What is Art?

A question on many filmmakers’ minds this movie season seemed to be that of defining what qualifies as true “art.”  This question is by no means a new one; the debate over art has been waged countless times and across a variety of mediums.  Art criticism has developed a plethora of categories and definitions solely devoted to the purpose of characterizing art as real or not. Film is no different, and much of film criticism is devoted to unpacking the latest blockbuster to determine if it is worthy of that loaded designation. The debate is perhaps most interesting in the film world because of the unique role that the medium has held throughout history. The fine arts are typically conceived to be in the realm of the elite. Museums and galleries have cultural stigmas attached to them that render them effectively exclusive and not open to the average citizen. The movie theater, however, from its beginnings and at its most basic level, has always been meant for mass consumption by the public. This history influences how films are perceived, and what role people hold them to play. For some, art and pop are mutually exclusive ideas, but I see no reason why that should be the case. A work of entertainment has the capacity for true artistry, and the time and effort it typically takes to craft a film is on a comparable scale to the creation of other artworks. So why shouldn’t film be considered art? And what better medium to explore the question of art, than film itself, which is consistently put under fire?

My two favorite films of 2014 were easily Jim Jarmusch’s masterful Only Lovers Left Alive and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman. Most fundamentally, each of these films was inherently compelling as a narrative. The characters were complexly rendered, the visuals were engaging, and the sound designs were fantastic. But these films also functioned on a level above that of just a pure entertaining story. I must admit, with a bit of trepidation, that I have a double standard when it comes to film analyses. In the past, I’ve rarely spent excessive time in the analysis of the thematic content of films. I have no problem teasing apart the subtextual nature of literary structure, or the use of a chord progression for relaying a particular thematic element. For film, perhaps because my background is more on the production side, I prefer to consider construction only, and often waylay my more abstract interpretation of what the film means in favor of the reasons why a shot or sound effect is the way it is as viewed through the lens of the director’s intent.  Was the shot carefully choreographed and rehearsed, or did that dove fly into frame spontaneously and then imbue the interpretation with a deeper level of meaning? (As an aside, this is one of the reasons why I enjoy the work of Jim Jarmusch so much. Each of his films is a carefully crafted piece with a high level of consideration to visual and sonic aesthetics serving the telling of a quirky, highly literary narrative. However, when he is asked to interpret certain elements of his films, he often admits to having not considered the thematic underpinnings with any sort of depth. But, he is always appreciative of a variety of interpretations and acknowledges their validity. If you have any inclination at all to hear him speak about his work check out the Q&As included on the Criterion releases of his films). All of these caveats aside, after watching these two films, even I have to admit that there might have been a little more going on thematically. I contest that both of these films present an examination on the current state of art and popular culture.

Jarmusch’s Adam is a reclusive creative. He is also a vampire, scorning the light, brooding in an overgrown manse on the outskirts of Detroit, spending his time writing awesome music with carefully timed releases to maintain the highest level of artistic control. He is an observer, looking upon the rest of the world with disdain designating everyone else as ‘zombies.’ Who knows if Adam is justified in his judgements, but this label brings up an interesting point about the state of popular culture. Presumably the zombies represent the masses, who blindly follow trends and fads without an appropriate consideration of artistic and cultural contexts and historical lineages that could potentially influence the artworks themselves. Have we as a culture embraced rampant consumerism with respect to our artwork, especially film? Has the payoff of a franchise become more important than the artistic merit of the film? Perhaps this is the case within the confines of the mainstream, and Adam certainly represents the most pessimistic of artists working outside of that box. However, Jarmusch is an optimist, and he combats Adam’s pessimism with his partner Eve’s joie de vivre, and ability to see the beauty and merit in (at least some of) the zombies. Yes, zombies exist. Yes, some of them are horribly annoying. But, some of them do have uses (Adam has a zombie of his very own named Ian), and all hope is not lost. Jarmusch’s ability to create a film such as this is proof that it is possible to make a film for the sake of the story that is creative and not beholden to a powerful monied force. (I’m still just sad that it was so royally snubbed at the Oscars).

Birdman’s ostensible message is similar to that of Only Lovers. A commercial success searches for the meaning behind his career, and finding none, seeks to create something truly worthy, a real artistic triumph. Everyone has the right to explore themselves as an artist, but Riggan’s motivations may be motivated less by the art, and more by the ability to call himself an artist. What better backdrop to explore different perceptions of what art is than what is essentially a fish-out-of-water story: a movie-star in the heart of theater. Certainly the debate surrounding whether film or theater is more worthy is not a new one, and the decision to film this story instead of stage it as a play provides an interesting metaphorical framework to explore the artistic differences present in the filmmaking world. Yes, the story takes place in the realm of the theater, but I’m not sure that Iñárritu’s intent is to comment upon that realm. I like to think that in this case the theater represents non (or rather less) profit-driven filmmaking combatting with big, bad Hollywood. At the same time, a person who is widely regarded as commercial may have an unfair stigma attached to his or her person that is hard to surmount, resulting in a potential unfair characterization of his or her foray into a more experimental or alternative realm of artistic production.

I am of the view that an artist rarely embarks upon an endeavor with the explicit intent of portraying certain thematic material. Because an artist is an artist certain thematic considerations may certainly subconsciously inform the production of the work, allowing for a complex interpretation by critics and theorists. There is something less true about a film that self-professes to be an artwork, because it is important to remember that so much of what goes into a film is the result of purely pragmatic production considerations. Sometimes the doves do appear in the frame purely coincidentally. (I’m not sure why doves in particular seem to resonate with me as a particularly illustrative example of this). If after the fact it lends validity to an interpretation in favor of a comment on the fleeting nature of life, or the importance of world peace, so be it, but in many cases it is wrong to imbue every aspect of a particular mise-en-scène with meaning.

So, although I have just spent many words trying to unpack subtextual meanings of these two films, I could not without good conscience publish this without the recognition that sometimes a spade is just a spade. I find this to be consistently lacking in theoretical discourses surrounding film, and I implore all of those with any slight inclination towards these discourses, not to abandon them, but instead to include the possibility of the logistics of production influencing the final product beyond what was intended by the filmmaker. This is a recognition of collective authorship, and consequently contests that a film becomes more than the sum of its parts because so many different people and variables work together to comprise it. A director may certainly be the originator of a particular idea, but he or she is not the sole author, and few (save perhaps self-described auteurs) would contradict this notion.


One thought on “What is Art?

  1. Pingback: Dear Mr. Jim Jarmusch | letterstofilmmakers

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