Should We Need to “Relate” to Art?

In this article New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead rejects “relatability” as a cultural “scourge,” as she comments on popular radio host Ira Glass’s tweeted response to a performance of King Lear: “Shakespeare sucks…No stakes, not relatable.”

Mead provides a quick survey of the rise of the use of “relatable” as a cultural demand vis-a-vis art, and she explains why it’s such a problem:

Identification with a character is one of the pleasures of reading, or of watching movies, or of seeing plays, though if it is where one’s engagement with the work begins, it should not be where critical thought ends. The concept of identification implies that the reader or viewer is, to some degree at least, actively engaged with the work in question: she is thinking herself into the experience of the characters on the page or screen or stage.

But to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

Read this fine piece here. Then go read, watch, experience some art form that feels totally “unrelatable,” and see what happens.

Jeanette Winterson on Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales

Oh how I love Jeanette Winterson and most everything she writes. Along with her stunning novels and her ingenious 2011 memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, she writes great reviews that are both brilliant and warm. Read her latest in the Guardian on Oscar Wilde’s book of fairy tales, The Selfish Giant and Other Stories.

What I love about this review is how she explains – and understands the need to explain in our current age of science-worship – the value of fairy tales and fiction in general:

Reason and logic are tools for understanding the world. We need a means for understanding ourselves, too. That is what imagination allows. When a child reads of a Nightingale who bleeds her song into a rose for love’s sake, or of a Selfish Giant who puts a wall round life, or of a Fisherman who wants to be rid of his Soul, or of a statue who feels the suffering of the world more keenly than the Mathematics Master who scoffs at his pupils for dreaming about Angels, the child knows at once both the mystery and truth of such stories…As explanations of the world, fairy stories tell us what science and philosophy cannot and need not. There are different ways of knowing.

Read the full review. Read Winterson’s stories. Read Oscar Wilde.

Kipper the Hipster Dog

If you’re a parent, you might spend ridiculous amounts of time watching bad children’s shows. Caillou is my daughter’s current favorite (but check this out for a cathartic rant). And then there’s Barney. If you’ve seen even one episode of this dire show starring an insipid purple dinosaur, you will understand why I’d rather work than have to suffer through yet another hour of cloying actors who lie to little children about some perfect world.

Some weeks I work 60 hours, 100 including parenting. That’s how bad the show is.

Barney and his many unfortunate analogues make it all the more pleasing when the rare quality program comes along. Kipper is one of these programs. Kipper is an English dog who doesn’t teach annoying lessons about being nice, picking up toys, or maintaining good hygiene. He and his pals Tiger and Pig just do fun kid stuff, and that’s it. They don’t sing asinine songs or promote plastic tolerance. They just go on walks and picnics, get lost, try to find each other, and paddle in boats at the beach.

So what’s so great about Kipper, besides the cool jazz theme that opens the videos? Partly it’s just refreshing to watch something low-key enough to show kids doing fun stuff and solving practical problems in a relaxed way. No hand wringing about values, courage, blah blah blah…

But there’s two things that I especially love about Kipper. The first is that he and Tiger and Pig somehow seem both old and young at the same time. They’re kids but they talk sort of like old men, like grandpa fuddy duddies having fun making sandcastles. To me, they capture that sweet way that the very old and very young are so compatible, moving a little slower than everyone else and finding great and simple joy in their sandwiches and lemonade.

At the same time, Kipper is a learned show but wears it lightly. Instead of unbearable moral lessons, the writers throw in classic plot devices, like when Kipper and Tiger go to a park to meet Pig, who has promised them cake. After searching everywhere, Kipper and Tiger hear Pig snoring on the other side of a hedge and mistake the sound for a growling lion. Finally brave enough to peer around the hedge to the other side, they see that Pig has gone but has dropped his scarf, which looks like a lion’s tale. Without investigating further, Kipper and Tiger mistakenly conclude that Pig has been eaten by the lion, and the plot unfolds until the friends are finally reunited.

The writers seem to have paid attention in mythology class because this scenario comes from the ancient Roman poet Ovid’s myth of Pyramus and Thisbe, a story of star-crossed young lovers whose parents insist on keeping them apart. The teenagers run away to meet in the country but tragically commit suicide when Pyramus finds Thisbe’s lost veil, which has been bloodied by a lion hunting, and concludes that the girl herself has died. Sixteen centuries later, Shakespeare adapted this basic plot (through other sources) for Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Happily, the writers of Kipper skip the suicides and simply change Thisbe’s bloody veil to a scarf that looks like a lion’s tale, and all ends well as it should when the friends find each other. But what is so unusual is that the story is both interesting and age appropriate, which is rare because in the current obsession with teaching morality to children, most writers have forgotten (or never even learned) how to come up with an engaging story.

Kipper doesn’t grapple with big ethical problems, but the show is far more honest than most of what’s out there because it doesn’t lie about the nature of life’s challenges. And beyond misleading children about how people live, these fake and fatuous other shows instill a kind of bad taste that encourages stupidity, the cultural equivalent of eating Pez for breakfast three days a week.

There’s no need for too much vigilance here. I like my occasional corn syrup entertainment just like everyone else. But it’s more than just refreshing to watch this unassuming show that proves someone can still imagine smart and simple stories for kids.

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Rihanna, Just Another Great Tormented Pop Artist

The public obsession with mega-pop star Rihanna’s turbulent love life has meant that despite her success, critics have largely glossed over her considerable gifts as an artist. The facts of the Bajan singer’s rise to fame and her romantic ordeal are by now household topics, but for those out of the know, Rihanna has made a hit record each of the past four years and has sold more digital copies of her work than any other artist. Last year alone she reportedly grossed 53 million. She also has a thug boyfriend, the rapper Chris Brown, who brutally beat her in 2009 and was subsequently convicted of a felony for the crime. Alas, when the happy couple reconciled sometime last year, a tsunami of public horror and outrage followed their blissful détente.

But domestic violence is not a tsunami, or a meteor slamming into Siberia. Sad to say, it is a daily disaster, a fact of life that is also an extreme form of the misogyny that women around the world live with every single day. So on the one hand, yes, outrage is warranted, especially when too many men still think the right to hurt women is an entitlement as natural as the sun’s right to rise. The more outrage the better, I say.

Yet I often notice that what seem like outrage and concern are really a collective tsk tsk-ing that stands in for true consideration and empathy. Even worse, this sham outrage too often gets channeled toward the women themselves. How could any woman ever tolerate that? Sure, many women are forced by poverty to endure their abusers. But those who choose to stay? People assume they must be stupid, or ignorant, or both.

It is much easier to write off such women than to really face how widespread the violence is, and the ever-present but less blatant injustices like economic inequality, which virtually all women suffer and that actually underlies so much of the violence. But hey, if we can’t do anything about the endless bummer of the wage gap, at least we can take cheap comfort in condemning a no brainer like domestic abuse  – along with any woman who would choose to put up with it. This is outrage as Muzak, fake and awful but supposed to make our days somehow more pleasant.

When news broke of Rihanna’s reconciliation with Brown, it didn’t take long for the indignation to curdle into disrespect. According to the February 14 issue of Rolling Stone, Joan Rivers tweeted “Idiot! Now it’s my turn to slap her!” And in his Oscar-night frat fest of misogyny, Seth MacFarlane’s mockery did not neglect Rihanna and, as New Yorker blogger Amy Davidson writes, effectively encourages more violence. Yes, it is true that Oprah and many others have shown real concern. But because outrage is now the defining ingredient of everyone’s judgment about Rihanna, the critics have pretty universally downgraded both her and her art.

In December, New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote off Rihanna as having little self-regard, as a half-assed person and singer whose stunning success owes to her good taste and the fact that her fans apparently love how she hypes her bad-girl persona. February’s Rolling Stone features a story equally patronizing but with a tad less contempt, as the interviewer gallantly schools the singer on the fact that she is not a prisoner of love, telling her “you don’t have to be the one” to offer Brown the support he needs. Happily, Rihanna offers a bit of her own schooling in return. But this is the high point of the story, which otherwise offers a bland report on how Rihanna has made her ordeal the subject of a few songs.

Along comes Camille Paglia’s kooky comparison of Rihanna to the late Princess Diana in a Sunday Times piece in February. This story finds common ground between the singer and the princess in their broken-home childhoods, their roles as spurned women in love triangles, and most important, in their brilliant but dangerous talent for manipulating their charismatic personas. As many have already pointed out, lots of female stars fit the first two criteria, so it is not clear why the third should render Rihanna the new Diana, especially since the women’s lives are in fact totally different.

Even if Paglia rightly notes Rihanna’s “magnetic intensity” and her status as a “rebel star,” she nonetheless concludes that the singer’s “brilliant eye is helpless against the tyranny of the heart.” This odd finale cancels out her claim that Rihanna is a “serious and gifted artist to reckon with,” which she only concedes because Rihanna’s latest album “also contains songs of searing suffering and passionate self-questioning.” So, when the lady suffers and questions herself, she’s a serious artist; but when she dares to exalt her flawed humanity in service of her public image, she’s out of control and headed to compare fashion notes with Lady Di in that vast double-X netherworld where all such ambitious souls presumably must end. Ultimately, Paglia only seems to oppose Frere-Jones because both cast Rihanna as essentially a manipulator; Frere-Jones is underwhelmed, while Paglia finds her brilliant but finally defeated.

There is no doubt that some of Rihanna’s behavior invites us to view her as a cipher or a deviant brand at best. Her tweets embracing submissiveness are obviously designed to shock and to sell. The ethics are questionable, to put it mildly, and we can and should question such choices. But talented male artists (like Eminem) who deliberately exploit their private struggles for showmanship – whether it’s addiction, violence – often against women, drug busts, or whatever –  do not meet the same type of disrespect and dismissal that Rihanna has. Overall, critics judge men’s work on its own terms. For the truly gifted, they fawn over the tortured genius mastering his life into art.

The video for Rihanna’s recent hit “Diamonds” compellingly dramatizes the tension between love and danger, but Frere-Jones trashes it handily as “a collection of free-floating bummers” accompanied by a disengaged singer. Actually, it’s an intelligent contrast between lyrics celebrating shining lovers and images that convey not just danger but loneliness and more than a hint of self-awareness. Claiming devotion to a lover who is a “vision of ecstasy,” the singer repeats, “we’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky” and declares, “I choose to be happy.” But this triumph is belied by destructive scenes, a burning rose and what looks like a burning man amidst a riot. Rihanna appears mostly alone, running from a car at night, floating in the sea, or unmoored with wild horses in the desert dawn. In the context of these images, the song implies that the resplendent lovers are an unfulfilled fantasy, and the repeated line “shine bright like a diamond” becomes more of a self-conscious, desperate plea than a vaunt. The cinematography is moody and gorgeous, and clearly marks the influence of Rihanna’s mentor Jay-Z.

The video for the ballad “Stay,” a duet with Mikky Ekko about holding onto troubled love, is a stunning piece that evokes emotion through lack of motion. Here, the camera follows the command of the refrain “I want you to stay” by dwelling alternately on Rihanna’s face as she sits alone in a bath and on Ekko as he sits or stands alone in a similar darkened room. This technique reveals that Rihanna is indeed skilled at looking blank and disengaged but cannot sustain it; her restless energy and vulnerability escape through her very attempts to avoid the camera’s patient gaze.

There is no need to interpret these songs literally as running commentary on Rihanna’s relationship with Brown. It is enough to say that her art brilliantly negotiates whatever inner demons she harbors. But it is worth remembering that Rihanna’s history with Brown has been one of betrayal, which is also something of a larger cultural obsession these days. Perhaps this story resonates so powerfully not primarily for the details of her saga but its theme, as so many people now struggle following the stunning betrayals of the banking crisis and its aftermath. It just might be that this 25-year-old Bajan transplant resonates as an unexpected cultural symbol of betrayed dreams. But however we interpret her romantic life, one thing is clear about Rihanna’s art: the rare mix of her refreshingly unsweet voice, her strange volcanic magnetism, which simmers mostly from within, and her intense psychic struggles translate into a raw pop icon far more interesting than many of her more technically gifted rivals.

Let’s do more than just hope that Rihanna and her unusual talent flourish. Let’s condemn violence against women and offer the victims our genuine support and, yes, respectful disagreement when necessary. It is not easy to battle a problem this mundane and terrible, but we can start by getting serious about crushing the double standard that still lurks in both life and art, a standard that Rihanna’s art is already challenging.