Sunday, April 15, 2007

Authenticity and Integrity in Art and Entertainment

Tibor R. Machan

Plato’s many dialogues have Socrates—his version of Socrates, since there never ending debate about whether Plato’s is the real one—aspire to understand what important ideas mean. Virtue, justice, being, knowledge, piety and others are explored with Socrates usually taking the part of the skeptical inquirer while his very clever pupils advance answer to the questions about what these all are, what the concepts mean.

So from this we still have as one of our pedagogical ideals the Socratic method for searching for the truth about something, anything. While Plato’s Socrates has come in for criticism when it comes to the goal of this method—namely, to discover the final, timeless, perfect truth about the subject matter—his method has most often been regarded unexceptional.

Ah, except when it comes to art. In this realm we aren’t so much after truth but after, well, artistic excellence, including beauty. And to teach this goal it has often been thought that we require a sort of single vision, a unique apprehension, be this in painting, the novel, drama, music or some other medium. Integrity or authenticity has often been deemed to be the necessary virtue to reach the goal here. Any kind of cooperation, collaboration, or brain storming before the creativity comes to fruition seems to many to take away from the worthiness of the work.

Now in the recent movie, The TV Set a good deal is made of the fact that in order to bring an idea to the TV set, it has to go through a whole lot of adjustment, editing, rethinking, testing and so forth. Somehow, those who conceived of this movie bought into the notion that even a silly old sitcom must spring forth in finished form from the mind of the writer. If someone else from the production team suggests that a change is needed for making some shows work, and if the original authors of the idea for it yield to the suggestions they must in some ways be compromising their integrity.

But this, I think, is misconceived. Yes, we know that Howard Roark’s character in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead made it big in fiction because he resisted all efforts to change his idea of a low cost apartment building. Yet even here we don’t know whether he talked over his original conception with other like-minded architects, with engineers who might have given him advice about how much it will cost to do it the original way and how this might be reduced with some perfectly acceptable changes that still do justice to Roark’s idea.

And a TV program is by its very nature not an individual creation. In fact, a great many other creations that have one person’s name as the author have several editors, helpful readers of initial manuscripts, and so forth. Even artists—novelists, playwrights, poets and musical compositions run their initial drafts by others who will often give advice for more or less significant changes.

So, it looks to me that all this hullabaloo about how it’s insulting to writers in Hollywood to make suggestions to them about the scripts, who to cast for their parts, whether someone on the show who is initially killed off might not better survive to live a few and more additional episodes, is bunk. There is, of course, something to the point that if one is simply caving in to pressure based on prejudice, irrelevant or trivial considerations, or something quite offensive to one’s basic principles or values, that is shameful. But not all suggestions from producers and others surrounding the development of a show amount to demands to compromise the basic idea behind it, the writer’s essential vision. In the movie The TV Set the ideas for the changes were not sorted out properly so that we, the audience, could grasp what was central to the idea and what incidental.

Which is why I suspect that The TV Set was an entertaining enough but not altogether subtle besmirching of the business end of Hollywood. If one changes one’s cast for monetary reason, that’s got to be bad; but if there is a suggestion to do based on how well the prospective actor can act, that’s OK. Yet, this isn’t quite right—budgetary constraints surround every project, even those of the greatest artists of world history. They needed to rein in some of their idea because of money, too, or because they were running out of time or materials.

I wouldn’t fret so much about whether one or many people have a hand in a creative project, more about whether the result is good.

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