Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Value of Art

In advance of the Oscars next Sunday, there's a post germinating in my mind on the cultural divide over Narnia and Brokeback Mountain. In the course of my research on the conservative Christian response to Brokeback, I noticed a number of people gleefully point out that while the film garnered the most Oscar nominations of any work this year, its overall earnings at the box office don't rank anywhere near the top grossing films.

I find this specious for many reasons. The year's top moneymaker, Revenge of the Sith, came out in May and is already on DVD; Brokeback opened in December. Furthermore, Brokeback is an arthouse film, not crowd-pleasing blockbuster. The subject matter is mature and controversial, with an admittedly limited appeal. March of the Penguins it is not. But what does that have to do with the quality of the film? Are they trying to argue that if Brokeback was as good as "Hollywood" and "the liberal media" say it is, it would be making the same money as Star Wars? And, who said Revenge of the Sith was good?

Judging a work of art by its popularity is a risky proposition. The Phantom of the Opera opened in London in 1986 and is presently the longest running show in Broadway history; it has been seen by an estimated 52 million people. But does it belong in the theatrical pantheon alongside Hamlet and Hedda Gabler?

What about The DaVinci Code, another work that has some Christians concerned? It's been on The New York Times bestseller list since April, 2003. I thought it was great. But if I were in the business of giving literary awards, Dan Brown isn't anything close to Garcia Marquez or Barbara Kingsolver or Salman Rushdie.

Should the controversial nature of the story prohibit it from award consideration? Richard Strauss' Salome was pulled from the boards of the Metropolitan Opera after a single performance in 1907 and banned until 1934. At the risk of getting an angry email from Antonin Scalia protesting my endorsement of the theory of evolving standards of decency, you'd be hardpressed to find a serious person today who would criticize Salome's artistic worthiness on the basis of its twisted eroticism.

Does Brokeback promote a specific agenda? That's a topic for a different post, but the tactic of accusing a work of art of pushing subversive ideas is an old one. Going back to the Metropolitan Opera, its 1950 production of Don Carlo was vociferously protested by people who accused it of being a "pro-communist" opera because the Spanish Inquisition comes off rather badly in it.

Furthermore, sometimes a work's limited appeal is testimony to its sophistication. (And sometimes it's not: raise your hand if you saw Gigli. Exactly.) When I first heard Alban Berg's Wozzeck at 18, I was appalled. Now, not only do I appreciate it, I find it unspeakably beautiful and emotionally gripping, but it took six years of hard study at a conservatory to learn enough about composition to understand what's happening in the score.

At the heart of this conundrum is the ancient argument over just what, exactly, "art" is. Remember Piss Christ? Damian Hirst's pickled shark? Some people seem to be under the impression that in order for art to be art, it has to be "good," which means to them that they have to like it, or, at the very least, understand it. But if it elicits such an extreme reaction as inspiring protests and debates in Congress, my guess is, it's art.


Robert Bayn said...

Though Brokeback Mountain has not grossed as much money as other films, when compared to the amount of theaters it was in, it actually broke all box office records for the amount of theatres they were in. I have no doubt if Brokeback Mountain was released nation wide with no restrictions it would have been a bigger hit, and generally oscar winning films are not always the movies that make the most money, Shrek made a lot of money, but not oscar worthy. This goes back to the passion of the christ, which i later saw on DVD, and really was not that impressed, while religious fundies were upset that it was not nominated, the truth remained, a movie like that is generally not nominated, because of the gore. The attacks on Brokeback Mountain and the number of Oscar nominations, has more to do with a persons view on morals and religious values, than it really has to do with the quality of the film

little-cicero said...

"Judging a work of art by its popularity is a risky proposition."

Agreed, but so is judging a work of art by its POLARITY"

Art should not be judged by the controversy surrounding it, and it seems that that is just what is happening here. The critics want homosexuality to be glorified and beautified in the public eye, which is not necessarily a bad thing. If we agree on that, then we can ask: Is this interfering with the critics' judgement.

Further, most Americans like myself don't want to prevent the movie from gaining critical acclaim, we just think less of critics when they become activist judges, putting agendas, noble though they may be, on the same plain as beauty. Narnia was a beautiful movie...the fact that it had a much more positive message than Brokeback should have no bearing to critics, but it does have a bearing on Americans, so if the critics are going East and Americans are going West, the critics will eventually start wrting columns only for other critics to read, because Americans will more and more lose faith in their works.

Andy said...

The critics want homosexuality to be glorified and beautified in the public eye

I'm going to take a shot in the dark and wager you didn't see this film.

which is not necessarily a bad thing Wha??? Where is Little Cicero and what have you done with him?

Esther said...

If I cared about the Oscars I would make a comment. But I quit caring after The Return of the King. The way I see it, there were not many good movies made this year. It's almost always some movie that I would never care to see that wins best movie and best director anyway.

As for art. I don't think controversial-ness is exactly an artistic standard. I've tried to watch movies that were considered "artistic" before and the only ones I like are Tim Burton's. So, I have nothing to say, and I don't know why I'm even commenting.

I do agree that the critics of Brokeback Mountain's popularity are probably bringing all this up because of their religious leaning. Their argument is pretty stupid.

Trickish Knave said...

I have the same attitude as Esther towards the Oscar's, Grammy's, Emmy's, People's Choice awards etc. I lost interest in those shows a long time ago but the boiling point was The Passion. So much controversy about that film because of the story intepretation, the gore, and "anit-semetic" overtones.

The movie wasn't that good in my opinion although I think Gibson did a great job guilt-tripping Christians into becoming stronger in their faith.

I have not seen BBM, and probably won't unless it comes out on DVD and my wife rents it. I owe her a chick flick (no pun initended) for making her sit through The Matrix trilogy. I don't want to see it, regardless of box office status, not because of the controversy of the subject matter, which doesn't seem any more controversial than an episode of Will and Grace, but because it doesn't appeal to me as a film. If I am going to see a western, then it will have Clint Eastwood or The Duke in it and by God, someone is getting hung or shot.

I think that it is remissive that some theaters have pulled BBM from their listings but kept the shit-flicks like Hostel and Saw 2, movies that send the message that it is ok to watch sadistic violence drenched in gore but not ok to watch some cowboys play kissey face for fear of catching "the gay".

Nathan said...

What, who or where is Hedda Gebler? Well, at least I know what Hamlet is...a small town on the drive to Cannon Beach.

We have a term for judging works on their popularity, it's called pop (short for popular, like, duh!) culture. It has it's own awards ceremony on VH1.

Matthew said...

I meant to write about this topic, as well, but you've done a far better job than I could have, Andy. Excellent work.

Two things:

1) Judging the value, quality, or excellence of something based upon monetary success is not unexpected, given today's money-spun world, but it is rather inappropriate in this case. Pornography, for example, is a very lucrative industry. Does that mean that all the blow-hard Christians who are comparing Narnia's box office take to that of Brokeback's should no longer pursue the negative impact of pornogrpahy?

2) It says something really depressing and disappointing about our society - if we're going to go by box office takes alone - that people are better able to relate to talking lions, wizards, witches, hobbits, Sith Lords and Jedi Knights than they are to a couple of male human beings in love with one another. That's pretty sad, if you ask me.

little-cicero said...

Well, a film that shows cowboys, which are staples of American heroism, and shows them in romance with one another, is making homosexuality look normal, beautiful and compatible with the heroes Americans hold dear. What American man has not at one time or another fantasized about being a cowboy or other Old Western figure?

It is irrelevant whether I think it is a bad message, what matters is that it is being transmitted. Do you admit that such a message is indeed transmitted by such a movie?

Andy said...

It pays to read comments carefully. At first I thought you wrote, What American man has not at one time or another fantasized about a cowboy or other Old Western figure?, but now I see that word "being" in there changes that particular sentiment.

I don't think this movie particularly glorifies homosexuality. It's certainly not a "they lived happily ever after" fairy tale. It "normalizes" it, I suppose, by showing that not all homosexuals are shirtless, crystal smoking circuit queens. Poor, ignorant, hardscrabble white trash can be gay, too. It's a topic for another post, but really you seem to be falling for the idea that just because a movie is "about" something it is therefore "pushing" it somehow. Can't the story just be evaluated on its own terms without someone attaching an "agenda" to it?

Matthew said...

"Do you admit that such a message is indeed transmitted by such a movie?"

Do you mean that it transmits the message that gay men are like everybody else, and that they can even be (gasp!) cowboys? That they are human beings with legitimate feelings and emotions?

If that's what you're asking me, then the answer is a resounding "yes."

Is human love simply about a penis and a vagina? Because, frankly, that's what it's pretty much boiling down to in this argument.

Andy said...

Well, we passed a milestone today. This is the first time the word "vagina" has appeared on The Last Debate.

little-cicero said...

And the 1000th time the word "penis" was used.

little-cicero said...

Those who protest such messages do not do so because they'd rather see homosexuals oppressed by fear, they just don't want to hear about homosexuality constantly. These are the same people who are opposed to heterosexual sex in movies, and that sex is moral, whereas according to their interpretation of Scripture, homosexuality is profoundly immoral.

I am with them on this: We don't want to hear about your sexuality. This movie is trying to make immoral behavior normal and even fashionable (to Hollywood) in the public eye. Is that the goal? Is that the reason for the gay pride parades?

The Oracle said...

Don't get me started on Piss Christ and Damien Hirst's shark in formaldehyde. You don't actually like those do you?

I went to the Guggenheim in April 2003 and saw one of the exhibits by Matthew Barney. If you've been there, which you probably have, I think you'll understand when I say I have no idea what the hell I saw. Art, like music, has really gone down the tubes in recent years.

I don't really understand Picasso, but I love his artwork, so it is possible to like something while not understanding it.

little-cicero said...

If art is not beauty, as classical sensibilities would dictate, but it is simply the raw provokation of emotion, then I suppose that great literature would simply be writing "F#@K YOU and your mom!"

No, art is beauty, and I think that this is something on which the Oracle and I just might agree.

chiron said...

Little Cicero, you're going to be a great thinker very soon...I can tell...and I love your appreciation of the Beautiful...I love it too...but don't let it deceive you. Art has already said, "Fuck you and your mom!" and one of those pieces of theatre was Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Art is more than - and never merely - what you consider Beautiful...though these works of art are the ones you may enjoy is the sublime in all its manifestations...and to return to my example of choice...the sublimity of Shakespeare's Hamlet was expressed in his disgust, to excerpt only one II.ii.292: "...the earth...appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors." That's right, Little Cicero, somebody farted...and the lesson to be had there is that when you get caught cross-eyed by somebody else's vision of Beauty, beware, because the ugly truth can sneak up on your ass and set its bomb off right before your eyes. Hamlet was right. Sometimes Disgust is the sublime dimension of the world that gives forth Truth to the most perceptive among us. As for Brokeback...Andy's right...plain old simple folk can be's about that without "pushing that agenda" and it will rank right up there with other great stories about a failed romance. It's a great film with a gorgeous cinematography and score.

Steve Chapman said...

So last night I was out with a group of guys. They are between 30 and 45 all married, with significant others or looking. They are HETERO with all caps. Anyway, the discussion turned to movies and of course Brokeback Mountain came up. I saw it but in the group I was in did I admit it? NO. What was wrong with me? Do I feel the noose of exposure tightening around me?

Brokeback Mountain was a beautifully acted. It is a thing of beauty in many ways. I think it does deserve recognition. It is blazing the way for a discussion that has been long overdue about how to portray homosexuality without it appearing pornographic or all about sex.

little-cicero said...

Thanks Chiron

I don't doubt that this was a beautiful, well made film, which certainly does not make it comparable to Piss Christ. I can even concieve of the homosexual relationship being a refreshingly, if inappropriately, original twist to a plot. It may be better for people to see homosexuals as regular people rather than village people, as long as it is aimed solely at adults, but the fact is, Hollywood and the critics therein have an agenda, and it is interfering with objectivity.

Michael Medved, a talk radio host and movie critic who is known for his concern with values and messages in movies, gave this movie a good review, and said that it was beautifully made, and I believe him, but if our critics' agenda is being substituted for objectivity, and shock value is substituted for beauty, ultimately they will become completely irrelevant.

Future Geek said...

I think that the key is how creatively the shock value is used. Brokeback mountain might have been a beautiful movie with a great story if it had been a traditional hetero love story.... but the extra twist makes it a beautifully filmed love story that provides something unexpected and gives the viewer a new way of looking at the world.

That's art.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Future Geek and I am surprised to hear that someone thinks that little cicero will be a great thinker....

Andy said...

Honestly I see a lot of potential in Little Cicero. He writes passionately and has diverse interests, with strongly articulated points of view. He's just very, very young, so he lacks the breadth of knowledge and experiences that will bring force and nuance to his arguments, but those things will come.

little-cicero said...

Thank You Andy, but there ARE sources of wisdom which denecessitate experience...especially the Bible. That being said, I don't read it nearly as much as I should.