Thursday, May 21, 2015

on the guilty pleasure of reading middlebrow

What makes great art great? Who's claim elevates a book or a movie to the status of a Classic? And is being called a classic always a good thing? Most artists would agree that they would want atleast a part if their oeuvres to end up as classics and be studied long after they're gone. But its also most likely that they were hooked to their artforms not because they were astonished by the genius of a classic but because they were captivated and engrossed by the sheer spectacle of highbrow's lower cousin, the middlebrow art piece. Again, these terms are just for the sake of convenience. All labels are just useful contrivances. I had been watching films since I was a child. I enjoyed watching cartoons and the occasional movie in the television. I must admit that going to a theatre had less to do with the merits of the movie and the good time I was going to have there in the presence of friends or family. Understanding and critiquing, judging and pondering over the art was still a long way away. But then one day Amma took me watch Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring with a large bunch of her animation acquaintances. They were going to the film because they wanted to look at the technical aspects of such hyped special effects. I was probably 11 and still remember the look of  shocked faces of her friends who saw that I was deeply sleeping while sitting on the bike between them. Those days, I could doze off in seconds on any automobile; It just had to be moving. Anyway, I didn't move out of my seat as the film ended, enthralled by the visual spectacle and as the end credits rolled, I, who had wanted to be a diver, astronaut, soldier, mountaineer, scientist among a whole bunch of other things till then, for the first time ever, wanted to be a film director. I didn't know what a director did or if I had it in me to be one. I had seen something magical, something that engrossed and engaged me so deeply for the duration of its running time, that for the first time, I was awakened to the possibilities and powers of the art form. All movies till then had kept me firmly in the state I was in. I was never thrust out of the sphere of my immediate consciousness.  This movie, however, had shown me glitz and colour of the world outside. That, for me, is middlebrow. It's that spectacular car chase, that totally unexpected twist in the tale, that captivating bit of original orchestration. Its engaging, entertaining and enthralling. It removes the burden of our self-conscious, even if only for a few moments, and frees us up by its breathtaking audacity. It unshackles our dreams and fantasies, helps us see the world in an entirely new light, takes us to the fantasyland full of interesting people and surprising events. It relieves boredom. Lowbrow, atleast for the scope of this essay, is not smart enough for us to invest in it as much as we'd like to. These thresholds, obviously, change from person and person and their respective moods, but nevertheless, lowbrow is what we feel like when forced to play with children in their annoying games. "What the fuck am I doing here?", is the unanswered question looping in our brains. Middlebrow is like that fantastic puzzle that's neither too easy nor too hard. Just hard enough to tantalize us but eventually conceding the upper hand so that we can feel better and smarter about ourselves when its over. Figuring it out isn't too hard.

Harry Potter was that watershed moment for me in literature. I grew up on a steady supplement of Tinkles and illustrated, bold-font fairy tales. Harry Potter, likewise, opened the trapdoor that was curtailing my imagination. It gave direction to my reveries. The instant I realized you were allowed to think like that, I started adapting and supplementing it as per the requirement of my daydreams. Life doesn't have to mean boring realism where you followed morals. It can mean magic, adventure, becoming a hero and having great friends. This was followed by Enid Blyton, who though I hear is forbidden to be read in England, has given us Indians a great place to escape to where we could walk the moors, swim in lakes, eat bacon and eggs, and the like. Now, as I write this, I'm beginning to wonder why fantasy is such a popular genre with teenagers. When you're too young, either you're not equipped to grasp what its trying to say or life is more or less fairly easy and comfortable. As you step into twenties, you become your own man and reality seems to offer more possibilities than any fantasy. But your teenage years are the years where you want an escape route from the oppressive tyranny of normalcy and the unpredictable behaviour of your immediate society. You can neither adjust nor escape in real-life. Fantasy offers an alternative universe.

Admittedly, all art is escapism. Whatever your reasons are- there are times when you want to escape the incessant talking of the annoying git in your head or he's become so silent in grief that you want to reignite his passion. Art's, apologies for the choice of the word, the fuel. The elixir. But, I'm digressing. I was talking about how middlebrow introduces us to the world outside. After that phase comes a period in time where stuff starts happening to us. Love, grief, responsibility, questions on morality and mortality, on the purpose of life. You know, the grown-up stuff. Sherlock Holmes will seem childish then, Shantaram cinematic. Finding Neverland too kitschy, Dil Chahta Hai too unreal. This is the time when the world within takes priority over the world outside. The silence between the words seems to contain multitudes than the non-stop chatter. For me, this phase was brought about by three books- The Catcher in the Rye, The Fountainhead and One Hundred Days of Solitude. They might not be in the same league as Ulysses and Anna Karenina. Or Dostoevsky or Dickens. But for me, at that stage in life, these books were revelations. They led me away from vain spectacle to the profound everyday. From the artificial propulsions of plot to the altering rhythms of reality. They were not offering me escape routes, though, looking back now, I'm afraid I can't say the same about Ayn Rand, but were asking me to confront the reality of my being, my nature, my existence. I was becoming a grownup.

I lived like that for a while. Trying to get my hands on masterpieces, in literature, music and cinema. I imitated the lofty air of a connoisseur, dismissing anything approachable as unworthy, entertaining as a sellout, understandable as dishonourable. It was during these days that I shivered at the thought of ever having enjoyed reading Five Point Someone, The Alchemist and City of Joy. I was letting literati get the better of me; Mimic others' opinions as my own, unable to understand that that'd make me a trained monkey and not an independent thinker. I wanted to be separate from the majority, even if it meant cheating myself in the process. I championed avant-garde and bad craft, without really being able to differentiate between the both. Hopefully, I've grown out of this phase too.

Now, I like my Jeffrey Archer as much as I like my VS Naipaul, middlebrow magazines as much as JM Coetzee. And yet, even now, I feel guilty while reading an airport paperback. I know I have limited time and I want to experience art at its richest. Great art, as per my understanding, is something that pushes the limits of the form itself. It takes shapes that no one before could've envisioned. But after a point in time, it becomes the norm, it doesn't seem as earth-shattering anymore. Like TH Huxley once said, all new truths begin as heresies and end as superstitions. The Seventh Seal doesn't invigorate me because it seems too slow, too cliched, too predictable. It suited the lifestyles and rhythms and philosophical investigations of a specific time and place. It might have been groundbreaking then, but is just an old, boring film now. Crime and Punishment might have raised some very important questions in Czarist Russia, but I can only see good intentions and bad writing. Accepted, the fault may lie within me for not being able to appreciate the genius of the work and when the right time comes, it might lead me to salvation but the time's not now. Great piece of art, by definition, should be able to transcend time and space and be universal but it sometimes can happen that a neglected, ridiculed piece of art in its time might be praised and lauded years later. The fate of an art work and the legacy of an artist is as much a chance of luck and randomness as anything else in life. There might be unheralded, unknown symphonies by a now forgotten 18th century Venetian artist, which might be rediscovered and reinterpreted a 100 years from now to greater acclaim than a Mozart.

I'm digressing, yet again. My point of starting this post was to ask whether impenetrability is the mark of a great piece of art. Modernism and Post-modernism have certainly lead us to believe the same. Infinite Jests, Waiting for Godots, Ulyssesss among a whole lot of other 20th century classics are bought and preserved but seldom read. I have the entire set of Viswanatha Satyanaraya's Ramayana Kaplavriksham in my Thatha's library but its reputation scares me to the point where I have been waiting for the right time to approach it. As much as its my stupidity and lack of erudition, I sometimes can't help but feel if being called a Classic, or Profound, or Staggering affect the artwork adversely. Art, after all, should be approachable. It should help us question our prejudices, alter our opinions, ignite dormant passions, create new interests and help us lead better lives. For that, they have to be watched, read, listened with love and an open mind over and over until we develop a relationship with them. Until we complement and complete them. I recently read a wonderful quote in Telugu that roughly translates into, "A book is rewritten everytime a reader starts reading it". I'd rather love a piece of art than admire it respectfully from a distance. I'd rather live messily with it than protect it in a showcase as an adornment. And I wish more writers would read all sorts of stuff and write books that are, both, approachable and profound. With the insouciance of lowbrow, craft of middlebrow, and the art of highbrow. 

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