Guest Blog Post, Jacob Oet: Why “Art” and “Serious” Should Get a Divorce

Jacob OetFor some people, “serious art” is a compound word. They say it with the most severe reverence that is usually reserved for funerals and graduation speeches. These are people who think that good art can’t be silly, or that silliness can’t be sincere or profound.

However, as any creator knows, art is entirely unpredictable and rule-breaking. Creating something good is like riding an endlessly bucking horse; if the artist wishes to ride any distance without falling off, they must learn to adapt to the horse’s movement.

Mediocre art is very easy to identify; it feels unnatural, restrained, sedated, in chains. A horse that doesn’t buck will never go anywhere interesting. It’s more like taking a pony in a circle at an amusement park.

For critics, there is little worse than making the wrong distinction between good and bad: mediocre art is sincere, however poorly executed; bad art is always insincere. While mediocre artists give us clichés and flat soda, they are not as dangerous as “serious art” snobs.

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“Silly or serious” is not a dichotomy. Attend a wedding reception to see this in action; watch the bride and groom, hours after making “the most important decision of their lives,” get drunk. Watch their parents get drunk and start reminiscing about baby moments. Also, consider sex, one of the silliest acts. Intercourse is the only time when it is interesting and enjoyable to repeat the same motion hundreds of times, time and again. Yet this is what allows the human race to continue.

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“Silly or serious” is not a dichotomy. When evaluating art, one must treat “silly” and “serious” as the primary colors of any good work. The mark of a brilliant artist is the ability to be both silly and serious.

This appears in all genres of art, and I’m going to take you through music, literature, and unframed art with such examples as Mozart, Lewis Carroll, YouTube, and Futurama.

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I love Mozart. I love the calm-before-the-storm-iness of Mozart. I love the crystalline confidence of his scales. I love the catch of his melodies. I especially love how Mozart mixes silly and serious.

Mozart’s canon “Leck Mich Im Arsch” (literally, “lick me in the ass”), is one of my favorite examples of how silly and serious can work together to produce art that is unquestionably brilliant, even if it does make you giggle. Just think that without these lyrics, this would sound like a solemn ode to brotherhood.

Another of my favorite Mozart moments is from his final opera The Magic Flute. In one of Mozart’s most cheerful, upbeat, and memorable pieces, the Queen of Night asks her daughter to murder Sarastro, while exercising insane vocal techniques that singers have to dedicate their lives to attain. It’s a funny song, because the seriousness of the lyrics clash with the flowing lightness of the tune.

The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart,

Death and despair flame about me!

If Sarastro does not through you feel

The pain of death,

Then you will be my daughter nevermore.

It’s a scary song; listening to it, I get chills. And it’s a song that gets me through the day, one I love to sing over and over, under my breath, everywhere I go.

It’s not just the mixing of silly and sincere that makes these pieces great; it’s the undeniable humanity and sincerity of the music.

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Now consider Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” Its linguistic brilliance and inventiveness is first class, as the beauty isn’t in the meaning so much as in the way the plot is actually understandable, despite the strangeness of its language. The atmospheric brilliance of the first stanza is inimitable:

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

Its specific nonspecific language allows us to imagine and feel anything, depending on how we enter the poem. Many would write this poem off as silly. Yes, it is silly, but I find serious and sincere qualities in its retelling of the hero’s journey. It is a metaphor for triumph over any conflict in our lives.

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There is also the problem of unframed art. Some people tend to think that art must present itself as art, and that only certain kinds of art exist. Music, poetry, theater, painting, sculpture, etc… What about TV shows? What about YouTube videos?

This YouTube video by user wendyvainity seems at first to be nothing but nightmare fuel, with dogs. Here is a full synopsis of the video: two dogs sing an auto-tuned song about being dogs while the hairs on their coats grow incredibly long and then shrink back into their body; they jump over each other, and then they jump over what is probably the River Styx. Even on the other side of the river, they keep singing, and their hairs keep growing and shrinking back. Yes, I’d say nightmare fuel with dogs is a pretty accurate term, but—wendyvainity’s video also engages the absurd and the nonsensical to speak about (or at least prime in our unconscious minds) mortality, change, identity, fate, self-consciousness, and the possibility of real connection. Oddly enough, it reminds me a lot of Beckett.

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The animated sci-fi comedy show Futurama has proven itself capable of genius, but what really makes some of the episodes “art” is the show’s commitment to sincerity. Take for example my favorite episode, “Jurassic Bark.” The episode is a perfect blend of silliness and seriousness.

For those who are not familiar with Futurama, the premise of the show is that Fry, a loser pizza delivery boy living at the turn of the 21st century, accidentally gets cryonized until the year 3000, and must adapt to his new life. A common theme is Fry’s attempting to reconcile his past life with his current existence, and the possibility of his own insignificance.

Why is “Jurassic Bark” such a brilliant episode? Because it confronts cynicism with sincerity.

Here is a brief summary of “Jurassic Bark”: A museum in New New York digs up the remnants of the pizza restaurant that employed Fry in the 20th century. In the exhibit, Fry finds the fossilized body of his old dog, Seymour. After making a show of protesting in front of the museum, Fry gets to keep his fossilized dog. Fry’s mad scientist boss, Professor Farnsworth, says that he can bring the dog back to life. However, Fry’s best friend, Bender, gets jealous and upset with Fry for spending so much time preparing for the dog’s revival.

The episode alternates between Fry’s preparation for Seymour’s arrival in the present, and flashbacks of the history of Fry’s experience with his dog. The flashbacks start with their first meeting, when Fry gets a prank pizza order and shares the unpaid-for pizza with the starved dog in an alley, who follows Fry home. The flashbacks culminate in Fry’s cryonization and the dog’s subsequent search for Fry.

Fry: “I have a pizza here for Seymour Asses.”

Man at Delivery Address: “There isn’t anybody by that name here. Or anywhere. I hope in time you realize how stupid you are.”

Fry: “I wouldn’t count on it.”

At the end of the episode, learning that the dog lived for twelve years after Fry got cryonized, Fry succumbs to the contagious cynicism of his coworkers, and decides, for the first time in his life, to be ‘emotionally mature’ and to let his dog stay dead. The last lines of the episode (as given by IMDB) are:

Fry: I had Seymour ‘till he was three. That’s when I knew him, and that’s when I loved him… I’ll never forget him…

[Picks up the fossil and looks into its apparent eyes]

Fry: But he forgot me a long, long time ago…

But the episode doesn’t end there. The episode ends with a montage of the twelve years Seymour spent waiting in front of the pizzeria for Fry’s return, accompanied by a beautifully sung rendition of “I Will Wait for You” from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

Good writers are deliberate, and every detail in “Jurassic Bark” is necessary to the episode and has some poetic value. I am going to offer a few of the most striking motifs, and some parts of the episode that I think embody them. As a warning to the reader, many of these examples are extremely specific and require a familiarity with the tropes and characters of Futurama:

The buried past is still alive in some form: fossilized Seymour, flashbacks… False emotional showiness: Bender the magician, Leela dramatically stripping and running to the lava, Bender emerging from the floor like a volcano, Bender’s robot dog… Cynicism as a destructive force: Bender’s throwing the fossil into the lava, Fry’s parents ignoring Seymour’s barking at Fry’s cryonized body, Fry’s ultimate decision not to recover Seymour… Cynicism as learned behavior: Fry is Bender’s apprentice, Fry’s ultimate decision… Sincerity as something frowned upon: the crew’s lighthearted scorn of Fry’s three-day dance-protest to get his dog from the museum, Bender beating up Zoidberg after Zoidberg explains Bender’s magic trick to the audience, Bender choosing to believe that Fry’s emotions are fake and that Fry is only acting that way to make Bender feel bad… Sincere connection as a rare and valuable ideal: Seymour is weak at first but grows healthy when fed and given love, Fry is only happy when with Seymour, Fry and Seymour are lonely and outcast but fill a void in each other’s lives, symbolized by their ability to sing together “Walking on Sunshine”…

Many viewers, angered by their own emotional responses to the episode, have complained that the ending of “Jurassic Bark” is manipulative, and rightly so; like all great stories, we are tricked into feeling emotion for people that don’t exist and the decisions they make. Where the objectors are wrong, however, is in denouncing this manipulation. Yes, we are tricked, as many great writers have tricked us in the past. We are tricked into first believing that Fry is making the right decision (a triumph for cynicism), and then shown that his dog never stopped believing and just kept waiting. In the end, moved to tears and anger as many viewers are, we ourselves are the triumph of sincerity.

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So. What’s the takeaway? Why is any of this important?

Silliness is the most underrated aspect of art.

More than anything, sincerity is what counts.

Art doesn’t have to be serious to make you a better person.

If you can be a silly genius, more power to you.

Meet the Interns: Michelle Leabo, Content Team Manager

michelleleabo_0Michelle Leabo is a Senior in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences majoring in English with a concentration in Literature.

Superstition Review: What do you do for SR?

Michelle Leabo: As Content Team Manager, it is my job to keep SR’s content organized. I make sure that our spreadsheets are continually updated. One of my major responsibilities is to ensure that no work get lost. I remain in close contact with other teams and practice excellent communication between my teammates and other interns.

SR: How did you hear about or get involved with Superstition Review?

ML: I heard about Superstition Review last semester when I took a class with Patricia Murphy and answered her Call for Interns. This is the first issue of SR that I’ve been involved with.

SR: What is your favorite section of SR? Why?

ML: My favorite section is Interviews. They are so personal, honest, and candid; one really gains insight into the work of an author or artist by asking questions. I enjoy the intimacy that interviews allow for. I also enjoy forming interview questions and conducting them.

SR: Who is your dream contributor to the journal? Talk about him/her.

ML: Toni Morrison. She is such an established writer and I feel as if she could provide not only great material, but great strength to the magazine. I believe she still occasionally teaches courses; perhaps she would be willing to respond to a student-edited literally magazine.

SR: What job, other than your own, would you like to try out in the journal?

ML: I would like to tackle the role of the editor.

SR: What are you most excited about for in the upcoming issue?

ML: I am most excited to keep all of our content organized and to succeed in not losing any work.

SR: What was the first book you remember falling in love with and what made it so special?

ML: I remember reading Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt in 5th grade and absolutely falling in love with it. This book recounts a fictional family’s life throughout the Civil War. Through its characters, it taught me that people who lived even centuries ago experienced the same happiness and heartbreak as people today and that we can relate to them. Irene Hunt remains one of my favorite authors; other favorites of mine from her are The Lottery Rose and Up a Road Slowly.

SR: What are you currently reading?

ML: I am currently reading a collection of short stories. I love the art of the short story; I am a fan of Hawthorne, Faulkner, and Joyce.

SR: What artist have you really connected with, either in subject matter, work, or motto?

ML: Through subject matter, work, and motto, I have connected with Faith Hill. She sings about aspects of life and love that I can relate to. Her music expresses the importance of love, friendship, and family in life. She has a very classy composure, and least in my opinion, and I admire that; she’s hardly ever found on the cover of tabloids. She has a motto that family comes first and she always seems to honestly follow it.

SR: What are some of your favorite websites to waste time on or distract you from homework?

LM: I’m a fan of Lucille Ball and I enjoy searching for information and memorabilia relating to her and ‘I Love Lucy’. I’m also a fan of the Duggar family from TLC’s ‘18 and Counting’ so I enjoy following them through clips on YouTube and sites of that nature. They’ve recently announced they’re expecting their 19th child!

Meet the Interns: Tabitha Gutierrez, Advertising

tabithagutierrez_0Tabitha Gutierrez is a senior majoring in Business and English Creative Writing.

Superstition Review: What do you do for SR?

Tabitha Gutierrez: At SR, I am in charge of advertising and getting the word about SR out to the public. I write press releases/newsletter providing updates about upcoming readings, submission periods, etc. as well as pursue ways of gaining advertising.

SR: How did you hear about or get involved with Superstition Review?

TG: I heard about Superstition Review through an email from the English department regarding internship possibilities. I selected SR as my internship because I felt like a student run magazine was new and interesting.

SR: What is your favorite section of SR? Why?

TG: I especially enjoy the artwork. Being an English major, I read multiple works from various authors daily. However, I have always loved art and find that the art included in SR makes a nice change.

SR: Who is your dream contributor to the journal? Talk about him/her.

TG: My dream contributor would be Tim Burton. Although I am obsessed with his movies, I absolutely love his artwork that he does. He has albums filled with art for movies and characters that are truly unique. Also, I think that any stories submitted would be different and fun.

SR: What job, other than your own, would you like to try out in the journal?

TG: I think that it would be interesting to work with art selection. I would love to view and compare different works of art and discuss how others view it as well.

SR: What are you most excited for in the upcoming issue?

TG: I am most excited to see the results of readership. I feel like an increase would reflect a contribution that I did in advertising.

SR: What was the first book you remember falling in love with and what made it so special?

TG: When I was younger, I really loved the Diary of Anne Frank. Although sad, I felt like it was the perfect combination of history, youth, nonfiction, relatability, etc.

SR: What are you currently reading?

TG: I cannot put the final book of Twilight down. I already read the series but loved the last book that I had to read it again. I know it is a sensation but I find a real art to the way it is written.

SR: What are some of your favorite websites to waste time on or distract you from homework?

TG: I usually get distracted by YouTube. Not matter your mood, you can always find something to fit your desire. If I am in a funny mood, hilarious pet videos always keep your mood up. Or, if I am in an artsy mood watching people sing and try to get there name out there can be inspiring.

SR: What would be your dream class to take at ASU? What would the title be and what would it cover?

TG: My dream course at ASU would be a Next Step class. I think that faculty focus so much on the transition into college, getting classes, and your overall freshman year, but barely focus on your Senior year. I wish there was a class that explained the best way of breaking into career fields, what to really expect, realistic salaries, etc. How are we supposed to base degrees and majors on something so unfamiliar?