The eternal conflict of money and art

So here I am yet again sitting in the Westonka library using a free, government-provided computer and writing away. I don’t really have an agenda today but I didn’t want this blog to get dusty, after all. For that would be sad. It’s noisy and dull in here, surrounded by people going about their weary lives. I think pretty frequently about the interaction between art and commerce. Inevitably, we seem to live in a world where we must have money in order to eat, be clothed, have a roof over our heads, etc. – even have money in order to keep producing art. It’s a necessary evil that’s pretty much dogged all cultures since the beginning of time, whether Imhotep needed the Pharaoh’s patronage, or Michelangelo battled with the Pope, or Mozart had arguments with Emperor Joseph, or whatever the case. The moral has been: artists need to create art, but artists need money. Well, fuck.

One reason for me to contemplate this eternal struggle is my interest in film. Unlike writing, for example, film is a medium heavy in physical necessities, whether you’re talking people, equipment, sets, location shooting, the film itself, everything. Filmmaking has always been expensive, an investment on the part of someone who has the money to invest. The result is that while anyone can write a novel by scrawling down all their inner desires and dreams, committing anything and everything to paper, with no regard for who or what will end up reading it, a film is considered a failure by its producers if it fails to obtain an audience and high returns. This often leads to sacrificing what a few people want (say, the personal vision of the artist[s]) for what many people want – the millions, the unwashed masses. If you can’t reach them, well, your movie’s a flop. This creates the tension between art and entertainment, between highbrow and mainstream, between Persona and Transformers 2, to use a random example.

This problem, like oh so many, is created by money. If filmmakers didn’t have to worry about recouping what was spent on production, they could make whatever the hell they wanted. They could go in any direction, untethered to the needs or desires of the public. This is what avant-garde or experimental filmmakers tend to do – since they don’t need anyone to go and see their movie, they don’t have to worry if it sells. Of course, they also can’t spend as much on it, unless they have a wealthy patron who likes their style.

(Am I overgeneralizing? Fuck yes. Will I look back years later on this post, as well as the rest, and go, Wow, what was I thinking? Probably. But hell, I’m writing to write and maybe try to say something. I’m slightly educated, but far from fully. I see what I can see, and comment on it as I feel appropriate. If that’s not up to your standards, well, fuck you, I guess.)

So I try to let this knowledge of the tension between the commercial and the artistic inform my criticism and analysis. You can’t satisfy everyone, and if you try to, your product is likely to suck. After all, as I remind myself whenever I worry that people aren’t as stupid as I say they are, Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer’s Meet the Spartans was the top-grossing film in the nation for a short time in 2008. By all accounts, a dreadful, worthless, and pathetic attempt at a film, and yet statistically the most favored film in American theaters for a week. It’s times like these when I wish I knew anything about economics.

My point is that commercially successful films can certainly be good – take last year’s The Dark Knight as a perfect example – but by and large in order to reach across demographics and into the wallets of as many Americans as possible, you have to have something shiny, bland, and simple. Like Titanic: two pretty leads fall in love across class barriers (isn’t it romantic?), the ship sinks in a loud, visually stunning display, somebody dies (aww, sad!), and we get all the automatically generated pathos we can handle. James Cameron, you’ve done it again.

So I think it’s always good, especially when looking over received wisdom like the “greatest movies ever,” to consider money as a factor – was the movie made that way to be good, or was it made that way to attract lots & lots of viewers? This is nothing new. I think it’s revelatory that Thomas Edison, Wizard of Menlo Park and all, was more interested in the moneymaking capabilities of film than the artistic. In fact, I believe he was reluctant to switch from simple peepholes to projection, because then more than one person could watch at once, and where’s the money in that? This is a big issue in all of the arts, but I think it’s just always interesting to think about. Maybe in the future I’ll come up with further, deeper commentary about it.

The bleak imagery of Sue Coe

© Sue Coe, presumably

I think blogs are prettier when they have images in them, so here’s an image: during the spring, I checked out but was never able to finish the book X by comics artist Sue Coe, who apparently collaborated with Art Spiegelman. If you can track the book down, it juxtaposes the Civil Rights movement and the speeches of Malcolm X with poems about the treatment of animals and the struggle of the poor in a warring, wealth-dominated nation. It’s pretty disturbing, especially with Coe’s pestilently expressionistic illustrations.

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Filed under Cinema, Media

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