It’s easy to ignore pop culture’s messages. Too easy. Popular culture delivers its ideas and manifestos with such ham-fisted, careless presentation that the first and easiest response is to merely laugh off the ideology, no matter how repellent (or, to be fair, relevant or even inspirational). And then there’s all those sparkling surfaces, enchanting and seductive, the glamor on top of the thinking, the shine of the car hood over the engine. Pop culture’s amusements play a powerful, arguably dominant role in all forms of cultural discussion. There is, to be blunt, more of it than any other type of culture, and it has a global audience. Artists ignore pop culture at their peril.
As a case in point, there’s Jurassic World, a film already breaking box-office records, already seen by hundreds of millions of people. Its audiences are apparently unaware (or just unconcerned) that they’re being spoon-fed a vicious anti-creativity, anti-art message; a denouncing of the creative impulse amplified by extreme fantasy violence. The strangeness of delivering such a set of ideas via artificial digital replication, or the spectacularly evident strides we’ve advanced in animated art, these we’ll set aside. For those few who haven’t seen or aren’t familiar with Jurassic World, here’s the setup: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with very large lizards. In the film, some smart people (always worthy of suspicion in American cinema) make a new monster out of bits and parts of previous monsters. Mayhem ensues. That’s it, that’s all, except that the film hammers the audience again and again – via hastily-delivered dialogue and no end of gory evidence – with the mantra that creativity, the making of new things, goes against nature. The implicit argument is that only the essential can be trusted or supported. However the film wants it both ways: a nineteenth-century-style lauding of the natural that goes delivered with the brightest and best of twenty-first-century artifice. And it gets what it wants. The box office never lies.
I saw Jurassic World and was underwhelmed until I thought about what was actually being said and enacted. I don’t propose to write a film analysis. I’ll leave that to the film critics. But even a casual film-goer out for a night of silly fun (which I’m all for, let’s be clear) couldn’t miss the film’s rampant, often angry distrust of, and contempt for, acts of creativity.
This derisive, anti-creativity tone is set by, of course, one of the film’s brainy types. Art isn’t dangerous, he argues, because “danger” is a relative term, like “art.” In a pivotal speech delivered at the peak of the people-eating, the same scientist defends his actions (his creation of a new monster) by arguing that everything around him, the entire enterprise of monster-invention (whether the cute herbivore kind or the tourist-killer kind) is one big Faberge Egg of constructed reality-within-unreality. If everything is fake, he argues, then nobody is responsible for the fallout. He’s right, and he’s also the film’s key villain, the mastermind. The villainy lies in artifice itself, the film wants us to learn, and learn the hard way: the character offering this self-reflexive criticism is, of course, quickly rushed out of the action to an undetermined, but heavily hinted fatal fate. The relativist position he offers, the movie’s only moment of clarity, is dismissed as not worth pursuing and morally bankrupt. We see the one person with a clear-headed vision of how artifice is inescapable rushing off in a helicopter with a gang of toughs, clutching a suitcase full of money. One of the thugs menacingly tells him, “you’ll be well taken care of,” which is gangster speak for “we’re throwing you out of the helicopter.”
The film’s villains are not dinosaurs but scientists, the creative class behind the attraction. Indeed, anybody who can make a full sentence is presented as either demented, naïve, under-loved and incapable of concern for others, or hopelessly lost in a moral spiral that prevents them from seeing the supposedly inherent dangers in art-making (in this case, the new and very pretty dinosaurs). The film’s heroes are, naturally, essentialists, people who issue lessons on the value of untouched nature, the supremacy of a “simple life,” and a traditional (and very phallocentric) physically enforced order (one that positions makers below doers). The heroes are also much handsomer, as one might expect.
So what is the take away from this stupid, conflicted film? Art, unless carefully monitored and contained, quickly turns malevolent. Creativity is not a justifiable end in itself. People who make things are driven by, at best, questionable motives and, at worst, greed and messianic mania. Nothing born from a system that isn’t in synch with a traditional reading of “nature” can be trusted – indeed, it can kill you. Art is dangerous and needs a firm (preferably manly) hand.
What’s the big deal, you may well ask? It’s only a dumb popcorn movie.
Sure, except for one important and unavoidable truth: this dumb popcorn movies has the attention of the globe, and Jurassic World is full to the brim with spectacle-driven arguments for authoritarian constraints and self-imposed regulation in art. Art can’t prosper in and enjoy its own inevitable contradictions, but rather ought to fear such fluid stances.
Jurassic World is a high-speed lecture on the necessity in art for rule-obeying and fearful adherence to established standards. Sticking to the “basics” is valiant and life-sustaining. Deviation from tradition is foolhardy and pre-determined to fail. You break the rules, you get eaten – a message I find hard to disagree with entirely, especially as it’s played out in the power games that fuel the artworld (oh, how many rule-breakers I’ve watched be punished over the decades … ). But I take massive exception to this position when I consider the larger issues that propel art and mark the timeline we call art history.
A handful of film critics and bloggers have alighted on Jurassic World’s idiotic sexism, which itself contributes to an anti-creativity, pro status-quo mandate, and its mixed messaging on the value and power of artifice. But, to my knowledge, creative-class bigwigs have yet to denounce the movie’s shrill art-hate speech.
The silence around this film’s conservatism mostly stems from the fact that “smart people” don’t go to popcorn movies (or admit they do). And that’s why we eggheads never see the punches coming. I’m not ringing five-alarm fire bells here, and certainly not advocating a boycott of the film. What I am arguing is that artists need to embrace pop culture on a deeper level, as more than mere source material for pastiche and in-house jokes – embrace it on its own terms and be ready to challenge its proposals. And Jurassic World offers plenty of material for any creative person to ponder, and fuck with. Dismissing pop culture’s enormous power is nothing more than bald, and futile, denial – the last thing our already ivory-towered artworld needs.