Lawrence Black: How We Got Here: The Evolution of the Storyteller, from Artist to Entertainer

When poet and Thirty West founder, Josh Dale, invited me to contribute to The Weekly Degree, my immediate thought was to write about art as I see it: how I feel about it, my thoughts, as a writer, about the world that consumes me (and probably many persons reading this). This 'art world' I refer to isn't any special world. It's the same world you live in. Perhaps we consume different art than our neighbors, but we nonetheless all patronize the arts. I don't give a shit if you're watching King of Queens or reading The Holy Bible, these are both considered art. I'm not here to debate what it [art] is. I'm here to talk about what happened between Moses and Kevin James—not because I was an English major or a historian (I'm neither), but I am a writer, which is to say, I am a reader, a sponge, and an ameba. I feed off art. And in my years of reading and feeding, of consuming literature, film, television, and internet, I've come to understand something about how we've come from Moses to Kevin James, which is to say nothing of morality and everything to art. Art may seem to be one vast cultural spawn, but it has changed; society has changed, and, with it, the purpose of art has evolved. 

Using the Bible as a genesis point for modern literature, we naturally must understand that it was a book written during a period when they crucified people. Naturally, the literary establishment consisted of the state, meaning: if what you wrote pissed the wrong people off, they would nail you to a cross. Understandably, it took 500 years until the first book resembling a novel—The Tale of Genji—was written, in early 11th century Japan by Murasaki Shikibu. Still, it would be another five-hundred years—in the early 16th century—before a Spaniard named Miguel Cervantes would write Don Quixote (largely considered the first novel). 
It took a thousand years to get from the Old Testament to Don Quixote. Why so slow? Well, we must understand what art was at that time, yet another five hundred more than five hundred years ago from our present time. To do that, we look to the words of the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare (1564-1616):

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this
special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature:
for any thing so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose
end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the
mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own
image, and the very age and body of the time his form and

—Hamlet advising his Players, in Act III

What Hamlet is telling these actors is that overstepping the boundaries of nature (modesty) in their acting, is contrary to the purpose of playing (acting), "...whose
end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the
mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own
image, and the very age and body of the time his form and

Shakespeare is saying the purpose of art, "both at the first and the now," is to hold a mirror to nature, as Hamlet declares in Act 2: "The play's the thing. Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King." Perhaps Shakespeare was in the business of catching consciences, (It might be argued the Bible did the ultimate job of that), however, whatever moral duty was felt, Shakespeare lived in a time when art still served the primary function of being a teacher for people, and Shakespeare's work continues to help people understand life to this day. That's the timelessness of Shakespeare: his characters walk among us. Of course, Shakespeare still doesn't bring us all the way to King of Queens; we've still got another 500 years to go. 

But, pausing here briefly, we have established that art and stories originally served a very pedantic, albeit entertaining, purpose: they were meant to teach us things. We must remember that humans, long before we ever wrote, developed oral traditions (storytelling) as a means of passing on knowledge from one generation to the next. However, it was the book that changed the game with permanence. But also, with that permanence, with human curation, came an inevitable evolution; art would change. It wouldn't always be the teacher. 

By the 18th century, European writers had enough freedom to pursue their own individual values in their work, which led to a creativity not yet seen before. Romanticism was born, which emphasized emotion and individuality in art—and then, in the 19th century, Aestheticism; the idea of art for art's sake. Both movements allowed artists to explore life in richer and more textured ways, but we still must keep in mind that the last 200 years were not as liberal, meaning, artists, storytellers—particularly if they wanted to be successful—had nothing like the freedom we do today. Although, by the 20th century, societal standards were loosening, and we would have, in 1955, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (GASP!). In 1961, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (GASP!). And, in 1969, Phillip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint (GASP!). All very salacious books at the time they were published as all three were subsequently banned and protested (others too, but for sake of argument).

This level of censorship in the West is, of course, an almost impossible idea to imagine in the age of the internet, at a time when A&E is airing a show called Live PD, which has been hailed as "the most disturbing show on television". While I can't call that show "art", as it is live reality TV; it's indicative of the level of cultural acceptance we have given to previously un-broadcast-able material. You can write anything today, and, in almost the first time in history, the gatekeepers of Church, State, and Enterprise no longer remain in control; art is in the hands of the masses. However, it isn't creative freedom or moral freedom that drives art today, it's revenue. Eyeballs aggregate money and those eyeballs have a very big appetite. Art, today, exists —for the first time ever—largely to entertain. There's a reason they call it, "the entertainment business". 

But what of all this seemingly pedantic discussion? What is the impact for the artist? 
Well, I didn't write this so much to focus on the artist as much as I did to talk about the artist's impact on society, and the evolution of the artist's role in impacting society. To paraphrase John Gardner, in his 1978 tour de force, On Moral Fiction, 'Good art should seek to enhance life rather than debase it'. As Gardner writes, "There's not a lack of great, serious fiction because of the ills of society, but, rather, the ills of society are due in part because there is a lack of great, serious fiction." He is saying that art and life are intertwined and that one influences the other. To ignore the idea that art influences and reflects values, is to fail to understand the culture. 

Today, we have a White House that imitates the skullduggery on Netflix's House of Cards: our President is literally a reality TV star, and while you may think this excellent, most artists and writers do not. We are by far, a liberal, humanistic bunch. And maybe all the hacks really do go to Hollywood, but I think it's deeper than that. I think we writers have forgotten that we were once stewards of knowledge, shepherds of culture, and makers of mirrors. Today, we think only of entertaining. But when will we think of meaning again? I don't know, but I know the world could use a good dose of it. 

P.S. I wish I could say that poets, unlike writers and filmmakers, have yet to turn cheap tricks to entertain, but with the rise of the "insta-poet", this is no longer true. 

P.P.S. It is, sadly, growing increasingly difficult to land a book deal without a following, and increasingly easy to land a book deal with one. With that said, perhaps the artists aren't to blame at all. 

So, how did we get to King of Queens?

The people voted.

Give them som better to vote for.

Lawrence Black currently lives in the mountains outside of LA, where he is writing his first novel. He has kept a blog for the past eight years on and he is on Instagram @wolfwaldoblack

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