Monday, July 25, 2005

Life imitates art

The countdown to the new fall semester has begun (less than a month), with the usual mad scramble: last-minute changes to the schedule, the publishers of our new composition texts haven't gotten us desk copies, etc. Now is the season when I have to make hard choices.

One of the big choices I generally have to make is about the "silent theme" of each of my courses. I like to have a theme on the surface for the students to focus on, e.g. my "love, sex, and marriage in medieval lit" theme for the medieval survey this semester. Being the evil man I am, though, I also like to have a hidden agenda, a subtext for each class. Some examples of this might be "research papers should put the writer in dialogue with scholarly/professional discussion on the topic" or "all translation and editing is a form of interpretation" or "the lessons of literature are relevant to my life."

This fall, I'm going for broke. I think I'm going to have the same "silent theme" for all of my literature classes: Life imitates art, not visa-versa.

I suspect this is going to be a tough one for students, particularly younger ones, because it is so counter-intuitive. On the surface, this seems to be nonsense. Doesn't life precede art? And as such, needn't art imitate life?

Of course, SOMEONE's life had to precede art ... we just don't have any record back that far. The earliest Man we can trace had art, from cave painting to music. Once we get further back, we've got animals. For all of recorded history, life has imitated art.

Let me offer an example. You are in love -- now, how do you behave? If you are a male, you do things like attempt feats of physical prowess, as well as demonstrating sensitivity through such things as writing love poetry or giving gifts of perfume, candies, or flowers. If you are a female, you place yourself in situations of "distress," such as having your books carried from class-to-class, or needing some repairs done around the house. While there is a biological component to each of these, how do we know how to express our biological desires in the culture? Through art, of course.

We try to live as art teaches. We express love in the ways of characters in stories. We speak in unfamiliar situations in ways that we've read characters speaking. We select the clothes we wear based upon an ideal determined by art (such as fashion photography). We take on the roles of characters we see in art, and judge others by those same characters.

In the 80's, the most popular father in America was ... Bill Cosby. No one can name one of his real children, but anyone alive at that time can name his fictional children. Students often tell me that their ideal teacher is Robin Williams from "Dead Poets' Society," far more often than they name a real teacher from their past. Our president wears cowboy boots, but I've never seen him rounding up cattle. My penchant for tweed jackets and bowties is an ironic comment on depictions of professors in art, not actual professors I have known. Women love to wear the same dress that Haley Berry wore in a particular film, but they hate it if a real live women is wearing the same dress as they. At the Cafe du Monde in New Orleans last week, people seemed to be more intent on striking poses than actually drinking coffee and eating beignets. And, most annoyingly to me, whenever in Europe all young Americans try to be characters from Hemingway.

I sometimes wonder if mimesis is really about how closely a work of art imitates life at all. Perhaps we consider something "realistic" if it presents an artistic representation we ourselves are able to imitate in our own lives. Maybe "true to life" doesn't mean that the work is similar to my own life -- maybe it means that I am able to mold my life to a role in the work.

Maybe understanding that life imitates art is too subtle an idea for most young people, but I'm going to give it a try anyway. I'll try to keep y'all posted on how its going as the semester progresses.

[updated 12:48PM to fix a stupid error]


  1. Anonymous6:15 AM

    I agree, and could name countless examples in my own life where I attempted to imitate what I had seen on t.v., the movies, or read in books (the Chronicles of Amber come to mind -- Corwin had such a great outlook on life). This is why I am concerned about the direction of t.v. and movies these days, from many perspectives (moral, social cohesion, etc.). So many defenders of the entertainment media these days declare decisively that their art reflects life, not the other way around, and besides, popular entertainment can be segregated in the viewer's mind and doesn't impact their "real" life. But your thesis (correctly, in my opinion) cuts across this argument. Remember that movie some years back which depicted some teenage kids lying in the middle of a highway (was it Jackass? I don't remember) -- next thing you know, some kids in California had attempted the same thing (acts of physical prowess? or stupidity) and one got killed. Or -- look at the video game Grand Theft Auto which, though it's hard to call it art per se, certainly contains elements of art. Again, some kid went on a killing spree in a police station recently, and the allegations are he was imitating the game. Not everyone imitates art quite so literally, but that to me makes it even more insidious, in that art can impact you so subtly that you don't know it until the pot is already boiling.

    I, too, have never seen our president herding cattle. But I have seen him riding a horse, and hauling brush on a cattle ranch. Even our president may imitate art in some ways, but I'll defend his "cowboyism" to the death.

  2. OK, how about this, then ... I have seen lots of people wearing cowboy boots who have never been on a horse, even those who have never been president.

    As for Bush, it isn't like he only wears boots when he's on horseback -- though it would be really neat to see him walk out of the State of the Union, jump on a horse, and take a herd to Colorado.

  3. Anonymous8:52 AM

    Ah, good doctor . . . real cowboys don't only wear their boots while riding. Real cowboys wear them all the time -- to church, in the shower, in bed, etc. Ever hear of dying with your boots on?

    I, too, would like to see him stride out of the Capitol, put heels to flank, and ride off.

    I will readily agree that cowboy wear is fashionable in some places -- even for those who have never seen a horse.