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Crafting people – a fine art

March 29, 2015


Here is a post that explains why Marvel’s Agents Of Shield is a work of art.

Are you ready?

(The correct answer is that an agent of Shield is always ready.)

This is a story about something that I’ve written about before – the anxious attempts to shape your children into good, happy people – and something just about everyone else has written about before, the idea of art.

Really it’s about a specific definition of art that I like. I struggled for a long time to find one of these, bouncing between the untethered intellectual criteria that fix the popular idea of art – aloof, elitist, liable to slip into pomposity – and the concrete bedding of the economic realities within which all art has been produced. Luckily I happened upon this idea, by the Scottish author Alasdair Gray:

I believe the more people are stimulated into thinking about their feelings, and feeling about their thoughts, which is what a work of art does, the less we’re likely to be taken in by the mindless power of government or manipulated by those who regard themselves as the bosses; and that makes political disaster, cruelty and, in the long run, unkindness less likely.

This makes art a matter of sympathy and humanity. We experience it to better understand others, and ourselves. It is against mindlessness, a massaging of the internal currents which make us people, and it properly identifies the only useful test of whether or not an object should be considered art as the impact on the individual. Does it make you think about your feelings and feel about your thoughts? Do you have a heightened sense of the person next to you and all they are? This is all you need.

Gray’s quote has been rattling around in my brain recently because of my children. I’ve written a few times about the doomed but inescapable urge to help your children by encouraging them to do certain things or be certain ways. It’s an urge that can lead to smothering enthusiasm, reluctant ballet classes, and much worse. In the case of my son, Jay, it led to something quite unexpected.

Here’s a paragraph from a recent Eurogamer piece which explains why Jay and I played FIFA:

One part of being a young father is remembering with still soft-shelled vulnerability all the anxieties and defeats that shaped the adult you’ve not quite become. This is OK because you have a few months at least during which it’s impractical for children to leave the house alone, time which can be given over to indoctrination and the provision of a map clearly marking all the pitfalls and snares in which some part of you is still trapped… As a sporty kid who read David Gemmell books down the school corridor and was never ritually beaten, I’ve always understood that boys who are good at football are typically immune from bullying.

This worked. It worked really well. Where I was desperately conscious of being half-in and half-out at school, captain of the 1st XV who skipped the team’s Christmas night out, awkward in a body that was never quite the shape I hoped it would be, Jay is athletic and confident. No adolescent escapes the self-sabotaging doubts that fill our minds as our bodies rocket to adulthood, but Jay seems to have escaped the particular doubts I was so eager to protect him from, the ones I knew hurt.

If anything, actually, I began to worry that he wasn’t anxious enough. Not sufficiently sensitive and generous, and all the other things I admire from the ridiculous vantage of twenty years later and almost certainly wasn’t either when I was his age. I worried I’d pushed him unwittingly the other way, away from the over-thought sensitivity of teenage geekdom and into something less familiar. He barely reads. (We’re always demanding the children read. And actually the house does it for us, the packed shelves and random piles. Reading is a change of pace from screens, we say, fuel for thoughts you won’t even have for years but will be so important when you do.)

But then this Christmas Jay and I decided to watch Marvel’s Agents Of Shield. I can’t even remember why – it was a project, an excuse to stay up late, and anyway he’d enjoyed The Avengers. And my jock son – the footballer, the reluctant reader, the gamer only in a sense divorced from nerdom that comprises just FIFA and CoD – he fell in love with the show.

This was great – an excuse for late nights together sneaking in an extra episode, and seeing him enjoy something a little different, a palpable nudging outwards of taste and experience. And the very best moment came during a late-season episode featuring the discovery of a deadly betrayal and a high-stakes double-bluff (the show is basically Mission: Impossible with the occasional charming Whedon script pass) which forced the show’s female lead, Skye, to maintain a romantic facade with a villain.

The moment wasn’t loud or obvious, but then that’s not how art works, most of the time. Jay watched these tense scenes and said “Oh, man, I would hate to do that. Dad, do you think you could do that?”

And slowly, through a haze of mince pies, I felt a slow tide of pride and relief at this, the question of a boy who is thinking about his feelings and feeling about his thoughts.

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