Monday, June 07, 2010

"What is art?" asked jesting Pilate and would not stay for an answer.

Two related concepts have been on my mind lately. Traditional, culturally-indoctrinated parents frequently: 1. parrot the belief that TV rots your brain, and 2. ask "Why does my child want to re-watch the same movie or TV show again and again?"

1. Thinking about "TV rots your brain!" I wonder why I've never heard anyone say, "Books rot your brain!" or "Art rots your brain!" or "Music rots your brain!" or "Math rots your brain!" Well, they do say that about music they personally dislike. Oops, waitaminit. Come to think of it, they also say that about books they dislike, e.g. "Why are you reading that trash?" and about art they dislike, like manga, comics, etc. and because they've mostly come up through our American education system, they've endured the curriculum version of math and all they know is that they mostly never wanna think about math again, which is very sad because real math is as beautiful as any sonata, sonnet, or serigraph. But that's another post.

So, distilling that concept down to its root, parents who say these things have their own opinion of the value of an exemplar of a medium and are quite ready to impose that value judgment on their children's apprehension of that medium or a particular genre of the medium. In the case of TV, our cultural bias is that "TV rots your brain (period)" and, having swallowed that bias hook, line, and sinker, those parents are only too happy to impose that belief on their children, despite their own experience that there are many TV events which they consider good (valuable, worthwhile, or any other POSITIVE value judgment which they impose from their own prejudice on that particular piece) while they simultaneously denigrate the entire medium.

I ask if it's logical or fair for you to be wildly anticipating the next episode of 24, which I detest and would therefore define as bad (imposing my value judgment on it) while bemoaning your child's anticipation for the next episode of [insert the show they like but you detest here].

Society's valuation of any given medium or work in that medium is not The Truth. Your personal valuation of any given medium or work in that medium is not The Truth. My personal valuation of any given medium or work in that medium is not The Truth. [O ye gods and goddesses of spacetime!, how it hurts to say that.] Let your kids have their own experience, apprehension, and appreciation of art. All forms of art. I know you'd like me to grant you that same courtesy.

2. Thinking about repeatedly revisiting the same work in a given medium, would you complain about an art aficionado wanting to look at Filippo Lippi's (Fra Lippo Lippi) Pala Barbadori more than once? A literary lion wanting to re-read Milton's Paradise Lost? A music maven wanting to attend multiple presentations of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony? A cinema connoisseur watching Rashomon for the nth time? Would you say to them, in that cynical, offended, martyred tone you use with your kids, "Again?"

You (the generic "you") accept those repeated viewings as sensible and worthwhile, dontcha? Why, then, would you deny your child the opportunity to re-view something which speaks to her/him the way these items speak to their fans? Clearly, someone revisiting a work of art (and I definitely include TV shows and movies in that phrase) is getting something out of it. Maybe they're distilling an amazing new insight at the level of a personal epiphany or maybe, just maybe, they enjoy that particular work so much that they delight in revisiting it for the simple pleasure it gives them. Isn't that reason enough?

Enjoy your life and the beauty (and learning) all around you in its multitudinous guises and, please, grant your kids the same boon even if their taste differs from yours.

Lippi's Pala Barbadori, which I like. YMMV. That's ok. (wink)

Author's note: I feel compelled to add two personal comments here.

One. I composed and posted this in one sitting. This is, for me, a terribly uncomfortable, even scary, thing to do. My typical process is to: Write. Think. Edit. Iterate a buncha times. Even a short, simple post often takes me several days before I'm ready to make it public. Here is my first serious attempt to let go of that perfectionism. Please be kind!

Two. I previously stated that I found my body of work to be mostly negative or combative and my future intention was to be more positive. I consider this post to be a positive one. I hope you do, too. Again, please be kind! My ego is terribly fragile. I am the quintessential delicate flower.


  1. I think you did great, Frank. This is a similar argument to the one that I use all the time in defense of my kids' favorite educational mediums - movies, television and video games. If you look back through history you can see that just about every new form of "entertainment" is at first demonized by the masses, from theatre to poetry to fictional novels to cinema to good old fashioned rock'n'roll. I'm mystified by the fact that people can be living right here with me in this world of the future and not see that future is filled with technology, the exact thing my kids are so enamored of.

    Anyway, I loved your points, I'm sure I'll use them.

  2. Love it, handsome. The concept of watching movies for the 87th time was hard for me back a few years ago, until I figured out what you said here - how many times have I seen "Amadeus" or listened to "Fragile"? Hundreds . . .

    I also liked your point about what types of art we like, and how we judge the likes of others. I'm not a fan of visual art, but a great lover of books and music. Kade LOVES music, so it's easy for us to connect there . . .but it's harder with Kai, who likes movies and TV more than I do. Very interesting and provocative - thanks!

  3. Nicely done. I think about this concept on a fairly regular basis. For whatever reason, it is easy to be judgmental about art: things not of one's flavor are not on the same intellectual shelf as those favored. I've always considered it a matter of personal taste of which I'm not one to judge. And better yet, if I can share the experience through another person's interpretation it enhances my understanding of what it is that they like and perhaps come to like it myself.

  4. My hubby has a great way of explaining it. It is a tool, and like any tool, it can be abused or used as a resource.

    "It" could be any of the aforementioned subjects.

    Excellent post Frank. And excellent commentary!
    Heather R.

  5. I like this, Frank.
    You make great points! Thanks for sharing this post.

    ~Sue Patterson
    (I have no idea why this keeps coming up as Anonymous!)

  6. Thanks for commenting, Sue. Anti-media fears just seem silly to me. It's the same thing that's been said of every new form of media or news school of art since the dawn of time. It's not the medium, it's you!

  7. The difference is in how television affects the brain vs how music or art or books affect the brain. Scientific psychological research has found the way the pictures are put together and move at such a fast pace actually can rewire neural pathways making thing like reading much more difficult.

    Does that mean we should criticize our kids taste in media or expect them to like everything we like. As you so well pointed out, no. Does it mean we should avoid all media as evil? No again. As another reader pointed out, it's how we use it.

    But it does mean, for me, that we will largely limit media in our unschooling family. We don't even have a TV, but we do watch movies together on the laptop. I like to think of unschooling as the natural and evolutionarily normal way learning occurs. Loads of viewing time is not what our brains evolved to work best with.

  8. Rebecca, thanks for your comments. I simply disagree. Completely. Our brains didn't evolve to read books, in the way you're conceptualizing that word, but you seem to have no problem with print media. Luddism is luddism, no matter how you prettify it.