Friday, July 25, 2003


To be honest, I first used the name “Real Art” as a sort of gag title for a music-dance video project I produced and directed years ago for a television production class when I was studying radio, television, and film at the University of Texas. I had been taking some critical film theory courses that were heavily examining the concept of meaning in film and television, and I wanted to make a video that seemed to have numerous levels of meaning, but actually meant nothing. Riffing on old Ronco style commercials, I thought that “Real Art” (Don’t accept anything but REAL art!) would be a nice little joke that I could laugh at privately.

The project worked well: all my fellow students seemed to love it and the grad students who taught our class read all kinds of unintended messages into the images I created and I got an “A.” For a brief moment, I was the belle of the ball—the next semester, however, I was taught by an arrogant, evil Carl Reiner type, a former professional from the field whose dictatorial, belittling approach to education single handedly drove me away from TV forever; that’s another story.

Maybe someday I’ll get the video online for all to see; it’s quite fun, albeit a bit rough edged, and my father says it reminds him of Ernie Kovacs.

I later used “Real Art” as a theater company name when I wrote, produced, and directed a one-act play for a play festival in Austin. I managed to talk my old friend, Matt, who sometimes contributes to this blog, out of his retirement from acting to star in the play. Sadly, we lost, but it was a good, solid show.

Somewhere along the line, I decided that “Real Art” would be used as an umbrella moniker for any future projects over which I have complete control. So when my former student, Lance, set me up with a blog, I already had a title.

So, if the name of my blog is “Real Art,” why do I devote the majority of my writings to politics and culture?

In order to answer that question, I must undertake a brief discussion concerning the nature of art. Janet Staiger, a professor I had for a couple of classes back during my previously mentioned RTF days, once said something to the effect that she does not believe in art. That is, the question of what constitutes art becomes, ultimately, so problematic that it is impossible to definitively answer. She raised an extremely good point; however, I must admit that I love the concept of art, as problematic as it is—the romantic notions and images it conjures forth, such as poets in coffee houses, idealism, passionate lovers, beauty, truth, all these things and more give me reason to live. So, for my own purposes, as both an artist and a writer, I offer this working definition of art: it is an individual’s reactions, emotional and intellectual, to his or her observations of reality, manifested in a way that cannot be stated in plain, every day language—this includes poetry, prose, theater, music, dance, film, video, painting, sculpture, and anything else along these lines that I’ve forgotten to mention…sometimes even standup comedy can rise to the level of art.

Because much of what we call “reality,” especially for the artist, is both debatable and subjective, art can be used to further both good and bad ends. Indeed, many artists favor liberal causes, but others have gone in the opposite direction: Rudyard Kipling employed his writing skills to glorify and ideologically promote the brutal British Empire; Leni Riefenstahl used her film genius to deify Adolph Hitler and the Nazis; the Rambo and Missing in Action films of the 1980s helped to make America forget the valuable lessons of Vietnam, and to glorify US military power and war in general. Art is never neutral. There is always an ideological component, even if the message is simply “relax” or “don’t worry; it’s okay” or anything else of that sort—often, “entertainment” serves the powerful by diverting attention away from their actions.

I am reminded of an impromptu discussion about the social and artistic responsibilities of actors that we had in my acting class during my senior year in the UT drama department. I don’t remember many of the details, but I do recall that I was in the minority that strongly advocated a social responsibility and political awareness for actors that is above and beyond any entertainment function. I wasn’t as liberal then as I am now, but I think that I was beginning to see that art (which by default includes many forms of “entertainment”) is a powerful ideological tool. Several years later, I discovered the all but forgotten great actor, singer, and socialist activist for justice, Paul Robeson, who once said, “The artist must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice.” He became my immediate hero and role model.

For me, art, politics, and culture are tightly intertwined and nearly indistinguishable—Janet Staiger is probably right to refrain from any arguments about what constitutes art, but the problematic issue of defining art ultimately makes me take myself all the more seriously as an artist: art is serious business.

Indeed, the same wealthy corporate forces that drive our repressive and militaristic government also control the popular arts. PBS’s Frontline documentary “The Monster That Ate Hollywood” shows how the mega financial success of Jaws in the mid 1970s made massive corporations realize that there could be big, big profits in film, so they started buying studios like crazy; within a few years, Hollywood had changed for the worse: today’s endless parade of craptacular blockbusters are the end result. Musician and songwriter, Todd Rundgren, has made similar statements about how the multi-platinum success of Peter Frampton’s “Frampton Comes Alive” set in motion a very similar chain of events within the recording industry—now we must endure boy bands, shit-hop idiots, Britney Spears, and shrill, no-talent “divas.” Corporate control of the entertainment industry today has taken artists further away from the production process than at any other point in American pop culture history.

Music stars are corporate goons; film stars are corporate goons. Long ago, I wanted to be a rock star or a movie star, myself, but not anymore. I’d be serving the bad guys; I refuse to do that.

That brings me all the way back to where I started this essay, the title of my blog. Here at Real Art, I’m trying to illuminate what I believe are the concepts with which artists ought to concern themselves for the most part—at the very least, I’m trying to show what concerns me as an artist. I believe that art should serve humanity, not the bad guys. Anything else is, at best, meaningless, and, at worst, evil. In short, Real Art is an ongoing argument for what constitutes real art.

Get it?