The Artist/Pop Culture Symbiosis

By February 25th, 2010 4 Comments

Today’s guest blog from Devon Ellington takes on the relationship between pop culture and the artists that create (and are in turned shaped by) it.


No matter what it is that suddenly bursts out as a “pop culture icon,” it started in the imagination of an artist. Anita Blake’s journey into ardeur, a woman taking positive control of her sexuality and not falling into preconceived traps of a monogamous “happily ever after,” originated in Laurell K. Hamilton’s imagination. The deconstruction of our assumptions about superheros and the blurring of “good” and evil” in the Watchmen world started in the imaginations of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Janet Evanovich pulls on not only pop culture but stereotypes and turns them inside out with Stephanie Plum. Hogwarts and Quidditch came out of JK Rowling’s imagination and yet are now referred to as casually as Dairy Queen. Andy Warhol took the Campell’s Soup Can and Marilyn Monroe’s face, and changed our interpretation.

Artists continually ask “what if?” and then they explore that “if.” How many lovers does it take to keep Anita alive “if” she needs sex to survive, and what does that do to someone who doesn’t believe in casual sex? Is it okay to destroy part of the world–and your colleagues–to serve a “greater good”? Does “greater good” even exist? Can a Jersey girl with a weakness for fast food and a tendency to destroy cars really bring down the bad guys and make her little corner of Trenton safer for the next 24 hours or so? Is love really more powerful than hate? Is a can a can a can or does it represent a culture that sold its soul for convenience?

Art asks questions and demands a response. An artist looks at the world around him/her and pushes boundaries, twists the safe realities, and asks the audience to take as much of a risk as the artist takes. Either the audience is brave enough to take the journey or isn’t.

Pieces like Watchman and Harry Potter take it to another level when they jump from the page to the medium of film. Both of these authors were blessed in that the three dimensional interpretations of their imaginations held true to the work on the page, whether it was stipulated in the contract or not. Both of these worlds were brought to life by actors, directors, and production teams who took the visions created on the page by the original artist, visions that connected to hundreds of thousands of individuals on both visceral and emotional levels and took them to the next step.

Could we even imagine anyone but Jackie Earle Haley as Rorshach in Watchman, or Daniel Radcliffe as Harry in the Harry Potter films? Other actors would have brought different details out in each character. I can think of dozens of actors who would have tried to elicit sympathy from the audience for Rorshach or tried to make the audience like him, or played him as a victim instead of a force of nature. Instead, Haley forces the audience to face the unvarnished truth about the depths of Rorshach’s rage and the impossibility for his redemption, while still eliciting compassion. I can’t think of another actor who would have dived into Rorshach’s abyss so fearlessly and honestly–and I’ve worked with hundreds of actors for over twenty five years. Another actor would have brought out different facets of the character in different ways. But I can’t think of anyone who could have attacked the character and seduced the audience with the same impact and intensity. As far as Radcliffe, he inhabits Harry Potter with a quality that keeps the audience on his side, even during the times in the books where the reader wanted to smack Harry upside the head for being a typical, difficult, angst-ridden teenager. He’s a versatile enough actor to go far beyond Harry’s limitations, but when he’s inhabiting Harry, he’s so much Harry that we can’t imagine anyone else in the role. According to rumors, Katherine Heigl will soon inhabit Stephanie Plum, and we’ll experience what happens to that character when she is brought to life by a three-dimensional human being.

The creator of the work spins a world so unique, so intense, and yet touches something within the readers that resonates so deeply and on such a broad level that the world created by the artist becomes a touchstone in the overall culture and even part of the every day lexicon. It comes out of the artist’s ability to see the world from various angles, have passionate responses to the actual world, and synthesize that passion into an altered reality that then resonates with hundreds of thousands of individuals, who reflect and refract the art through their own experience. The personal becomes universal and the universal becomes personal. It’s an eternal hall of mirrors working off each other.

As the culture evolves and devolves simultaneously (so-called “reality” television), some aspects fall away, and some grow even stronger. “Popular” doesn’t mean “cheap”–it harkens back even farther, to the archetypes of the original, ritualistic theatre, the archetypes of the tarot Jung believed were hardwired into our psyches, and which keep re-inventing themselves from generation to generation.

The “culture” needs artists to reinterpret it and challenge it as the culture evolves, and the artists need the response of the culture. That endless cycle keeps the world rotating as much as the gravitational pull of the sun.

Devon Ellington‘s essays appear in Perfectly Plum and the upcoming Ardeur. You can follow the ups and downs of her writing life on Ink in My Coffee:

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4 Comments On "The Artist/Pop Culture Symbiosis"

  1. Phil T

    I would say that Art is always a reaction to something in society. The artist is simply the one that determines the direction of that reaction based on his/her experience.

    I find it interesting you mention Watchmen. I was very impressed by the film for even attempting the multi-layered story of the book. But while it did an impressive job given the source material I think the sheer experience of reading and, in my case, being overwhelmed by the inter-weaving narratives and complex themes of the book make it an experience that cannot be recreated on screen.

    Probably why Alan Moore disowns the movie version. His Artistic vision can ONLY come to life by the process of reading the book.
    Zach Snyders approach as an Auteur is almost a separate entity, although entirely valid in it’s own way.

    Alan Moore only lives about 20 mins from me…maybe I’ll go and find out his thoughts!


    • Devon ellington

      Phil, thanks for stopping by. I think the artist reacts to society, but some artists can move beyond what is and into “what could be” or what they may think “should” or “shouldn’t” be — and that’s where we get wonderful speculative art and fiction — some of which then comes true.

      Regarding WATCHMEN — I came to the film without having read the graphic novel. There were things that did and did not work in the film for me — I loved the design of the film, Jackie Earle Haley’s work and Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s work, but had trouble with some other elements.

      Once I read the graphic novel, I appreciated even more what a challenge the filmmakers took on. I also appreciated the world Moore created with the novel. There were elements in the novel I preferred. I still feel that Haley’s work as Rorschach was spectacular and he really embodied what was on the page and beyond. He made me feel compassion for Rorschach, even when I disagreed with R’s choices. I never felt pity for the man — but I felt compassion. So many actors would have tried to elicit pity from the audience, and Haley took the risk of a different choice, and one which I feel succeeded.


  2. Heather Butterfield

    I’m so glad that you mentioned how “Popular” doesn’t mean “cheap.” I’ve seen popular culture denigrated as low-culture too many times by people who are too blind to see the artistic value in a work like Harry Potter. Even Anita Blake (or should I say ESPECIALLY Anita Blake) is an interpretation and expression of our culture that is just as valid as any “high” culture work.

    And that’s why I think that SmartPop is so great (and I why I wanted to intern for them so badly, full-disclosure here!). A psychoanalytical reading of Twilight? A feminist reading of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? I can get on board with that.


    • Devon ellington

      Heather, thanks for stopping by. So many things we look at as “classic” today were “pop culture” in their time — like the work of Dickens. There’s always some need for brain candy for stress relief, but the enduring pop culture pieces endure beause they’re deeper than they originally seem, they connect with the audience on a more lasting, almost archetypical level, and they’re well done.

      Certain truths can be presented much more palatably wrapped in the cone of “pop culture” when it’s done well.


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