today consider genre fiction).
I listen to academics and artists lament that there is not literature today like there once was, that our culture is incapable of producing anything of that quality. I don’t think that’s the case; there are many extremely gifted writers producing amazing literature today. There are also many bad writers, and bad musicians, and bad artists. They exist in high and low culture. They exist on a continuum, I think, with “really bad” on one end and “really amazing” on the other.
When (not if, when…I need to tell myself that) I finish the science fiction novel I’m writing, it will be, by definition, genre fiction. I hold no pretense that it will be great literature, and I don’t for a moment believe that it will be considered high culture (most especially because I intend to self-publish). But, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t valid.
I suppose my issue with differentiating high and low art, or high and low culture, is that it gives one group of people an excuse to feel superior to another. Academics do it. Critics do it. Unfortunately, artists do it, as well. As many programs across the nation that work to afford access to art by “the masses” at no cost attest, art is for everyone. It cannot belong to the elite, and its ability to touch lives and inspire critical thinking is not limited to the wealthy.
Some of the best conversations I’ve had about theology has been with people who have no formal education in the discipline at all. I love talking about literature, but I don’t have a formal degree in the area. I’ve worked with amazing actors who have no formal theatre training. And all of those people have come from all different backgrounds. A love for, and subsequent knowledge of, art…any art…can’t be trapped behind a high culture pre-requisite. Doing so is an effort to keep others away from art, which is simply an attempt to own art as a possession.
That’s just not how it was ever meant to be.