“Yes, but it is art?” is entirely the wrong question, if for no other reason than that it doesn’t matter. We’re talking about an entirely subjective thing here, and while we may get wrapped up in the absurdity of the art market and the distracting valuation of something that simply is, for better or worse. The truth is that judging art is beside the point: either you appreciate the Harlem Shake, or you don’t. Either you’re moved, perhaps Stendhal style, by seeing the Mona Lisa up close, or you wonder what all the fuss is about. Step Up: Revolution has a 43% Metacritic rating, but that’s if you’re critiquing it as a film, which is inane. The dances and dancers are beautiful, Amanda Brody’s script is not: the central conflict involves a dance crew attempting to be the first group to reach 10,000,000 hits on YouTube (as if some random singing cat won’t do that overnight); also, while the prize is $100,000, the crew surely spends at least that much putting together their elaborate flash-mob sequences — it’s like Ocean’s Eleven: Dance Edition. It’s all effortlessly presented, too, such that the crew’s resident street artist (who, like Teller, apparently never speaks . . . until he does) literally welds together a giant robot in the four minutes it takes to perform one of these pieces. It’s ridiculous and hardly applicable to the real world, in which there’d be some sweat and tears along the way, and yet isn’t the central theme of the film, of art, to break rules in the name of a greater ideal? Step Up: Revolution isn’t trying to reflect the world as it is, it’s not even idealizing what it could be. It’s pure fantasy, and ought to be accepted as such.
The same can be said of Glee when it’s at its best: don’t try to justify the fact that all of these economically challenged students who live in the middle of nowhere Ohio (population 38,693) are somehow able to cobble together — in one year — a Glee club capable of competing on a National level, that its two leads are both accepted into the most prestigious (and fictional) arts academy out there and that despite not having jobs or incomes are able to live in (and beautifully decorate) a million-dollar loft in New York City, and those are just the most plausible of the various plot lines. Glee plays to hyper-stylized emotions rather than actual character, it attempts to be everything to everyone all at once, and would collapse — as its gloomier, more realistic, and hands-down better rival Smash is doing — if you believed in any of it. But when the characters spontaneously burst into song, the band just happens to be there to back them up, everybody always knows all the words to every song in the world, and choreography ain’t no thang, none of the writing actually matters. You’re watching a performance that is markedly standing out from the rest of that nonsense, and perhaps suddenly you realize that you’re having an emotional reaction because you let your defenses down and stopped caring so much and trying to fit everything into a rigid order. Glee is chaotic, but does that make it bad? As series creator Ryan Murphy proved, and again on American Horror Story, rules are an inconvenient thing when it comes to creating something artistic, something new. Art that follows rules is, by definition, paint-by-numbers.
Which leads us, full circle, back to the new media art — viral videos, like the Harlem Shake — that should work, but do. They captivate because they are different, aided in part by their short form and low-cost production values, like the pencil sketches an artist does and distributes on a napkin before eventually completing their masterpiece. Blossoms like Gangnam Style are original, rebellious thoughts that need no justification. However, while the inevitable parodies that turn a single video into an Internet meme can be clever and artistic in of themselves, they are following the rules of the original, which is why they play to diminishing returns. Even when they churn out hits, Weird Al and Richard Cheese are known quantities: they have formulas. Glee and Step Up: Revolution, on the other hand, are utterly unpredictable in their musical or choreographed numbers — each larger-than-life moment surprises, especially as the script that surrounds them grows duller and more predictable. We expect to find art in a museum — perhaps that is why it does so little for people like me who encounter it there. But to find art in schlock, or buried beside a billion other videos-of-the-moment? It doesn’t make any sense . . . but who says art needs to make sense?