Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Consolations of Junk Art, Part I: Star Trek

“Was it not Gautier who used to write about la consolation des arts? I remember picking up a little vellum-covered book in your studio one day and chancing on that delightful phrase. Well, I am not like that young man you told me of when we were down at Marlow together, the young man who used to say that yellow satin could console one for all the miseries of life. I love beautiful things that one can touch and handle. Old brocades, green bronzes, lacquer-work, carved ivories, exquisite surroundings, luxury, pomp—there is much to be got from all these.” --- Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)

"To the man who loves art for its own sake," remarked Sherlock Holmes, tossing aside the advertisement sheet of the Daily Telegraph, "it is frequently in its least important and lowliest manifestations that the keenest pleasure is to be derived.”  -- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Cooper Beeches (1892)

Two very different concepts on the curative power of art, written only one year apart.  However, recent events have led me to believe that it may be Sir Arthur and not Mr. Wilde who was closer to the mark.

Your Correspondent has recently been thinking of the pleasures of pop art versus those found in the Fine Arts, the proper subject of this blog.  Dealing with multiple responsibilities, I relaxed within the warm confines of some delightful junk art.  It has gotten me thinking that often, when tired, that it was not towards the highest, but, rather, towards the lowest that I went for succor and comfort.  Why, I wonder, would that be?

The reasons are multiple and, as is usual when considering art of any type, complex.  It would be too easy by half to say that junk art provides only expected sensations, and, consequently, comfort, pleasure and even a kind of solace.  Nor do I think that good junk art was created solely for the groundlings, who are unworthy (or unwilling) to interact with the higher branches of the fine arts.  No … I would argue that good junk art stimulates essential pleasure centers of the brain, pleasure centers that were meant to be stimulated, and that need that stimulus in order to remain healthy.

So, we have to agree when Sherlock Holmes says that art’s keenest pleasures are often to be derived in its least important and lowliest manifestations.  (It is important to remember here, too, that the Sherlock Holmes stories are junk art of the very highest pedigree.)

I have been enjoying a great deal of junk art over the past couple of weeks, and wanted to share both the delights and pitfalls to be found in them.  And how better than to start with that global phenomena, Star Trek.

For those readers who have not been living in a cave for nearly the last 50 years or so, Star Trek started as a science fiction thriller on network television in the 1960s.  It fairly limped along for three seasons until the network pulled the plug in search of something that would generate better ratings.

Normally, the result would’ve been that the vast majority of American viewers simply opened another beer and moved onto to some other program.  But Star Trek would not die.  It was saved once during its initial run by a letter campaign that ensured the final two seasons, and once it was off for good, it was kept alive in syndication, comic books, novels, fan fiction and on the convention circuit.

A decade after the last television episode saw the first, big-budget film adaptation, and the franchise has not stopped for breath since.  There have been 12 movie adaptations, and five later television series.  It does not seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

As with any huge entertainment franchise, there is much that is good and much that is bad in Star Trek.  Your correspondent has a soft spot for the original series, starring William Shatner and the late Leonard Nimoy, and likes Star Trek: The Next Generation a great deal.  But … it’s all still junk.

Though there will be calls for my head on a pike, the ugly truth is that when Star Trek is good, it’s pedigree junk, and when it’s bad, it’s nearly unwatchable.

What’s the good?  Well, Star Trek will often confront questions on the nature of the human condition … but only in the most surface and reassuring way.  Vindications of our simple humanity and calls for universal tolerance and progress are all good things.  And when these homilies are delivered by an actor with real gravitas (such as Patrick Stewart, who played the Shakespeare-quoting Captain Picard), they can sound wonderfully profound.  However, their profundity is of the Reader’s Digest sampler kind; propositions no one is really going take issue with, and never to be examined in any depth.

This often makes terrific television and compelling movies, but it is not art of a high order.  In short, Star Trek is an imitation classic – it is Shakespeare for those too tired, or uninterested, in the real thing.  But, unlike Shakespeare, any real profundity is brought to it by the viewer, and is not really inherent in the text.  But its deficiencies are not the point … Star Trek, in terms of high-minded themes translated into compelling drama still manages to get the job done.

What’s the bad?  Well … like many offerings that generate obsessive fan-bases, Star Trek is often its own worst enemy.  Too often plot, character development or even the underlying philosophy of the concept are driven by demands of an entrenched fan-base.  That kind of outward direction has killed greater modes of artistic expression, and for a franchise it can be the kiss of death.  (For an example of this, look at the disaster that is Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country.  Designed as the farewell film of the original cast, it is little more than a litany of shtick, none of which seems to make sense in context of the story.)

Another problem is that, with an enterprise like Star Trek (sorry), it is impossible not to come to the well too many times.  Though it is often reinvented with tweaks that give the appearance of freshness, the franchise is filled with tired blood and should be put out of its misery.

Wait … I hear you saying, isn’t the whole point of this the consolation of the arts?  Indeed it is.  Your correspondent admits that when he is tired, there are few things more comforting that an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Just listening to Stewart mouth the platitudes and homilies that Star Trek provides in great profusion can be a tremendous solace.  It is also a delight to know that someone, somewhere, believes that the race will continue to exist hundreds of years from now, and will even move out into the stars.  Finally, while Star Trek would never argue in favor of the perfectibility of the human race, it continues to underscore what is worthy, heroic and noble in our natures.

And that’s not junk.

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