Monday, April 25, 2005

GRE Essay- Art and Desire

This is an essay I wrote in 45 minutes during my GRE practice exam. It's interesting enough that I thought I should post it, warts and all. It took me back to writing one-hour themes during high school, a skill which only now am I asked to hone again for one brief, shining test.


"The media (books, film, music, television, for example) tend to create rather than reflect the values of a society."

One of humanity's oldest professions is that of storyteller. We tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world around us, to identify with the common experiences of the members of our society, to entertain; this is a universal activity. Art tells a story. Sometimes it is a story that we do not want to hear.

This tug against the familiar status quo of our opinions and expectations is how art creates values. Art has the capacity to surprise, to shock, to challenge us. Great philosophy arouses deep thinking; great art arouses our deepest emotions.

The storyteller's archetype is the solitary writer, drinking a bottle of gin and working into the night on a stained, brilliant manuscript. But in fact, many other storytellers are constantly clamoring for our attention. These mythmakers create stories that tell us how much we need teeth whitening, or how important it is to be thin and beautiful, or how terrible it is to be old, or how cool it is to wear Air Jordans. These messages are shaped in simple and subtle ways; in the constant blaring of advertisements strung in between the television segments we are actually interested in, in the culture of the rich and famous splashed over newsstand magazines, in the perfume counters of department stores displaying models next to names of scents. These speak to our impulses rather than our deepest desires; our bellies, our sex drives, our lusts for money, fame, power, and popularity.

These storytellers speak to us, in short, as if they already know what we need, and are ready to give it to us immediately. It is almost impossible that a society's values should not change under such a constant barrage. This is art created in the absence of a quest to determine what is truly human. Some executive creates a surface need for a surface solution, then sells the product. They don't reflect culture, but we reflect them.

Much great art is devoted to tearing down this edifice; to taking us beyond the topical and irrelevant, beneath the surface. Naturally then, it takes the form of questioning the status quo that the powerful have created, whether it is Dickens responding to the excesses of the Industrial Revolution or Bob Dylan singing protest songs. These artists can create new values worth having, like the dignity of the worker, or the right to dissent. Often it is beyond the rest of us to find these values; we require some one of us with a curious kind of sight to lead us to them.

Not all art that reflects culture is bad; Dante's Comedy is a masterpiece that is grounded in a medieval Catholic tradition. It manages, though, to rise above a simple parrotting of that tradition, constantly questioning its own values and revisiting the issues of life, death, damnation, and salvation. Media that reflect the status quo, that repeat only our present stories about ourselves, do not have much to say to us about such weighty things. But media that can make us weep, or laugh, or shout, create values that are really worth having.

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