Art despises us and we despise art. At least, this is true of everything that we have been taught to call art. I’ve more or less come to believe that film is our own true art form, the artistic language of our present society.
Film is the one form that nearly everyone in our society interacts with. Not everyone reads books, and fewer and fewer people look at paintings or listen to music. True dancing by itself is a curiosity. The examples that are being made have been divided into “art” and “entertainment.” Serious examples are inscrutable and inaccessible to most people, which means that these art forms have become the domain of the initiated, who talk to one another and to themselves instead of to the larger culture. Old paintings and music, from times when these forms were more generally followed and appreciated, still resonate with most of us. However, their conventions have been adopted and built upon by film.
Twentieth-century “serious” music abandoned the conventions of all previous music, effectively cutting off the people of that century from any means by which they might have appreciated that music. The same happened with painting. But when we go to the movie theater and see a well-made film, whether epic or intimate, we see landscapes and sets that harken back to Vermeer or Carvaggio. We hear music that, while it may fall short of Beethoven and even Wagner, still leans heavily upon the conventions established by those composers.
Furthermore, the beauty and meaning of these images and this music are immediately communicated to us, without the intervention of museum guides or professors of art. They are not only self-interpreting, but they interpret one another, effectively preserving convention and meaning in a world where “serious artists” attack them. And it shouldn’t be a surprise that people flock to see such films. They talk to one another about the films they’ve seen, on the internet, and in personal conversation. They develop a sort of folk-criterion by which they judge and evaluate films. And the people who make movies and TV must listen to their viewers to some extent. In this way, the artist and the public “talk” to one another, back and forth, in a massive, ill-defined conversation about what is important to each. That is why film, as an art form, lives in a way that no other art form lives.
To say that film is an art form does not mean that every film rises to the level of art. Sometimes there are certain aspects of a film that do, and certain that don’t.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of having film as our primary art form? Well, probably more than I can name. I’ll talk about one each.
I’ve already touched on one important advantage. Because a movie is a combination of elements that used to be considered separate art forms, such as music, image, acting, and narrative, a film can be considered a sort of fortress of artistic convention. It’s hard to deconstruct. The music interprets the images; the images interpret the music. The narrative is communicated by all and in all; the acting does not stand alone but is fit into an overall design that includes all the other elements. By thus clinging together and interpreting one another, these various elements of art are mutually protected from the dismantling that is occuring everywhere else in our culture, to every other form of art. It’s possible that the rapid, multi-trillion dollar developement and celebration of this form is a reflexive act of self-preservation by ourselves as a culture. We do not want to break apart and our serious artists have embraced the breaking aparat that is coming upon us. So we have gone to an art form that was not considered “serious” except by people who made movies that no one watches and in this form we try to cohere.
The disadvantages are moral. If you are writing a novel and you want to portray an evil person who uses language unfitting for human ears, all you have to do is write the character as using that language. You don’t even have to directly quote the words he uses if you don’t want to. In a movie if you want to portray such a person, you have to get an actual human being to actually pronounce those awful words for you.
In painting or sculpture, if you want to portray a nude individual there’s the comfort of knowing that the nakedness is not the nakedness of a real person. In a movie, you have to procure, for money, a human being who is willing to walk into a room full of people and cameras, naked, and then allow the resulting images to be distributed throughout the nation. Some don’t mind this, of course. Probably more people mind this than they let on. But even when they don’t, it could be argued that their profession has purchased and disposed of a large part of their human dignity.
Of course, computer animation is an intriguing possibility in dealing with such questions.
And what about the very fact of acting? Why has theater, where acting originated, always been such a center of immorality and self-indulgent living? Is there anything to the idea that by regularly pretending to be something you aren’t, by speaking and acting and even feeling as someone other than yourself, someone who may or may not exist, you chip away at your own precious person? And if so, what can we say about an art form that requires such sacrifice? And what about a culture that requires such an art form?
I have many more questions, some of which have to do with what this form is capable of communicating and what it is not. You’d think that a composite art form, made of so many elements, would be versatile beyond any other form. But I don’t know.