What is art? How do you define art? Is it only classical and traditional forms of expression, such as painting, sculpture and music? Or does it encompass a larger spectrum? Can a toilet bowl be art? Or pissing on a Jesus statue?
This is a sticking point among many people — where to draw the line on what art is and what is merely entertainment or, worse, simply junk. Many things considered art now were once considered nothing more than novelties or fads, such as film. Even now people debate the merits of such distinctions.
But I’m not asking if film is art. Of course it is. There are many films that express meditations on society, nature and the human condition just as well as — if not better than — any other medium. No, what I want to know is if can we classify popular films as art. And by popular film I mean mainstream, blockbuster films made purely with the intention of making a profit. Movies like “Transformers,” “Independence Day” and “Fast Five.” Obviously they can’t be art, right?
To this, I say nay. Of course these films are art. Why do you think the Sistine Chapel’s roof was painted by Michelangelo? Why do you think the Roman coliseums were littered with intricate stone statues? Why do you think Mozart wrote symphonies and operas? Why did Leonardo da Vinci actually paint the “Mona Lisa?” Money. Pure and simple. All these works of art were examples of artists doing something purely for commission — a lot of times hating the job and just punching the clock while doing it. That is not to say those paintings on the chapel’s roof full of naked people, or all those statues in Rome of naked people, or Mozart’s operas about naked people or da Vinci’s painting of naked people (and “Mona Lisa”, who should’ve been naked) aren’t art — of course they are.
They required craftsmanship. They required time, talent and determination — especially because they had deadlines. And these films face the same thing: tight deadlines, limited resources and outrageous demands. There is no denying the beauty of the alien warships in “Independence Day,” or the sight of giant metal goliaths in “Transformers” or the first time you see the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park.” Whether or not you enjoy the films, there is no denying the artistry in the design and execution of these visuals.
And that is still only one part of a whole; it is not the sum of all its parts. Even if the technical aspects — both visual and audible — are extraordinary, the rest of the film could be badly written and the acting wooden or non-existent or worse, Ben Affleck. It would be like a violin screeching off key all throughout “Beethoven’s 5th” or a thick red paint stroke blemishing “Mona Lisa’s” face like the Joker’s smile. While some of the piece might be striking, beautiful or breath-taking, the rest of it falls flat due to mediocrity or incompetence. To this, I go back to the subjectivity of art. The argument is not if popular movies are good art or not — the real question is whether it’s art at all.
It takes a creative eye to frame a shot, to dress a set, light a scene, set a tone, etc. Now, while a director may not physically move the camera or fiddle with the light fixtures, he is still responsible for creating a cohesive narrative and visual motif for the film. If the film is hyper-stylized and slick where bullets fling a guy twenty feet backwards in the air (while doing a back flip), or blow up cars like they were hydrogen bombs (and it is awesome) it is an artistic choice, just as much as making a film gritty and natural is. Now, one could argue that these choices are still made for commercial reasons — it is shown that a certain demographic will enjoy these types of films, regardless of plot and character, as long as things blow up. The point still remains, however, that these kinds of films’ stylistic and visual choices, whether you like them or not are still creative, and yes, artistic ones nonetheless.
But I’m going further, and addressing the fact that a lot of times these films can make you feel something. They can make you cheer, like during the President’s speech in “Independence Day,” or be taken aback in amazement by seeing the first dinosaur in “Jurassic Park” or even cry, like at the end of “Armageddon” (Bruce Willis!). This has to do with all the various pieces of the film’s puzzle — the effects and cinematography of course, but also the music, the acting and, yes, the director’s vision. These all come together to make films that amaze you with stunning visuals, but they also do something else. They can make you feel. And even if they don’t, and fail, like “Transformers 2,” the “Jurassic Park” sequels and every other movie Roland Emmerich did besides “Independence Day,” they are just simply bad pieces of art — but they are still art. And if they do happen to make you feel something — like if you actually cried because of Optimus’s death in the “Transformers” sequel, or actually felt bad about Godzilla at the end of that film — who’s not to say you weren’t genuinely touched? Even if these films were made solely for commercial gain and profit (because how dare artists want to make a profit!), if these films touched you and made you feel something, they succeeded. And you shouldn’t feel ashamed because you cried harder during the ending of “Terminator 2” than you did at the end of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”
Now, some people say that to call “everything” art takes away from things that are “really” art. This is a valid point. However, I think that the discussion of what is or isn’t art is many times the purpose of art itself. As art is meant to challenge and critique society, nature, the human condition — it is also meant to challenge and critique itself. If we create didactic institutions out of expression, then we stifle and limit ourselves as both artists and purveyors of art. Like folk art, popular films can be a window into the cultural zeitgeist, and help us understand our culture and our role in it. These kinds of films may be made for less than noble reasons, but the lowest art is nonetheless as much a part of us as the highest, and that must be understood. Once we finally blow ourselves up or get enslaved by alien overlords, the popular art, and in extension the popular films we make, will be just as scrutinized in understanding our culture’s views on philosophy, morality and society just as much — if not more — than art of great stature.
So, in the end, I believe all film is art. Whether it’s an art-house film directed by some French guy in black-and-white about existentialism symbolized by sex, clowns and pretentious voice-overs, or an action film with a hero who’s built like a steroid-induced brick house dodging machine gun fire simply by walking slowly forward and refusing to look back at explosions. They have their own merits. Because out of every one million people who disliked “Transformers 2” (God, I hate that movie so much), there’s at least one person who was changed by it in a religious way, the same way a person may be changed by a Shakespearean play or a symphony by Bach.
And, hell, even “Transformers 2” is only slightly worse than pissing on Jesus. Okay, a lot worse, but you still get my point.