Art is dead. This is an emotive statement and it isn’t quite true but what is true is that art is laying bleeding whilst various scavengers pick at it, snatching out the last pieces of any worth or substance, as we enter the dying days of the cultural recession.
Consider the televisual art form – and it was art, make no mistake. I’m not talking about ‘talent’ competitions here because they aren’t entertainment and if you think that they are then you should probably go and read something else: Hello or Heat or Take a Break from Thinking – something like that. (Perhaps I’m being a snob here but that’s not entirely my fault. I think of it this way: if there were no scum then there’d be no need for snobbery.)
No, I’m talking about dramas. You might remember them – hell, the BBC still makes a brave effort from time to time and with good results, though success in this tends to be spiked with the seeds of its own failure because there’s always going to be the desire to try to broaden the appeal of anything of quality by removing the very thing which gave it an edge.
Basically, the people in charge of programming tend to look at things in this way: they ask themselves the question “What’s already popular?” and then make everything else exactly the same as that – this is why the alleged talent shows that I said I wasn’t going to mention are all exactly the same and are all utterly banal. So what else is popular? Soaps.
Now I’ve got nothing against soaps – if you like your opiates to be bland and predictable then they’re clearly the choice for you – but what I do have a problem with is the idea that everything has to become a soap in order to keep the audience locked-in. Thus long-running comedies become soaps, established dramas become soaps, popular science-fiction becomes soap – heck, even the talent shows that I said I wasn’t going to mention become virtual soaps by virtue of giving you the back-stories on the contestants. The thing is this: it doesn’t work – the comedies cease to be funny, the dramas cease to be gritty and the science-fiction ceases to be exciting. The talent shows (which I honestly won’t mention again) probably retain their appeal, but it’s almost impossible to alienate an audience that soporific – it’s like whispering insults to patients in a coma ward.
What programming bods need to understand is that their audience is a multi-faceted beast: it contains elements who enjoy different types of programming – these can often be the same people in different moods or at different times – and, by trying to satisfy all of them in one hit, they merely fail to meet the needs of any of them. To illustrate my point: I enjoy both custard and steak but I would never dream of putting them on the same plate.
One of the worst televisual sins, in my opinion, is when soaps try to make themselves exciting and controversial by working sex and violence into their storylines: it’s like the plain, chubby girl at school turning up at the end-of-year disco wearing a short skirt and no knickers – the intent is there but it just doesn’t work. The trouble is that, increasingly, soaps are no longer a reflection of real life so much as a caricature of it – every scenario is taken to extremes, leading to learnt emotional responses amongst their audiences which are out of all proportion with situations. Thus, to many soap viewers, every real-life situation is perceived to be a crisis and shouting becomes the default mode of discussion. Even if you haven’t seen this, I know that you’ve heard it. Surely I can’t be the only one who thinks that, by definition, if soaps should be expected to be one thing then it’s clean.
So what alternative forms of artistic entertainment are we left with? Literature, I suppose. Reading appears to have become fashionable again, thanks to some decent children’s stories (which aren’t for grown-ups – get a grip, please) and the launching of electronic media that seem to have made the written word cool – even if writing well is still considered by many to be passé. Nonetheless, anything which encourages people to exercise their brains must be a good thing, I suppose – even if certain authors manage to retain their readership simply by writing the same book over and over again. Despite this, there continues to be a lot of new writing being produced which is artistically worthy and there is clearly still an audience for it.
I fear, however, that marketing opportunities may taint even this: just as television is now permitted to carry product placement in its programming, I imagine that Kindles and iPads will shortly carry plugs between the pages of their books (and not merely in order to charge them). This is almost inevitable. Indeed, as the trend for viral marketing continues, it seems that increasingly we are presented with advertisements masquerading as entertainment. I expect that you’ve been emailed some recently and have passed them on without even a thought (for we are but slaves to the corporate machine). Mind you, some of them are quite artistic.