It can do serious damage to one’s sensibilities. Popular culture, I mean. I sensed its deadening force tonight when I attended a screening of Jean Cocteau’s first film, Le sang d’un poète (1930). It was shown, together with the Rene Clair short Entr’acte (1924), at the National Library of Wales here in Aberystwyth, where it was presented with live musical accompaniment by composer Charlie Barber, who also conducted. However animated the score, the images left me almost entirely cold. Why? I wondered.
There was a time when I was thrilled—or at least tickled—by surrealism. Reproductions of Magritte’s paintings lined the walls of my room. In my drawings and watercolors, I ransacked the surrealist inventory, ripping off Dali’s shadows and reshaping the landscapes of Tanguy and de Chirico. Getting experimental with the camera, I posed in front of designer-cracked mirrors, something standing in for blood oozing from my cheek or brow. That was just about the time when early 20th-century art was being reprocessed on MTV, in music videos and horror film franchises like Phantasm, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Evil Dead. This New Wave swept over and wiped out what was once avantgarde but nowadays generate about as much excitement as a can of Campbell’s soup.
Our jaundiced eyes have stared down a multitude of visual assailants. How many times can you be surprised by a mirror turning into a pool of water, startled by violent juxtapositions, or amazed at facile paradoxes? How long does it take to turn an outrage of images into an outage of imagination? Video, it seems, killed something other than the radio star.
Popular culture can make Cocteau’s Poet look like Mr. Potato Head. It exterminates the life of art in the very process of reproduction. Was it this frustration with the fading power of pictures that made me turn to the non-visual arts, to broadcasting in the pre-television age? If so, video did not kill the radio star after all. When you run those digital pictures until the recycled blood on the screen runs dry, you might begin to hunger for a blank slate on which to give new expression to your personal terrors and intimate desires.
Give the poet in you a blood transfusion by taking your eyes from the plasma screen. Close them a while . . . if you have the sang-froid to open your mind’s eye to such a world of possibilities.