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Reality Hunger: A Manifestoby David Shields
Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art. Zola: “Every proper artist is more or less a realist according to his own eyes.” Braque’s goal: “To get as close as I could to reality.” E.g., Chekhov’s diaries, E. M. Forster’s Commonplace Book, Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up (much his best book), Cheever’s posthumously ?pub?lished journals (same), Edward Hoagland’s journals, Alan ?Bennett’s Writing Home. So, too, every artistic movement or moment needs a credo: Horace’s Ars Poetica, Sir Philip Sid- ney’s Defence of Poesie, André Breton’s “Surrealist Manifesto,” Dogme 95’s “Vow of Chasity.” My intent is to write the ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated (but unconnected) artists in a multitude of forms and media (lyric essay, prose poem, collage novel, visual art, film, television, radio, performance art, rap, stand-up comedy, graffiti) who are breaking larger and larger chunks of “reality” into their work. (Reality, as Nabokov never got tired of reminding us, is the one word that is meaningless without quotation marks.)
Jeff Crouse’s plug-in Delete City. The quasi–home movie Open Water. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit ?Glo?rious Nation of Kazakhstan. Joe Frank’s radio show In the Dark. The depilation scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Lynn Shel- ton’s unscripted film Humpday (“All the writing takes place in the editing room”). Nicholas Barker’s “real-life feature” Unmade Beds, in which actors speak from a script based on interviews they conducted with Barker; the structure is that of a documentary, but a small percentage of the material is made up. Todd Haynes’s Superstar—a biopic of Karen Carpenter that uses Barbie dolls as the principal actors and is available now only as a bootleg video. Curb Your Enthusiasm, which—characteristic of this genre, this ungenre, this antigenre—relies on viewer awareness of the creator’s self-conscious, wobbly manipulation of the gap between person and persona. The Eminem Show, in which Marshall Mathers struggles to metabolize his fame and work through “family of origin” issues (life and/or art?). The Museum of (fictional) Jurassic Technology, which actually exists in Culver City. The (completely fictional) International Necronautical Society’s (utterly serious) “Declaration of Inauthenticity.” So, too, public-access TV, karaoke nights, VH1’s Behind the Music series, “behind-the-scenes” interviews running parallel to the “real” action on reality television shows, rap artists taking a slice of an existing song and building an entirely new song on top of it, DVDs of feature films that inevitably include a documentary on the “making of the movie.” The Bachelor tells us more about the state of unions than any romantic comedy could dream of telling us. The appeal of Billy Collins is that compared with the frequently hieroglyphic obscurantism of his colleagues, his poems sound like they were tossed off in a couple of hours while he drank scotch and listened to jazz late at night (they weren’t; this is an illusion). A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was full of the same self-conscious apparatus that had bored everyone silly until it got tethered to what felt like someone’s “real life” (even if the author constantly reminded us how fictionalized that life was). At once desperate for authenticity and in love with artifice, I know all the moments are “moments”: staged and theatrical, shaped and thematized. I find I can listen to talk radio in a way that I can’t abide the network news—the sound of human voices waking before they drown.
An artistic movement, albeit an organic and as-yet-unstated one, is forming. What are its key components? A deliberate unartiness: “raw” material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional. (What, in the last half century, has been more influential than Abraham Zapruder’s Super-8 film of the Kennedy assassination?) Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone, as if a reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real.
In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking.
It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel (minus the novel).
I need say nothing, only exhibit.
Part of what I enjoy in documentary is the sense of banditry. To loot someone else’s life or sentences and make off with a point of view, which is called “objective” because one can make anything into an object by treating it this way, is exciting and dangerous. Let us see who controls the danger.
2 Sentence about Unmade Beds: Soyon Im, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” Seattle Weekly
5 Roland Barthes, Barthes by Barthes (who else would be the author?); “minus the novel”: Michael Dirda, “Whispers in the Darkness,” Washington Post
6 Walter Benjamin
618 Carson, Decreation
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