Thursday, April 5, 2018

It's Not Even Past #17 - The Crisis of What is Art? - Part 1

I wanted to do a podcast on female-centric movies built around Lady Bird and another one on LGBTQ themed movies around Call Me By Your Name, but the truth is that it's a bit more difficult to do a podcast on new directions in either theme because both of them are baked into the fabric of the mainstream of movie history from the very beginning. It's taken until just the last couple years for African-American movies to truly explode into the mainstream of movie life as never before. If there is possibility for a true revolution of representation in either the field of female-centric movies or LGBTQ movies, and I'm certain there is, then it's pretty obvious it has yet to happen. Nevertheless, they've always been there.

Among women, Leni Riefenstahl has, of course, the dubious distinction of being the great director of Nazi Germany, and at the same time Ida Lupino was one of the greatly respected directors of studio-era Hollywood; there are various directors in various New Wave movements, which generally signal an eruption in a country of a more progressive outlook, or at least certainly hipper - Agnes Varda and a little later Chantal Akerman in France, Vera Chitylova in Czechoslovakia, Ann Hui in Hong Kong, Marizyeh Meshkiny and Samira Makhmalbaf in Iran, and a whole binder full of women directors in England. Of course, female directors should be a much much greater part of that fabric, but they've been unmistakably there all throughout movie history.

The same goes still much much moreso for gay and queer themed movie-making. Whatever discrimination they face in the rest of their lives, gay men have always had an extremely honored place in the arts, perhaps even disproportionately so, and the list of directors who've made an enormous impact not just in movies but with gay-themed or gay-subtexted movies is practically an honor roll and would make a good podcast of its own, though not this week. There is no cinema as we know it without F W Murnau, James Whale, George Cukor, Luchino Visconti, John Waters, Pierre Paolo Passolini, John Schlesinger, Franco Zefferelli, Rainer Wilhelm Fassbinder, the Merchant-Ivory partnership, Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes. Not to mention the director who's probably my pick for the greatest living anywhere in the world, Pedro Almodovar from Spain. Anyone who's seen his work knows he makes movies of incredible intensity, comedy, bizarreness, and technique, all in the service of an overwhelming compassion and human feeling. On the other hand, famous lesbian directors are pretty much non-extant.

It might be a little too easy to make this podcast about Lady Bird, in my strong opinion easily the best of last year's batch of exciting new identity-based movies, or Call Me By Your Name, the most flawed of them but perhaps the most sociologically interesting, and you could even throw in The Post, next to Lady Bird the best movie I saw last year - the story of Katherine Graham, made by Steven Spielberg and quite unfairly, the movie in which Spielberg gets to position himself as a progressive feminist after basically ignoring female characters for the entirety of his forty five year career. And if I can't fashion something better, I'll go back and make the podcast on exactly that, even though I find it a little tiresome to repeat the same subject from week to week without any real change. Maybe I'll do that podcast in the next week or two, but there's another subject, a larger one, that grew out of the last two week's subjects that, for the moment, interests me much more.

Instead, I'd like to make this podcast into something about the need, the inescapable need, for identity themed art, its necessity, and even were it proven to be unnecessary, its inevitability, and what that ultimately means, as best as I can guess - which will no doubt be wrong, for how art will evolve in the 21st century.

We just have to face it, art is not as important to the average middle class person at the beginning of the 21st century as it was to the average middle-class person at the beginning of the 20th. There are so many reasons for that, but I can't imagine it doesn't ultimately come down to the much greater importance of science in our lives. Technology is so obviously the node around which modern life revolves. The miracle of art in the 19th century was a linear, thousand-year long progression in which the creativity of artists piled one innovation upon another, until the most detailed, abstract techniques in music, or painting, or narrative storytelling, could show a mirror up to nature that became a heightened version of our own consciousness that illuminated the human experience as it never could have been before, and, no doubt arguably, never has in quite so vast a way since.

All evolution has those moments when, because life becomes so vastly more sophisticated in some areas, it necessarily becomes vastly less sophisticated in others. By the beginning of the 20th century, technology made human evolution so quick that the human experience could not ever again be processed directly without a technological intercessor. Human technology created musical sounds that reproduced without the presence of musicians, and pictures that moved and could tell stories. Everything about the human relationship to art has to be relearned, and when the reset button was pressed, we had to go back to basics. The possibilities of how art could be made were suddenly infinite, and yet the audience for infinite creativity became infinitesimal, and without a large public to learn from, it is much much harder to figure out what works artistically.

That's not to say that there isn't great art of the highest seriousness of purpose made today, but for all the freedom to create however we wish, it is harder than it once was - there are more professional practitioners than ever before, and just about all of us are up against a wall of indifference. Every one of us is creating in a vacuum, how can I figure out what engages anyone but me when I'm the only person who's listening? I'm sure there are literally millions of artists who feel the same way. So every time you go to an avant-garde show and laugh at a painter or composer who makes something you don't understand, try to be a little sympathetic to them. Think of the desperation and loneliness that might have gone into sinking their entire financial future into student loans to get a degree in the arts, and think of what kind of work a person talented enough to get into art or music school might have created had somebody paid attention to them other than a professor who tells them to create within the strictures of an ideology that justifies their tenure. And if you ever paid attention to them and gave them a emotional, or god forbid - financial, incentive to value your opinion, they would start creating art that you would like. Losing a general middle class public for new high art was a trauma from which the high arts have never recovered and will not recover until the middle class decides that art, rather than entertainment, is important again.

And this, of course, gets us into those murky waters that get everybody angry: what is art vs. what is entertainment? What is art vs. what is craft? What is art vs. what is artisanal? And is there a truly segregating border wall between all of these? And even if it turns out that some things are definitely art and some things are definitely not, is a bad work of art less a work of art than a great work of entertainment or craft? And is this debate even at all something worthwhile or just a vestige of an historical era when the borders between various categories and classes of people weren't nearly so porous as they are today? Is art truly, as so many people articulate today, whatever you believe it to be?

Citizens of the internet will never forget the day that Roger Ebert had the temerity to say on his blog that he didn't think video games were art. He's lucky that the pitchforked online mob against him probably hadn't left their rooms for five days at a time or else he'd have died a couple years sooner. But it's a worthwhile question: how can it possibly be art if you can win at it? What, aside from its digitality, separates it from chess, mah jong, football, baseball? Moves within such games can certainly have qualities of art, and can certainly be called artful, but personally, I doubt anybody who yet believes that any video game is great art has thought for particularly long about the subject. I've sat in enough rooms while friends play the latest iteration Zelda or World of Warcraft or The Elder Scrolls to be pretty damn certain it's not there yet. If you've truly been touched by Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Beethoven, Michelangelo, Mozart, Tolstoy, Homer, and thousands of others, yes, including some popular artists, then you see the vast ocean of difference. Maybe it's just bullshit sentimentality, but I do not believe that even the best video games yet created can feed the spirit in a way that's more powerful than religion itself. On the other hand, video games do have the means to tell long-form stories in a way not altogether different from cinema; there are all kinds of possibilities in its narrative and pictorial aesthetic, so it's certainly possible that one day, perhaps sooner than we know, there will be a Michelangelo or Shakespeare of role-playing games that presents himself as obviously as Orson Welles presented himself to the movies and America around 1940, and shows what can be done with video games in manners that change the curvature of the human imagination, I'll happily eat my words. I'm not staking my bets on it happening any time soon, but if it happens within my lifetime, I certainly won't stand in the way of people calling video games genuine art, even great art. Posterity makes fools of us all, and it would be foolish to make a sweeping declaration that video games can never be art, particularly when so many people with enormous twitter followings think they already are.

Fortunately, I don't have the online presence to have anything like Ebert's mob formed against me, but one can understand why people might have felt betrayed by Ebert's sudden lurch against populism. For forty years, he was at the vanguard of taking things seriously which did not seem serious - there was a Nightline episode in which he and Gene Siskel went up against the infamously venomous critic, John Simon of New York Magazine, who called lovers of Star Wars arrested adolescents. Ebert responded, correctly, that John Simon was prematurely old - though sadly, that poison pen has now outlived both Siskel and Ebert to his mid-90's.

Roger Ebert was a great movie critic, albeit one with many flaws, but among the great writers of film, he was the great populist. For nearly fifty years he treated every movie review with equal seriousness, and whether it was praising a Bergman movie to the skies or panning another generic 200 million dollar Michael Bay action flick, he brought the same incredible gusto to the assignment. When Siskel and Ebert launched on TV, Ebert was able to make cogent arguments about film in real time, and showed that anybody could. I remember his movie reviews being online as early as 1997. Between the TV show and his online presence, he turned two or three generations of movie appreciators into cinephiles, each of whose individual tastes were distinct and respected in discussion. If Pauline Kael launched an army of critics whose careers were contingent on evaluating the quality movies the way she told them to, then Roger Ebert helped mentor dozens of critics, each with their own individual voice and taste, each of whom brought their distinct insights

And yet, the era of Ebert's populism was also the era that saw cinema's dwindling in importance. By 1980, there was no weekly American ritual of going to the movies - the movies were a special excursion you took because the movies could give you an experience you'd never get from television. Art has never been democratic, and it never will be. Whether the genius behind it is male or female, white or black, individual or collective, great art is an authoritarian regime - and if you treat art with the seriousness it seems to demand, you will fight dirty for it and do what's necessary to make what you believe is a great work. If you think the result will be better from doing so, you'll steal your equipment, exploit your staff, disobey your bureaucracy, and debase yourself for the money. The result may well be, as it seems today, that the arts attract a disproportionate surfeit of despicable human beings, but life is not fair, and while art is most certainly related to religion, it clearly does not play by the rules of morality. Any larger-than-life achievement takes people of a temperament willing to commit immoral acts to produce remarkable results. If their immorality stretches to aspects of life other than their work, who could possibly be surprised?

But what Ebert's career shows is that the borders of what constitutes great art are always changing. So whether it's video games or some form of role playing or still another form of virtual reality, I'm sure there will be some kind of artisanal or crafty digital pursuit which today's more conservative tastemakers consider trivial that by 2100 will be such quality that even conservative sticks in the mud like me will consider them self-evidently great art. But such definitions of what constitutes art won't necessarily expand either. In an era like this when so many people consider everything artisanal on par with any traditional form of art, we now have to consider whether great fashion designers, great chefs, great gardeners, great knitters, should be considered great artists. Certainly, when you hear stories about a lot of famous chefs and fashion designers, you realize that they're as willing to bully their way into creating the best possible work as any great artist, not that the bullying should be considered in any way a criteria, but it does, in my opinion, demonstrate a kind of perverse devotion to their craft, even if the result may be counterproductive. I'm not going to definitively rule that great chefs and fashion designers and gardeners and video game designers and etc. are not art, at least not today, but it's difficult to not believe that if one rules all of them potential great artists, the nature of what makes great art special is incredibly devalued.

Such questions have been entertained before, particularly in interwar Paris, which was rudely interrupted by World War II's black hole of death. If peacetime had continued uninterrupted, perhaps Coco Channel or a chef like Auguste Escoffier would be considered artists on par with Picasso, Matisse, Monet, you get the point... But what if, and I know it'll sound absurd to a lot of you before I even say it, the kind of liberal permissiveness that invites people to believe that a fashion designer or cook whose products are assembled by teams of dozens is as great an artist as a painter like Picasso who redefined the rules of visual art in 50,000 separate works, the vast vast majority of which he must have had no help at all to make, in a form of art that was already packed to the gills with history and many people thought could go no further...; what if calling Coco Channel as great as Picasso is the same kind of illogic of the human mind that allows people to believe that some races are more innately intelligent, or that some religion might have a secret cabal ruling the world?

Obviously, one type of illogic is a much more destructive illogic than the other, and if the choice is between being mad about having to think of certain artisans as artists vs. being mad about racism and antisemitism, obviously we should just forget about what makes us mad in the arts completely. But that's not the point, the point is that developments in the arts are as good a way to register changes in society as any. If journalists begin to write think pieces saying that we should take chefs or graphic designers with the same seriousness as Beethoven, there are obviously some extremely radical thoughts in the air. And if there are radical thoughts, there will inevitably be a counterradical backlash to resist it, and the two sides will inevitably come into conflict.

So what if such level of radical thought is what invites that reactionary backlash, and by so expanding the playing field of what constitutes a legitimate opinion, we've completely destroyed the restraints we can use to fight against ideas that we know are lethal poison? Again, I know it sounds absurd to many people to equate radical egalitarianism about art with the kind of intellectual poison that creates demagogy, but it's hard, at least for me, to not see an enormous correlation.

I'll come back to that thought in a moment, but in the meantime, against Roger Ebert, let's consider Kenneth Clark. Even by 1969, Kenneth Clark, the once hugely famous English art critic, could declare on his once hugely famous television miniseries, Civilisation, that cinema is ephemeral and nothing from it could be considered art of importance. He's been proven obviously, risibly, wrong, and already long since had by 1969. But for his generation, Clark was at least a kind of populist, a director of London's National Gallery who believed that great art was the inherent right of all people regardless of social station. During the war, he opened up the emptied National Gallery, its contents taken to the countryside to keep it from being destroyed in wartime, to free concerts virtually every night. After the war, he became the chairman of Britain's first commercial network, who took it on himself to try to create programming, as so many fifties TV figures did, that was both intellectually elevating and commercially viable. There were many people who disagreed with him about the ability of the 'lower classes' to be enriched by art. Now it just seems silly to condescend to the un-wealthy in that way, but we have to try to see things within the lens of their own time and place.

If you ever watch Civilisation, be charitable. Don't be taken in by Kenneth Clark's upper-class twit-demeanor. Civilisation is obviously a work of its time, and Clark was an emissary from a generation of war that had seen death and suffering unimaginable to most of the world today. The intellectual survivors of the generations like his ought to be forgiven for thinking that there any work which makes any concessions to mass appeal at all is a work that makes light of suffering, or a work that can be coopted for nefarious propaganda. What Clark wanted was to make a series that brought us unwashed masses up to the level of the art he displayed rather than bringing the art down. In that sense, Civilisation is a very great TV show and of a progressivism we all would do well to emulate. Clark was a conservative whom, as he aged, came to see that the a certain kind of mass appeal was not something to revile. Ebert was a progressive whom, as he aged, came to see that the same is true about a certain kind of elitism.

The vast majority of British and Americans who watched Civilisation on its first run had enormous experience of an era of suffering that dwarves our own. In a state of suffering, the need for worship, for believing that there is something in the world, either a god or a human achievement, that justifies existence in this one and promises us that we can transcend a planet that can sometimes seem an oppressive black hole, is what lets people move on from their suffering; and it is in these moments when entertainment seems like obscenity, and the need to seek out a more transcendent consolation becomes particularly acute. Think of the past millennium of Christian art and music and ask yourself, why is it that art and religion seem to have gone so hand in hand for so long, and why does it go less hand-in-hand today? Think of what the world was before the Industrial Revolution and modern medicine. It was a given that some of your children would die in childhood, that women had no recourse for spousal abuse, that men had no recourse for exploitation by their employers, and neither had much recourse to the ravages of war or crime. In such an environment, religion almost isn't enough, to live on, perhaps only art could remind them of the transcend this world to a celestial plane  where all the suffering of this world will be escaped.

Entertainment is escapism too, but it's a very different kind of escapism. Entertainment is intended as distraction. It puts you, by definition, in a state of mind that makes you no longer unconcerned with any thought that you might not transcend the circumstances you don't like. Art does not, as the cliche goes, 'take you out of yourself'; rather, it changes your sense of self. It puts your sense of self in the context of much larger things that we can only apprehend on the dimmest levels. We begin to comprehend it through a work of art's interconnections of meaning. Great art is those creative objects which can be contemplated, endlessly, over the course of a lifetime, with meanings that evolve in one's head from month to month. The art about art is not about how the work makes us feel, but how it makes us perceive, and if our perception of it's meaning changes starkly with every encounter, it is most definitely art.

Ebert was a new kind of critic for a new kind of artform in a new kind of country with a new kind of ethos, forty years younger than Clark; a populist evangelizer for what must already be counted the most popular form of art in the history of the world. There was already plenty of art in the movies that aimed for quite a bit more than diversion by the time Ebert's career began and Clark's career drew down. Ebert's fifteen year series of articles called "The Great Movies" made a generally pretty good case for which movies they might be. But Ebert could be as unashamedly lowbrow as he was highbrow, what he termed 'Ebert's Law' is that 'a movie is not about what it is about but how it is about it.' What this meant in practice was, to paraphrase Marx, 'each movie according to its own ability, each according the movie's need.' A Schwarzenegger action movie would be as highly praised in its way as a work by Werner Herzog or Kubrick which he thought transcendent, because each accomplished what it set out to do.

 It would be foolish to keep Ebert out of any list of the greatest movie critics with Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris and David Thomson and Stanley Kauffmann and James Agee and Robert Warshaw and Jonathan Rosenbaum and Andre Bazin and J. Hoberman and Manny Farber, and, for that matter, Godard, and Truffaut, and Chabrol, and Rivette, and Rohmer, and Bogdanovich, and Schrader. The reason to repeat all these names is to show not just how intellectually active the world of movies was at its prime, but how much movies mattered to so many people that the most eminent writers about movies were intellectual rock stars in their own right. Ebert won his Pulitzer and went onto television in 1975, and that was the exact year Jaws completely changed the DNA of Hollywood. By the time of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, more high-fallutin' cinema was considered to have no more right to prestige than excellent entertainments like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and yet even if more people flocked to certain movies in quantities unheard of just a few years before, people flocked less often to movies in general. '75 was almost exactly the year of the break in which movies ceased to matter in American life like daily bread. I'm on a deadline here, so please if you must, just take it on faith that there are lots of statistics to back this assertion up, and if you disagree, email me at and when I have time I'll search for results that will hopefully be to your satisfaction.

The audience for art film in the movies' heyday was surprisingly large, but it certainly wasn't the same size as the audience for Charlton Heston or Julie Andrews. But because movies were so much a part of daily life, it was a given that people of particular intelligence would look for a more complex level of movie. It's the same with television today, and again, the coincidence is rather striking. In 2011, Game of Thrones premiered, and moved the tastes larger public away from the heightened realism of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and The Wire, and to a new form of escape whose mental demands were almost completely visceral rather than contemplative. The same year, 2011, was the year that Netflix announced it was separating its DVD rental service from its streaming service. Two years later, Netflix had three TV shows earning Emmy Nominations, a year after that, Netflix shows got 31 Emmy Nominations. The model of how TV is made was broken, with shows suddenly bingewatched and therefore needing more hooks to keep viewers interested for hours at a time, and beloved shows from the distant past resurrected, usually not as good as their first runs. Some people say that Netflix is an entirely new Golden Age of TV, with more good options than ever, and I know that Netflix provides a lot of great content, I particularly loved Bojack Horseman, and I still eagerly look forward to watching Orange is the New Black, but for the sheer batallion of content they're generating, I would think there would be a better show on it than a show about an ageing celebrity horse ... Furthermore, I don't see how their business model can last when the internet can provide so much free good content and so many mediocre distractions.

This is an entirely arbitrary point to stop, but there is just so much to say about this that we'll just have to continue next week.

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