The End of Art

The following exchange between Ray Carney and Arthur Vibert was pulled from Ray Carney’s website, source here. This exchange is followed by Rob Nilsson’s reply on the subject.

Ray Carney: (to his readers) I print the following letter as a “word to the wise,” a lesson that each and every one of us can learn from. It is a deep letter from an important person with a lifetime of worldly accomplishment behind him. It is the story of a life, the story of many lives, the story of a culture where too many live the Faust legend and sell their souls for dollars.

I have a plaque on my wall, just above my writing table. It was given to me by a friend. It has a beautiful inscription in calligraphy. I read it every time I sit down to work and re-read it at odd moments when I am searching for a thought or a word, and when I feel aimless or discouraged or want to give up. It says:

Evening Gatha
Let me respectfully remind you -
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by, and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken … to awaken.
Take heed. Do not squander your life.

This letter takes its place with the Evening Gatha inscription. May the writer have the courage and strength to go on in the right direction — the hard way, the path of greatest resistance, against all of the forces in our culture to soften and compromise and despair (our feelings of “powerlessness” are part of the system of control and conformity). To reverse the biblical formulation: The flesh is willing, but the spirit can be so weak — too weak to go on. Don’t allow yourself to give up. I say to every reader of the site: “Take heed. Do not squander your life.”

Arthur Vibert: (orginal email from Arthur to Ray Carney, Subject: Film, advertising and the end of art) I discovered your site yesterday, Ray Carney’s Website, whilst surfing the internet and have spent most of my free time since devouring it. This has proven to be both an exhilarating and terrifying experience. Exhilarating because your perspective is a breath of fresh air in a mind-numbing sea of mediocrity that confuses slickness of execution with art; terrifying because I’ve happened upon it at a time in my life when I am grappling with the challenges of committing myself to the pursuit of my art.

I’m looking at resuming my commitment after 25+ years working in advertising as a creative director. I was quite successful. You may even be familiar with some of my work (though I suspect you watch little, if any television). Max Headroom for Coca Cola. The original Saturn Launch campaign (the car, not the planet). Work for Levi’s. And a lot more.

Advertising is very seductive for a person who hopes to make a living creatively. You get to “be creative.” If you are successful you receive the adulation of your peers. You make a lot of money, get to eat in the best restaurants and stay in the best hotels. You get to travel all over the world. And you do all this while creating something that most people claim to hate.

Of course doing this slowly sucks out your soul until you are a lifeless husk. You may lose the ability to understand the truth, let alone be able to tell it after a career of telling lies. I recall a story, perhaps apocryphal but still telling, about an art director who, after a life spent in advertising decides to pursue his first artistic love — painting. After months spent working on many canvases he finally works up the nerve to show the work to a respected critic he knows. The critic looks at the work and shakes his head. It’s all kitsch — just awful. By spending his life in advertising he’s lost the ability to perceive — or tell — the truth. This, of course, is my great fear.

In the course of my career I have worked with many commercial directors who went on to become movie directors. Ridley Scott was one of these directors. He shot several of the Max Headroom spots for me. At that time — the mid 80’s — I wanted to BE Ridley Scott, as did every art director I knew. I happened to run into another English director I was working with at the time by the name of Howard Guard at a restaurant in London and we ended up having dinner together. He knew I wanted to direct commercials and asked who I admired and when I mentioned Ridley immediately took me to task for my shallowness. He pointed out that Scott had admired Kubrick and tried to model his own approach to filmmaking on Kubrick’s career. Guard observed that in his opinion Kubrick was ultimately a superficial and empty filmmaker, and Scott was the same. While that may make sense for commercial directing, it is anathema for anyone hoping to create film art.

Naturally I ignored him, since my goal at that point was to be a commercial director. When I finally achieved that goal several years later I lasted about 4 years before I returned to advertising because I found that being a commercial director is a shallow and superficial “craft.” There is no art to it at all. I’m sure this comes as no surprise to you, but having been fixated on doing this for so long it took the wind out of my sails. After that I worked in advertising for another 10 years until I finally couldn’t stand it anymore. I had my epiphany when I was standing before a tray of just-cooked “Funky Fries” that had a mass of slowly congealing fat beneath them. My son was only 3 years old at the time and I realized that I was engaged in the business of selling poison to children.

A month later I was gone.

Interesting, isn’t it, that commercial directors have had such success in Hollywood? Ridley Scott is an obvious example. Michael Bay. David Fincher. The list goes on. Since their careers before Hollywood were based on helping sell things by creating one elaborate visual artifice after another, it just makes sense that they would continue in that mode once they moved to Hollywood. And that Hollywood would delight in it.

At least some of them know they’ve only traded one lie for another. Tony Scott’s increasingly desperate attempts at creating “art” through camera and editorial and other post-production tricks suggest he senses something is missing. He’s just incapable of identifying it. This renders his films completely unwatchable, in my view, because not only is one denied the guilty “pleasure” of watching a Hollywood movie, his tricks ultimately fail at disguising the utter emptiness of the films he’s made. He completely misses the point.

David Fincher is someone I think might actually have been a filmmaker capable of creating art had his career gone differently — and he might still. He is a child but trying desperately to grow up. He knows that the usual Hollywood fare is just dreck. He attempts to make films within the system that are not of the system. He fails at that, of course, as anyone must. He ends up with something that is neither fish nor fowl. Interesting failures. He lacks self-knowledge that would enable him to make a work of art that would allow him to relax his control enough to let a truth squeak out.

Hollywood shares many qualities with the advertising industry. Indeed, they might be reasonably perceived as two heads of the same Hydra. Hollywood is about money, and nothing else. Everything that is done there, every decision that is made, everything that is created is ultimately at the service of money. Now, I actually don’t have a problem with that as long as no one is pretending otherwise. Where I take issue is with the notion that somehow “art” can sneak out of this money-making machine. We end up with Steven Spielberg, who wants desperately to be seen as an artist but who is apparently incapable of understanding - let alone capturing - a genuine moment or emotion. How anyone can utter the words “art” and “Spielberg” in the same sentence with a straight face is beyond me.

What Hollywood creates is the celluloid equivalent of the best selling novel — the mystery, thriller, science fiction or fantasy summer read whose only purpose is to pass some time in an entertaining way and extract money for having done so. While it is possible to admire the craft of the writers and filmmakers who do this work, in the same way as it’s possible to admire the craft of fine leatherwork or pottery, it ain’t art.

We now have wonderful digital technology that puts the machinery of filmmaking into the hands of anyone who takes a notion to make a film. The irony is that the first thing everyone does is to try and make their own action/horror/war movie — using every trick in the book to try and apply a Hollywood production patina to their DV movies. People have become convinced that the only way to make a film is the Hollywood way, that somehow their own thoughts and feelings and emotions are inadequate and that only the “official” three act structure, hero’s journey and character arcs can be used to create a film. Many young people hope that if they can only make a DV movie well enough Hollywood will notice and bring them into the inner sanctum.

I don’t know if you watched any of On the Lot this Summer. The producers found what they considered to be 50 or so promising directors and put them into a production crucible from which one shining talent would emerge –American Idol style — triumphant, to take his place beside Steven Spielberg at Dreamworks Studios with a One Million Dollar Contract (and what is he supposed to do with that, one wonders?).

Note: (Ray Carney) Indeed, I am familiar with the show since one of my former students, Hillary Weisman Graham, was a finalist on it. To read my views about it, click on the links to the following Mailbag: page 43 (where I write a letter to one of the show’s publicists), page 78 (where I print a comment about it from one of the site’s readers), and page 80 (where I respond to a reporter’s inquiry about the show.) I was also, incidentally, mentioned on the show’s web site, though they omitted any reference to my objections to it. How surprising. How strange. Re: the “million dollar contract.” That was as much a fraud as the rest of the show — and the rest of American television. All million dollars would go toward the “rent” of the office space, the “retainer” for the required “representatives” (agents and publicists), and the office “staff” (switchboard operators, secretaries, and office managers) The winner would not actually be getting a penny toward making a movie. But, as someone once said, Hollywood is less about making movies than making deals. What’s not to like? That’s the “Mark of the Burnett” way. Blue smoke and mirrors masquerading as reality TV. As real as anything on the Evening News, for sure.

The ultimate irony here was that these filmmakers were all directed to come up with their own ideas, script them and shoot them and then put them up for all of America to watch and vote on. But real Hollywood, as you know, doesn’t work like that. You don’t get to make “your” movie. Do these young directors really believe that some studio is going to hand them 50 million dollars and tell them to go ahead and make “their” movie? Of course not. There will be a bunch of hand-wringing suits along for the entire ride, making sure that their investment doesn’t go awry, that they have a decent chance of making a nice profit.

The more outside money involved in an artistic endeavor, the less control the artist has over the work, until ultimately it ceases to be art and becomes product.

Anyway, as I’ve been writing and shooting and cutting I’ve been wrestling with a lot of this. I came upon your work as I was being tempted by the “dark side” and found the strength I needed to resist. Whether what I ultimately create is art or kitsch at this point in my life is not up to me. All I can do is work as truthfully as I am able to tell my story. For me, anyway, that’s enough right now.

Regardless of how the work is ultimately judged, I will know that, for once, I’ve tried to create something honest. We’ll see if advertising has left me with enough of a soul to achieve that. Thank you again for your excellent work.

Comment: The Arthur Vibert note is absolutely stunning and amazing! What more does anyone need to know than that? Bravo for his courage, insight and honesty, and good luck to him in his attempts to create art. Surely you had a response, even if only to say Bravo! Standing ovation!
-Marty (A Reader of Ray Carney’s Website)

Ray Carney: (two weeks later) Many other readers wrote in to thank me for posting Arthur Vibert’s letter, saying how much it meant to them to hear from someone who had worked in a commercial field, and how his words inspired them as artists to continue along “the path of greatest resistance.” Since I didn’t post them, I wrote him and told him about some of the other letters I had received. His response follows.

Arthur Vibert: I have been deeply moved by the various comments you’ve made about my letter. As you know, there are times when one feels very alone in this process, so to receive the kind of acknowledgment, support and encouragement you (and Marty) have offered is invigorating and inspiring.

Thank you for that.

I’m glad that the letter was useful to younger artists. There are not many voices that encourage people to take the hard path in our culture. I didn’t set out to be one of those voices, but if I’ve helped fight the good fight I’m happy. When one is younger it is often difficult to articulate the reasons why it is a mistake to pursue advertising or Hollywood film making or other culturally approved forms of “art.” Somewhere along the line the idea that art for its own sake was enough became a cliché and so we’re left with an aesthetic that places commercial art in all it’s forms at the top of the cultural pyramid. It’s not surprising that many younger artists are confused. Especially when the temptations are so great.

Spielberg collects “art” in the form of Norman Rockwell paintings. That tells us everything we need to know about the man and the culture that reveres him.

Arthur Vibert: (this email was forwarded to Rob Nilsson by Ray Carney) I had the great pleasure of seeing Rob Nilsson’s film Presque Isle at the Mill Valley Film Festival last Thursday night.

It was good to be able to watch the film with beginners mind, letting it unfold before me without automatically knowing that everything was going to fit into the standard Hollywood 3-act structure. I had no idea how the film would evolve, let alone end. It was all new and unexpected and fascinating for it.

I sat with Mickey Freeman who was Nilssons cinematographer on the film. Mickey and I have worked together on some corporate projects in the past and that is how I knew him. I knew nothing about this side of his professional life. It was a revelation. The camerawork is spectacular. At no point did I feel the look of the film detracted from Nilssons vision. Mickeys cinematography complemented it beautifully.

I discovered Nilsson on your site serendipitously his announcement of the screenings of his films at the Mill Valley Film Festival appears just before my letter on page 88.

The universe works in mysterious ways.

Rob Nilsson: (Rob Nilsson’s reply to Ray Carney) What a great thing that Arthur Vibert should have come to PRESQUE ISLE. And his letter to you, discovering you much as I did many years ago, through your ideas and your views, in my case, your ideas about Cassavetes! Great. These are the sparks shooting through the splitter cables that reward and feed.

As you might have imagined I was knee deep in festival details over the last three weeks but another rich reward was the joyous, and also tearful, ending of the 9 @ Night Films with the MV Fest Premiere showing of GO TOGETHER, the last film in our, all told and accounted for, 15 year sojurn in the Tenderloin. Standing ovation and great feelings.

What can I say? So many friends and collaborators to thank in a world where most audiences would be sitting on their hands wondering when the movie was going to begin. The crucial need for education in the slipstream of inspired Art is made more evident by the joy which can happen when people begin to “understand.” Not that there’s anything to “understand” in any final sense, and of course, my work is only as good as my lungs ability to inhale the distillate of my mentors, Cassavetes, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Kieslowski, etc. but there’s the life long “experience” of inspiration and grasps and glimpses of the “something out there” or “that longing in here” which art provides, the “secular spirituality” of being alive to both the world, and the creations of our sublime interpreters, which seems to me the only salvation. And if salvation is only those few moments of joy before the void closes over our heads, not to have experienced them at all must lead to a dark conclusion, to quote and re-purpose Goethe, that “you are only a troubled guest, on the dark earth.”

Well I don’t deny that I am a troubled guest, but I can say that (now here’s a re-fitted Auden-ism) mad America hurt me into poetry. I’m grateful for that wound and I hope to reveal and heal, heal and reveal as long as I have the energy and the artesian sources still percolating.

Looking forward to the Harvard show. I’ve told them everywhich way by Sunday that I want you mentioned in their publicity and the fact that Haden has looked to you for guidance I hope assures that your advocacy will be a big part of the show.

Thank you for your website promotion all along, and for your belief and support. You are that good smoke wafting upwards from the sacrifice. I’m an inhaler and I’m with you in your lifetime of struggle to encourage others to inhale as well.

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