Film Is Our Art

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.


  1. Yes. Film is our most popular artform for the reason that it encompasses so many artforms. Therefore it can appeal to a much wider audience


  2. Fascinating post! I always wondered whether our obsession with film was because we’re so lazy – it’s easy to sit and vague out in front of a movie. Impossible to vague out with a book. Hard work visiting art exhibitions.


  3. What I also find fascinating about film is the way it has the ability, like no other art form currently does, to transmit the values of a culture. People learn much about these United States, or think they learn, from the films that are produced from these shores.


  4. Eh. Yes. But does it make that wider audience too lazy to bear the effort of understanding a more contemplative art form?

    It is what it is, no more, no less.


  5. Dandelionsmith,

    Yes. If you watch films from the civil rights era, you see black people just sprinkled in here and there. They just exist in the film world, sitting at lunch counters and riding buses and talking to white people and doing stuff in the background as if it’s completely normal. The filmmakers by and large did not have to argue for equal social standing, equal rights. They just had to portray those rights as normal and pretty soon most people thought it was normal. That’s a very powerful effect in and terms of African American life probably largely helpful. Not deeply transforming the way a truly Christian solution should have been (but failed epically to be) but helpful. And powerful as far as it went.

    Now we see the same thing with homosexuality, or as they like to put it, “being gay.” In the course of about fifteen years, engaging in homosexual acts went from being something shameful to being something that today’s young people consider a simple matter of personal taste. All because romantic comedies unflaggingly gave the leading lady in each successive film a ‘gay’ best friend for ten weary years. ‘Gay,’ of course, is the avatar of homosexuality. They couldn’t portray actual homosexuality in mainstream films because it’s a lewd act. So they invented a homosexual personality, a third gender, established it as a symbol of the act, and lo and behold now it’s not only accepted but people who prefer homosexual to heterosexual acts now define themselves and each other completely differently than they did thirty years ago.

    Such power has a firm grip on the popular mind, but the popular mind is shallow; that’s the weakness. A stronger mind always knows that what it is looking at while watching a film is simply a highly-colored expression of someone’s opinion and receives it as such. Weaker minds “know” that it’s “not real” but they experience the film as if a close friend were living through it. And as a matter of fact, there may be some subconscious part of all of us that experiences a movie or TV show in that same way.


  6. I found your thoughts on “nakedness” in movies thought provoking. I’ve also wondered what toll tapping into one’s passions in such a way takes on an actor’s soul.

    The solution I would think lies in the very nature of “Art” films in that they can ingeniusly make a point without the literal acting out of such things. It is the genius of subtlety, sensitivity, and nuance that draws us in, ie, we are not forced into a crass literalness that coarsens us and takes us lower, not higher.



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