Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Playful and Whimsical Art and Stories: Fantasy for Artists - p5

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Playful and Whimsical Art and Stories

By Ty Hulse

Playfulness and whimsical stories matter, because while people during wealthier times tend to think of fun as ‘trivial’, it has been whimsy and imagination verging on the edge of nonsensical that has gotten people through the worst of times. Clark points out that “As animation grew in popularity, Americans struggled under the weight of the Great Depression that followed the 1929 stock market crash. This economic crisis did not stop the Disney brothers from producing animated films… The Great Depression thus brought great hardship that inspired the need for laughter.” (Jordan Virginia Clark). 

It is important to note how important cartoons like “The Looney Tunes”, Mickey, and “Silly Symphonies” became during the darkest days of the modern era (The Great Depression and WWII). Three years after the start of the Great Depression Disney released the fairytale animation “Three Little Pigs”, the film was such a hit that the Daily News called it “the most talked about picture ever made.” “One could rarely escape hearing the tune (from “Three Little Pigs”) over the radio or whistled down the street. The song was a cultural phenomenon that served as a New Deal anthem, while social commentators and critics increasingly saw the film as a fable for the Depression that somehow ameliorated anxiety” (Wagner).

Animation, through the vivacious personification of ideals and the unification of its poignant lyrics with narrative, came to portray not only the upheaval of traditional American values but the ways in which these values were overturned and replaced. The fairytale world of Mickey Mouse and his friends masks a sensitive realism and portrayal of Depression America

Animation was able to portray the day to day angst of those wanting relief from their present situation, mostly through an obsession with becoming rich, hence alleviating the stresses of every day hardship. (Mollet)

Mood Management Theory holds that people will attempt to balance their emotions, often through the use of media such as cartoons, so it’s no coincidence that ‘The Golden Age of Animation’ happened during the Depression, at a time when cartoons were almost entirely tied to whimsy and wacky hijinks. People suffering from stress will often watch something ‘calming’ because psychologically they need to relax and reset their minds, the way someone who has just undergone an intense work out will relax, stretch, and sip water. This explains not only the value of simple cartoons, but also why movies like “Princess Bride” get watched over and over again, for it can be both moderately exciting while also relaxing. 

Fairy tales were similar, as they are often rooted in people’s need for humor during trying times. Peasants of the past told stories of many silly tricksters who would bluff giants in ridiculous ways or con their way into wealth. Even magical spells meant to cure the sick and punish those who cast the evil eye could include fart jokes as demonstrated by the Eastern European charm;

"A mouse walks along a shelf, carries a squash on his rear, the mouse gives a fart, the squash bursts apart. Let those eyes burst apart, whether they're blue, whether they're dark, whatever kind they are, they put the Evil Eye on, whether from a man, whether from a woman, let them be blasted to pieces.” (Condrad)

Even serious magic and the gods could become fodder for humor, as could the fairies which often acted exuberant to the point of childishness. For example, in the Shetlands  a trow woman came to watch a human dance, she watched  “‘till she could contain herself no longer, and suddenly skipped into the middle of the room, but her appearance was so frightsome that no man sought the honour of being her partner. Then she whirled about and screeched, so that everybody heard – 

Hey quo Kutty, an “hoe” quo’ Kutty,

Noo whau’ll come reel wi me, quo Kutty?

Sad sicht be seen up der crupeans I –

I’ll henk it awa mesel, quo’ Kutty.

Kutty henked (danced like a bird, springing about) to the amusement of many, until finally, exhausted she vanished, leaving behind the memory of her.”

This story of a fairy who grows so exuberant they can’t contain themselves, illustrates an important fairy trait. Fairies have such a zest for life they often seem to be childish. A zwerg in Germany, for example, got so excited by a human celebration that he accidently fell into the river while dancing wildly, and had to be rescued by some farmers. Another fairy in Scotland threw summersaults while running, likely for no particular reason but the joy it gave them.


Such childish displays of fairies in stories likely come in part from the fact that fairy stories were often meant to be humorous. Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is perhaps the most famous example of fairies being used in comedy. The function of the fairies in this story is to make us laugh, whether they are the King or Queen of the fairies or the famed trickster Puck. Within the story, the fairy king Oberon “agrees to withhold future remedy for the sake of present laughter and so the show may go on. The lovers again become "the players" at this fairy king's court, the unconscious performers for others' amusement. Shakespeare has provided royal license to enjoy, to laugh at the farce of these lovers' confusions and misunderstandings.” (Comtois)


The story has a moral and philosophical function in this comedy, of course. As Comtois continues to explain: “Fickleness is presented not as a characteristic of personality but as a characteristic of adolescence. In this play they neither cause their own ills nor effect their own cure, but instead they dance to a tune they believe that they have heard the piper Love play. The implication is that however comic the action may be, it is also an inevitable stage in adolescent development, a necessary ritual action youth must perform.” 


However, while comedy is useful for elevating one’s mood, those who are feeling too strongly negative will tend to avoid comedy (Zillmann, 1988, 2000, 1980). This may be because the hostility and discomfort that people find funny when they aren’t emotionally upset can make people feel uncomfortable when they are already in a bad mood. This likely explains why animations like Mickey and Silly Symphonies were more popular than Looney Tunes during the actual Depression. Consider, for example, the animation “The Old Mill”. This is a beautifully painted animation about animals seeking shelter from a storm in a dilapidated mill. There is no real plot or protagonist. In many ways the animated short is similar to relaxing while staring at a fish tank, a campfire, or a painting. 


Yet after The Depression and War ended, moving into the 1950s and beyond, the Looney Tunes grew in popularity and many of “The Silly Symphonies” were forgotten, or at least enjoyed less. This may come from the fact that boredom was one of the biggest problems when people got stable jobs in factories, offices, and similar locations. Once the concerns of The Depression had passed, most people didn’t need to watch cute and nostalgic feeling animations to calm themselves, they needed something to reinvigorate them after a long and boring day. 


The humor people enjoy often changes according to a variety of factors. Historically adolescents tended to prefer “television shows featuring disparaging and slapstick humor, while television shows featuring coping humor are not” nearly so popular. This changes as people grow older, such that aggressive humor becomes less popular and humor as a coping mechanism increases. According to this research there are three primary types of humor; “The first two are aggressive (antisocial) in nature, namely disparaging (making fun of someone, ridiculing someone) and slapstick (physically aggressive, “pie in the face”) humor. The third is a prosocial humor type called coping humor, which functions as a coping mechanism to deal with life’s difficulties by joking about frustrations, hardships, and so on.” (Wal, Pouwels, Piotrowski & Valkenburg, 2022)


Regardless of what they prefer, people who are exhausted from work and social interactions will tend to spend more time watching TV, as Borius et al.’s (1999) research confirmed. This exhaustion doesn’t just come from repetitive, boring, or hard tasks but from simple self-control. Indeed, the more self-control a person has to exert the less likely they will be to avoid some form of entertainment after work (Hofmann et al. 2012). It is this level of emotional depletion from exerting self-control that indicates what type of films people will choose. People who are emotionally ‘depleted’ were far less likely to choose films that were suspenseful or meant to be meaningful and chose instead films that were fun. 


Eden et al. (2018) stated in their research of story selection that;


media can restore depleted self-control and act as a recovery process for fatigued individuals. Therefore, we argue that our findings do not condemn the choices of the creature seeking comfort in media. Instead, we endorse a more nuanced understanding of how, why, and under what circumstances the individual—whether feeling fully human or depleted to feeling like a base creature—makes their choices is required.


Obviously not everyone in a society is feeling the same thing. At any given time, there can be people who are stressed from and wanting to escape work, as well as people who are worried about losing their job or who desperately want one. What’s important to understand is that there is real psychological and even social value to whimsy and what is normally considered light hearted entertainment. 


Take romantic comedies, for example. It is often believed that idealistic romances will lead viewers to have unrealistic expectations of love and life. However, Hefner (2019) found that only “predominantly idealistic” romances could have a positive influence on the viewers life satisfaction. 


Strange as it may seem then, unrealistic idealism, can and often does have a more positive effect on viewers than depictions of realism, not only emotionally but even morally.  As another example, while ‘Disney Princess’ animations have long been criticized by philosophers for their impact on women and girls, psychological studies have found that engagement with Princesses “was associated with lower adherence to norms of hegemonic masculinity and higher body esteem.” The head of this research project, Dr. Coyne said "Princess culture gives women key storylines where they're the protagonist. They're following their dreams, helping those around them, and becoming individuals who aren't prescribed a role because of their gender…” further “Boys who are exposed to princess culture earlier in life tend to do a better job expressing emotion in their relationships.” (Stahle)


This shows us that a joyful and fun story is very likely to have a positive overall effect on the viewers regardless of any ‘message’ critics might imagine it has. 


We see something similar in comedy sitcoms like “Big Bang Theory.” This show followed a group of awkward and often painfully clumsy scientists. Many people disliked it because “the show suggests that anyone who works in a scientific field or is a fan of superheroes and science-fiction must be a pathological, socially awkward mess.” (Morrison) Such criticism, as with most ideas without evidence, was incorrect, however, as the show tended to make most people like scientists more. Indeed, the show was repeatedly credited with increasing the number of people studying physics. It is difficult to fully quantify this but the number of people taking physics courses in England increased 10% when the show aired. (Townsend) So after watching scientists make socially awkward fools of themselves on a sitcom, large numbers of people decided to study science. This shows that what’s important isn’t necessarily what the show depicts but the emotions associated with the characters. The scientists in the show make people laugh, which plants positive emotions about scientists in people’s minds. 


There is a long history of these ‘simple’ stories becoming popular during times of high stress, for the people in most need of them. In their article “It’s Ok to be joyful? My Little Pony and Brony masculinity” Mikko Hautakangas points out that the humor and stories found in the titled children’s cartoon offers a joy that isn’t easily available in other stories. This is why so many adult men were drawn to the story. 

Even more telling is that people who suffered through World War I and other horrors would frequently turn to whimsical fantasy. After having nearly died in the trenches during World War One. Tolkien began thinking of his book “The Hobbit” while recovering with his aunt at Bag End. Creating a series of fantasy stories then was part of Tolkien’s recovery process from the horrific experiences he had while fighting in the first mass mechanized war. Another writer who loved fairy stories Dickens, as a child had to work ten hours a day pasting labels on pots. He wrote of this experience “how could I have been so easily cast away at such an age.” He, like Tolkien would grow up to create whimsical and enchanted stories that showed the value of human life.