Friday, March 19, 2010

Reality 101 – TV or Not TV

There’s nothing like a good liberal arts education to prepare you for life. Like a good buffet, it encourages you to taste just about everything that will come in handy in the coming feast of life, rather than catering to those picky eaters who limit their appetite for knowledge to the specialty of the day. Although I do not profess to more than a smattering of familiarity with such subjects as Politics, Economics, Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology, Classics, Philosophy, History, English Lang. and Lit., French Lit. and the ever popular (in my day) Near Eastern Lit., my formal education, that is to say, what I learned about before I dabbled in professional training, has stood me in good stead for decades. Without going into the details, most of which I cannot recall ‘on demand’ but now only come wafting through to me at the strangest times, let me assure you that there is nothing like having a trained mind with an overview on the human condition from all these different perspectives. Throw in some patience, caution and a little common sense and you have a foolproof recipe for avoiding a lot of personal disaster.

Unfortunately, the B.A. is no longer held in much esteem in our society since it cannot be immediately churned into a way to make the big bucks. And since being intelligent, curious and thoughtful are no longer valued qualities, Arts departments everywhere have to justify their existence with tempting curricula like, ‘Beatles 101-The Mersey Years’, to get any enrollment whatsoever to maintain funding.

So much for the ‘Ivory Tower’.

This goes a long way to explain the current mess a lot of countries find themselves in these days…I’m not singling anyone out here.... you know who you are. When a ‘people’ give up the their brains, hearts and courage and start listening, instead, to the man behind the curtain, it doesn’t take a P.H.D. to figure out that there isn’t going to be a happy ending.

Enough with the extended metaphors. These thoughts have been circling around in what’s left of my brain ever since I retired to a life which offers me a few more hours a day to absorb recent developments in the culture. Rather than dashing off to an institution mandated to uphold a connection with the past, by virtue of its architecture, furniture and supplies, all held back by limited resources, to spend my days ‘giving out’, so to speak, I am now immersed in a world of the present, connected to the new reality by virtue of my television, laptop and iPhone. And what I’m taking in seems to me to explain a lot about why things are not so good these days.

Let me start with television. For most of my life, which began, co-incidentally with the advent of television, you couldn’t actually get on TV without displaying some kind of talent. To work behind the scenes, you had to be able to create, write, produce, direct, record, mix….there were actually guys called ‘stagehands’ who made a living lurking around the studio ‘rigging’ ropes and lights. You could get a job shlepping the fat electrical cables which connected the huge cameras to the control room. To get your puss in front of the camera, you had to be able to sing or dance or clown around or play a musical instrument better than almost everyone or else why would anyone want to watch the show? Or pay you to show up?

True, there was Candid Camera, but to think that setting clueless idiots up to make fools of themselves, for free, for the amusement of an audience of yahoos (in the original sense of the word) was going to become the staple of the medium, would be inconceivable for decades.

What changed all that? It’s my belief that changes in technology come first and then the rest crashes in on us. No one can really predict all the consequences of what will follow the invention of some new gizmo or how it will totally transform our world. And even if someone could, and she warned us that it wasn’t going to be a good transformation, nobody would listen to her. Take it from me. In this particular case, it has to be the affordability of hand-held video cameras and, later, the built-in webcams on computers and then, cell phone cameras.

Think about it. If anyone can ‘shoot’, then anyone can ‘perform’. Why bother with auditions, agents, networks, expensive studios, stars, orchestras, choreographers, costume and makeup people and broadcast technicians to stage lavish productions with real stars, like the old ‘Carol Burnett Show,’ when you can set up a recording and uplink device in your bedroom, warble your own version of ‘Stormy Weather' in your PJ's and upload it to YouTube for all the world to see? If you are really lousy, you will be a guaranteed hit. You may not get paid, but you can’t have everything.

It’s only a short mental hop to the concept that inundation is the sincerest form of fame. With this mobility and accessibility comes, unfortunately for some, a plunge in quality. We all do know that something that is free is usually not as good as something that actually costs something to produce, unless you are referring those ‘best things in life’ which are priceless, yadda, yadda. And yet, these days, our standards have sunk so low that we are content to accept mediocrity, not only as the norm, but as the gold standard. Anyone want to see my cat play the piano?

The talent for excelling at something has given way to the talent for exhibitionism. And, with that come the impoverished networks, ready to cash in.

Why settle for artistic illusion when you can have klutzy Reality?

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