Modern Art

Here are two pieces of short-form artwork from the last six months, which are each wonderfully executed:

an essay

An Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar

a video (very NSFW, but why are you watching music videos at work?)

Don’t go on to the rest of the article until you’ve read and seen both.

Seriously though don’t.

First, an apology: I’m not going to talk about the song itself at all—except to note that I’ve listened to it ten times today and it’s amazing—this is only about the video.

Both the essay and the video are powerful and remarkable, and both of them get their power explicitly by referring to and exploiting their respective genres.

The essay is hosted on McSweeney’s, home to some of the internet’s more refined satire; if I had to guess at the editorial directives at McSweeney’s, I’d say the target is a point somewhere on the line between The New Yorker‘s dry wit and literary sincerity, and The Onion‘s biting satire and occasional outright absurdity. In that environment, the opening of the essay seems arch, but not particularly pointed:

This absolutist view is flawed, however, because language is an art of nuance. From time to time, writers may well find illustrative value in the lightest of phrases, sentences so weightless and feathery that they scarcely even seem to exist at all.

“Fine,” we say, “a tongue-in-cheek argument—A Modest Proposal writ very small—proving by demonstration the absurdity of overly-indirect writing. I see where this is going.”

The video, by the same token, is a music video, a genre that with no warning can feature dog New Yorkers, technicolor lingerie cons on the run, too many Rube Goldberg/single-take monstrosities, giant-hand slap fights, or robo-Bjork auto-eroticism (that last video is so unnerving I’m not even sure “auto-eroticism” was a pun). With that backdrop, the jump at 0:24, from the “slightly-dirty Wes Anderson movie” we see in the very beginning, is surprising but immediately accepted:

looks underseasoned, but we'll fix that later

“Fine,” we say, “this is a Wes Anderson movie except this woman cooks people, doppelgängers exist, this kid with a shotgun murders people in cold blood, and this weird man is having bondage-Jesus sex with a girl 30 years younger than him. Still not weirder than that Bjork video.”

The genius of both the video and the essay is how thoroughly they avoid confounding the expectations of their genres as they develop their premises. The essay meticulously maintains its field-anthropologist’s tone, playing the straight man to the increasingly-tortured animated sentences it examines:

Both subject and object were “involved” in the proceedings, simply because both are present in the sentence. That new verb can apply to both nouns, making them equal and indistinguishable partners.

The video admittedly has a lot of work to do in its allotted 3 minutes and 51 seconds, but in that time unwinkingly lays out the violent depravity of its islands of Suburbia.

After the car flips over, we begin a slow awakening, scene by scene. A car crash is less violent and disturbing than most of the scenes we’ve seen so far, so we can’t immediately connect the wreck to the evaporation of the illusions around it. Quickly enough, though, we get the point, and soon all of our un-twinned (de-doppelled?) fantasists are standing around the overturned station wagon, glancing around at the objects of their daydreams.

As message, this is the farthest thing from insightful—bourgeois fantasy lives and their occasional (metaphorical) car crashes go back at least to Madame Bovary, and this particular suburban rendition is at least old enough for its learner’s permit. What makes this denouement so rewarding is its fulfillment of a promise we didn’t know the video had made. The unreality of the first 3 minutes of the video we had accepted as an end in itself, but the resolution suddenly acknowledges that there was a more substantial world behind its fantasies, motivating them, all along.

The essay makes the same leap, much more suddenly, and obviously much more substantively. We are very used to cultural criticism that expends unnecessary amounts of ink and bile on sarcastic complaints about things that just aren’t that important, like texting, selfies, or, well, grammar. Having been through 95% of the essay, which is a note-perfect rendition of that brand of mildly satisfying, sensible-chuckle writing, we find, very suddenly, that the venial sin of weak sentence structure that we have been exploring was actually the sickening offense of window-dressing a violent death.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing over whether the irony that cakes over all of our culture has destroyed anything that deserves to be called culture, but pieces like these make me excited for what art and rhetoric will start to achieve once they’ve learned to transcend our automatic disbelief.

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