Wednesday, 18 March 2015

X Factor: The nadir of naturalism

Is X Factor the nadir of reality television? Hell no. It’s just one low point out of many. (Try Google for evidence. It won’t take long.) But the on-air snit that’s got everyone talking does demonstrate the nadir of a particular school of literature.

Before I go there, listen to a comedienne. Take it away Michele A’Court:

imageThe problem with sticking real people on television is that we get to see all that when really we were hoping for something else. You're hoping to see a nice bloke having a crack at singing stardom and instead meet a dude who was involved in a fatal stabbing. You think you're getting to know a lady looking for love and find out she's a convicted fraudster. You're hoping to watch talent being discovered and nurtured, and instead you're confronted with bullying and rabid narcissism. The stuff you'd cross the street or leave the party to avoid, or openly confront on your better days. Yet there it is, in your living room. Ew….
    Really, we should stop putting real people on TV to entertain us. I'm not suggesting filling it up with cats (they've already got the internet) but instead of real people, how about fake people?  Let's get some writers – people who know about flaws and redemption and dramatic arcs  – and get them to invent some characters and make up stories for them. Put words in their mouths that offer insight and wisdom, and take us on a carefully mapped journey that entertains and edifies. What, back in the old days, we called a "plot" with a "theme". And we could train people to pretend to be people acting out these satisfying stories. We could call them "actors." …
    There's an art to imitating life. If you want a show about music, let's hear some and take a vote. If you want something else – real drama through conflict and resolution involving  complex human dynamics – you might need a team of people with something more in their skill set than a hair-do and an excess of self-confidence. You'd want people capable of  consciously creating entertainment.

Hard to argue with.

But maybe there’s a reason so many shows moved away from things like a "plot" with a "theme," with people acting out these satisfying stories – and it wasn’t just because “real people” are cheaper than actors. (Although hard to believe when you look at some actors’ pay, or examine the morals of, say, the girls from the Jersey Shore.)

Maybe the reason was a school of literature called “Naturalism,” that extolled the virtues of exposing the “real lives” of “real people” and claimed this constituted an art form. But if you’re going to present “slice-of-life stories” and “kitchen sink dramas” and “fly-on-the-wall” theatre with the argument that you’re presenting “real life,” then how much more real to present actual real people being themselves.

Which means (if you can’t find your off switch in time) you end up with stuff in your living room you'd either cross the street or leave the party to avoid, or would openly confront on your better days.

It’s not just an argument about bad aesthetics. Because it’s the bad aesthetics that lead directly to teams of people with nothing more in their skill set than a hair-do and an excess of self-confidence infesting your television screen – and your newspaper.

As usual (ahem) Ayn Rand skewered the problem and pointed to the solution:

The Naturalists object that the events of men’s lives are inconclusive, diffuse and seldom fall into the clear-cut, dramatic situations required by a plot structure. This is predominantly true—and this is the chief aesthetic argument against the Naturalist position. Art is a selective recreation of reality, its means are evaluative abstractions, its task is the concretization of metaphysical essentials. To isolate and bring into clear focus, into a single issue or a single scene, the essence of a conflict which, in “real life,” might be atomized and scattered over a lifetime in the form of meaningless clashes, to condense a long, steady drizzle of buckshot into the explosion of a blockbuster—that is the highest, hardest and most demanding function of art. To default on that function is to default on the essence of art and to engage in child’s play along its periphery.

The end result of that default is the meaningless child’s play it’s been impossible to avoid for the last few days. The antidote is to essentialise the state of things, to condense otherwise meaningless conflicts (like those our headlines have recently been exposed to) into something meaningful by means of drama. Or, as comedienne Michele A-Court says “take us on a carefully mapped journey that entertains and edifies.”

It’s funny how so much so true can be condensed by comedians too.

[Pic by Stuff]


  1. The judges appear to be less well-known than the contestants. Not that I ever watched this program and haven't ever

  2. The (lack of) quality of shows like X factor has fuck-all to do with "naturalism" and everything to do with the drawbacks of capitalism when applied to entertainment: Profitable > popular > lowest common denominator crap like X Factor.

  3. Sorry Barry, your glib remark doesn't account for all the decent-to-excellent stuff available on pay-to-view services like Netflix and HBO.

  4. @Mr Anonymous: I'll bet X Factor and Keeping up with the Kardashians are more popular/profitable than most if not all the decent-to-excellent stuff you have in mind. So my point still stands.


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