catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 6 :: 2010.03.19 — 2010.04.01


Arguing taxes and Trekkies

Art elicits response.  Just listen to the muffled conversations in high-ceilinged art galleries.  As people stand in front of thickly framed paintings and suspended wire constructions, they offer their opinion. “Eww.”  “Beautiful!”  “My six-year-old could’ve painted that.”  Art makes critics of us all — calling out for our input, finding meaning through our reactions.  And as important as our perspectives are while we engage the artist and each other in contrasting dialogues, there is relief in knowing that rarely do these opinions matter.  In fact, the simple reality of having an opinion is often more important than the conclusion that opinion draws.  Art opens the door to the constructive possibilities of disagreement.

Disagreement is an integral part of human interaction.  But rarely is it productive.   In fact, society seems bent on using our positions to divide us into warring subgroups.  Conversations about political structures, environmental initiatives, and social norms all too quickly conclude by pitting one perspective against the other.  And the resulting conflicts often do nothing more than bolster the original opinions, wedging more distance between opposing sides.

Some people gravitate to this discord, reveling in the opportunity to shout down the opposition.  Others respond to this divisive phenomenon by withdrawing, taking their thoughts inward while the challengers goes on with their diatribes.  Another option has some participants holding out a barren branch of relativism, hoping that resolution will be found when everyone embraces the idea that we’re all equally right and wrong.  With these models of disagreement lived around us, we function with little hope that contrasting perspectives can ever do anything more than divide.

But what about conversations about LOST?  What about disagreements over which Pixar film is the best?  How often do those dialogues turn ugly?  I’ve witnessed my fair share of lively debates involving the merits of zombies and the unbearable cuteness of Hello Kitty.  And while I’ve heard voices raised over the consistency of Wes Anderson’s aesthetic and the questionable humor of “Chocolate Rain,” I’ve never seen these conversations become volatile.

Faith matters; Star Wars doesn’t.  People understand this.  And while this is no excuse for avoiding the deeper things of life for the sake of frivolity, popular culture’s greatest gift can be found within these conversations.  Pop culture allows us to be a discerning, conversant community in a space free from value judgments and absolute worth.  It brings us together even in disagreement in a way that encourages simple participation and thrives within opposing opinions.

Popular culture brings the impulse to respond out of the art house and into the movie theater.  We might not all be going to the Yves Klein exhibit, but we’ve heard of Jay-Z.  As different members within the same society, our shared understanding of popular culture brings us together.  But it isn’t just that pop art and summer blockbusters provide the common experiences necessary for building community, it is that these shared experiences give us something to say.

At a recent youth retreat, I was eating lunch at a table full of 11th graders.  The conversation turned to movies, James Cameron and Avatar.  All of them thought it was cool to watch three-dimensional blue aliens fly around on colorful dinosaurs.  One even claimed that it was the best movie he’d ever seen.  But they didn’t stop there.  “You’d think with all that money, Cameron could’ve bought a decent script,” one complaint arose.  “Yeah-Pocahontas in space,” his friend added.  “What do you mean by that?” I asked.  And before I knew it we were having a lively discussion about storytelling, characters and plot development.

Whether they had gleaned their opinions from the Internet, movie-buzz TV specials or their own original insights, these high schoolers had a lot to say.  There was agreement and disagreement; some ideas were better supported than others.  But no one left the lunch table shaken by our inability to reach a compromised conclusion.  No one withdrew or asked appealingly, “Why can’t we all just get along?”  We embraced the contrasted dialogue, coming together despite our varied perspectives.

Again, popular culture allows for this kind of constructive disagreement because of its inherent frivolity.  Entertainment headlines come and go and come again.  But in the midst of moral challenges and life-affecting legislation, we need a place where we can bring our impassioned discussions, knowing that they bear little influence on the world around us.  And perhaps through our constructive disagreements about Bela Swan and Shawn White and iPhone apps, we will be taught something about the cohesive possibilities of more lasting debates and more important conflicts.

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