"Hey hey, these Monkees,
they don't monkey around, they
have something to say." - Ginohn's Haiku Movie Reviews
Not applicable. Seriously.
Have you ever wanted to see: The Monkees commit suicide by jumping off a bridge... twice? Mickey Dolenz use a tank to blow up a vending machine? Davy Jones get beaten to a bloody pulp by World Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston? Mike Nesmith insult a cripple AND Christmas in the same breath? Peter Tork undergo mental anguish over punching a transvestite in the face? The Monkess debate philosophy inside a vacuum cleaner? A 50 foot tall Victor Mature knock the Monkees into space with a golf club. A cop do a two-step routine in a public restroom? Annette Funicello, Teri Garr, Toni Basil, Jack Nicholson, Frank Zappa, and a talking cow all in the same movie? Well, with Head, you get all of the above (plus some) strung together in a plotless montage of surreal vignettes set to the tune of psychedelic Monkees songs.
Now the bizarrely random structure and content of Head might give you the impression that the film makers did WAY too many drugs in the 60s. And if you think that... you would be absolutely right. In an interview at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival the director of Head, Bob Rafelson, "claims he was partly influenced by the French New Wave. "I liked that complete disrespect for the film itself, that violation of the celluloid – the idea of handling it roughly and not aiming for perfect lighting." But, he acknowledges, it wasn't only Godard who inspired him: a healthy consumption of acid also helped the creative process." He then goes on to tell how he and an out-of-work Jack Nicholson holed up in Harry Dean Stanton's basement and worked on the script. Hmm... French aesthetics, LSD, Nicholson, and a dark room. That at least explains the film's non-linear structure and stream-of-conscious storytelling. It doesn't help the narrative itself make one bit of sense, but it does explain why it was told the way it was.
No, to have even a remote chance of understanding what Head is about, you have to first know a little bit about the Monkees themselves. So, for those who might be unfamiliar with the group, a very brief refresher course in Monkees history is in order. In 1966 (the same year Batman starring Adam West debuted), hoping to cash in on Beatlemania, NBC hired four British kids of varying musical talent to portray a fictitious pop quartet on TV. In conjunction with the show, albums were released featuring The Monkees singing songs written by some of the finest pop music composers of the time with studio musicians handling the playing. The Monkees were an instant hit, becoming so successful so quickly that a real life concert tour was thrown together to drag even more profit out of the concept (Holy High School Musical, Caped Crusader!). But a funny thing happened on the way to the bank. Stung by criticism that they were phonies (The Pre-Fab Four was one of the more popular insults thrown their way.), the Monkees became determined to prove they were the real deal. To the protest of the producers, the boys began insisting they be allowed to play their own instruments on tour and write their own songs for the albums. By the end of the second season, the infighting over creative control of the show and the music brought the whole thing to a messy end. In an effort to squeeze a few last dollars out of the group, the studio tossed some pocket change at the Monkees and allowed them to make a movie. Why not, it had worked when they did the same thing with the Batman series, hadn't it?
But The Monkess had no intention of making a big screen version of their TV show. Under the hazy guidance of Rafelson and Nicholson (who would team up again two years later for the Best Picture nominated Five Easy Pieces), Head was instead an avant-garde assault pitting the perceived image of the Monkees as a pre-fabricated product against their aspirations to be true artists. Sometimes this message was obvious. To hammer home the point that they saw themselves as prisoners of public perception, every fifth scene in the movie has The Monkees being captured and physically placed into some kind of large box or container with no visible exit. (Holy Non-Subtlety, Batman!) But along with the obvious, audiences were also treated to unsettling abstract imagery like scenes of screaming Monkees fans intercut with documetary footage of the execution of Viet Cong guerilla Nguyễn Văn Lém while the Monkees chanted in voiceover, "You say we're manufactured, to that we all agree, So make your choice and we'll rejoice in never being free. Hey hey, we are The Monkees, we've said it all before, The money's in, we're made of tin, we're here to give you more." (Drugs, remember.) The producers were expecting an 80-minute sit-com and instead were handed a feature length deconstructivist music video. Not unexpectedly, the studio freaked and withdrew most of their advertising, the teeny-boppers were totally confused, and the movie bombed. The French loved it though. Your own reaction to Head will likely depend on whether you consider this kind of thing art or just self-important overindulgence.
Determining whether or not something is art can be tricky these days. Prof. Kendall Walton, writing in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, seems to suggest that it isn't possible to do it at all. He writes that "it is not at all clear that these words – ‘What is art?’ – express anything like a single question, to which competing answers are given, or whether philosophers proposing answers are even engaged in the same debate…. The sheer variety of proposed definitions should give us pause." (Sorry. Give me a moment. That kind of psycho-babble always brings a sentimental tear to my eye as I remember my old art school days.) Leo Tolstoy on the other hand, who actually created some art, was a little more decisive when he wrote "Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by these feelings, and also experience them." Reducing that argument to a basic formula, Tolstoy seems to be saying that expression + communication = art. (Under Leo's definition my 5 year old creates loud wailing art every time I tell him no.) So you can see the problem. How do you conclusively decide whether or not something is art when we have definitions ranging from "It's useless to try and call anything art" to "just about everything is art". At the end of the day we seem to be stuck in the same boat as Gelett Burgess when he gave his famous quote, "I don't know anything about art, but I know what I like." When it comes to art it seems everyone has to set their own individual standards, It's all subjective.
But does the same lack of objective standards apply to art specifically designed for religious purposes, especially that to be used in liturgy? It starts to look like the answer is yes if you give only a cursory glance to the November 16, 2000 document released by the USCCB entitled Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture, and Worship. In the section entitled Components of True and Worthy Art the bishops give us this statement, "While personal tastes will differ, parish committees should utilize the criteria of quality and appropriateness in evaluating art for worship. Quality is perceived only by contemplation, by standing back from things and really trying to see them, trying to let them speak to the beholder. Quality is evident in the honesty and genuineness of the materials that are used, the nobility of the form embodied in them, the love and care that goes into the creation of a work of art, and the personal stamp of the artist whose special gift produces a harmonious whole, a well crafted work." (I understand that those of you who never attended art school and received a daily dose of phrases like "really try to see a thing" and "honesty of materials" are now feeling compelled to place your index finger between your lips and make that blubblubblubblub noise. Please stop, it's distracting.) "There is no standard pattern for church art" the bishops continue, "nor should art and architectural styles from any particular time or culture be imposed arbitrarily upon another community." So it would seem anything goes when it comes to religious art. But that statement is immediately followed by a toss away sentence that could be easy to overlook. "Nonetheless, the patrimony of sacred art and architecture provides a standard by which a parish can judge the worthiness of contemporary forms and styles." Ah, So there is a standard. Unfortunately, the bishops give little to no detail (outside of the aforementioned artspeak) in the rest of the document as to what that standard entails. For that, we have to look for clues elsewhere.
Gertrude Grace Sill, in the introduction to her book A Handbook of Symbols in Christian Art, appears to be addressing just such a patrimonial standard. "In addition to creating impressive environments and beautiful objects, a major purpose of Christian art was to instruct, to inspire, and to solidify Christian faith. From it's inception this art was didactic. It's purpose was to teach Christian lessons to a largely illiterate public, through precise and literal visual images." In theory, today's population should be a wee bit more literate than our forefathers were. But does that mean sacred art has lost it's calling to be a teaching tool? The Catechism doesn't seem to think so. Liturgy, it says, is "the privileged place for catechizing the People of God. Catechesis is intrinsically linked with the whole of liturgical and sacramental activity." Addressing sacred art as a part of liturgy, the Catechism states that "arising from talent given by the Creator and from man's own effort, art is a form of practical wisdom, uniting knowledge and skill, to give form to the truth of reality in a language accessible to sight or hearing... Sacred art is true and beautiful when its form corresponds to its particular vocation: evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God." So if we take the bishops' suggestion of using a patrimonial standard for sacred art, then that standard would seem to include not only such "artsy" requirements as inner truth and honesty of materials, but also how well the artwork fulfills its vocation as a teaching tool.
Which leaves us with a very good question. What kind of artwork teaches the best? The answer may be pretty simple. Mexican poet Octavio Paz is quoted as saying, "What distinguishes modern art from the art of other ages is criticism." And he was right, we've reached a point where a large amount of art is unintelligible without an accompanying artist's thesis (which art school will happily teach you to write) to explain what the darned thing is all about. I would suggest that the best art, for which teaching is a part of its function, is art which requires the least amount of explaining. Liturgical art should not require a resident art critic to help the people understand what it is trying to communicate. This still leaves a lot of room for individual expression in a piece of religious artwork. There have been literally thousands of interpretations of the Virgin Mary through the centuries, some of them quite modern. The key is that we recognize it's Mary.
Obviously, all of the above applies to religious art in the context of liturgy. If, in your private devotion, you find it useful to have a lump of clay with a nail through it (representing Jesus) encased in a big tear-shaped globule of blue glass (representing the Blessed Virgin) sitting on your desk, go for it, knock yourself out. Just keep it out of our sanctuaries, please.