Duh. It's, Like, Art

Family values in the television series, Californication.

‘Art is moral in that it awakens,’ wrote Thomas Mann, and while Network Ten’s controversial new dramedy Californication may not fit most people’s definition of ‘art’ it is, by Mann’s definition, profoundly moral. What it isn’t, is moralising and that, it seems, is sin enough for the lobby groups and commentators calling for it to be banned.

The best art, literature and drama work by creating situations and scenarios that excite and inspire our inner moral philosopher rather than by presenting easily absorbed and unambiguous messages about what is right or wrong. This isn’t to say that meaning in art is up for grabs. On the contrary, many writers have a strong moral vision but rather than present it as fact which must be accepted they instead lead the audience along a bumpy, shady path filled with potholes and detours and hope they make it to the intended end point.

There is, as Mann suggests, a moral value in such a tour regardless of where it ends up. Ironically enough Californication’s end point is very similar to that of its opponents. If the family values campaigners who held a candlelight vigil outside Channel Ten’s offices last week had instead stayed home and watched the program, they would have seen an ode to the traditional nuclear family.

Likewise, the lobbyists who deluged Channel Ten with angry phone calls before the first episode had even aired may have discovered had they waited to watch the show before complaining that the show was more critical of the vacuous Hollywood raunch machine than they could ever be.

Californication is a dark, oddly sweet morality tale about the traps and trappings of a superficial, consumerist, sex-and-drugs saturated society. The central narrative of the show concerns burnt-out writer Hank’s attempt to regain the love and respect of his daughter and her mother, with whom he wants to reunite and settle down. Although he is wealthy, semi-famous and sought after by an unbelievable number of beautiful women, Hank without his family is a broken, miserable man. The ‘family values’ line may not be pushed by a sanctimonious minister with a perfect suburban family, as it is in a moralistic show like Seventh Heaven, but it is there all the same.

Yes, there is a lot of sex but that too is presented in the context of moral doubt and serious consequences. Even the much commented upon nudity is not without ethical complication. When a woman stops in the middle of foreplay to have Hank appraise her body, he is bewildered. The woman is thinking of having plastic surgery on, well, everything. Instead of ridiculing her for her insecurities Hank muses on the misogyny of the culture of which he is a part. ‘Why is LA so hell-bent on destroying its female population?’ he asks. It’s a question that deserves debate and discussion rather than shock-jock rants about how many boobs appeared during the first half-hour episode.

I’m not arguing that Californication is entirely successful in its attempts at satirising Hollywood, or that its use of naked babes to make a point about the objectification of women isn’t problematic, only that a television show that bothers to open up such questions to its audience to, as Mann would put it, ‘awaken’ our moral instincts should not be dismissed as immoral merely because it shows a bit of the behaviour it is examining.

Does the show work as a comedy, drama, satire or piece of art? That’s highly and endlessly debatable. But to condemn it because of its subject matter is immature and obtuse. It’s this facile way of looking at art that has caused the great anti-racist novel Huckleberry Finn to be labelled offensive because it contains the word ‘nigger’ and the grim junkie film Trainspotting to be accused of glorifying drug use.

It is, ironically, exactly the kind of shallow, appearance-based thinking that Californication is accused of glorifying.

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