Adrift in time and morality – some thoughts on Gotham

I love it when a story does darkness well. Watching the first episode of Gotham, the new sort-of-prequel-to-Batman TV show, I was struck by how well executed that darkness was. It shows a city of dark alleys, grey skies, smoking factories and police corruption. A take on Batman where even the usually civilised Alfred has the grim air of an ex-army sergeant. In both look and content, this is a dark show, and one of the darkest facets is its morality.

 

James Gordon – I’d look grumpy too if I lived in Gotham

It’s hardly surprising that the guy running the show, Bruno Heller, is showing a city where institutions are corrupt and decisions are pragmatic rather than idealistic. This is the man who gave us Rome, a show all about the fall of that city’s republic and its transformation through war and murder into an empire. His characters can embody principles – James Gordon, the central character in Gotham, certainly does – but institutions do not embody principles, their functions are not ideal or eternal. The roles of police, politicians, even criminals are negotiated out of power relationships, the people changed by the institutions and the institutions by the people. It’s realistic, in a cynical sort of way.

I love this exploration of social institutions through story telling. We take so many of the organisations and power structures around us for granted, and TV shows in particular tend to present them in an unquestioned, unchanging light. But everything change over time, that’s how history happens, that’s what I like to see.

The ridiculously names, and yet ridiculously cool, Fish Mooney

This doesn’t mean that there’s no right or wrong, but it encourages us to challenge our assumptions about how society works.

If this cynical take on society sets the show adrift on a sea of moral uncertainty, then this is nicely matched by its aesthetics. Not just because Gotham is a visually grim place, but because its style doesn’t fit any particular point in time. It’s an ambiguity that fits the original comics, in which most of the characters have aged little if at all through over 70 years in print. That means that Batman’s timeline makes little sense, and we’re still expected to read stories from the 1960s as a near-contemporary part of his life, despite al the changes in technology, style and social expectations.

The Gotham city of Gotham, instead of ducking that problem by picking a timeframe, plays with it with relish. There’s hardly any digital technology on display, and the computer monitors in the police precinct appear to be bulky monochrome affairs, yet characters carry cellphones. I don’t know much about fashion, but I’d have been hard pressed to pin down a decade from what I saw. The cars, the diners, the booze bottles and performers in the nightclubs, they all contribute to an air of uncertainty over when this is taking place.

So we’re in when, exactly?

And yet that creates a distinctive sense of place and time in itself. Like steampunk and other retro-futurist genres, it mashes real and imagined period elements together to create its own aesthetic, one in which the city’s issues with powerful, institutionalised crime make perfect sense. One that you might expect to corrupt characters or to drive them mad.

Gotham holds out promise to become something fascinating. On the basis of one episode I can’t tell whether it will achieve that, but I am really intrigued.

Art and power in the Sarantine Mosaic

Art and artisanship are recurring themes in Guy Gavriel Kay’s work, but they play a particularly prominent part in The Sarantine Mosaic. The name of this pair of books is a sign in itself, pointing to the centrality of the mosaicist Crispin’s art both as a plot element and as a symbol of the themes explored in the book.

Sailing to Sarantium

 

A few months back I asked Kay via Twitter about his interest in art as a theme, and he said that he is particularly interested in the relationship of art and power. And it’s this relationship that The Sarantine Mosaic explores, and through which it can help us to consider art’s role within society.

Art influences power

The Sarantine Mosaic explores art and culture in its broadest sense. There is the artistry of Crispin, creating his great mosaic; the new masterpiece of architecture he is decorating; the dancers who perform for racing fans and charioteers; the charioteers themselves, experts in the hazardous art of racing; the bureaucrat recording a history of the empire.

In all of this, art is a tool used to influence the balance of power. The new shrine is intended to secure the emperor’s position and contain religious disputes. The empress, herself once a dancer, uses her skills as a performer to influence the people around her. The chariot races are both the opiate of the masses, giving them a distraction from concerns about politics, and the trigger for violent upheavals.

More intimately, art is shown to inspire and influence great men and women, to shape the way that they look at and direct the world.

Power influences art

The relationship also works the other way around. Power has a great hold over art, over what is made and what endures. Crispin gets to make his mosaic because someone in power wants him to. Dominant religious doctrine limits what can be portrayed in art, though the artists find ways to subvert this. Dancers, writers, mosaicists, charioteers, all rely to some extent on patronage, and so are influenced by the powerful in what they portray.

This also affects the tools available to them. Crispin is able to create his greatest work in Sarantium precisely because that city is so powerful, its rulers having the wealth and influence to provide him with the finest materials available for his craft. Just as art can make people of power catch their breath, so too can the powerful provide artists with sublime moments.

But at its most brutal power is a restrictive force. It prevents and destroys certain types of art. It binds and restricts. It can chain the artist as readily as it can liberate her.

Art reflects power back

This is not to say that the ultimate message of these books is one of the tragedy of art and power. Art is shown as a mirror in which the powerful are shown themselves; as a window which reveals them to the world; as a microscope that brings scrutiny to certain aspects of their behaviour; as a medium in which the powerful and their achievements can be made to endure.

Our own awareness

It’s important to take these lessons on board, not just as abstractions from a fantasy story but as real issues for us in the modern world.

The relationship between power and art is a complex one, mediated and disguised by the influence of money. But for all the democratising influence of the internet age, it is still people in power – the wealthy, the influential, the publicly seen – who decide what art achieves prominence, what is widely read and enjoyed. The Sarantine Mosaic reminds us we have the power to influence them back, to shape the way they view the world, to duck around the limits they place on us and provide subversive commentary as we reflect power itself.

I’m not going to say that we have a duty. We all have choices to make, and I can’t impose obligations on anyone even if I wanted to. But art in all its forms provides us with opportunity, and it would be a shame not to seize it.