Slapstick and the Sublime

5.5 / Slapstick and the Sublime

Slapstick and the Sublime

By Jonn Herschend July 9, 2014

There is a film by Preston Sturges that I think about every time I start to work on a new project. The film, from 1941, is called Sullivan’s Travels, and it’s essentially Sturges’ thesis on the importance of entertainment. It’s a metafilm, and maybe one of the best films on film ever made. In terms of entertainment, it fully delivers with heavy doses of slapstick, melodrama, romance (between stars Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea), and even real drama. There’s a surprising shift in plot and cadence about three-quarters of the way through that is revolutionary, even by today’s standards. In short, it’s my go-to film when I’m thinking about the relationship between art and entertainment, which is something I think about all the time, both in my work and also the work I’m drawn to.

Without delving too much into plot structure, Sullivan’s Travels takes place during the Depression and centers on a very successful comedic actor who is questioning the value of entertainment in the face of such real, human tragedy brought on by the Great Depression. He proposes to the studio heads that he produce a drama about the common man dealing with the reality of the economic collapse. He wants to call the film O Brother Where Art Thou. The studio heads don’t want to go for it because he’s known for his comedy. He’s their cash cow. They argue that no one wants to be reminded of what is really going on. They want distraction from reality. But they do go along with it, creating a sort of reality show while McCrea’s character, dressed as a hobo, wanders the countryside. 

Although the fictional film is never realized in this movie (spoiler alert), the Coen brothers decided in 2000 to actually make the film. However, their version of O Brother Where Art Thou is not a hard-hitting reality film but a screwball comedy about a common man trying to get back to his family—an odyssey (literally based on the Odyssey) for the everyman… except with George Clooney as our stand-in for the everyman and Holly Hunter as our Penelope. It’s also a real film based on a fictional idea from another film.  

Fast-forward to 2014, when two other brothers—the Zellner brothers from Austin, Texas—release a fictional film about a supposed true event that came out of the Coens’ Fargo. The film is called Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, and it’s based on an urban legend about a young Japanese woman who thinks she has discovered where the fictional money was buried at the end of Fargo. In real life, she becomes obsessed with her hunt, quitting her job and flying to Fargo in the dead of winter in order to find the treasure. The Zellners’ film is a meditation on living our life in film, which rounds back to the notion of entertainment as a crucial element of life. How we view ourselves and our own narrative is shaped by the films we see, the art we champion, and the books we read. We are fiction and creating our own narrative each day. If anything, Facebook has made this more apparent than ever. Art, entertainment, literature, sports—these are all orchestrated fictions that push us further into our own individual and collective story.   

In Sturges’ film, he sets the question in motion: What is more important, reality or distraction from reality (entertainment)? He ends the film with a destitute chain gang, which McCrea’s character is a part of, sitting in a church in the Deep South watching a Disney cartoon and laughing riotously despite their intense misery and hopelessness. Sturges’ point: Entertainment (distraction from the void) is the most essential thing we have as humans.   

The reason I think about this film so much is because it flows between art and entertainment in so many ways. It gives the audience and Hollywood what they expect while still smartly revealing its structure and pushing the entertainment conversation further. I don’t agree with all of Sturges’ points, but I fully admire his ability to deliver the content and ask the question. When I watch this film, I’m always on the edge of giving fully over to the entertainment factor, while still actively engaged as a thinking viewer. That’s an extremely rare experience.  

For me, this issue of Art Practical is an observation of some of these elements pushing forward on the art scene. Although this has been happening for some time, it’s become increasingly apparent to me over the past few years as more and more artists take on elements of entertainment in their work. They are investigating the structure of entertainment and its uses both from the gallery and from Hollywood. When I think of these artists, I immediately think of Miranda July, Mike Mills, Will Brown, Laurel Nakadate, Sam Green, Steve McQueen, James Franco, Lindsey White, Tucker Nichols, Anne Walsh, David Robbins, Michelle Grabner, Catherine Bigelow, and Eve Sussman. (I could go on for some time with this list. Go see Will Rogan’s current Matrix show and watch his film shot in super-slow motion of an exploding hearse, and then try to tell me that is not the most poetic, beautiful, intense, and entertaining thing you have ever seen). These are artists who are taking on the medium and working to push beyond the traditional art exhibition or the all-too-trite blockbuster or indie romance plot structure. They aren’t simply adopting the standard entertainment format, but examining the structure. They are also broadening the audience and asking more of them. They are asking: Is the purpose of entertainment escape or invigoration? Or is it both?  

Art is undergoing a reinvestigation. The art world that we operate within is shrinking, and even that audience is already incredibly small. The majority of the country has very little interest in what is happening in the art scene, and honestly who can blame them? Without any sort of larger support of the arts from a national standpoint, we are more or less at the whims of society… which is to say the whims of a capitalist society that consistently asks, “What is the value of what you are producing?” We as artists know there is value in what we are doing, but it’s becoming harder to make the case as more and more galleries and nonprofit art spaces close. How is it that Burning Man is more popular than ever, expanding now to Germany, and at the same time we continue to lose one gallery or nonprofit art space after another? Take the Bay Area’s recent tech and art dialog that has been churning over the past year as an example of this reinvestigation. The art side is saying “invest in us.” And the tech side is saying “why?” And it’s a good question. Why?

But instead of working to engage this conversation, which ultimately goes nowhere, there are artists who are pursuing elements of entertainment in their work, which is also pushing the relevancy of art. It’s a more democratic approach to art, and I see it working in many of the same ways that the postmodernists saw their role as they broke away from the ivory tower of the institutions in the late ’60s and early ’70s in favor of a more populist approach to art (Allan Kaprow, Robert Smithson, John Baldessari, Yoko Ono, Gordon Matta-Clark, Martha Rosler, etc.). You can’t tell me that a Kaprow Happening was not entertaining. What about the brash and macho drama of Double Negative, or the Buster Keaton-like deadpan of Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen? These artists were harnessing the tools of their time to push the art conversation beyond the institution. They wanted to engage a larger audience. Their works were dramatic, exciting, and politically dynamic. They wanted to communicate with each other, but they were also interested in connecting to a larger audience.  

The contributors for this issue of Art Practical are writers, artists, filmmakers, and actors who have a stake in the conversation and are already actively engaged in it to some degree. Rather than ask each of them to write essays on the subject of art and entertainment, I wanted to set up a scenario for them to react to the concept. Some of the pieces will be traditional essays and conversations, and some of these will be projects commissioned within Art Practical. You can view it as a sort of mash-up of art and entertainment, or a distraction from reality. But I would urge you to also think about it as call to action. We, as artists, writers, and filmmakers, need to push our fiction further into reality. This is our job. We need to reinvestigate the importance of entertainment as it pertains to populism. I’m not suggesting we water anything down, but we have to consider our relevance in the collective fiction in which we live or we will become elite and irrelevant.

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