Most intelligent people seem to know that the best songs are usually not the ones played on the radio and the best books are rarely the ones that make bestseller lists, so they make it a point to seek out alternatives to commercial entertainment in these areas. Intelligent people also know that the books sold at their local supermarket are not books worth taking the time to read (even going so far as to think less of people whose reading list is made up of these kind of titles). When it comes to cinema, however, the overwhelming majority of the very same intelligent people go to their local multiplex to catch the next Hollywood movie and watch many of the same titles that can be rented from the vending machines at their local supermarket... In all the other arts, intelligent people usually know better (or at least pretend to!), but when it comes to cinema, what most people want is entertainment -- the ignorant and intelligent alike.
Below, Gene Youngblood gives some compelling and insightful reasons as to why this is and why it matters.
"The prevailing messages of the so-called popular media have lost their relevance because a socioeconomic system that substitutes the profit motive for use value separates man from himself and art from life. When we're enslaved to any system, the creative impulse is dulled and the tendency to imitate increases. Thus arises the phenomenon of commercial entertainment distinct from art, a system of temporarily gratifying, without really fulfilling, the experiential needs of an aesthetically impoverished culture.
The mass public insists on entertainment over art in order to escape an unnatural way of life in which interior realities are not compatible with exterior realities. Freedom, says Brown, is fusion. Life becomes art when there's no difference between what we are and what we do. Art is a synergetic attempt at closing the gap between what is and what ought to be. Jacob Bronowski has suggested that we "ought to act in such a way that what is true can be verified to be so." --Gene Youngblood, preface to Expanded Cinema (1970)
Art, Entertainment, Entropy
"The current generation is engaged in an unprecedented questioning of all that has been held essential. We question traditional concepts of authority, ownership, justice, love, sex, freedom, politics, even tradition itself. But it's significant that we don't question our entertainment. The disenfranchised young man who dropped out of college, burned his draft card, braids his hair, smokes pot, and digs Dylan is standing in line with his girl, who takes the pill, waiting to see The Graduate or Bonnie and Clyde or Easy Rider — and they're reacting to the same formulas of conditioned response that lulled their parents to sleep in the 1930's.
We've seen the urgent need for an expanded cinematic language. I hope to illustrate that profit-motivated commercial entertainment, by its very nature, cannot supply this new vision. Commercial entertainment works against art, exploits the alienation and boredom of the public, by perpetuating a system of conditioned response to formulas. Commercial entertainment not only isn't creative, it actually destroys the audience's ability to appreciate and participate in the creative process. The implications become apparent when we realize that, as leisure time increases, each human will be forced to become a creative, self-sufficient, empirical energy laboratory.
D. H. Lawrence has written: "The business of art is to reveal the relation between man and his circumambient universe at this living moment. As mankind is always struggling in the toil of old relationships, art is always ahead of its 'times,' which themselves are always far in the rear of the living present." Jean-Jacques Lebel stated the same idea in different terms when he described art as "the creation of a new world, never seen before, imperceptibly gaining on reality."
We've seen that man is conditioned by, and reacts to, certain stimuli in the man-made environment. The commercial entertainer is a manipulator of these stimuli. If he employs a certain trigger mechanism, we're guaranteed to react accordingly, like puppets, providing he manipulates the trigger properly. I'm not saying the artist doesn't resort to audience manipulation; we know he often does. The point, however, is the motivation in doing so. If the artist must resort to trigger mechanisms to make himself clear, he will; but it's only a means to his end. In the case of the commercial entertainer, however, it's the end in itself.
Plot, story, and what commonly is known as "drama" are the devices that enable the commercial entertainer to manipulate his audience. The very act of this manipulation, gratifying conditioned needs, is what the films actually are about. The viewer purchases it with his ticket and is understandably annoyed if the film asks him to manipulate himself, to engage in the creative process along with the artist. Our word poetry derives from the Greek root poiein meaning "to make" or "to work." The viewer of commercial entertainment cinema does not want to work; he wants to be an object, to be acted upon, to be manipulated. The true subject of commercial entertainment is this little game it plays with its audience.
By perpetuating a destructive habit of unthinking response to formulas, by forcing us to rely ever more frequently on memory, the commercial entertainer encourages an unthinking response to daily life, inhibiting self-awareness. Driven by the profit motive, the commercial entertainer dares not risk alienating us by attempting new language even if he were capable of it. He seeks only to gratify preconditioned needs for formula stimulus. He offers nothing we haven't already conceived, nothing we don't already expect. Art explains; entertainment exploits. Art is freedom from the conditions of memory; entertainment is conditional on a present that is conditioned by the past. Entertainment gives us what we want; art gives us what we don't know we want. To confront a work of art is to confront oneself—but aspects of oneself previously unrecognized.
The extent to which blatant audience manipulation not only is tolerated but extolled is alarming. Alfred Hitchcock, for example, in his interview with François Truffaut, finds merit in his ability to manipulate preconditioned needs for formula stimulus. Speaking of Psycho, Hitchcock frankly admits: "It wasn't a message that stirred them, nor was it a great performance, or their enjoyment of the novel... they were aroused by the construction of the story, and the way in which it was told caused audiences all over the world to react and become emotional."
It is essential to understand that Hitchcock openly admits that he didn't even try to expand awareness or to communicate some significant message, but only exploited a universal tradition of dramatic manipulation in order to supply his audience with the gratification it paid for. The audience sees itself and its dreams reflected in the film and reacts according to memory, which Krishnamurti has characterized as being always conditioned. "Memory," says Krishnamurti, "is always in the past and is given life in the present by a challenge. Memory has no life in itself; it comes to life in the challenge [preconditioned formula stimulus]. And all memory, whether dormant or active, is conditioned." It is this process that the entertainment industry calls audience identification.
To a healthy mind, anything that is primarily art is also immensely entertaining. It seems obvious that the most important things should be the most entertaining. Where there's a difference between what we "like" and what we know to be vital, we have a condition of schizophrenia, an unnatural and destructive situation. I speak deliberately of a "healthy" mind as one capable of creative thinking. Filmmaker Ken Kelman: "The old cinema removes experience, making us see things along with (or through) a protagonist with whom we identify, and a plot in which we are caught. Such an approach tends toward not only a lack of viewpoint, of definition of whose experience it is, but also filters the power of sight into mere habit, dissolves insight into vicariousness. The spectator is reduced to a voyeur — which is, increasingly, the individual's role in society at large."
Minimalist painter David Lee: "When people do not trust their senses they lack confidence in themselves. For the last few centuries people have lacked confidence. They have not trusted their experience to provide a standard for knowing how to act." It is quite obvious that most of us not only don't know much about art, we don't even know what we like. Krishnamurti: "One of the fundamental causes of the disintegration of society is copying, which is the worship of authority."
Imitation is the result of inadequate information. Information results in change. Change requires energy. Energy is the result of adequate information Energy is directly proportional to the amount of information about the structure of a system. Norbert Wiener: "Information is a name for the content of what is exchanged with the outer world as we adjust to it and make our adjustment felt upon it ... to live effectively is to live with adequate information." From the cinema we receive conceptual information (ideas) and design information (experiences). In concert they become one phenomenon, which I've described as the experiential information of aesthetic conceptual design. This information is either useful (additive) or redundant. Useful information accelerates change. Redundant information restricts change. If sustained long enough redundant information finally becomes misinformation, which results in negative change.
To satisfy the profit motive the commercial entertainer must give the audience what it expects, which is conditional on what it has been getting, which is conditional on what it previously received, ad infinitum. Inherent in the term "genre," which applies to all entertainment, is that it must be probable. The content of westerns, gangster movies, romances, etc., is probable in that it can be identified and comprehended simply by classification. The phenomenon of drama itself usually is not considered a genre, but is in fact the most universal and archetypical of all genres. Drama, by definition, means conflict, which in turn means suspense. Suspense is requisite on the expectation of known alternatives. One cannot expect the unknown. Therefore expectation, suspense, and drama are all redundant probable qualities and thus are noninformative.
Drama requires a plot that forces the viewer to move from point A to point B to point C along predetermined lines. Plot does not mean "story" (beginning-middle-end). It simply indicates a relatively closed structure in which free association and conscious participation are restricted. Since the viewer remains passive and is acted upon by the experience rather than participating in it with volition, there's no feedback, that vital source of negentropy. Norbert Wiener: "Feedback is a method of controlling a system by reinserting into it the results of its past performance... if the information which proceeds backward from the performance is able to change the general method and pattern of performance, we have a process which may well be called learning." Fuller: "Every time man makes a new experiment he always learns more. He cannot learn less."
In the cinema, feedback is possible almost exclusively in what I call the synaesthetic mode, which we'll discuss presently. Because it is entirely personal it rests on no identifiable plot and is not probable. The viewer is forced to create along with the film, to interpret for himself what he is experiencing. If the information (either concept or design) reveals some previously unrecognized aspect of the viewer's relation to the circumambient universe — or provides language with which to conceptualize old realities more effectively — the viewer recreates that discovery along with the artist, thus feeding back into the environment the existence of more creative potential, which may in turn be used by the artist for messages of still greater eloquence and perception. If the information is redundant, as it must be in commercial entertainment, nothing is learned and change becomes unlikely. The noted authority on communication theory, J. R. Pierce, has demonstrated that an increase in entropy means a decrease in the ability to change. And we have seen that the ability to change is the most urgent need facing twentieth-century man.
The notion of experimental art, therefore, is meaningless. All art is experimental or it isn't art. Art is research, whereas entertainment is a game or conflict. We have learned from cybernetics that in research one's work is governed by one's strongest points, whereas in conflicts or games one's work is governed by its weakest moments. We have defined the difference between art and entertainment in scientific terms and have found entertainment to be inherently entropic, opposed to change, and art to be inherently negentropic, a catalyst to change. The artist is always an anarchist, a revolutionary, a creator of new worlds imperceptibly gaining on reality. He can do this because we live in a cosmos in which there's always something more to be seen. When finally we erase the difference between art and entertainment — as we must to survive — we shall find that our community is no longer a community, and we shall begin to understand radical evolution.
Retrospective Man and the Human Condition
John Dewey: "When art attains classic status it becomes isolated from the human conditions under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life experience... when, because of their remoteness, the objects acknowledged by the cultivated to be works of fine art seem anemic to the mass of people...
...aesthetic hunger is likely to seek the cheap and the vulgar."
The history of popular entertainment, in terms of its conceptual content, can be divided into three general categories: (1) idealization, which corresponds to states of happiness in which life is seen as a heavenly experience and man is characterized by his most noble deeds; (2) frustration, an expression of the conflict between inner and outer realities, when what is is not what should be; (3) demoralization, generally expressed as "the blues." In commercial entertainment cinema these three formulas are followed religiously, almost without exception, and usually comprise the nature of the message. They are the human condition, that which is taken for granted, the given, the facts of life. Everyone has ideals, everyone is frustrated, everyone gets the blues. But this information is redundant; we must go on from there.
Commercial entertainment is "popular" and not what we call art because it doesn't go on from there. To insure the widest possible acceptance of his message, the commercial entertainer must speak a common language. He copies, repeats, or imitates that which already exists within the grasp of the so-called average man. And the majority of us embrace it because it offers security, a crutch, in the knowledge that the miseries we suffer are shared by others. But art transcends the human condition. The artist doesn't want to hear our problems and our dreams — he already knows them. Instead he wants to know what we're doing about them, and he gives us the instruments we need for the task. The symbol is the basic instrument of thought; those who create new symbols — artists, scientists, poets, philosophers — are those who, by giving us new instruments to think with, give us new areas to explore in our thinking.
A rather indignant woman once asked me how I could have the nerve to suggest that an "abstract" film like Brakhage's Dog Star Man could be more important than an immortal classic like Renoir's The Grand Illusion. The new consciousness takes the view that films like Renoir's do not contain one single insight into the nature of the human condition that has not already been absorbed by the collective consciousness. Bob Dylan: "How many times must a man look up before he can see the sky? How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?" And my own question: how many times must we acknowledge the human condition before it becomes redundant? How long must we tolerate the same facts of life before we begin seeking new facts? We intuit that the human condition has expanded since yesterday, but the popular arts aren't telling us. The human condition does not stop with what we know about ourselves. Each genuinely new experience expands the definition of the human condition that much more. Some are seeking those new facts, those new experiences, through the synaesthetic research of expanded cinema.
Barbara Rose: "The new art... posits an entirely new world view which shifts cultural values from a death-oriented, commemorative, past-enshrining culture to a life-oriented, present-oriented civilization... In this sense [Claes] Oldenburg's monuments represent, as he contended, not the appearance of something, but its disappearance... the tomb, the memorial, the shrine, the monument, all belong to cultures that commemorate."