Thursday, March 5, 2009

Reflections: Upsides of Downturns

We’re in a recession, one of my business sections tells me. Maybe a depression, says another. I have a history degree, so I’ll call it a re-depression. That means nothing, so it could mean anything—it’s the essence of good marketing.

Irrespective of labels, I’m in tune with the times. I don’t overspend and I don’t overwrite—especially this busy week. Don’t forget to boot up this blog on Saturday, when I’ll introduce you to a truncated (but very interesting) silent feature; in the meantime, please continue with this truncated (but somewhat thoughtful) tangent.

We all know there’s less money floating around, and artists will likely be the first ones defunded. Some artwork may even be defenestrated, especially if no one can afford complete it. A shame, most will say—but then, the Arts are a luxury.

Not in the sense of ‘luxurious,’ certainly. The Arts are viewed as vocations or callings; one is encouraged to pursue them only once the citizenry is clothed, well-fed and secure. If that hasn’t happened yet, expect your government to promote the Arts with words, but not money—which is to say, not enough.

Of course, a lot of artists defeat themselves politically. They continue producing valuable and profound works of visual, musical and performance art during times of hardship. Dummies! They remind us that poverty and social disorder can inspire artistic expression; and they don’t need to be rich. Well I say, if you don’t care about money, you’ll never out-yell the people who do.

Go on strike. Quit expressing and see how long it takes for people to notice. Give yourself some credit, too—they will notice, and soon. People, even hungry ones, have more appreciation for artwork than even they think. Profound messages are shot through their most mundane interactions. The presence of art in their lives is so integral as to be subliminal; only when an element of it is removed do they see.

When something is taken away, it leaves two effects: (1) a sense of loss; and (2) a new perspective. And this (finally) is how my truncated topic relates to silent film.

See, people don’t say much, really. Even if they talk a lot, they don’t say much. However, they do a lot of posing and gesturing that tells a tremendous story about them. We are all dancers, moving to a common rhythm, constantly revealing ourselves. I’d argue that half the things we say have no purpose except to obscure the truth we fear we’re telling.

A silent film rations words to meet only our barest requirements. In so doing, it reminds us how few words we actually need. Enjoying a silent film means we’ve called upon a fuller, richer and more varied set of interactive skills than a sound film normally requires. So few words—and yet we understand so much.

Watch a few silent movies and see if you don’t get better at reading people. I think I have. Not their motivations, so much—the reasons people do things to themselves and others remains a locked box of fog for me most of the time. No, I just find that I know better how people feel when they’re doing their smart, dumb, dynamic or destructive thing, even if (especially if) they refuse to say so.

Art, folks, is in all moments and for all moments. Messages, delivered in new ways, are vital for defeated times, because singularity of purpose is too often sought through singularity of thought. That won’t get us anywhere. What we need is varieties of opinion and a willingness to challenge assumptions. This can be best provided by people sensitive enough to find messages in all things, and even several from the same thing. An appreciation for the Arts (silent film included) is the best way to train such minds. We don’t have the luxury to forget that.

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