What We Talk About When We Talk About Overthinking It (Rambo Week Postscript)

Rambo PosterNo sooner did I finish my weeklong series on Rambo than I came across this little corner of the blogosphere, and I think it, as much as anything else, helps me clarify why I bothered to do a weeklong series on Rambo.

The writer of the above article seems to think that graffiti artists are illegitimate and that copying them is bad, probably because he doesn’t like the style very much. That’s my best guess; he certainly doesn’t seem to want to glorify the original artists, but at the same time, he talks about a loss of “purity” in the form, which I don’t really buy, and I don’t think he buys it either. Graffiti artists are trying to advance their names and reputations and financial situations and influence just as much as everyone else. They’re not saints, they’re just self-employed.

I’ve already stated why I really like the posters—I think that, perhaps by accident, they capture Rambo 2008’s cultural moment with a note of honesty.

And, whether the author of the above linked post cares or not, I don’t really buy that there was ever any moral “purity” to street art that is somehow absent by necessity or nature from the art created by committee in movie studios.

The main problem with art by committee is that it so often is awful—working by committee can be really hard, and a lot of creative committees spoil perfectly good ideas (if they come up with them at all). But if art created by committee is good, then why complain that it was created by committee? If you bought a Tata Nano and it turned out to be the best car you’d ever owned, why would you care that it was created on the super-cheap by a large corporation? There’s a consequentialist argument—that you can infer the costs of this art must, by virtue of the existence of the entity that created it, outweigh its benefits—but when you’re being consequentialist, you need a lot of really hard, empirical data, or you’re just offering conjecture. I’m not a big fan of being consequentialist, because it’s really hard to know why things are happening or how the consequences, intended or unintended, of a given action are going to turn out.

The advantages of street art are independence, engagement and perspective. But like America’s large economy and 20th century industrial dominance, the advantages you start with only take you so far. You still have to go out there every day and live your life. And if somebody comes along and copies something you did, gaining more money and attention than you for it, then maybe you just need to go do something better. Or maybe you face the limitations of your own advantages.

Maybe you have to face the harsh reality that you’ve squandered your advantages, if somebody who didn’t have them has managed to catch up with you. Whatever it is, resting on your laurels or trying to keep status or influence built on past triumphs is a dodgy business, and it would be in everybody’s best interest doing that sort of thing to keep growing and producing new work whenever possible. Because challenges come from the darndest places.

And this is all also forgetting that most street art is also terrible—as terrible if not more terrible than most art created by committee. Most art of all kinds on all levels is really bad. And you can either let that sour you against genre after genre, artist after artist, and become a hopelessly narrow elitist, or you can pick up your tucker bag and Waltzing Matilda and go out there and find the good stuff.

And now we get to what overthinking means to me—it means looking for the same promise and excellence, insight and scope, beauty and power and all other things that are valuable about art, culture etc., in everything you come across. It means not deciding before you sit down and really think about something whether or not it’s worth it. (After all, thinking doesn’t take that long—you can even do it standing up, or walking.)

The world is essentially unpredictable, and you never know where and when you’re going to come across something that’s genius or will enlighten you or entertain you or enrich your mind or change your life. It is not outside the realm of possibility that such a thing will happen when you watch the new Rambo movie. It’s unlikely (really unlikely), but it’s possible.

So, if you ever get anything precious to you out of art, then it behooves you to keep your eyes open to every opportunity you have to mine more of that resource, whatever it is.

And do not discount the potential value of popular culture. Popular culture is a gold mine, because so much of it is driven empirically. Despite the influence of dream factories and institutional entertainment, pop cultural is still less top-down than the work of artistic communes and syndicates, nonprofit consortiums and the academy. In popular culture, if it sells, they do it. Most of the time. And sometimes that lets new ideas get to places and people they wouldn’t otherwise reach. Ideas that sound completely terrible will suddenly attract huge followings, and you have to wonder, “Did I miss something?” “Is there really something there for me?” Maybe the scope of “valuable cultural items” you have set aside in your mind is too small.

(I’m not bashing communes, syndicates, nonprofit consortiums and the academy, here. They have their own advantages. Everybody has their own advantages. I’m just saying these are some of the advantages of popular culture.)

One reason I’m drawn to media that is widely thought to be low and terrible is that the predetermined demand that they be good often convinces people to squeeze all the interesting, innovative elements out of their work. Oh, yes, sometimes you get a highbrow triumph of genius, like There Will Be Blood. But a lot of the time, you get a lifeless piece of trash that thinks that all it needs to be culturally important is to go really slowly, resist accessibility and showcase fabulous lifestyles.

I like entertainment that takes risks. Entertainment that is forced to work outside of its comfort zone to be competitive—entertainment that has to fight for an audience by meeting them where they live rather than appealing to their pride or what they’ve normalized as “their jam.”

I’ve seen reviews of the new Rambo movie that place it at half a star. I’ve seen other reviews that place it at three and a half stars. That seems to me like a movie that somebody didn’t come along and pacify—that probably does a lot of things that a lot of people might not like, but that you might be able to come along and notice and find value in.

Either that or it sounds terrible. I guess I’d have to see it to be sure. Maybe I’ll do that and maybe I won’t.

So the author of the above link (here it is again) never tried to figure out what these posters might be trying to say except for their ostensible cultural reference. He never noticed how weird it was to advertise a multimillion-dollar action hero from 20 years ago in a fake piece of graffiti. He just saw a reference to multiple cultural milieus which he dismissed and to which he felt superior, and he dismissed the posters.

I’m not saying stand outside with a video camera looking at a plastic bag. But I am saying try to approach every deliberate piece of art with an idea of gaining something from it, and maybe it will surprise you.

7 Comments on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Overthinking It (Rambo Week Postscript)”

  1. copyranter #

    Um, your guess is wrong. I love street art; but this Rambo poster is not “weird” or even an original idea. I teach ad classes and I see countless ad posters from around the world all day every day, and I’ve seen this exact idea several times. Advertising a movie? No. But advertising something.

     
  2. fenzel #

    Then when you were talking about street art, why did you put “artist” in scare quotes?

    That was where I got the sense of negativity.

     
  3. stokes #

    Looking at the poster again, isn’t it supposed to be a version of the famous Che Guevara poster? If so, that’s pretty weird in its own right…

     
  4. fenzel #

    I think the Che Poster is in there somewhere kicking around, but it’s not a direct reference (or, at least, not an exclusive one). As the copyranter discussed, the medium here is much more in the milieu of Bansky and his antecedents than Feltrinelli. But guys like Bansky were influenced by the iconography you’re talking about, so it’s all in the same extended family. Still, there are important differences.

    The Rambo image’s cultural legacy is more anarchistic and countercultural than communistic and revolutionary. Che is certainly an important figure in countercultural hero worship, but the specific Che poster is more important as a symbol of Marxist revolution.

    And in that case I do think you hit a lot of the same notes and shortcuts that you use in your There Will Be Blood film score piece — you have a combination of form and function, and you don’t want to lose one at the expense of the other, but it’s an acceptible shorthand to say that the printed poster medium is more communistic than the graffiti stencil medium.

    Condensed adaptations of the Che poster more suitable for stenciling than the original – but they lose some of the iconography as well. You lose the dramatic eyes, for one, which are important in terms of humanizing and motivating the image. Note that Rambo’s eyes are almost completely obscured.

    You wouldn’t paint Stalin or Mao like this. Their influence is too specific; their call to action is too purposeful. I think Che straddles the line more, but the famous poster is definitely on the Marxist side of things. You’re elevating a proletariat hero to the level of a king or Christ-figure – you’re not smearing him on a wall.

    That being said, the poster does seem to invite some comparison between Rambo and Che, if we assume that the “readership circle” for which it is intended knows about Che’s image directly and doesn’t really know Bansky except as a gut feeling (and again I hesitate to give Bansky too much credit; I’d have to dig out a book on the history of the medium to really trace the images and techniques). The position and orientation of the head suggests it, even if very little else of the image is that similar.

    It just also piles a lot of baggage on top of that comparison, including the difference between anarchism and communism, which is pretty big.

     
  5. Matt #

    You’ve spent a long time thinking about Rambo. But not only didn’t you SEE it this weekend, you seem unsure whether you want to at all. What’s that about?

     
  6. fenzel #

    Have you tried to get anybody to see this movie with you? Not easy.

     
  7. wrather #

    “Copyranter” or “The Copyranter”? If only s/he were a copyEDITOR, maybe s/he could tell us.