Prime Time on Wrestling – The Problem of Art (LOP Columns Forum July 2019 Columnist of the Month)

Each month in the Columns section of LOP Forums, we hold a competition to determine who was the best of the previous month, crowning the Columnist of the Month. The winner earns the right to present you, the Lords of Pain main page audience, with an example of their work.

July’s winner Prime Time is someone veteran LOP readers will be very familiar with from his previous Main Page run and epic work behind the scenes as head admin of the LOP Forums. Last year he was the Columns Forum Columnist of the Year and this is his seventh Columnist of the Month award. Even though he has fallen out of love with modern pro wrestling he is someone who always has very interesting thoughts about wrestling and the culture that surrounds it. If you would like to see more of his work then a great place to start is his new series The ‘No Bullshit’ Review, you can also follow him on Twitter @LOPprimetime

If you would like to write for Lords of Pain, the path to doing so starts with the Columns Forum. You can visit it and begin your own journey by clicking the image below.

At one point I was the advocate around these parts for bringing in ideas from the study of various art forms to bear on wrestling. I believe that deep down my motivations for that were good, and that they were essentially an effort to combat prejudices with which any wrestling fan will be familiar. However, as I become older and wiser, I see that there are about a million problems with doing that. They aren’t necessarily unsolvable problems. I do not want to start out this little run of columns by saying that I think I have all the answers and that the situation is hopeless. Nevertheless, they do complicate the matter more than I think I’d considered when I first become the humble advocate for that position.

I may write about some of the more difficult aspects of that in more detail at another time, but for now I’m going to focus on a specific narrative dimension of wrestling. It’s something that complicates wrestling’s relationship with more traditional narrative arts and, simultaneously, means that pretty much any argument based around the old idea of ‘well, they do it on Friends/E.R./ Bonanza/whatever the fuck you want’ is always at a fundamental idea, a veritable nonsense. This argument, at its core, is philosophically invalid.

There is another point that I should make before getting to the specifics. Make no bones about it, the desire to reach in and appropriate the logics and philosophies of other forms is often motivated by a sense of shame. When I began this in my more limited way it was in the defence of wrestling, but we have long since passed a point that equates to crossing the Rubicon. There is no other explanation, whether the person doing it recognises that or not. The reason I know this to be true is that no educated advocate for any other form tries to wish away the distinctiveness of that form. No true film fan says that it’s just a story in the way that a novel is, no poet says that it’s just prose broken up into smaller lines, and no fan of theatre says it’s a film without the screen. Only in pro wrestling – coincidentally one of the most looked down-upon of all forms – have it’s advocates tried to erase the very foundations of it’s own formal diversity, and with it many of the factors that made it such a decidedly working class form, taking up the language and ideas of the middle and upper classes to do it. In their folly, they probably refer to this cultural landgrab as democratization. This is an unavoidable consequence of saying wrestling is like other media, and that wrestlers are just actors.

But these are issues for another time. For now, I’m here to talk narrative.

There is one clear, obvious, and fundamental difference between wrestling and most of the scripted entertainment in other mediums: the fourth wall.

The significance of this is that in almost everything else there is a boundary between the text and the world. It may be porous, one that allows for aspects of the world to creep through. In fact, it must be for the story to make sense. The very idea of a hero, a villain, or a tricky situation over a pound note, cannot be interpreted without some sort of framework from the wider world from which we can make sense of the world of the text. Take kids movies, for example. Even something like The Lion King makes no sense without concepts such as family, ambition, and revenge.

But despite this porousness, the boundary is still there, and even when it is problematised – such as by a character in a movie staring out and making eye contact with the audience – its stability is still relatively sure. There may be some challenge in the gesture, some idea of bringing home the very idea of the artifice of the cinematic form, but no one ever gets confused by this opening up of the fourth wall. That person, looking out at you, is still a character, and the difference between that world and our own world is still stark. At no point does Matthew Broderick looking at the camera in Ferris Bueller collapse the distinction between the discursive universes of the film and the real world.

There are some consequences of this fourth wall that are particularly relevant, but the one I want to focus on here is that allows for several artistic notions to come into play. For example, it’s only really by having a definable limit on the world of the text that allows for things like harmony or synthesis in narrative. Real life is endlessly more complicated and messier than that and defies categorisation – it cannot be resolved in the way that a story or piece of music can be.

Until wrestling started to fail, it always lived on the boundary of that fourth wall, not just problematising it but doing away with it. Ignore all those backstage segments for a moment, that modern invention in which the wrestlers seem to forget that they are on camera and wander around doing some seriously unconvincing acting. Think back to the kind of shows that were dominant in the 1980s and 1990s. The cameras were on, rolling, and they were documenting what we saw. There was no fourth wall between us and the wrestlers – the cameras act as an extension of our eyes, and at a basic level did little more than make the capacity of the venue larger than it ever could have been otherwise. Wrestling was not, then, just another television show – they were televising the “sport” of wrestling. We have lost sight of just how big a difference there is in those two positions.

The very essence of wrestling is about complicating that boundary between the real and the staged and to abandon that is to be something else entirely. There is a reason that people talk about how valid it is that people can believe in what they are looking at in wrestling in a way that they don’t with other forms. It’s the same reason that it is near-universally accepted that the best characters in wrestling are always the ones in which you take an aspect of yourself and dial the volume up to 11. Belief, in character as much as in action, is a by product of there being no clear dividing line between the world and the text. Similarly, a feeling of spontaneity is privileged over things with feel explicitly contrived. The formal values of the text are the same as those of the world.

So, rather than having a wall, we have a channel – rather than closing us off the camera lens is a conduit offering a connection between the story and the wider world. There are a huge number of possibilities that arise from that, but for the point I’ve made above, this does present some serious problems for the idea of art. A text can have formal properties that can be made to synthesise into a whole, but how do we go about doing this with regards to wrestling?

If that’s a bit of a complicated way of putting it, imagine it this way – let’s say you are watching a PPV. What exactly is it that constitutes the work of art? Is it the wrestling match? Is it the angle, of which the wrestling match itself is just a part? Is it the entire show – or does it go even beyond that, with the show itself being just one “element” of a far wider work of art, a tapestry which is the whole master narrative of, say, WWE?

If this is too abstract let’s take a specific example – Bret Hart vs Davey Boy at Summerslam 1992. Is the Intercontinental title match the work of art, or is it just a fraction of a much larger artwork called ‘Summerslam’? If it’s the latter, is it somehow worse because the rest of the card doesn’t meet the same criteria? If it’s the former, how do you judge something like Summerslam? Or are both less significant than the wider story of Bret Hart, say, spanning his entire career, with this match more of a ‘plot point’ than an artwork?

And the funny thing is that this is the easy bit – there’s no problem here introduced by the fourth wall equation, and this is just the bit that could be raised about other serial forms like TV shows.

Where it gets tricky is this – if there is no limit on space, as in the real world merges seamlessly with the world of the text through the camera, and there is no limit on time, because as we know things not on TV get brought into stories all the time (manifesting in all kinds of things from Magnum T.A.’s Car Wreck to Diesel beating Backlund on a house show through to Reigns’ illness), then where do you even draw the boundaries of the text in order to think about where it starts cohering? If everything can possibly be brought in, how do you judge it by the standards of other forms which all place at least some value on unity?

That might sound like a point of view more theoretical but practical, but it’s not – a more tangible aspect of the same question is not just how widely we cast our net, but who gets to be considered an artist in this equation? Surely all the wrestlers in the match, without question, but what about the referees? If we’re thinking about wrestling as a TV product, then the television announcers must come into play too, right? Of course the problem with this is that if you think about the work of art as a whole then the final product must be seen as a collaboration, and these oft-criticised elements of the show must necessarily be seen as a drawback on the work in the ring, in a way that a terrible soundtrack might be seen as hampering an otherwise well-acted and directed movie. Speaking of direction, judged by the standards of other forms, it would be impossible to consider any match good if it was given Kevin Dunn’s ‘rapid shift’ treatment.

The most significant aspect of this opening up of the world is that the crowd could be considered an aspect of the work of art too. Look throughout history and see how important a hot crowd is when people talk about the merit of a show. It’s a fundamental aspect of this form, it’s history, and it’s values. The upshot of this is that the crowd has a tangible impact on the final form, in the way that, say, a theatre crowd in which there is a theoretical barrier between the stage and the audience would not have.

We are getting very close to thinking of the crowd as almost performers in their own right – indeed, something that many would argue has existed as a matter of fact since at the very least the days of ECW. But again, this cuts both ways – if a good crowd has to be considered part of the work of art, a rapturous thunder adding to Hogan vs Andre and Rock vs Austin an intangible value that the work would otherwise lack, we similarly must consider interventions like those made in the Rollins vs Ziggler Iron Man match. As unpalatable a thought as that might be, those fans are part of that story, and if you want to judge it by artistic standards then that must be weighed in the final reckoning of how highly we value the match.

The temptation in many cases is to start cutting things down to the bone and compartmentalising. This is an idea that would cut things down to something simple, to say that it is the wrestling match, as held by the performers (and perhaps the referee, at a push) that would be the work of art, and that everything else would be somehow incidental. It’s a point of view that would mean that Bobby Heenan’s contributions on commentary did not qualify as part of the art of wrestling, but while that is a deal breaker for some it is an acceptable loss in protecting the integrity of an artistic claim on others.

The problem here is that wrestling is not merely one story but several, interwoven. A match is one story within the wider narratives of wrestlers’ careers, possibly rivalries, and bigger even that that, of the wrestling company itself. When Daniel Bryan defends the WWE title he not only adds to a narrative of his own career, and perhaps of his feud, but adds new links to a chain that extends back to Bruno Sammartino and beyond. And so, if we cut the art of wrestling down merely to the match, we’re cutting out more story than we keep, and are essentially saying that wrestling is a purely physical form. The leap from there, to the non-narrative spectacularizing, is not only clear but is arguably already evident. One could say that by trying to judge this as just another TV show when it has all these other remarkable variables, distinct to itself, made this shift inevitable.

It’s at this point that I’d like to be able to offer some sort of conclusion, but unfortunately, I don’t really have one. I don’t believe that these objections are terminal and think that there’ll be a way to work through them with enough time and effort. With that said, they are substantial enough that they’ll not be solved easily, and perhaps more significantly, they are such a problem that any idea based on wrestling being ‘just another form of scripted entertainment’ that can be judged as art simply by taking the values of another medium and pasting them over what we already have, must surely be dead in the water.

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