Wednesday Afternoon at the Movies
Movies and the Middle Class – Part Four
Are movies an art form? Of course they are. I’m inclined to say nothing more, because I feel like I am preaching to the choir. And I do believe that question was answered about a century ago when nickelodeons were replaced by theaters showing feature films. Are live dramatic productions an art form; is photography an art form; is music an art form? If your answer to any of the above questions is yes, then I suggest that you might skip the next two paragraphs.
Motion pictures are an art form, with excellent, good, bad and worthless products; just as all other art forms. The motion picture industry has produced dramas, comedies, and musicals of varying quality. They have also produced movies that are nothing but propaganda pieces, movies that promote ideas and products, movies that cater to our weaknesses, inflame our prejudices, insult our intelligence, and movies that are just plain disgusting. But, there are also movies that promote our highest ideals, encourage us to behave better, to set higher goals for ourselves and for our societies, and to teach and inform us. There are movies that thrill and stimulate our visual and audile senses, and some that temporarily transform our perceptions of color, sound, form, movement and position. Also, there are experimental films that explore what film technologies can do. But, above all else, motion pictures are produced to entertain us.
All art forms contain an interaction between the artist and the consumer. Art for arts sake, produced in seclusion, never displayed to the public, does not really exist; it dies with the artist. The moment art is “discovered,” there is a consumer. And the consumer makes value judgments, which determines if the product will exist for more than a brief moment. The moment a creative product passes to the general public it becomes art, regardless of what judgments may be made on its value or utility. Products may be relegated to a dusty corner in the storage rooms of a museum, or it may be grandly displayed and sent on tours around the world, but it is an art form. All art, including motion pictures, experience this process.
Motion pictures were the dominant art form of the 20th century. They still are the dominate form in this first decade of the 21st century and will probably will continue so well into the future. This is especially true for the United States of America.
So, what do I mean by “dominant?” One way to measure this “dominance” is by attendance figures. Recently, it was estimated by the Motion Picture Attendance Association, that each year, there are four times the number of tickets purchased for motion pictures than purchased for all professional and collegiate sports events combined. This has probably been true for every year since the nickelodeon era; but sports are a type of entertainment, it is not normally considered an art form.
What is needed is attendance figures for other art forms, especially performance art; plays, dance, concerts, etc. I’m sure those figures exist somewhere, but it has been a daunting task to try to find them. However, we do have attendance figures from the Motion Picture Attendance Association that is relevant. Every year approximately 10% of the American population attends a motion picture once a week. Since we are considering the affect of motion pictures on the public, not the monetary gain of the industry, I am convinced that at least another 10% of the population view current release movies on pay per view TV and movie rental companies. I don’t think hard numbers are necessary to see the overwhelming hegemony of the influence on the American culture of motion pictures when compared other performance art.
I have given some thought to the comparison of the relative influence of literature with motion pictures. My conclusion is that it is not really possible, for several reasons. The first is the lack of data; there are books everywhere and they keep moving around; there is no way of knowing who is reading what, or even what has or is being published. The second is that works of fiction, biographies and historical events are a major source of ideas for music, visual arts, theater, dance, and motion pictures; literature cannot be separated out from the other arts. And, lastly, the development of language, story telling and then literature has been a defining factor between pre-human hominids and socialized humankind. Literature has been and will continue to be the most influential of the “arts.”
Producer and consumer. All art forms have an economic base. While the artist creates and/or performs, someone is footing the bill for their food, clothing, and shelter. It is a grand and noble statement, “Art for arts sake;” but, starvation has a way of capturing ones focus. While one cave dwelling ancestor of ours was drawing antelope, bison and deer in the depths of the cave or carving bones into trinkets, other ancestors were out killing antelope, bison and deer, and sharing the meat and hides with the ancient artists. Undoubtedly, there were a lot of hunters and only a very few who could draw on walls or carve bones; and no one who did neither. Life had to become more complex; hunters more tolerant before critics could carve their niche in the food line.
Artists must produce something that attracts someone who will provide support. All artists must have a sponsor or seek another line of work to survive. Often, art then becomes a secondary source of income, or a hobby. I believe that creativity is a characteristic that is innate in all humans, to some degree, and that everyone attempts to act upon their environment; to manipulate, embellish, adorn or decorate. As I look around I see it in the most complex and the most mundane aspects of life. But, that is a different essay.
The most important assets of the “sponsor” are their ability to support the artist; and to be in a position to provide that support. For most of recorded history those assets have been vested in the political leaders and the spiritual leaders of cultures. And, those who had those assets were not very good at sharing. This most natural of economic relationships, which dictated what was called “art,” continued until the late 19th century. The majority of the populations, the subjects in these cultures, had their own art forms; basically folk music, folk dance, story telling; but, other than limited views of castles, cathedrals and an occasional statue or fountain, they were seldom, if ever exposed to the “high arts.”
Just before the beginning of the 20th century, technological inventions and methodology turned this ages long structure for the support of artists on its head. When the ability to record visual images and audile sounds, and the ability to mass produce the products at a reasonable cost, combined with the emergence of a large middle class of factory and office workers who could afford to purchase these products; the support of artists in these new arts was transferred from the aristocracy to the general public. It seems fitting that the country that first wrested governance from the aristocrats and bestowed it on the general population should be the leader in this realignment of the support of these arts. This initial flirtation between the middle class and the two new products, motion pictures and recorded music, would develop into mutually enjoyed love affairs; they became major players in the cultural change.
The results of this dynamic union of media with the multitudes have been profound. For one hundred years, at least 20%, and perhaps as much as 65% of America’s population has seen widely shown movies within a short period of time. To be widely shown they had to have themes which appealed to this large audience. Studies of those themes would show what the values and attitudes of the young adult movie goers were at that time. I would suggest that the primary movie going public is those between 16 and 40 years of age. Although control of political, business, educational and spiritual organizations are in the hands of those over 40, the operation is of those organizations is dominated by those under 40. Individuals and age groups will have there own opinions and judgments of any movie, but they all will have experienced the same set of widely shown movies.
In addition to whatever theme or themes are in these movies, they are also works of art and generate an emotional experience in those in the audience. In other words, everyone who attends this type of mega-film carries something away from that film which becomes a part of them. As different as the experience of each individual may be, there is a communality of shared experience: a small bonding that is shared by all. Multiply this by 3 or 4 such movies a year, for 20 years and you have a generation who share a set of experiences, and these experiences are translated into values and actions. The 16 year old may not be able to talk to and agree with the 50 year old about how to live their lives, but they will share this central core of values and beliefs.
But the audience is not a bunch of blank slates, automatons marching to a theater to receive programmed responses. If they do not have some interest in the themes presented, they will spend their movie money on a different film. The movie industry is keenly aware of this condition, and is careful to select themes that will generate income.
Are the movies the only players in this area of human behavior: of course not. Long before the movies came into play, parents, extended family, social conditions, schools, peer groups and a host of other influences were molding and shaping the personality of the child. But at about the age of 12 or so, when the child moves on to intermediate school, puberty moves to center stage, and the child begins to be aware of itself as a member of groups larger than just the home and school room. Weekly movie attendance with their peers becomes common and the themes in the movies begin to occupy a position of great importance in the experiences of the new adults in training.
In the 20th century, the movies showed the majority of young America’s, native born or naturalized, what it was like to be an American; the vast diversity of our peoples and geographies; and a simplified and romanticized picture of our history. In the second half of the century the movie industry took some giant steps, and monetary risks, and began to show the full story; including our prejudices; businesses abuse of labor; labor unions abuse of its members; everyone’s abuse of the environment; our ongoing disenfranchisement along racial, ethnic and gender boundaries; and various other “not so attractive” parts of being an American. But, through it all, in the face of all our shortcomings and embarrassments, we, as a culture and a nation, are recognized as being much more and better than some of our history. We know that, and part of the way we know that, can be attributed to the American movie industry, whose feet are constantly held over the fire by middle class decisions at the box office.
The motion picture industry is a system motivated by the capitalistic pursuit of money. As flawed and self serving as that is, it is constantly critiqued, evaluated and corrected by the middle class of America: their ballot being the price of a box office ticket. Will this system continue in the near future—I think so. As long as the ticket price remains affordable to the middle class, the motion picture industry will continue their pursuit of that ticket money by producing what the public wants to see.
As the mediocre 3-D films that followed “Avatar” showed, you had better have a good story to expect success. Everyone loved the theme of “Avatar”: what can happen to a big business when it tries to run over and destroy a lovable and respected indigenous people and their religion. When it is through with its first run in theaters, DVD sales and rentals, and the various television options, more people will have seen “Avatar” in the standard format than the motion picture 3-D version. It’s really all about the story, and the quality of the telling. Take a look at the sales figures: you can watch the middle class voting, expressing its love for a job well done.