Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.
- Immanuel Kant
Is there wisdom in art? Of course there is. The world has been made so much more insightful by the explorations into the human condition that writers, poets, filmmakers and musicians have shared with us. The two seem almost synonymous. A much more intricate question would be to ask if there is wisdom in pop culture?
The answer to this is yes. In all of it. You just have to look at it the right way.
What I am about to argue is not that everything is art. That is another matter entirely. What I am about to argue is that if you tune your mind to it, you can find as much wisdom in commercials and soap operas as in avant-garde theatre and actual operas. This particular view builds from two assumptions: that everyone has a view of the world that is story-like, and that people create art in part from their assumptions and fixations.
The first assumption means little more than that everyone frames their lives in the mold of stories. We think of our relationships in terms of beginnings, middles and ends (which is peculiar, since relationships very rarely simply end); we think of history in terms of stories, something politicians eagerly make use of (the right wing generally argues that everything started going wrong at a certain point and that we have to get back to before that moment, while the left wing argues that everything is constantly getting better and that every problem is just a temporary setback) and we think of entire countries with millions of inhabitants in terms of good guys and bad guys. You get the general idea.
The second assumptions basically says that everything that comes out of someone is what has been put into him. People who create pop culture, just like everybody else, have a view of the world. This includes their views on politics, philosophy, other people and the things they like and dislike, and from these things they construct their stories. It’s even instructed in screenwriting courses, simplified under the adagio “Write what you know”.
So, combining these two, how can we learn from pop culture? The main thing to realize is that every piece of pop culture, be it a film, a book, a television series or (arguably) a music album, presents us with a view of the world and a set of stories. When we indulge ourselves in these media, we are as it were looking at the world through the eyes of its creators. Our normal approach is to just go along with this, but if we take this view to be one besides our own we can learn how people from all walks of life look at the world. There’s no need to agree or disagree with these people, as long as you understand how they view the world.
A very clear example of this technique is looking at the change in movie heroes between the 1970’s and the 1980’s. Where in the liberal 1970’s championed the charming outsider (the Robert Redford character), the conservative and war-fueled 1980’s gave rise to the blue-collar macho (the Sylvester Stallone character) as the hero figure. More then just a sign of the times, we can see this shift as a change in cultural values and worldviews. When Vietnam and an economic crash made times tougher, more traditionally masculine traits began to be admired again, and the screenwriters (consciously or not) wrote their heroes accordingly.
The interesting thing about this matter of gaining insight in the world is that instead of digging deep into a single piece of art, it is actually better to look as broadly as possible. By walking in the shoes of lots of different makers, we can see society from multiple sides. Instead of just making our own worldview broader, we can combine several narrow worldviews into an encompassing whole.
It is sometimes said that an extensive knowledge of TV tropes (a website that collects clichés in books, films, games etc.) is a substitute for an English major. But perhaps such knowledge might be even more: the key to understanding the way other people frame their worlds, and by extension how we ourselves do it. If that isn’t an example of life organized, I don’t know what is.
What are your thoughts on the subject? Let us know below!