Monday, January 27, 2014

Art and the Public Trust: An Essay on WWE and Its Relationship with Its Fans

Is WWE's vision for Bryan the correct one from an artistic standpoint?
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As an artist, are you beholden to your fans, or do your fans need to judge each of your works by its merit and decide if they want to accept or reject it? Does a purveyor of entertainment have to give the fans what they want, or is its artistic vision trump everything else? These rhetorical questions are not easy to answer. Even though I believe in idyllic conditions, the artist has to be able to have carte blanche, when the public is theoretically involved by the purchase of stock, then the picture gets muddled.

Wrestling is not a sport. No matter what anyone wishes to say about the matter, promotions involved follow distinct scripts. The action is pre-determined and in many cases choreographed before the match begins. Even matches 100 percent called in the ring have that predetermination, even if the script is improvised moments before it is played out. Wrestlers are performance artists. The road agents are the directors, and the creative staff and bookers create literature.

So, because wrestling is an absolute art, those rhetorical questions come into play for any singular promotion, none under more deserved scrutiny than WWE. They, more than any company, are under the intense pressure of balancing their art with the expectation of fulfilling the public trust. They are the only publicly traded wrestling company in America, so how far does their artistic vision extend into the expectation of what their fans theoretically want to see?

Using the "it's their art" defense for most of the decisions people within the company make works only inasmuch as WWE is an arthouse. Their writers produce the works they want judged, and theoretically, they do not have a moral obligation to follow a certain script. However, what happens when every decision they make over a given period of time is roundly rejected? These rejections are not just coming from this nebulous, often unfairly collated group of fans that the fastidiously ignorant call "The Internet" anymore, either. The reactions are as vociferous as they are vitriolic. At each arena, the status quo is being rejected, and the demands for a new order, one that includes Dolph Ziggler, Goldust (I don't care how old he is, he hasn't been close to a main event since 1997, and he continually reinvents himself), Cody Rhodes, and especially Daniel Bryan, are thunderously requested.

WWE can take the hardline approach that its artistic vision trumps anything their populace wants to see, and as long as folks keep coming around, the administration will continue to do as it pleases. But that mindset might be dishonest in that the company does not give off any indication that it sees itself as an arthouse instead of a business, which only makes their failings in displaying the folks people want to see even more baffling.

I may not understand business as well as those who have degrees or who analyze it for a living for respected publications (none of which include a single wrestling newsletter), I do know that crowd reactions mean something. They are often the precursor for other positive signs in growth. So what if Bryan hasn't meant ratings growth over the last year? The way people analyze ratings is totally wrong nowadays anyway, and if that metric is absolute, then why the fuck is Randy Orton still being given a godfather push? Pay-per-view buyrates haven't moved positively, but Bryan's run at the top was during a traditionally lulled period. Plus, after February 23, pay-per-view buys won't mean a goddamn thing anymore. Bryan sells merchandise. Hell, Ziggler sells it to. Zack fucking Ryder was a mover back before he was shunted to a permanent seat at catering. Do they sell as much as John Cena or CM Punk? No, but comparing those two groups of wrestlers is like saying a baseball team shouldn't acquire Evan Longoria, Joey Votto, or Troy Tulowitzki because they're not as good as Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera.

But this essay really isn't about the business side of things, and WWE certainly isn't the only company that engages in questionable artistic decisions. Chikara closed its doors, fractured the narrative into seven different child companies, and thrust most of its creative direction into a virally distributed pulp tale based on cryptic conspiracy sites and slow-moving YouTube videos. The same questions could be asked of its auteurs that are being asked of WWE. Why won't Mike Quackenbush and company give the fans wrestling matches and shows under the Chikara name? Why did they drag this whole story out for as long as they have giving what amounts to scraps and scavenger hunts? Chikara is not publicly traded, but it's run the same risks as WWE. Because no one is giving art grants to wrestling companies, every promotion has to have some moral fulfillment to the public trust. The trade-off is cruel, but the difference between Chikara and WWE is that the former at least has a pretense of listening to its core fans.

Obviously, the Championship is not the only thing in wrestling. However, no matter how much I might theorize about a company being more than its hardware, at least the WWE World Championship is still over as all get out. The paying customers still seem to think that the best guy in the company should at least be wrestling for that title. I don't need to get into the minds of each individual crowd member to know this. Every live crowd since the RAW when Cena handpicked Bryan as his opponent at SummerSlam has been a raucous approval of the man as Champion.

At what point does WWE have to compromise and make an artistic vision based on what its fans want? At what point does the promotion stop pretending that it doesn't need help creating stars, and that its vision is not enough to satisfy its paying customers? What will it take for WWE to realize that when it asks the fans to participate in the show by cheering and booing that the showrunners are hypocrites for ignoring this kind of reaction for so long?

The easy answer is that WWE is theoretically beholden to no one but its own creative vision. But that vision has proven to be recycled, rehashed, and boring at times. I don't remain a steadfast fan of the programming because its bookers and writers have a great gameplan. The wrestlers and their performances are what keep me hooked. I could forgive WWE if it was presenting something avant garde like Chikara is right now, but I'm afraid that Vince McMahon's lack of understanding as to what his company's relationship with balancing art, business, and the public trust should be is going to continue to be a distraction to whatever narrative he wants to produce for his story.

The point in all this is that art sometimes requires struggle and patience from the intended audience, but the way WWE has demanded its fans be patient for what they seem to want feels more like torture than art. Nothing in this world is utopian, and sometimes, even the most courageous and bold artists need might have to make a concession here or there to appease fans. Since WWE is neither courageous nor bold, it might have to lower the bar as to how much artistic carte blanche it can claim.