Blog 2015, Uncategorized

The Role of Context

In 1945’s Blood on the Sun, James Cagney engages in what might have been Hollywood’s first ‘martial arts fight scene’. In it, Nick Condon (James Cagney) engages in a ‘judo fight’ with the nefarious Captain Oshima. The fight itself (with the clip here) is kind of neat, from a vintage standpoint, but it pales compared to most anything you might find today, on TV and certainly in movies. Yet audiences at the time ate it up.
                It can be a struggle at times to properly appreciate art from a bygone era. I am acutely aware of this as I study the Transformers series from start to finish (with a panel on the Top Ten Episodes available at a convention near you!). It can be a struggle to keep from watching the show and comparing it strictly to modern standards of art, animation, storytelling, character, dialogue, and all the elements that going into making a show.
                On the one hand, that’s not unreasonable. Just because a show was popular thirty years ago and heralded as good, doesn’t mean we should pretend its still good today. Some TV shows and movies, comic books and music, just don’t age well. Nothing should be so sacred as to pretend it is enjoyable when it really isn’t.
                That said, to solely apply modern sensibilities to appreciating art is to deny yourself a great appreciation and enjoyment of the works themselves. This is where the context of a piece of art comes in. Knowing what the world was like when a TV show came out can help explain how and why it is the way it is. The Mary-Tyler Moore Show comes across as fun and perhaps a little unremarkably so, unless you are mindful that it was broadcast during the Women’s Liberation Movement. The idea of a single woman in the workforce may be commonplace today, but in that era, the themes and issues discussed in the show were positively radical which helps inform elements of the show, and helps to explain why the show is so revered. Hitting closer to home for me, Transformers was a product of the 1980s and the Energy Crisis of the era. As a result, there’s a common theme in the show of the search for energy and the responsible use of it.
                In order to full appreciate art from any era beyond the contemporary, we must divorce ourselves from our modern sensibilities and invest ourselves in the mindset of the art’s era of creation. In other words, we must appreciate art with an understanding of the context from which the art was created.
                There are many forms of context that inform a piece of art. Whether it’s the personal context (where you were in your life when you experienced the art), artistic context (what the work of art meant to the artist who created it), mechanical context (how a work was made and what went into it ‘behind the scenes’), or cultural context (what this work of art represented in that time and place in history), context can help illuminate and transform a work of art beyond merely a mechanical interpretation of the skills displayed in the work itself.
                Art appreciation should not require homework. You don’t need to understand advanced chemistry to appreciate a Jan Van Eyck painting, but being mindful of the lengths he (and other artists of the era) had to go to in order to make the colors for his paints results in the paintings taking on a whole new, breath-taking dimension. Layla by Eric Clapton is an excellent rock song on its own, but it takes on a new dimension with the knowledge of Clapton’s unrequited love for Pattie Boyd, the wife of his friend, George ‘Got My Mind Set On You’ Harrison.
                When we judge art, we need to do more than hold it up for comparison to modern art. It is fine to say ‘this piece of art doesn’t hold up to current standards’, but to dismiss a piece of art solely for that as our criteria is short-sighted as well as heartless. Art comes from a time and a place, both culturally and for the creators, as well as for the audience. Keeping in mind these contexts makes appreciation of the art all the more vivid and rewarding.
Did you see Star Wars? Of course you did. 🙂

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