V. Metaphor, Individualism, and "Social Justice" Art
Every year or two I find myself going back to Charlie Kaufman’s overwhelmingly beautiful film Synecdoche, New York. In this film, theater director Caden Cotard, portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is struggling with a narcissistic therapist, a contentious divorce, and a strange disease that is deteriorating his body. In the midst of this chaos, Caden is awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship to produce an enormous original theatre piece. This piece ends up consuming Caden’s life and becomes a direct reflection of his own daily experiences. These reflections, or synecdoches, or metaphors, help Caden build a better understanding of himself. In this sense, the entire film blurs lines between art, reality, life, and humanity. It reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s notion of metaphors in mythology that reflect our inner potentials as humans.
“Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.” –Joseph Campbell
Both Synecdoche, New York and Joseph Campbell’s work can be framed as a reaction to the commodification of art since the industrial revolution. In Joseph Campbell’s case, mythology seen as metaphor has immense potential beyond commodity and capital. This blurred line of metaphoric myth, also present in Synecdoche, New York, makes the physical existence of religious figures and events irrelevant toward the impact of the religious ideology in terms of spiritual growth. In turn, this blurs further the lines between spirituality, religion, mythology, and art. This admittedly nebulous concept of art, born from an inner humanity and drive toward creating, yet again brings concepts of creativity beyond commodity.
This framework dredges up some important issues. For one, it beckons a reappraisal of art as a product, or as I’ve heard many times-“art-object” or “music-object.” Music in particular, seen as an ephemeral experience and collective action, has much more power toward embodying metaphor than music seen as a fixed object. The relatively recent push for “social justice art” is an attempt to enact this idea. It is important to note that many of these efforts barely scratch the surface in terms of using art and music toward solving societal problems. The second issue brought to the surface through a nebulous concept of art beyond commodity is individualism. In both Synecdoche, New York and the work of Joseph Campbell, there is an underlying individualism; the metaphors and exploration are toward self-discovery. Of course self-discovery is essential, but I think our culture, our art, and our mythology as westerners focus too heavily on individual endeavors rather than the spiritual growth of a community. Music, yet again, appraised as a collective experience, embodies both individual and communal growth. Within this framework, social justice is imbedded in the fabric of creativity, art, and music. But this can be a slippery slope. As I stated earlier, social justice endeavors in art often do not address societal problems to their full potential. It becomes easy to excuse this behavior when the virtue of creativity is framed in tandem with social advocacy. As a musical culture, we can do better than “drive by Beethoven” in marginalized neighborhoods, or having reduced ticket pricing for opera and classical music concerts. The commodification of art, and the concept of “art-objects” has contributed to the world where art and social equality are perceived as separate endeavors. While we should be careful where we draw the line of true social advocacy through art, it is important to fight the dead-end discussion about the “importance of art and creativity.”
In author Elizabeth Gilbert’s words; we all come from an ancestral lineage of makers, of “people who made things more beautiful than they had to.” In this sense, creativity is innate in our experiences of life. But beyond the beauty of art, and even beyond aesthetics, which are often restrictive and alluring at the same time- art has the ability to show us the latent structures of our societies and inspire connection and collective action. This, in turn, moves beyond the individualistic attitudes of Joseph Campbell and Synecdoche, New York. Rather than being only a journey of self-discovery, art can be a point of connection. The nascence of creativity is about the commonality if our natures, discovering the ways we build together, and navigating our differences.