Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Wire, Art, and Politics.

In the last post, we began a discussion of apathy. I believe we can take a unique glance at this question through exploring the artistry and politics of the Wire.

Did you ever think that people, most likely, teenagers, or young adults, passed around the Catcher in the Rye as if contraband, as if enemy propaganda?  Nowadays, we find it comical that such a tame book would arouse such ire and disgust. As a teenager,  I liked to imagine that people, once upon a time, did pass the book around, from hand to hand, hidden in a dark alcove of the school, retrieved from a brown paper bag, the book growing more and more tattered with each read, almost as if it were pornography before the age of the Internet. The mystique around this book that gave a voice to a generation, that set the dividing lines between the old and the new, gives off this aura. The book's actually history differs, but the myth of words that can move the masses with sentences that need not fall back on the clichés of self actualization, or on paragraphs that teach you the secret to the best you, rings truer. Can you imagine that at the first performance of Stravinsky’s ballet, the Rite of Spring, in which the play calls for a sacrifice of a virgin to their gods, that people actually rioted because of music, of classical music! Because of the jarring nature of the music, civilized people uprooted chairs, flung them across the room, and trampled on the grounds beneath, causing the conductor to flee and hide. I cannot fathom a piece of art today ever eliciting such a visceral reaction, such a need for a physically violent response. I can imagine the art, mainly the Wire, but I underestimate our societies ability to respond in kind.

What has changed? Why don’t we watch the Wire, cringe, cry, and ultimately vow to help? How do we watch season 4 without feeling compelled to change something, our choices, our jobs, our goals, and our involvement in the school system? How can we cry as Randy gets lost in the system because of Herc’s self centered nature, but not feel moved past tears or empathy? What keeps the Wire in the realm of entertainment, and out of the realm of moral indignation, or an ethical call to arms? We still ask this outdated question on college application essays, and the likes, in the form of what piece of art changed your life, or moved you in an irrevocable way, but the lie can only be swallowed for so long. The Wire, we would think, would change the disconnect between art and politics we experience in today’s world. (Can you imagine Picasso’s Guernica creating the same effect on the people of today as it did in its time?) We could say that on some level, we realize, that come on, this is just TV, but so much of the draw of the Wire is that it transcends TV as it morphs in a gritty, realistic, portrayal of the lost cities of America, the America we love, the America in whose glory we bask in, and in whose luxury we partake in, endlessly.

When we reminisce on the brilliance of the Wire we tend to focus on the characters that feel more human than people we know. We focus on the mess that is Mcnutty, on his talented detective skills juxtaposed to his dreadful life skills, we recall the tragic sadness, but ultimate partial redemption of Bubbles, of Kima’s badass grit, of Landsman’s, crude, but ultimately bleeding heart, of the brotherly love and competition between Stringer and Avon, of Bodies’s self-awareness that comes too late, of the naïve innocence of Wallace, caught between his moral sense and his fealty to his larger family, or better yet, his need for his larger family. We watch Youtube videos that gather the best of moments, the moments of intense drama and humor, Omar’s poetry, who gets shot when, Omar’s courtroom scene, Wee-Bey’s fish…We don’t though, reminisce on how much the gorgeous, vivid, beautifully human characters serve as part of the scathing critique on the war on drugs, or on the disparity between the affluent and the poverty stricken, or the heavy-handedly message of the cyclical nature of these ghetto’s. While Simon is no novice at the art of subtlety and complexity, he chooses to sacrifice these tools on the altar of his unflagging political positions. But to what avail?

And don't get Simon wrong. He is no art for art's sake purist. He is a journalist at heart, with a ferocious agenda and political positions(he is not shy, but this interview is scathing... The war on drugs, as fought now, will not work (Think of Bunny’s perfect speech about alcohol and paper bags, think of the horror, but success of Hamsterdam), and likely, has done more harm than good. Bureaucracies suck the soul of out our hardest working policemen, trapping them in a net of overly formalistic requirements that ultimately requires the sacrifice of ideals to the idol of job progression; unbridled capitalism destroys the traditionally American run, unionized businesses; politics, though our only hope for widespread change, inevitably, curdles the best of intentions, and corrupts the best of people; the school system buckles under the immense pressure to stay fiscally viable while attempting to balance the ideals of education, and most police, we find out, care more about their personal advancement than the truth, than justice(Juke the stat’s, that’s all that matters.) While people grow in this show, think of Namond, of Carver, of Prez, institutions do not. Institutions chug along, like the trains McNulty and Bunk drink next to, with careless disregard for the damage they leave behind.

 Great literature, we think, allows the characters to speak for themselves. The stance of the author, some say, deserves no place in his writing. It is said that Chekhov, when asked why he chooses such a cold style towards his characters and their plight, responded that it is not for the author to grab feelings out of the reader, to emotionally mug them with little subtlety. The colder, more distant the author from the characters, the more their stories and personalities will grab us, Chehkov believed, but Simon steers clear of this adage. His fingerprints are found strewn across every storyline. While we praise the ambiguity of characters, of the lack of any clear cut moral heroes, we fail to realize the uniformity, the clear lack of ambiguity in regards to questions of politics. But why do we forget that, and if we do remember it, why doesn’t it move us to any sort of action, perhaps to a desire to learn more about inner city youth, about the war on drugs, about politics, about our school systems, about the integrity of journalism, about the ideals of cops, but it simply doesn’t. We feel special, attuned to a different wavelength because we looooved the wire, “It’s so gritty, and real, and hard hitting.” Simon pulls no punch, and really cares about the plight of his city, of his characters, but do we? Should we? Great art demands a response, not in a sense of obligation, but because you cannot help but respond. It shakes you awake, forever, hopefully unable fall back into the sleep of ignorance, but this simply does not happen anymore.

I do not believe in the possibility, but more importantly, in the desirability to attempt to remove literature from the realm of opinion, of moral judgment, and of a fiery sense of the life worth living, of how we can retain our humanity when so many factors work to suppress that same humanity. Whether you respect, or agree with, or merely tolerate, or even hate the politics and opinions of this show, you cannot disagree with its power of bringing these issues out from the ethereal realm of out there, of theory, into the dirty world of action. Few shows attempt to hold up a camera to our crumbling cities, and not to flinch, without a nod to the audience’s need for heroes and bad guys(although, the antihero, and the villain we end up rooting for was not created, or even perfected by the Wire,) for closure and justice. Few shows retain the courage to not only tell the story, masterfully, but to pursue a political agenda. Ironically, for such a complex approach to character, the show lacks subtlety in its political message, but screw subtlety when the issues demand our immediate responses and attention.  In a sense, we chafe at these strange bedfellows, art and politics, because we live in an age where art, whether in content, or in its reception, we hope, transcends the transient tragedies of time, not mires in them. But can we afford to continue this trend? Should not the New York Times moves us to the same extent as the Wire? If we care so much about the fictional characters working the corner, or working the beat, then why do we simply look to the show to give us, whether entertainment, catharsis, an excuse for our laziness, or a nice pat on the back that we get it. Why do we not hope to devote our time to solving such glaring tears in the fabric of our world? 

     Sadly, this teenage sentiment of read this, watch this, listen to this, it will change your life wanes as we age and mature. Not many books, or pieces of any art types, nowadays, change the directions of our lives, in fact, in the last ten years I cannot think of one book that en masse, participated in a cultural sea change the way the Jungle, or the Feminine Mystique, or the Catcher in the Rye did, or reaching farther back Notes of a Native Son, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and of course a Communist Manifesto. For that matter, I cannot think of a single form of artistic expression that could wield such power.  They can heighten awareness, provide enjoyment, open our eyes to beauty and pain in the world, but not many move us to political, or societal action, and who knows if they should. A country swayed by a book is either a precarious country, or repressed country. But in some sense, our inability to feel compelled to action by a novel, or even the Wire, speaks less to the weakness of the art, and more to the hardened apathy and unearned cynicism of our time, maybe.

       In a sense, to fall back on ready made answers to this basic question would require little to no thought or effort, but it rarely provides insight. Someone truly smart once commented that it is infinitely easier to care about people in the abstract, when you do not have to see them, when you don’t have to touch them, or smell them, or put yourself in a position of vulnerability. Crying on your couch at the unfairness of inner city life requires no reciprocation or sacrifice; in fact it reinforces our certainty of our inherent sensitivity and goodness without ever needing to get our hands dirty. Alternatively, we might take comfort in the fact that we cannot hide the creatures of habit we are. We want to change, but change, a change that requires sacrifice lies way too outside the range of normal behavior.  

I believe we shy away from the political ferocity not only because it demands much more, but because it’s simple. When we watch the Wire, we really need to pay attention, to catch the nuances of a smile of prop Joe’s, a smirk of Omar’s – ambiguous signs that allow us to fill these characters with the mysteries of our imagination, but come the political polemic and we are face to face with simple assertions that challenge our ways of life. It’s almost impossible to see Dukie morphing into a young Bubble’s without your heart breaking, but we suppress the challenge this imagine presents to our sense of us as good people. If nothing else, Simon’s show is a battle cry, that comes out as a whimper to unite to solve real life issues, not just to enjoy an inside view of a community that eats itself up from the inside. We tend to think that the Wire exists in a post-moral state, one in which the lines between cops and robbers is not only blurred, but often inverted, but the Wire shines with moral vision and clarity, we cannot separate this fact from the genius of this show. In a time where cleverness, irony, and cynicism reign in the world of art, a show devoted to morals, to actual judgments on society, on institutions, on characters, though rarely explicit, stands at the avant garde not simply for its stylistic and narrative ingenuity, and neither for it’s devotion to each character, but for its ability to take a stand, politically, to throw itself into the dirty ring of politics and public policy, and to level accusations, at those who watch the show are we really going to watch a city fall in upon itself while stand idly by, congratulating ourselves for our sensitivity to the great artistry that is the Wire.

If this comes off as screed, as self-righteous, pretentious, sanctimonious, judgmental claptrap, then I can only say I include myself in the group who failed to respond to the Wire, who failed to take courage from the Wire and act on my morals.

The Wire, though, in some ways, contributes to our stultification, to our inability to turn empathy into action because so much of the show belabors the point that we cannot win under the current bureaucratic system. The higher you climb up the ladder of the bureaucracy the more likely corruption will follow you around, begging to be let in, and the more likely you will need to sacrifice your ideals to get ahead. A sense of futility, of fate permeates throughout the Wire, leaving us to feel helpless, a small mass of outraged viewers who know enough by now not to attempt to fight the institution, because we will always lose. In that sense, the Wire’s fealty to the situation of today, in many parts of our country, provides little hope for future rehabilitation, or little incentive to even try. While at the same time the show attempts to tackle genuine issues, with true human empathy, it still indulges in the invisible, but pervasive cynicism that tells us why try, when we know we will ultimately fail. In a world were bureaucracies reign, where most victories are pyrrhic, why fight in the first place? You cannot fight the system, you can only hope to change it, wholesale, but how do we do that?

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