Imagine Not

March 2, 2010

Seen on an interesting article about a Tim Burton exhibit.

When I went to the Tim Burton exhibit at the MoMA in NYC a couple of weeks ago, it was understandably mobbed. We visitors rotated along the walls in a tightly-packed horde, gaping and pointing. For the most part, we were reverently quiet enough so that it was startling when the fubsy guard next to the Edward Scissorhands mannequin yelled out to somebody to put a camera away. It was unbelievably cool to be that close to the nuts and bolts of someone’s imagination, especially one so wild and playful and sinister.

I was happy to plant myself with my nose a few inches from a drawing and let the people bump past me in slow-mo. I liked to take in the gist, then see how Burton used the color to fill in the lines, and most of all, I liked to see the eraser marks from where he’d changed his mind. I felt like a genius myself because I could spot, right there: that’s where Tim Burton revised. I wanted to show my niece, so I looked up to find her and saw instead these dozens of packed people.

That’s when something strange hit me. We were all there, en masse, to appreciate a mind remarkable for its singular imagination. Furthermore, we could never have as much fun looking at Burton’s stuff as he must have had making it in the first place. Something was wrong.

There are a lot of interesting memes present here that I think bear mentioning:

  • The idea that we’ve seceded our entertainment, and, by extension, our imagination, to Big Media: "During our seduction, we’ve conversely learned to imagine not. Most ironic of all, we pay Disney to tell us and our children to dream — as if we couldn’t dream on our own. That’s just dangerous." In the large, this meme is what drives the transformation from a society of consumers to a society of bloggers, youtubers, etc. The idea that we could entertain ourselves, or that creation could be fun, even if done badly, is having a significant impact on entertainment, and it will continue to be interesting to see how this impacts creators and creative industries.

    A friend of mine points out that there’s a related, perhaps opposite meme, that everyone in our generation feels they have a right to earn a living as an artist, doing whatever they want to do. Maybe we can’t all spend our time sitting around and imagining — but then, why should we pay other people to do it for us?

  • The idea that we, the mob, tend to pay homage to the "wild" and "singular": like Randall Monroe says about Monty Python, "Does anyone else find it funny that decades later, people are still quoting — word for word — a group loved for their mastery of shock, the unexpected, and defiance of convention?" Nobody quotes Tim Burton, as far as I know, but I can’t help but feel it’s a little similar.

  • The idea that we are "so accustomed to having expert versions of everything, from the perfect music on our ipods to the precision landings of our Olympic figure skaters, that we’ve lost the entire middle tier of amateur" — no matter your field, there seems to always be someone better than you at it. Indeed, I’ve also seen a similar complaint about the Olympics: that it becomes impossible to appreciate the gradations between one version of "perfect" from another. There are so many talented people — so why bother becoming good at anything at all?

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