Why Are You Ranking: The American Dream as Described by Twentieth and Twenty-first Century Artists Listed from Hallucination to Fantasy

The American dream lives on in reality. But how have artists treated it?

What's your dream?

Why is there no Scottish Dream? Is it because it’s already a cocktail? Why is there no French Dream? Would that be too risqué? And a German Dream may have already been a nightmare. These are but a few of the nations that serve as examples of how only one country originated and still upholds this obtainable vision; it’s called the American Dream. Often, the definition of the American Dream vacillates amongst different sectors of the United States. In some regions, it’s all about finding out who you are as a person and enjoying the bountiful Land of Plenty.

The American Dream is deeply rooted in the thoughts of selfishness, greed, and ambition (all of these are virtues, by the way). From Main Street to Wall Street, the hunt for the good life is embedded in the souls of Americans. At the first inkling of what America means to most citizens of the United States, they would describe the liberty that the country affords them. This liberty means that they can be whomever they choose to be and to carve out a sizable living based on their own ability and designs.

This dream extends itself to other regions of the world as well. Some say that there is a Chinese Dream or an Indian Dream. But these are merely byproducts of the country that started the dream business: The United States. In this country, because of the original founding documents, Americans are rewarded based on their own efforts. They know that to make it in this country, the keys are to work smart and think long-term. Yes, failure will happen. Who cares? Half of American businesses fail within the first five years. So what does that mean? The nature of the market is to learn from past errors and to continue to go with your business plan until you succeed.

Still, some hold that it means buying a house and providing enough money to support a family. As long as the government isn’t promoting this idea, then it is still innocuous. Others would contend that it signifies the opportunity—not entitlements—that the country affords through the efforts of individual entrepreneurs. Still, others hold that the pursuit of happiness is a facet of this concept. These notions of the American Dream may all have validity. But the closest one is the meaning of laissez-faire. It means to “let alone” or “let do” or “hands off” of life and property.

Through art, this idealism is hardly portrayed with clarity, honesty, and power. Art is supposed to capture the human spirit and set it ablaze. Romanticism upholds these values. Other schools such as Naturalism deplore such writings, paintings, sculptures, and other artwork. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, artists have damned the American Dream as a mirage. Lead characters aren’t the heroes, addicts star as examples of what America looks like, and playboys get all of the attention.

The artistry is indelible and moving. But the sense behind such works only offers a backward view of the American Dream. They ought to project where they photograph. They ought to sing where they mutter and stammer. These works represent the spirit of America when she is listless, down, and tired. While they provide ample entertainment value and some gems, they are overall examples of the art that shows things as they are and not as they ought to be.

The American Dream is rooted in the thoughts of the Founding Fathers who envisioned a nation where paupers could rise up through sheer will and ambition and make something of themselves. But some haven’t seen it this way. These individuals, through their work, hold that the American Dream is elusive and just out of reach. The following works have targeted this conviction. A film (based on a book), a novel, and a play have all fallen short of the glory of the opportunity to achieve. So, get your Netflix, Nooks, and theater tickets ready for Why Are You Ranking: The American Dream as Described by Twentieth and Twenty-first Century Artists Listed from Hallucination to Fantasy.

Only those who don't believe the dream are asleep.

Are you awake?

3. Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Based on the novel of the same name by Hubert Selby, Jr., this harrowing film portrays four addicts addled beyond the limits of consciousness. Three heroin users and a diet plan abuser each seem to hold on to some perspective of what life ought to be like in America. Aronofsky depicts in shocking detail the “myth” of the American Dream. He shows how these characters each aspire to be something more than their low, crude, miserable selves. Their hopes and dreams fade fast as they discover that their addictions only serve to exacerbate their conditions. As they spiral deeper and deeper into despair, each of them projects the feeling that the American Dream is unattainable and therefore dead, hence the title. Yet this is false. The emotional drive behind all of the characters leads them to their ill fates. Their dreams were not stolen from them, they relinquished their aims for the allure of a needle and a chemical dependency or diet pills.

As the lead male character Harry Goldfarb, played by Jared Leto, slums and bums in the streets with his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and fellow drug dealer/abuser/companion Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) the real stage is set for the lead female role with Ellen Burstyn’s bravura performance as Sara Goldfarb. Her battle with the refrigerator while on amphetamines is a mind-wrenching sight to see. Darkness and dreariness abound as Sara attempts to regulate her life but finds this to be an impossibility at her lowest point, ultimately.

During her descent into madness, she imagines a world where she is a contestant on a game show, wearing the dress that she always hoped she’d don for such an occasion. Colors seem brighter and smiles remain on the faces of the host, audience, and Sara and Harry. The sadness about it is that she ached for the day to come where she and her son would be healthy and happy. Instead, all find doom and discover that their whim worshipping hedonism is all for naught.

What this film tells the viewer is that the American Dream comes with a price. You can do whatever you want, just as long as your dollar is long enough to cover the charges. It’s a meditation on the American Nightmare, really. The American Dream is too good and too pure to be sullied by the display of vicious little imps trying to get a fix.

The author of the novel, Selby Jr., lent Aronofsky the ideas for crafting a brilliant film that has a ghastly message: The American Dream is dead, so consider these addicts as they lower themselves to the bottom rungs of Hell. Not only is this not the case, the audience ought to remember why there’s a requiem in the first place. These characters don’t live, they pass slowly for dying. Dashed dreams arise out of the fact that they decide to be drug abusers/pushers. But it is important to know who did the dashing. The idealism of a nation allowing you to flourish is not the cause for their indignity.

Rank: Hallucination

The Symbols of the Dream

What do you think of these emblems of freedom?

2. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925)

Hailed as a “Great American Novel” since its inception, the book is the quintessential work about yearning. As Jay Gatsby longs for Daisy, the past haunts him, he’s at unease with his prospects as a nouveau riche bachelor, and he still has a look “as if he killed a man.” The symbolism of the flashing green light and the constant talk about money only serve as constant reminders that the American Dream is about the hamster in a wheel or rat race in the streets for the dollar sign. But this is all false. While money is a component of the American Dream, it qua money means nothing. It is the making of money that counts.

     The novel also features symbolism through colors such as the yellow car that stands for decay. But what is this about? Why should the desires for a better life in the freest, most prosperous nation in history be cheapened by moral decadence? Gatsby is the symbol in himself of what early twentieth century young men did to “get by” with running alcohol during Prohibition. Such stories parallel with the tales of white, African American, and Latino youths during the latter part of the twentieth century who found riches in selling heroin, cocaine, and crack. The search for the American Dream reflects in each side of the two eras. Both groups of people, from the nineteen-twenties to the nineteen-eighties saw an opportunity and seized it, never paying attention to the spiritual and physical toll that would occur. The American Dream favors the ambitious but prison time and death ought to not follow the pursuit of a better life.

The overall thrust of the novel is to say that you can go from being a nothing to a something, but you must still determine whether you are someone or have turned into a monster in the process. If the American Dream is to mean anything, it ought to also include the idea of self-actualization or as Ayn Rand put it, “a man is a being of self-made soul.” From his days as a bootlegger to his rise amongst the social elite in New York, Gatsby must come to terms with his position in America.

If he is to live a happy, prosperous life, then he must determine whether he is to continue his days throwing lavish parties to attempt to live up to the “old money” crowd or take into account his options to funnel his funds into legal ventures. His choices are to continue to present a facade of wealth and opulence or show the real root to all his riches. F. Scott Fitzgerald gives an excellent portrayal of what life can be like when you emote that you’ve achieved your dreams but never fully thought out those phantasms.

Rank: Illusion

Still More Symbolism

Have you realized the dream?

1. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949)

The Pulitzer Prize-winner that captivated mid twentieth-century audiences continues to be a mainstay on stages and in classrooms. The story of Willy Loman is a downer. He is a stressed out peddler of an unnamed product in the play. His strained relationship to his long-suffering wife Linda and his two sons Biff and Harold “Happy” Loman permeates throughout the work. His frustration and rage pent up over years of being looked down upon, scuffling about as a mediocre salesman, and standing in the shadow of his fiscally successful dead older brother Uncle Ben hamper him. In daydreams regarding the past, Willy imagines Uncle Ben represents what Willy could never achieve.

As an embodiment of the ability to attain his goals, Uncle Ben hovers as an apparition of the American Dream. To Miller, this character shows everything that Loman wishes he was and had. The overt allusions to business and capitalism are abominable in this piece of literature. While trying so hard to characterize the American Dream as behind a wall of vapor in darkness for most to struggle to grasp onto something solid, Miller positions Willy as a loser. This sentiment struck at the post-World War II audience who had just experienced the greatest loss of life in combat in human history. The sense that America, the mightiest superpower to emerge from the Second World War, was still the best place to live on Earth remained with theatergoers.

So, for Miller to pen a play illustrating the failures of one man’s defeat, this served as cognitive dissonance which would spark the degradation of the American Dream from the 1950s into the 1970s. The politics of audiences remained capitalistic through these decades but their ethics continued to be more atavistic, reverting to morality of the 1930s “Red Decade.” As it is chastised and beaten up and damaged, just like a flag in battle, though it may be tattered and worn, the American Dream lives on despite how a given work paints it.

Rank: Fantasy

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