Science Fiction Repair Shop: Punk Is Dead (But You Really Should Check Out My Band Sometime) Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-03-14 14:00:00 No comments

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In a discussion on another forum about how an artist in a given field can hold forth about art form X being dead, I came to the conclusion that they really mean to say something else: This art form is dead (or dying, or irrelevant), except for all of my instances of said art form. (Because if said form really is dead, why bother creating anything in it?)

What we have here is nothing more than a pretentious way of saying everyone else in your field sucks, except of course for you.

I know I've edged close to saying things like this, which is why I have to face up to it. It helps no one to say that your favorite art form is "dead". Imperiled, maybe, or just lacking for recent examples of it at its best — but really, when has there not been an age when all of those things seemed to apply? Every golden age is only golden when you're looking back over your shoulder at it.

It's embarrassing to see people who are so good at their craft open their mouth and make such dolts of themselves in their discussions of it. But then again, having the talent to do something doesn't automatically equip you with analytical talent. Think of all the authors with ghastly tastes in other peoples' books, or the directors who have the most inexpicable love for movies you wouldn't sit through a second time (and I'm talking about things like Stanley Kubrick expressing admiration for Exorcist II).

The original context for this discussion was anime directors — in particular Hayao Miyazaki (a grouchy guy who makes sweet movies) and Mamoru Oshii (a guy who hasn't liked anything that's come out for decades and yet contributes to the problem by making movies nobody, not even his longtime fans, can work themselves up to care about). I was reminded again of Mishima — brilliant on the page, but his life in public speaks for itself as the last word in pretentious egomania.

There is no sense in declaring that a given form is dead unless you are trying to clear space around yourself for it — unless you are championing, single-handedly, a revivification of the art form. And no one by themselves ever does this. They may contribute to one aspect or another of such a rebirth, but nobody does it privately, in a vacuum, as wisdom handed down from the mount. The only reason to say something like that is as a cheap way to elevate yourself over the rest of the great unwashed: declare all the other work in your field worthless, and maybe single out (in a sidelong way) a reason or two why your work doesn't fall into that trap, etc.

I doubt there's an artist of any degree of success who didn't at one time or another indulge in such a thing, but that only means I have to be all the more cautious of it. It does me no good to call SF dead — or, for that matter, to champion folks in the movies-are-dead crowd — when I'm attempting to produce examples of the former or look to the latter for creative insight. I may have problems with the way this or that bit of SF&F is constructed (mine included!), but I have to believe on some level that the fundamental health of the genre can always be affirmed by producing a decent book or by discovering a previously-unappreciated one. To just wring my hands and tell everyone else to get out of the room is boorish wank.

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When I read David Denby's Do the Movies Have a Future?, they edged very close to this sort of hand-wringing. My biggest problems with that book were less with the conclusions being drawn than with the scattershot editing of the book, and over time I found a lot of what Denby was saying to only be half-true. Yes, the commercial side of Hollywood is in a sorry way — but good grief, Edmund Wilson was saying this in 1937, so it's not exactly news. What I found most relevant in what he was saying connected with Dwight Macdonald's ideas about masscult -- that the main problem with mass-market consumer culture is not that it exists or that it's antiintellectual or what have you, but that its sheer prevalence crowds other possibilites right off the page. On seeing such things in action, it's not hard to proclaim that the movies are dead because you're not getting the kinds of movies you want. But is that really such a terrible thing to ask for? Especially if one of the ways to answer your own plea is to go out and make some of the very things you thought needed to exist?

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