catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 6 :: 2010.03.19 — 2010.04.01


How can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?

My undergraduate studies were not marked by good dietary choices. Not that residential meal plans at most four-year universities are of renown for their high quality, and doubtless this played a part in my poor choices. Still, I could have taken the extra few minutes to choose something of relative quality each day at dinner instead of going straight for the cheeseburger line, and working on what my room-mate referred to as the heart attack that I would experience by age 30. Seriously, would it have killed me to put together a salad?

Well, I’ve managed to live a bit beyond age 30. My diet didn’t improve significantly, though, until I was engaged. The first thing my then-fiance did was emphasize drinking water instead of soda. Then she provided me with leftovers from home-cooked meals. By the time we were married,  I wasn’t interested in eating at fast-food places. Quality had began to outweigh convenience.

As American popular culture has come to dominate entertainment with its vacuous popcorn music and formulaic television life drama, our artistic intake has become the equivalant of drive-thru cheeseburgers and a constant slurping of soda. Most have forgotten what real art “tastes like.” Others have grown weary of putting forth the effort required to participate in the viewing, reading or hearing of high-quality creative expression, when no effort at all is required to vegetate in front of reality television or prime-time teenage vampire love stories.

Perhaps part of the issue is a misperception that entertainment and art are necessarily synonomous. In a media-saturated culture, creative expression is something that is “consumed” instead of engaged. In an effort to fit in all of the media we want to experience, we fail to spend the requisite amount of time with any particular element to truly unravel it. We squeeze in an audiobook during our workouts, we move from one painting to another at an art exhibit within seconds, we watch an entire season of a serial drama on Hulu in an evening. As artists must become involved with publishers and record labels in order to eat while they create, audience demographics come into play. Soon, agents and producers know that the public at large desires entertainment that can be quickly digested without much thought in whatever tiny holes they can find in their schedules, multi-tasking a new novel while preparing dinner and helping the kids with their homework. The lowest common denominator becomes what the public wants, what the publishers, record labels and motion picture studios need to produce in order to make the all-important dollar, and thus what artists are forced to produce.

Ironically, my experience has been that exposure to substantive, well-crafted, and provocative art leaves one hungering for more. That is, once we’ve experienced a chef’s culinary creation, sandwiches served from beneath golden arches suddenly just won’t cut it any longer. This level of work frequently cannot be mass-produced quickly enough to maintain a certain level of income flow, however, and so it is in the best interest of those producing and publishing the art to keep it away from the public, at least in large quantities. Thus, quality thrives in places like Sundance, while Hollywood’s concept of substance becomes bigger cinematic explosions.

This isn’t to completely disregard popular culture, however. At any given time, there is pop culture of substance that provides a cultural snapshot of where we are, where we think we are, and warnings about where we may be soon. This year’s Oscar nominations were evidence of excellent cinematic creations in the pop culture sphere. This pop culture of import, however, tends to be art that has been well received and has subsequently become popular, instead of art that was custom-crafted to follow a trend. 

Entertainment and substantive creative expression are not always mutually exclusive. However, there is more than enough supply of “fluff” and genre serials to fill our airwaves and meet our demand for decompressing after a long day. Part of increasing the availability of quality art is to change our mindset, to stop thinking of art as a product that we consume instead of an experience in which we engage. This would lead to our only taking in what we can spend time with, wrestle through, appreciate and digest. This would change what books become bestsellers and what albums become chart-toppers. At the end of the day, however, this would be a beneficial paradigm shift for all of us, if not for the entertainment industry.

Food quality suffered tremendously when convenience and mass production became the status quo. The artistic intake of our culture has followed this trend with the coming of age of the “enterainment industry.” Industrializing art into an industry of entertainment (or even relegating art to the status of entertainment) necessarily reduced quality, and changing our diet will take discipline. This discipline will be required of the public that views, reads and hears today’s creative expression, to raise our standards of what is considered quality and what falls short. When we do, the demand will shift, and the entertainment industry just may find that investing more time and resources into high quality creations pays off better in the end…and not merely in financial terms.

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