Thursday, February 05, 2004

The not-so "fin"-de-siecle

Russell Smith's column this morning provoked my weary brain to reconsider the Superbowl halftime entertainment (confession: I only caught the highlights, such as they were, as presented by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show). Smith's opening comments particularly caught my eye:

"The least interesting thing about the Super Bowl entertainment was Janet Jackson's half-exposed breast. I watched it with a bunch of friends and we all saw it and no one commented. We were too stunned by the weirdness of the rest of the spectacle" (italics mine). He goes on to ennumerate the various aesthetic elements that would seem jarring and provocative, had they been intentionally enlisted by the event organizers. He suspects the conflicting visual subtexts were entirely unintentional, which left me considering some provocative questions (more later, perhaps).

Smith's opener threw me back to a book I read some 10 years ago: Rites of Spring: The Great War & The Birth Of The Modern Age, by Modris Eksteins (available here). Eksteins gives vigorous account of the way European cultures were run through the meat grinder of World War I. Art gave witness to this, and Eksteins begins the book with a vivid portrait of the Paris debut of Le Sacre du printemps, on May 29, 1913. Of the immediate controversy that erupted, Eksteins says, "Where does all this confusion leave us? Is there not sufficient evidence to suggest that the trouble was caused more by warring factions in the audience, by their expectations, their prejudices, their preconceptions about art, than by the work itself? The work ... certainly exploited tensions but hardly caused them."

Perhaps if we were to exchange "entertainment" for the word "art," we might begin to fashion a rudimentary tool with which to examine some of the enormous disconnect that seems to be occurring within the American public at this moment.

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