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Jun. 14 2009 - 12:34 am | 5 views | 0 recommendations | 7 comments

Entertainment vs. recession porn

Cover of "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Gett...

Cover via Amazon

Who is rich and powerful?  Who is poor and weak?  Artists and journalists always write about these things, but how they do so is telling.

During this current economic crisis, a disturbing number of journalists and artists have let the struggles of the poor become a sort of arm candy issue.

Case in point:   David Lynch has just launched a project in which he will introduce over a thousand short films on street people, and they are compelling films, but it’s all about production values and how much the haves care about the have nots even though the haves get to go home at the end of the day and the have nots just sort of sit down on the curb where they’d been talking and wave goodbye to them.   It’s really more about bad luck as art.   Maybe it’s even art abuse.

What are we growing in the petrie dishes of art and journalism these days when it comes to central topics like poverty?  In  “Too Poor to Make the News,” an opinion piece in today’s New York Times by Nickel and Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich, she talks about the “Nouveau Poor” and “recession porn” and what she sees ahead:

… In Los Angeles, Prof. Peter Dreier, a housing policy expert at Occidental College, says that “people who’ve lost their jobs, or at least their second jobs, cope by doubling or tripling up in overcrowded apartments, or by paying 50 or 60 or even 70 percent of their incomes in rent.” Thelmy Perez, an organizer with Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, is trying to help an elderly couple who could no longer afford the $600 a month rent on their two-bedroom apartment, so they took in six unrelated subtenants and are now facing eviction. According to a community organizer in my own city, Alexandria, Va., the standard apartment in a complex occupied largely by day laborers contains two bedrooms, each housing a family of up to five people, plus an additional person laying claim to the couch.

Overcrowding — rural, suburban and urban — renders the mounting numbers of the poor invisible, especially when the perpetrators have no telltale cars to park on the street. But if this is sometimes a crime against zoning laws, it’s not exactly a victimless one. At best, it leads to interrupted sleep and long waits for the bathroom; at worst, to explosions of violence. Catholic Charities is reporting a spike in domestic violence in many parts of the country, which Candy Hill attributes to the combination of unemployment and overcrowding.

Artists argue, fairly I think, that we make trouble into art so that people will pay attention.  But is it becoming an escape from attention?  Is our need for entertainment overwhelming our need to feel reality?

Art knows that making trouble beautiful does not keep it from being trouble.  So how does this kind of eclipse occur?    It happens if we read and watch only the news.   It happens if we read and watch only fiction and films.  And it’s inevitable if either activity becomes nothing but entertainment.


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  1. collapse expand

    “And it’s inevitable if either activity becomes nothing but entertainment.”

    I’m wondering how much the sheer quantity of news that is now pumped to us has to do with it. How news director now look to shape coverage not just to bring us the facts, but to keep us from reaching for the clicker.

    “but it’s all about production values”

    I’m not sure it’s fair to fault Mr. Lynch for that, it’s what the market place demands. It’s a kind of a build it (well) and they will come. Would Moore’s Sicko have had the impact it did it if weren’t an entertaining piece of work? Probably not. Also Vickie two events came to mind as I read through your piece this morning, the death and funeral of Princess Diana, was in my opinion the coming of age of the 24 hours cable news cycle as entertainment and the start up the Iraq War. The spectacular live and antiseptic images of night time bombings of Baghdad definitely went a long way in the convergence of news and entertainment.

  2. collapse expand

    Vickie, this is so important and timely. Thank you for writing on it (and thanks to B.E. too). With McCarthyism all around him, Nelson Algren said, “I submit that literature is made upon any occasion that a challenge is put to the legal apparatus by conscience in touch with humanity.” I want to come down on that side of things, too. But isn’t there another side to that idea, that in order to make art, the artist has to surrender any individual will or desire, including the political, polemical, etc.? I’d love to know what you think about that. Certainly there are great political poems (Shine, Perishing Republic!) and artworks (Guernica), but do you think the political tendency can inhibit the art somehow?

    I think the problem for journalism is equally firey, but in a different way.

  3. collapse expand

    Thanks so much for you interest, Jeff. Lots of big issues. Let’s start with what you ask about “surrendering any individual will or desire, including the political, polemical” to make art. Speaking for myself, I surrender nothing. I use whatever I have the courage to use — my own story, my own perspective, my ability to objectify, everything in my experience and daily “view finder,” even what mood I’m in when I write. I then as editor go back and re-shape, re-think, reposition to sharpen what I see as the most important bit of ore in whatever I originally put down. I shape and re-shape and then hold what I’ve done up against what’s out there in my own field and in the wide yet dependable arc of ramifications any new thing creates around it (that’s T.S. Eliot there — “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” an essay in which he suggests that every new things makes everything around it shift and gain new references). That’s backstory on me. Here’s my answer to “do [I] think the political tendency can inhibit the art somehow?” No. I think tendencies and inhibitions become part of the art, which is why I love publishing rather than writing for myself. It’s political issues before they have a name, and then in support of their name, and then in fidelity to whatever they meant to be. Journalism is completely different. In journalism, the individual (journalist) disappears for the sake of the reader. He/she presents in full, calmly, with, as the original exec producer of MacNeil/Lehrer once quoted to me from Ed Murrow, “light, not heat.” What’s happening now is a good problem — art and journalism are sharing attributes. It is producing a lot of bad stuff. But it will also produce the very best.

    • collapse expand

      You’ve also mastered the blog comment as a form, Vickie. Shifting to journalism, I think you’re quite right, and we can look forward to seeing what emerges when art and journalism mix. Concerning coverage of poverty, this may be more obvious in Chicago–or not–but it seems the establishment media cover what they cover for the dominant culture and neither cover nor circulate in other cultures (other Chicagos, in our case) except in predictable ways. Those ways include covering poverty, if at all, as a problem that “those people” have, an “arm candy issue” as you put it. Also with crime, the coverage is very much for an audience rather than for humanity. And in Chicago at least, that has always been the case, although individual journalists and alternative media sometimes make exceptions to it. So I’m curious whether you think Ehrenreich is on to something new or just has noticed an occasion or a movement that sheds light on something old.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    Brian, You’re doing the social anthropology, and we need it. I vividly remember the two occasions you cite as the birth of, what, voracious television news coverage — Lady Di and the Gulf War (for me, I became glued to the tv when SCUD missiles were sailing as I watched the monitor, and for Lady Di, I remember the Cinderella wedding thing as well as the end of the story, like tragic inadvertent bookends, on television). As for the news editors and producers, not enough, I think, to talk about how hard the job is to feed the viewers. If we can put a man on the moon, we can get this right, and getting it right means choosing to avoid the loop that repeats all day until the story takes on a fake importance, and the Watergate mentality about the cover-up that makes us turn every complex issue into a ratings race.

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    I've written short pieces for The New Yorker about the first Arab prince in outer space, a Ph.D who travels the world studying garbage, an Australian attorney who played werewolves in the movies, and the man who set the “Pledge of Allegiance” to music. I've written pieces for The New York Times about olfactory sculpture dropped from a plane on thousands of tiny cards on New Year's Eve, and inscriptions on old buildings that have become ironic over time. At ABC, Bravo, A&E, and PBS, I wrote live interviews with celebrities and docs about Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, and lesser known poets. It's culture and arts. It's people in the news. It's the ongoing comedy of who we are. I hope you enjoy it here at True/Slant and write in to tell me what you think. Also hope to hear your ideas and stories at "Third Screen" on www.huffingtonpost and www.thirdscreenconfidential.com

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