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.