A little under a week ago, I took some flack from folks on LiveJournal for my assertion that sitcoms were an inferior form of art to more active, plot-driven stories. Well, that wasn’t really what I was asserting. What I asserted was that I didn’t like it when sitcoms did that, and that it was a frequent enough trope that I was comfortable generalizing. I thought that was clear enough from beginning the post with, “Here’s what I don’t like about sitcoms,” but.
However, after defending my assertion to several logical people whose opinions I trust, I realized that I should probably unpack my feelings on art a little more. So here they are:
1. I believe that there is such a thing as great art, and that it’s not subjective. You and I, reasonable humans and critical minds, will probably disagree on what that great art is (you: Herman Melville; me: Ernest Hemingway, and on into the clove-scented night). But we should agree that there is such a thing as great art – that not only is it Platonically possible, but that it has been done and will be done again. I do not agree that all aspects of art are relative.
(I spell that out because some people think that, no, all art’s in the eye of the beholder, it’s not possible to say that one piece of art is better or worse than another in an objective sense, etc, etc. And I don’t feel that’s true)
2. I believe that art is anything created primarily to evoke a response. “Primarily” being the operative word. Art is art because its aesthetic value outweighs its utilitarian value. I don’t think that a meticulously crafted Louis XIV ottoman is art, though it has a lot of aesthetic value (attention to form, fine craftsmanship, etc) – it’s meant to be used. Now I suppose if someone buys it and puts it in a sterile room no one’s allowed to enter and insists the children never touch it, it’d be more art than furniture. Similarly, a well prepared plate of food that crosses the line from nutritional diversity (protein, carbs, fiber, fruits) into a tour of the senses could be considered art.
(Most people want a clear definition of Art so they can act as gatekeeper. “Duchamp isn’t art; it’s his gag on the art world.” “Pollock isn’t art; it’s random squiggles on paper.” “Video games aren’t art; they’re toys.” That’s not what I intend. I’m not trying to exclude anything from the category of Art. I want a working definition of art because, per point #1 above, we can’t talk about greater or lesser works of art unless we know what they’re better or worse at. Art has to do something, and the term “Art” has to mean something, for there to be greater works of Art)
3. I believe that every form of art has limitations and benefits inherent to its media. Novels can do things that film can’t; film can do things that comic books can’t; comic books can do things that symphonies can’t; etc. I spell this out in more detail in an earlier post on aesthetics of different media.
4. I believe that a piece of art which evokes a response with little apparent effort is a great work of art. I’m least certain about this belief of anything I’ve asserted so far and would welcome the most hearty debate here. But I believe that, the closer to which art approaches nature while still evoking a vivid response – or proving more diverting – the better it is. Sunsets over the ocean are beautiful, but they’re not art. A symphony that evokes the same wordless feeling in you that a sunset over the beach does is a great work of art. A chorale composition, featuring a talented vocalist singing about how beautiful the sun is, standing in front of a dropcloth on which a sunset is projected, is not as good.
(Note that when I say “nature” I don’t mean “naturalism,” though I have a strong fondness for that myself. The Matrix is a greater work of art than Jet Li’s The One, because the dialogue, effects and pacing in the former far exceed the latter. It is believable, even if it is sci-fi, and The One is not, even if it is largely similar)
5. Since technical effort is the criteria I use, I believe that the strength of the response evoked by art has little to do with its greatness. Or, in English, there’s nothing wrong with being entertained by bad art. A great work of art is great because of its technical strength, not because it evokes more powerful responses or “nobler” responses.
I find Road House more fun than Memento. Moreover, I was more entertained by Road House than I was moved by Memento. But I would still say that Memento is the greater work of art, because Christopher Nolan is the greater craftsman. He tells a more complex story with less apparent effort. I say this and I stick by it, even though I’ve watched Road House at least three times in the last twelve months and haven’t touched Memento in years.
6. And finally, I believe that you will find more great works of art among dramas or romantic comedies than among sitcoms.
Sitcoms, to my jaded and condescending eye, wear their formulas too openly. There’s the introduction, the complication, the rise to climax and the comical denouement. There’s the familiar interchange between bumbling husband and tolerant wife, between lewd boy and coquettish girl, etc. Not that the material itself renders it poor art – when this stuff was new, back in the days of commedia dell’arte, it was groundbreaking. But very few new trails have been blazed in situation comedy in the last fifty years. The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, M.A.S.H., Fresh Prince of Bel Air, The Office, Arrested Development … I’m struggling to name more.
Further, sitcoms exist primarily on television today, and television, like all art, is subject to the limits of its medium. The subject matter has to please advertisers. It has to fit into a 24-minute slot. It has to break up into three recognizable beats to fit between commercials. This is why (in my opinion) you find more groundbreaking material on cable: shows like Party Down or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Weeds.
So it’s not impossible for a sitcom to be great. It’s just not as likely. And this is why I believe it.