Reading Zadie Smith's essay on The Social Network, I was surprised to find out how willfully inaccurate this film about Mark Zuckerberg actually is.
The movie presents Zuckerberg's motivation for inventing Facebook as having something to do with loneliness and lost loves. Early in it, his girlfriend breaks up with him -- and at the end, even after becoming a billionaire at an absurdly young age, he obsessively tries friending her, as if, as Smith puts it, she were an "idee fixe" -- his own private "Rosebud."
But, Smith informs us, "the girl motivation is patently phony -- with a brief interruption Zuckerberg has been dating the same Chinese-American, now a medical student, since 2003, a fact the movie omits entirely."
So, why turn to fabrication just to make his life into a movie cliche? Noting Zuckerberg's "apparent indifference to money", Smith suggests other possible motives were either incomprehensible or decidedly un-cinematic:
"If it's not for money and it's not for girls -- what is it for? With Zuckerberg we have a real American mystery. Maybe it's not mysterious and he's just playing the long game, holding out: not a billion but a hundred billion dollars. Or is it possible he just loves programming? No doubt the filmmakers considered this option, but you can see their dilemma: how to convey the pleasure of programming -- if such pleasure exists -- in a way that is both cinematic and comprehensible? Movies are notoriously bad at showing the pleasures and rigors of art-making, even when the medium is familiar."
The analogy here between Zuckerberg's love of programming for its own sake, and being an artist, reminded me of something I came across recently in John Dewey's classic Art as Experience (1934). The great American Pragmatist points out, in a refreshingly democratic way, that aesthetic experience cannot be separated from daily life:
"The intelligent mechanic engaged in his job, interested in doing well and finding satisfaction in his handiwork, caring for his materials and tools with genuine affection, is artistically engaged. The difference between such a worker and the inept and careless bungler is as great in the shop as it is in the studio." (p. 5)
Dewey's book suggests another reason why the makers of The Social Network may have been reluctant to portray Zuckerberg making things with code the way an artist makes things with materials.
He tells us that what makes it difficult to grasp the aesthetic aspects of daily life is the fact that (at least since the museum was born) art has been segregated from common experience.
In the light of this separation, it sort of makes sense that anyone who isn't a citizen of Mount Parnassus is assumed to be ruled by baser motives: money, power, neurosis, loneliness, etc.
William Carlos Williams Takes Us Out to the Ball Game
To help us see the aesthetic side of daily life, Dewey points to the artful aspects of common scenes, including "the sights that hold the crowd -- the fire-engine rushing by, the machines excavating enormous holes in the earth ... the men perched high in air on girders, throwing and catching red-hot bolts. The sources of art in human experience will be learned by him who sees how the tense grace of the ball-player infects the onlooking crowd..."(p. 5)
This comment illuminates for me another reaction to the segregation of art and experience. For some artists, this separation motivates an aesthetic approach that seeks to re-unite the two. The modernist poet William Carlos Williams (who wrote poems about fire engines and baseball) is a prime example of this impulse. Here is the opening to a poem about a ball game:
The crowd at the ball game
is moved uniformly
by a spirit of uselessness
which delights them --
all the exciting detail
of the chase
and the escape, the error
the flash of genius --
all to no end save beauty
You could make the case as well that by throwing out conventional meter, and replacing it with common speech rhythms, the very form of Williams' poems is ruled by a concern with the relation between art and daily life.
Jerry Seinfeld and the Arty Auto Mechanic
The denial of the arty quality of daily life can also result in the aesthetic impulse reasserting itself (like any repressed quality) into unexpected (and normally purely commercial) moments. As I've mentioned in another post, one of the comic motifs that the Seinfeld show seemed based around was the sudden appearance of an "art-for-art's-sake" attitude in discordant situations.
Here's a clip from "The Bottle Deposit" episode. In it, the philistine Jerry struggles with an auto mechanic who approaches his "car craft" with the love and care of an eccentric artist:
The key moment for me here is when the mechanic gets pissed that Jerry even dares to mention money. This suggests another reason people avoid all mention of art.
They're afraid it costs too much.