Saturday, June 24, 2017

10.9 The Empress of Mars

Some Victorians find a crashed flying saucer. In it is a little green man; who says that if they help him, he will fly them back to Mars and let them mine for infinite wealth. He will even build them a mining machine. But he is tricking them; he really wants to defrost the Little Green Queen who is in suspended animation. This leads to a shooting war between the Martians and the Victorians. When it looks like the two groups are going to wipe each other out, one of the soldiers, who was once sentenced to death for desertion, surrenders to the Queen and invites her to kill him. This proves that huh mans are honourable (or something) and she calls the war off and sets about rebuilding her civilization. Almost immediately she gets a message from a far-away star system, saying that a fleet of interstellar space ships are coming to help them.

I wish I had come in in the middle of Empress of Mars. In fact, I wish in fact that I was a Doctor Who fan from the 1980s, coming out of suspended animation at about the half way point. Ice Warriors and Red Coats in a cave, mutually besieging each other’s base; guns going off and indistinguishable men with pith hats and mustaches crying “I am assuming command” at each other, while an Ice Queen rants things like “Sleep no more!” and “Rise my ice warriors.” No idea at all what's going on, but this is what I always hoped Doctor Who would -- just like it was before but ever so much more so. I am sure if I watch the whole episode and catch up with the last 30 years of Ice Warrior continuity it will all make perfect sense. 

But I would be working on a false assumption. I would be assuming that Doctor Who was like other TV: that scenes make sense in context; that scenes, indeed, have a context to make sense in. 


Battlestar Galactica created a new thing out of the wreckage of its source material. Star Wars continues to lovingly illuminate the margins of its holy texts. Cinema Star Trek is currently desecrating the corpse of its TV predecessor, but at least it’s doing so consciously and deliberately, out of some perverse parricidal hatred. The Clangers — and I will fight to the death anyone who says that the Clangers isn’t as venerable and worthy of respect as any of the above-named Big Geek Franchises — simply resumed after a pause of 43 years as if nothing had happened. I suppose you could say that it was redundant: you can’t add to perfection. On the other hand, the characters can now blink. 

What, after ten years, is Doctor Who's relationship to the series which from 1963 to 1989? What is Doctor Who for? A dozen years in, I still have no answer. I suppose "Doctor Who is a series set in a magical universe where, each week, someone has to volunteer to commit suicide in order to generate the Peace Rays necessary to defeat the baddies" might do for a definition. But it still seems paralyzed by the anxiety of influence.

I have committed myself to writing something about every week’s episode of Doctor Who, and that means that I have to think of something interesting to say each week. No one would be very pleased if I said “It was another episode of Doctor Who. It passed the time amiably. There was nothing particularly wrong with it.” 

Empress of Mars is a very good piece of Saturday night television: light, fun, stupid, entertaining. If Doctor Who were like this every week, I would be pretty happy with it; although, if Doctor Who were like this, I would probably not bother to write about it, particularly. I was perfectly happy with, say, Merlin, but I didn’t dedicate a whole lot of thinking time to it. Perhaps I am just overthinking Doctor Who. But that raises the question: what is the correct amount of thought to apply to it. Or, put another: what is the right amount of stupor in which to watch it? 


Metro Magazine ran a headline “Doctor Who fans delighted by classic cameo in Empress of Mars.” Maybe some of them were. But I would have gone with: "Doctor Who fans bewildered by pointless cameo in Empress of Mars.” 

There are two Patrick Troughton stories, one set in the Very Far Future, in which human scientists accidentally defrost some Ice Warriors during an Ice Age; and another one set in the Much Nearer Future where some Ice Warriors try to turn the Earth’s atmosphere into Martian atmosphere using bubble bath. There is also a Jon Pertwee story in which a group of alien ambassadors have a conference to see if a retro-medieval planet can join the Galactic Free Trade Zone. The latter story pulls off a quite nice little trick: the Doctor assumes that the Ice Warriors are militaristic fascists who have come to the conference in order to disrupt it; in fact, they have long since renounced war and want the conference to succeed. Why they do not call themselves Ice Pacifists is not explored. One of the other alien ambassadors has claws and a single gigantic eye. (It came a close second in the Doctor Who Alien That Looks Most Like A Man's Willy awards.) It is this Alpha Centuri who appears on the communication screen at the end of Empress of Mars to say “welcome to the universe” to the Ice Warriors. The voice was provided by one Ysanne Churchman who provided the voice in the original story nearly 50 years ago. She was also the voice of Grace Archer who was famously burned at the stake as a punishment for inventing commercial television. (Check this - Ed.)  This makes her, at 92, the oldest person ever to appear in Doctor Who. Like you, I said "But what about the lady who had a non-speaking part as the frozen queen in the Pirate Planet but wouldn't take her false teeth out", but she was only 76.

But why? Surely the point of the story is that the nice cowardly guy with the pith helmet has volunteered to stay behind and help the Green Martians rebuild their civilization. If a fleet of highly advanced aliens are going to come along and do it all for them, doesn't that rather takes the point away from his sacrifice? That is to say, if the message had come from Just Some Alien it would have been at best pointless and at worst detrimental to the story. But if the message comes from yer actual Alpha Centuri from Curse of Peladon, then I feel entitled to ask what follows: that the Ice Warriors in Curse of Peladon were a newly defrosted race who had more or less always been pacifists, and whose civilization had been rebuilt by the Galactic Federation? That there was a civilization on Mars, in contact with interstellar races, all through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? That the Alpha Centuri of the Pertwee era is at least hundreds of years hold and has a special relationship with the Ice Warriors since their inception?

This is not a continuity gripe. I am quite happy with the invention of new continuity or the contradiction of old continuity. By all means, please, shake up the etch-a-sketch and give us a completely new Ice Warrior continuity. I am not one of those who takes personal offense when it turns out that some beloved old Star Wars comics are no longer “canon”. 

But I do want characters and scenes and alien races to have contexts. I don't think "we thought it would be cool to have three lines spoken by someone from the 1970s" is a good reason for a thing to happen in a story.

Of course, if you doing a reboot of a beloved old franchise, you are going to drop in little tips of the hat to revered previous iterations. Getting Kirk Alyn to do a cameo in the very first Superman movie, say, or wheeling on Leonard Nimoy in the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Star Trek remake. We sometimes call them Easter Eggs, little shiny things you can look for if you want to. 

The whole of this episode feels like one long Easter Egg. 

But perhaps it only feels like that to me. Perhaps this story is intended for people who have never heard of the Ice Warriors or Peladon or Alpha Centuri, or, for that matter Queen Victoria. Perhaps Doctor Who is now entirely opaque to Doctor Who fans, because all we see are allusions and references; it's position within the now ludicrously entangled web of Doctor Who. Perhaps we are supposed to be looking at the story (the story of how the man who somehow survived being hanged volunteered to commit suicide and magically melted the evil Ice Queen's heart) and hardly even noticing the Ice Warriors. You see Green Martians, I see Ice Warriors. You see a random alien whose presence makes no sense, I see Alpha Centuri from a story which went out when I was seven years old. Mark Gatiss said to himself  “Let’s do a reverse alien invasion story — where humans invade Mars. Let’s make the invaders comedy Victorians who say ‘by gum’ and ‘top hole’. And let’s have the Doctor broker some kind of peace.” And then, very much as an after thought said “I wonder if there have ever been warlike Green Martians in Doctor Who before? There have? Well, we might as well re-use those. No point in inventing new monsters for the sake of it."

Because the alternative is much more distressing. The alternative is that everyone is a Doctor Who fan now; and everyone is just excited because there are Ice Warriors and that the lady who voice Alpha Centuri is still alive. Being a Doctor Who fan is not about feeling attached to a character, or a setting, or a style of story, but to a collection of contextless, free floating symbols. 

This is a story folded in on itself; a mobius story; a story made up of allusions to other stories (which were themselves made up of allusions to other stories.) It Tomb of the Cybermen and the Hungry Earth and the Silurians and the Curse of the Mummy and pages and page of Mark Gatiss's doubtless meticulous research into Victorian cockney rhyming slang ("what a load of gammon"). It feels to much like an exercise in lining up all your Green Martian soldiers on one side of the table, and your Victorian toy soldiers on the other side of the table and playing at war, until one of the toy soldiers zaps the queen of Martians with Peace Rays and everyone makes friends. 

I enjoyed it very much indeed.


Mike Taylor said...

Isn't your basic problem with Doctor Who just that you've seen so much of it?

Andrew Rilstone said...

It's my basic problem with life.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I don't have this problem with, say, Star Wars. I watch Rebels (aimed at 10 year olds) and I know I am going to be told a story, in which Ezra goes on some mission, there is a complication, which he will overcome, probably learning something about what it means to be Jedi along the way. I also know that the main purpose of the story is to engineer either an exciting space ship dogfight, a lightsaber duel, a gun battle, or, preferably, all three. And, most importantly, if a character named "Senator Leia" or "Darth Vader" appears I know exactly how I am suppose to "read" them: Darth Vader in "Rebels" is simply and straightfowardly "Darth Vader" from "The Empire Strikes Back": I am supposed to regard it all as one big story. (This doesn't mean that there aren't difficulties in reading it all as one big story, or that there aren't actual mistakes: the Vader of Rogue One is actually a lot different from the Vader of A New Hope; so that while Rogue One segues perfectly with A New Hope in your head, on no account should you watch the two films back to back.)

Ditto, the Pirates of the Carribean #16: Johnny Depp reprising Cap'n Jack, ship battles, sword fights, ghost pirates and sea monsters. I thought the underwater sequence at the end was a bit drawn out, but again, that's critiquing it as a story, knowing what kind of story it is meant to be.

Ditto, virtually all the current Marvel Comics. Dan Slott's Silver Surfer is not Stan Lee's Silver Surfer who was not Jack Kirby's Silver Surfer; but using the Surfer as a vehicle for an "earth girl falls in love with an alien and sees the universe" Rom Com is a perfectly understandable thing to do, and frequently done brilliantly. Again, if "Shalla Ball" pops up, I know exactly what is meant to be happening: she is the Shalla Ball of the Lee/Buscema stories, the Surfer's first love from back when he was human. Some of Slott's writing unpicks some of what happened in the old comics -- there is a lot of play with "was Zenn La ever the Paradise the Surfer thinks it was? come to that, was it ever quite as decadent as the Surfer also thinks it was." (There are comedy moments where the Surfer starts to talk like Stan Lee "oh, how camest I to be trapped on this world of madness" and everyone tells him to stop being so self-pitying.)

I am prepared to accept that because I have seen every extant episode of Doctor Who, I notice or invent problems that are equally present in other fictional works, but invisible to me, because I an not as invested in them. (Note: I have read every issue, though not every appearance, of Captain America.) Possibly the appearance of a young officer named Ensign Tarkin in the Clone Wars is just as strange as the Peladon reference in the EMpress of Mars and I don't reference it.

But my view remains that, because of the way in which RTD chose to revive it, the "unique selling point" of modern who is "that programme where you just chuck stuff at the audience and don't worry with cause and effect or logical conclusions"; and that it is a great shame that Doctor Who (which generally consisted of very simple, four part stories with beginnings, middles and end) has been chosen as the vehicle for the experiment.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I suppose Admiral Thrawn might be a counter example. He's the main antagonist in the first Star Wars "extended universe" novels, an Imperial Officer who tries to keep the Emperor going after the battle of Endor. He's rendered completely non-canonical by Force Awakens (which, you will remember, wipes out all Star Wars storylines apart from the six movies and the two TV shows). But then he pops up as a major character in Season III of Rebels. In a way, this is an in-joke for adult fans. But nothing in Rebels expects you to to be aware of Heir to the Empire. Timothy Zahn certainly never had Thrawn say "and then there was that time I met a twelve year old Jedi and a Mandalorian graffiti artist." I suppose if you came to Heir to the Empire after knowing Rebels, you would easily say "This is an alternate time line in which that villain from the cartoon set himself up as mini-emperor after the second death star was destroyed". I rather suppose that in this case the animators really did just say "There is a cool character in the books, whose never appeared in a film or a cartoon, and we need a Big Bad for this season, so why not..."

Mike Taylor said...

Interesting thoughts. But I suspect the issue resides somewhere other than Davies' lamentable try-everythong-at-once tendencies. (And let the record show, he was perfectly capable of writing a completely consistent and coherent story when he wanted to.) I think it may be that Doctor Who is so much more ambitious than the other shows you mention. It's pretty easy to be consistent in a relatively constrained fictional universe like Star Wars (and that goes double for PotC of course.) In a show that tries to show you thirteen different fictional universes every year, something has to give eventually. I don't think it's that "anything goes" in Doctor Who; I think it's that some point across the last half century "everything has gone". It's become simply impossible to write stories that are consistent with all that has gone before, because all that has gone before is already contradictory.

I know I already made the following point in a comment on your Pyramid at the End of the World post, but I remain fascinated by this question: I sometimes wonder whether a lot of our criticism of New New Who is just because we've seen it before, in Old New Who. If I try to imagine the present series debuting in 2005, with Christopher Eccleston not turning up until 2017, I suspect we'd all have been just as bowled over by the Capaldi episodes back then as we were by the Eccleston episodes; and perhaps just as jaded and as ready to nit-pick the Eccleston episodes now as we are the Capaldi ones.

SK said...

It's become simply impossible to write stories that are consistent with all that has gone before, because all that has gone before is already contradictory

Slightly different issue, that. The thing about Alpha Centauri's appearance isn't that it isn't consistent with what went before. It's that there's simply no audience to which it makes aesthetic sense.

It's what we used to call, back in the Canon Wars, 'fanwank'. But back then — and man, the things we saw back then, the things we did — the whole challenge of fanwank was to work your in-joke into the story in a way that makes sense. So for example, you take a crap old villain, and you construct a story in which they are actually scary. Or you come up with an explanation for something that was clearly a plot hole. Or you come up with a totally contrived (but nonetheless, diegetically totally sensible) situation in which a character can deliver their famous catchphrase. If you're Paul Cornell, you do them all in the same book.

Part of the game was that you had to pretend that your book might be read by someone who didn't get your in-joke (even though we all knew there's no way that would happen) so it had to look, to someone who didn't have the background, like it was a natural, organic part of your book, while also having this double-meaning for those who did, ie, for the entire audience. Like a good pun, where both levels of the double-meaning have to make sense; not like a bad, lazy pun where you just substitute a word for one that sounds similar.

With Doctor Who nowadays, it seems like nobody involves bothers with the 'making sense' bit. And Alpha Centauri is a prime example: back when we were dying in the trenches of Virgin Territory, or during the Interference offensive on Dust, it would have been expected that there'd be some kind of set-up and Alpha Centauri would be the punchline. Here, no set-up, so for an audience who knows who Alpha Centauri is, there's no sense of being ahead of the crowd; while for an audience who doesn't know who Alpha Centauri is, there's no sense this is an organic part of the story.

If I try to imagine the present series debuting in 2005, with Christopher Eccleston not turning up until 2017, I suspect we'd all have been just as bowled over by the Capaldi episodes back then as we were by the Eccleston episodes; and perhaps just as jaded and as ready to nit-pick the Eccleston episodes now as we are the Capaldi ones.

I think the tendency to not bother not making sense was not as prevalent in the Davies episodes. Yes, they rushed through their stories; yes, they quite often pulled the climax entirely out of their arse without building on what went before. But in the Davies era there was never quite anything with the same 'scattergun-of-random-images-with-no-connecting-story' effect of, say, Let's Kill Hitler or the Davros/Missy episodes or the same utter lack of concern for making sense as Kill the Moon or In The Forests of the Night.

Actually this series has, I think, dropped back somewhat from peak not-even-bothering; there have been several stories which felt much like retro Davies pastiches (the run from episode three to episode five, this one, the next one). But still I think the general level of 'just throw whatever at the screen and let people make internet gif memes of it' is higher than it ever was pre-Smith.

And I say that as someone who was very harsh on the Davies era. I kind of feel that Moffatt learnt all the wrong lessons from the Davies era's popular success, in that he realised that for a lot of the audience 'making sense' was secondary and that they would be perfectly happy with images and concepts splattered across the inside of the screen.

I still think the single best series of new Doctor Who is the first Matt Smith one, actually, before he went drunk with power.

Mike Taylor said...

The thing about Alpha Centauri's appearance isn't that it isn't consistent with what went before. It's that there's simply no audience to which it makes aesthetic sense.

There obviously is, as a lot of people got very excited about it. It's true that that audience doesn't include you or Andrew -- or even me, really -- but it's out there. So perhaps our growing problem with Doctor Who is that it's serving lots of different fan-bases at once, and we want it just to serve us? But then wasn't it always a big part of Doctor Who's appeal that it was a programme for the whole family? (Yes, that was necessarily true of all tea-time TV back in 1963. By the time New Who arrived in 2005, there was almost nothing on the telly that met that criterion, and there is precious little today either.)

(I'm not going to defend Kill the Moon, though.)

(And you are right about the first Matt Smith series.)

SK said...

There obviously is, as a lot of people got very excited about it.

That's not at all the same thing as it making aesthetic sense. 'Getting people excited' is the function of pornography, not art.

Mike Taylor said...

"Getting people excited" is also the principle function of most films, all sports, nearly all TV, many novels, all computer games -- in fact, pretty everything that people choose to do with their spare time. If you want to look down on it for that reason, of course, that is your prerogative; but you can hardly criticise Doctor Who for giving people something they like. If you issue with it is that you want it to be big-A Art and it's not, then I am afraid you're just living in the wrong universe. Doctor Who was never art and never will be: its big USP is precisely that it addresses Big Issues in a context that is not art, but is accessible to The Rest Of Us.

SK said...

Not true. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, and he wasn't the first, the point of art — good films, plays, books, etc — is to take you out of yourself by giving you a constructed aesthetic experience that we engage with simultaneously immediately and at a distance. When we read a novel about love, we do not feel love, but we are shown love. We examine and analyse and, perhaps, recognise aspects of love. But we do not ourselves fall in love. that is the point of art: to let us examine those things which we cannot examine while experiencing them, for the experience blots out the examination. The man in love cannot step back and examine the love he is feeling; or if he can, he will soon cease to be in love. It is through art that we can bridge that gap, and be able to both perceive and examine such things as love.

Same thing with, for example, danger: a soldier in a war cannot examine his fear. But we watch war films in order to be able not to experience the soldier's fear, but to understand it, by using art's power to bridge the gap between experience and perception.

But if you simply try to provoke a reaction in the audience — to disgust them by showing them disgusting things, rather than enabling them to understand disgust, or to excite them by tickling their pleasure centres, rather than enabling them to understand pleasure — then that's not art, it's merely pornography.

can hardly criticise Doctor Who for giving people something they like

Of course I can. Pornography gives people something they like too. So does junk food.

Mike Taylor said...

You seem to think your argument is lent more weight by invoking C. S. Lewis as having said something he never said, and by repeatedly comparing whatever you do not like with pornography. I don't feel any weight in either of those tactics. Stripped of those rhetorical movement, your argument comes back down to "Doctor Who is not Art and I like Art". Fine: go and watch some Art instead. Doctor Who is not aimed at you.

SK said...

There doesn't seem to be any polite way to respond to that, except to point out that if it is indeed true now, it was not always true. Something, somewhere along the line, changed.

Gavin Burrows said...

”I kind of feel that Moffatt learnt all the wrong lessons from the Davies era's popular success, in that he realised that for a lot of the audience 'making sense' was secondary and that they would be perfectly happy with images and concepts splattered across the inside of the screen.”

I don’t think that’s really it. A show like ’The Avengers’, for example, would often just go all out for the crazy spy-fi surreal imagery. There’d be a formal attempt to embed it into a thriller story with a beginning, middle and end, but that was clearly not the point of the exercise.

And If I’m told “Yes, even the wind-up wristwatches are showing the doomsday time. Don’t worry about how that happened. Just go with the imagery of it.” ...I can be happy to go along with it. The problem with Moffat can be he never quite decides between chalk and cheese, whether he wants surreal images splattered on the screen or clever narrative structures which assemble before us without our noticing till they’re there. At various times, he does either quite successfully. But they don’t fit together. They collide.

”that's not art, it's merely pornography.”

I am going to suggest that pornography quite definitely is “a constructed aesthetic experience that we engage with simultaneously immediately and at a distance”. Unless you’re talking about some kind of new-fangled virtual reality pornography. Definitions of art which confuse formal and value descriptions rarely turn out well.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Well, that escalated quickly.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I suppose that by "mere pornography" we mean "the massive common ground which all the different kinds of pornography have in common, disregarding the various dogmatic differences which the various denominations of pornographic disagree about."

Mike Taylor said...


Andrew Rilstone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Rilstone said...

I suppose the idea is that if pornography is "art which arouses people sexually", then a simple YouTube video of a lady taking her clothes off probably does the job. It's "mere pornography" because no-one would ask "why is she doing this? who is watching?" -- it's just a commodity to give (straight, male) viewers a stiffie. I have not researched this thoroughly, but I think that relatively little pornography is "mere" in that sense -- a lot of it has at least a perfunctory context or story line.

So I can see the analogy between "putting a continuity reference into Doctor Who without context, just because some fans get excited by that sort of thing" and "putting a random scene in an historical drama in which someone takes their clothes off, for no reason, just because some viewers get excited by that sort of thing."

I think that sexual arousal, gag reflexes, belly laughs, shock, offence and other gut-reactions are all things which can be used legitimately as a component of art or drama. There could be a surrealist drama in which a man comes on and does a poo on the stage and the audience's embarrassment and disgust are legitimately part of the artistic experience. (Struggles to think of an example... People were genuinely and sincerely horrified by Bernard Shaw's use of the word "bloody" in a play, weren't they?) But swearing and nudity and bodily functions are mostly just easy ways of getting a reaction; they feel like cheating. Floating continuity references are a bit like that.

Is that kind of the point?

Gavin Burrows said...

Okay, I’ll grant SK has a point to this degree. Porn as a comparison suffix entered our language some time ago. So if I said “there’s too much property porn on the TV” or “that bloody episode of Torchwood with the cyber-girlfriend was just grief porn” you would all know what I meant. ‘Porn’ is used as a generic term for a fixation with a thing outside of any context. You can make your point in four letters and all is good.

But SK’s point, I fear, was the old saw of building a hard line between high art and low art, and then insisting everything below the line can’t even be art. ‘Pornography’ is just brought in as a diss term to lace the argument. People seem particularly keen on this in visual art. If someone says “that Sarah Lucas is a right load of old rubbish” I would quite readily agree with them. If, as they often do, they go on to say “it’s not even art, not like Gainsborough innit” they’re simply making a category error. The logical conclusion would be “Kill the Moon was a crap episode of Doctor Who” is equivalent to “Kill the Moon was not an episode of Doctor Who.” By which point all sense has left the world, and we are merely defining things as we want to. This is not a slope to start sliding on.

Art is not a hierarchy, like one of those heraldic maps that tells you how far away you are from the King you are. Art is an ecosystem in which pop songs and symphonies, 2001 and The Clangers co-exist. Everyone used to think the first one, but had to give up on it.

Besides which, any sense of what art is merely ‘reaction-provoking’ is just as subjective as anything else. I’ve been to see a bunch of high recommended art movies, which turned out to be total bonk-fests but it was art really because the characters were French. I will insist that all that newfangled electronic dance music is fit only to dance to, whereas I can dance and listen to Going To a Go-Go by the Miracles. But I have friends who entirely disagree with me.

I criticise but, perhaps ironically, I am sort of sympathetic to SK’s original point. You could indeed say that Doctor Who has degenerated from signal to noise as it has gone on. (Though some of the recent episodes I have found a bit of an improvement.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

One could, of course, develop a whole psychological theory out of the fact that we use "pornography" as a term of deprecation for bad continuity references, but "fanwank" as a fairly affectionate term for harmless or fun ones. I forget if it was in this forum or that a full fledged war broke over the distinction between "fanwank-er" =one who fanwanks and fan-wanker, a fan who is also a wanker.

Clearly there is some equivocation going on around "art": there is a distinction between saying "this is not art" (it doesn't reach a basic level of structure, craft, serious intention) and "this is not art (it's just the piece of paper I was cleaning my brushes on.)

I grant that some people say that everything, including the piece of paper I was cleaning my brushes on, is art which may or may not be the same thing as saying that nothing is art. I also grant that some people say that everything is art is someone says it is. In the same way that a glass of water can be an oak tree is the artist says it is.

1: "Just putting an old monster into a story for the sake of it is Not Art" = Art implies some craft, structure, purpose, intention. You can't just throw a lump of clay at the floor and call it ceramics. (*)

2: "But if people like it, and it gets a reaction, then it is art of some kind" = Art is whatever people choose to look at or find interesting or pretty.

3: "No: you can get a crowd to form to look at a lady taking her clothes off, or a car accident, or a public execution, and those things certainly get a reaction, but they are not Art. (Implied corollary: And looking at a lady taking her clothes off his contemptible, or immoral, or both.) = You cannot define art as "whatever gets a reaction" or "whatever people chose to look at" because many things which get a reaction and which people chose to look at are not Art.


5: "But [whatever we're discussing] never claimed to be Art with a big A. So your opinion irrelevant." [Implied corollary: the idea of Art with a big A is a little elitist.] = Some things address deep and important subjects at a sophisticated level. Some things are more superficial. Some people reserve the term "Art" for the first category. It is unfair to draw a line between [the thing we are discussing] and [everything else] and then blame [the thing we are discussing] for falling on the wrong side of your line.

I think that at point 4 a miracle occurred and "the purely sensational is not artistic" morphed into "there are only two possible categories: the purely sensational and the high and sophisticated". If it isn't Dostoevsky it's Fifty Shades of Grey. (Actually, Fifty Shades of Grey isn't nearly "mere" enough. "If it isn't Dostoevsky, it's Forum Magazine.)

(*)Har-har but those crazy artists exhibited paintings that turned out to have been done by a chimp. Yes; but the crazy artists decided which colour of paint and which kind of brushes to give to the chimp; and selected which canvasses, and which sections of which canvasses, to exhibit.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Shall I tell you what I find interesting, though.

It is the rarest thing on earth to find someone who says "Well, I listened to Jeremy's speech, and I think that what he said about welfare doesn't work, because of these three reasons..."

Most of us prefer to skip right over the specifics and go right onto the generalities, e.g politicians are all corrupt and only in it for the money, did you hear what they used to do to dissenters in Russian, everyone at Glastonbury is just a common as muck middle class hipster wanker anyway.

Similarly, we skip over the "Aha, but I think I can explain to you just what Alpha Canturi is doing in that episode and how it would strike the General Viewer" and head straight into the "What is the nature of Doctor Who" and "What is the nature of art" part. If we are not careful we will get to the "Until you have made a multi million dollar TV show which has been syndicated in thousands of countries you have no right to blog about it" part and I will be forced to call the police.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I remember when Basil Brush was on before Doctor Who.

One recurring joke involved him (the puppet) putting a paper cup on his nose and saying "Seated at my piano" in an American accident. Just that. Another catch phrase was to say "Chick a dee" in a similar accent. Again, just that. Both of these jokes were stolen from Eric Morcambe. There was no possible way that anyone in the audience could possibly have heard of W.C Fields or Jimmy Durante (indeed, W.C Fields career was already well over when Eric Morcambe's was starting). But at some level we were aware that a joke was being told. I don't think we thought "This is a reference we aren't quite getting." We just accepted that to say "chick a dee" with an American accent constituted a joke. Everyone laughed, so we laughed. But of course, when we repeated it to our parents -- no, actually, it would have to have been our grandparents -- they said "I am surprised that young people today still admire W.C Fields." Come to that, we accepted that some of the things which Benny Hill did were funny, long before the invention of sex.

Point being: maybe you can "get" references without getting the references at all. Maybe we expect entertainment to be made up of some stuff we don't understand (like little C.S Lewis trying to make the first page of his story as boring as he could so it would be like a proper book.) Maybe entertainers have always but stuff into the work which is meaningful to them but meaningless to their audience.

Gavin Burrows said...

IMHO, the only thing that actually defines art is that it is framed as such. There doesn’t have to be a literal frame, nor need it be the creator of what’s in the frame who does the framing. I can imagine a conversation like this:

Artist: “This is my work.”
Visitor to studio: “Ooh, look. I like this one.”
Artist: “Oh well, no. That’s just the rag I wipe my brushes on.”
Visitor: “I like it anyway.”

Who is right? Both are right, of course.

Restrictive definitions of art always end up missing stuff out. People who think they can put art in a box underestimate art and overestimate boxes. A crowd standing around watching the aftermath of a traffic accident is of course not art. But then if someone sketched or photographed them that would be art. But what if someone stood and framed the crowd in their mind’s eye, just as in taking a photo but without taking the photo? The only difference to the photo would be transience.

As a child, I thought the funniest joke in ‘Asterix’ was the one where they’re in Britain. Where, to shut Obelix up, he says “drink up your beer before it gets cold”. My young mind had no concept of the continental stereotype that we drink warm beer. The passage of the words just seemed funny to me. Tolkien said “cellar door” was the most beautiful phrase in the English language, I thought that was the funniest. A lot of humour comes from the fact that language is inherently strange and absurd, when you come to notice.