Friday, May 01, 2015

Art Is Manipulation

I posted on FB when I got back from a production of Les Miserables last night.  My brother, a lighting designer who has forgotten more than I ever knew about theater, commented that it is a very manipulative show, and very good at it. I responded that art is pretty much manipulation.

I still think that this morning. Theater, painting, music, writing - all are attempts to move us or convince us of something in a non-logical manner.  I do not say illogical, because there are artists who are able to defend with reason the ideas they put forward, or at least, there are allies who can do so even if the artist himself cannot. I mentioned CS Lewis and the ideas of afterlife in the previous comment section.  What he illustrated in The Great Divorce and parts of other works of fiction he lays out as theology in his nonfiction. The successive schools of painting, now devolved into an irritating low-intensity warfare, were about ideas, not just technique: how Jesus should be portrayed, who is important enough to be painted, what is the nature of reality, what is worthy of our attention.

Manipulation is a loaded negative word, and if you wish to substitute another I don't much mind.  I did not seek a milder synonym myself, as I wanted to keep the arresting quality of the word. We complain about manipulation when we disapprove of the idea and appears to be working on others. Jaed mentioned "Jesus is my boyfriend" worship music, which is not that different from the poetry and diaries of medieval mystics, or even Song of Solomon. I find it uncomfortable, which allows me to notice and dislike the manipulative quality. Yet all other worship music is manipulative, just a different brand, appealing to a different taste, and highlighting other aspects of God.

That's what music is. It is true of comic songs, celebratory songs, patriotic songs, despairing songs - all tweak emotions and associations via shortcuts. A playwright focuses on a single individual to tell the story of many people, even a whole nation.  But he can manipulate the action on the stage to "prove" that virtue is rewarded, or that it is not. I thought of Philip Yancey's The Jesus I Never Knew (or was it What's So Amazing About Grace?) even before I got to the theater last night, because the episode of Bishop Myriel forgiving the theft of silver by Jean Valjean figures prominently in Yancey's exhortation that we should do likewise. I remember being irritated at the time at Yancey's treating the episode as if it were a real incident. Hugo can make Valjean learn and repent, or not.  (Jesus tells us to forgive because we have been forgiven, not because it is a strategy that works to improve others.  It might, but that is barely noticed.)

Our films come out of a particular culture, and so things get thrown in that seek to influence us. I recall how much my gay friends in college liked the changes in Cabaret from the stage to film versions, in that homosexuality is treated as the major subtheme. The regarded the lines "Screw Maximilian.  I do.  So do I." much as others would regard hearing mention of their hometown. Multiply this by a hundred movies (100 plays, 100 novels, 100 TV episodes) and the culture views homosexuality differently now, especially among those who follow those particular arts closely. If you approve, you see it as good advertising, or accurately reflecting reality, or advocacy. If you disapprove, you see it as manipulation.

Yes, even messageless music has a message: let's forget about all that and just dance, just have fun, just have sex. That particular manipulation seems to be working pretty well these days.


Sam L. said...

Presented for your consideration as music with no message: Surfin' Bird.

Sam L. said...

Don't forget: ABBA, the documentary, 9:45PM on TCM, tomorrow!

Not much message here, either. So far as I know.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Au contraire, young love, heartbreak, nostalgia, seeentimentality - these are all statements of the primacy of emotion and the focus on youth and passion.

jaed said...

Yet all other worship music is manipulative, just a different brand, appealing to a different taste, and highlighting other aspects of God.

Oh yeah. My aesthetic objection to the "Jesus Is My Boyfriend" school of hymn-writing it that it is so unsubtle that it fails to manipulate me. (It's hard to be moved emotionally when you're rolling your eyes.)

james said...

I'm inclined to agree that manipulation is the wrong word. When I try to communicate what I see I sometimes try to communicate how I feel about it, and use various agreed-on symbols to help you understand, or perhaps even empathize with my feelings.

When I try to write a poem for my wife I want her to see herself as I see her, and feel something of how I feel about her. (Not that I succeed that well--Shakespeare I'm not.) She accepts this attempt at communication of vision and emotion; there's nothing mischievous or controlling.

Worship music we participate in because we want to achieve the state of focus on God and His nature, and the "manipulation" is a tool we use, not just something the band does to us.

Manipulation carries the connotation of trying to do this without the knowledge or permission of the person I'm communicating with. Maybe this is for some legitimate artistic end (surprise twist) or maybe it's for propaganda.

Remember this one?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ James. Great link. A full-throated declaration, that.

Cambias said...

What I find absolutely fascinating is why music has such an effect on us. How did our brains, which evolved in an environment without music (no orchestras in the Great Rift Valley) develop the ability to respond so strongly to it?

I've heard some people suggest it's plugging into our language and speech recognition ability, but that doesn't seem to fit. A blare of trumpets is inspiring, but a person with a blaring, trumpet-like voice is very annoying.

Why do our brains like music?

jaed said...

My short answer: music is math. Math is pattern. Our brains like patterns. We apprehend the patterns in music - the mathematical relationships between note frequencies, the rhythms, the combinations - directly rather than consciously, but we recognize pleasing patterns in it the same way we recognize pleasing proportions in the things we see.

I'm also not so sure about the Great Rift Valley. Humans have sung for a long time - not sure whether it's all the way back to the hominids, but surely as long as we've had speech. And it's not hard to do rhythmic percussion - just bang a couple of sticks together.

Christopher B said...

There's a difference between being complicit in the manipulation (willing suspense of disbelief) and being propagandized. And being gaslighted by somebody using fictions to support their arguments is another thing all together.