(Let me begin by expressing gratitude to my readers, new and old–I thank you deeply for your support!)
In our Protestant-influenced American society, there is a great emphasis on modesty, propriety, and realism, even in our entertainment. We might dislike something because it is not realistic, because it is outsized or pushing the limits. However, one can argue that this makes for good art and humor. Playing it safe instead of taking risks can lead to boring outputs, and some might say it is better to go big or go home.
Some of the most wonderful works of art, in my book, are the ones that do just that–they go big or over-the-top. Well, not just a work of art but an entire genre: opera, even the more verismo works, is not meant to be real. It is exaggerated, grand, emotional, and most certainly not realistic. In what other art form, in the span of three hours, could there be blood, lust, murder, seduction, and trickery the way there is in Don Giovanni? Or what other kind of music could be as grandiose as a Rossini opera overture, complete with crescendo/accelerando, or a Wagner opera overture, scored for so many instruments that they make the floorboards thunder? In the world’s best theaters and stages, the productions are lavish, and you might get live animals, a car, dozens of dancers like the Radio City Rockettes or any other manner of showy set design–who wouldn’t absolutely love it? Old Hollywood gave us this abundance of performers on screen, such as with Busby Berkeley films or the splashing human mermaid Esther Williams.
But think of visual art as well. Picasso’s “Guernica” will leave a profound impression on the viewer when it is seen in his full, huge majesty, and the gory images recall the tragedy of war. You can walk through a Richard Serra sculpture in a museum, provided that the museum actually has enough space for it. Similarly, Frank Gehry and the late Zaha Hadid’s magnificent buildings are out of the ordinary, something futuristic that looks like it has arrived from another planet (think Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall or Hadid’s Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University.)
Another area in which being over-the-top is welcome is in humor. Consider the 90s classic film “Election” starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick. At first, it looks like a simple, plausible tale of an ambitious, goody two shoes student running for student body president and a disgruntled teacher who wants to thwart her. But the stakes get upped as the satire unfolds: a brother steals a girl from his lesbian sister who decides to avenge him, the teacher cheats with his best friend’s wife, and more. The movie gets funnier and funnier as it becomes more unrestrained, and in the end, everyone gets their due. All of this suggests a particular artistic device that helps things become more bombastic, and that is caricature. Think of our love of cartoons, and how the characters can do things and be in situations that humans can’t. “The Simpsons” is a prime example, for everything is exaggerated, outlandish, and beyond normal. Finally, no discussion of over-the-top humor can be complete without a mention of the late genius Robin Williams. We loved him because he was like a human cartoon, full of funny voices, outrageous statements, and zany energy. There would have been no humor had he sat quietly, making modest observations about the human condition.
Certainly, there is always the risk of the over-the-top becoming grotesque or vulgar, unpalatable. Many people felt this way about Madonna when she arrived on the scene, decorated with O-ring bracelets and lace midriff crop tops, writhing and dancing and singing about her sex life. There is always going to be the question of taste, and people who do not like overly dramatic, exaggerated art. But when done well, great artists really have something to say when they do something out of the ordinary on a scale that is larger than normal.