it didn’t have to be obscene

No enigma…no dignity, nothing classical or poetic…only this.

Lately I’m researching expressionism for my work. The turn of the twentieth century saw some of the most incredible advances in the arts, sciences and technologies. At the peak of the industrial revolution, with the convergence of breakthroughs in communication and social evolution, suddenly the world was not such a big place. Instead of the global stage being dominated by Western progress and exploration, trans-oceanic cross-fertilisation inspired a fusion of worldwide knowledge and appreciation.

Movement after movement followed as avant-garde artists in all fields experimented and were inspired by the changing times. Impressionism, naturalism, expressionism, positivism, constructivism, cubism, surrealism, neo-classicism, modernism, absurdism, post-modernism…the -isms were endless, reactionary and diverse. Five decades of unprecedented contradistinction and fecundity.

And then what?

Yes, I know the twin world wars have a lot to answer for, decimating populations, changing the face of the labour force, disillusioning and shaming generations to come, forcing the world to once again accept the reality of true evil and tyranny.

But why this steady decline into a relatively singular artistic pursuit of popularity and fame? Of course all artists throughout history have desired lucrative rewards and adulations for their efforts. But is it my imagination or has this got out of hand?

It no longer requires even a wrinkle of true talent to become obscenely famous and, consequentially, wealthy. What’s happened to the educated audience who can discern authentic art from mindless, crowd-pleasing noise?

I’m not saying there’s no artistic value anymore. Of course there’ve been radical, revolutionary movements in the past decades, but even those movements acknowledged the banality of modern tastes. The pop art of Andy Warhol is one example.

There’s genuine talent and creativity out there, it’s just that we have to dig, ceaselessly and exhaustively, through the ever-growing proliferation of hyper-coloured, over-marketed shit to find it.

Expressionism and its related artistic movements led me to rediscover one of my best loved works from playwright Tom Stoppard — Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. If you can’t see a live production please watch the faithfully adapted film featuring the much younger faces of two of England’s greats: Gary Oldman and Tim Roth. I pause it often in order to catch every word of dialogue, none of which goes to waste in this superbly imagined, perfectly crafted exposition of the many paradoxes of existence and destiny.

(For those unfamiliar with the play it’s a reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet told from the perspective of two very minor characters. The fact they seem to have no existence apart from their interactions with the play’s events makes for some profound and often hilarious musings on identity and reality.)

In an early scene the two friends encounter a travelling theatre troupe (the same that visit Hamlet in Act II, Scene ii), and the discussion of thespian wares becomes a metaphor for life. The play-within-a-play technique was a favourite of Shakespeare’s, and this is one of many tilts-of-the-hat to the bard. Here Guildensten takes a firm stance on the nature of The Player’s offer of entertainment. This is the first real demonstration of assertive behaviour from either of the central characters (or are they minor characters…?).

Guildenstern implores The Player: “It could have been…it didn’t have to be obscene. I was prepared. But it’s this, is it? No enigma…no dignity, nothing classical or poetic…only this. A comic pornographer and a rabble of prostitutes.”

I hadn’t remembered this particular quote and it shocked me. He hit the proverbial nail on the head. After all, can’t we liken modern celebrity’s shameless plying for popularity and attention with the prostitute who makes a living debasing themselves for the satisfaction of a nameless customer?

The Player’s response is equally as telling:

“You should have caught us in better times. We were purists then.”

So why aren’t we purists now?

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