Arc Reactor Technology

So I went to see Iron Man over the weekend and it was awesome! I had been to see an arty film earlier in the weekend and it was a disappointment, so to buoy my spirits I went to see some sure-fire rock’em-sock’em entertainment. Robert Downey Jr., Cuba Gooding, Terence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, directed by Jon Favreau. Can’t miss. It rocked. And I mean, how can you not like a protagonist who builds robots and works on his hot rod while listening to Suicidal Tendencies?! One thing I noticed though was that the source of Iron Man’s power, literally the technology that keeps him alive and powers his super-power-robot-suit, is called Arc Reactor Technology. And I know that they couldn’t possibly have intended this but if you turn it into an acronym it makes A.R.T. – which I thought was kind of neat.

Actually, I have been having a lot of conversations lately about the difference between art and entertainment. It is an interesting discussion to have because it reveals a lot about the people you’re talking to. It can also reveal people’s basic misunderstanding of culture, its role in society and the value of its expressions. It has been interesting to note how many artists and aficionados of one medium may be highly critical of the art/entertainment distinction in their discipline but largely indifferent to that distinction in other forms.

So, the difference between art and entertainment. It can be a very complicated distinction and an endless conversation and probably the subject of doctoral dissertations, but for simplicity’s sake I’m breaking it down to a very basic thing. Entertainment is about certainty, Art is about ambiguity.

I was reading this article in The New Yorker about Paul Chan and he was quoted as saying “I think that art can be any number of things at once, and they can all be contradictory.”

Which is a great quote. With entertainment you know exactly what you’re supposed to feel, understand, think and take away from the experience. Its a very straightforward transaction, one in which the dominant paradigm is reinforced through well-known and reliable tropes. Of course there is well-made entertainment and poorly-made entertainment, but ultimately it is a very predictable endeavor.

Art, on the other hand, embraces ambiguity, it creates questions and contradictions, it opens up space for experiential investigations of the intangible. It requires interaction, thought and vulnerability. It is a deeper, more profound and more difficult endeavor. It is threatening to the status quo because it advocates for individual agency, it suggests deviation from the approved narrative, from the consensus-based formulations of “how things are”.

Most people take for granted that “how things are” – and the received histories we collectively acknowledge as “true” – is a fact, an eternal, persistent condition. Historians, artists and philosophers know that this is not true, that all is fungible, that beyond the tacit fact of mortality all else is questionable and subject to revision.

Anyway – I’m veering off out of my depth. The point is that art is a vital necessity for society and civilization. Its function as questioner and creator of ambiguity is what empowers us to innovate, create and evolve. It is like a gymnasium of the mind and spirit, it creates an imaginative field in which to engage with ideas bigger than ourselves. And art, like pure science, doesn’t necessarily have immediate, practical, tangible applications or answers. It must be funded as a speculative venture, as an investment in innovation, as part of a long-term strategy for the growth of humankind.

Arc Reactor Technology – probably not intentional, but a happy accident of meaning, a statement of the value of art, revealed in pop culture.

PS: On a related note, there was a great article in this past Sunday’s NY POST PAGE SIX MAGAZINE about DUMBO, the Walentas family and Zannah Mass who heads up their culture initiatives. I don’t think its available online but if you can dig up a copy, read it. (Thanks Rebecca for the tip!)

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