“She made a lot of good points with really bad examples,” was the review a friend, Alex Eckman-Lawn, made about Camille Paglia’s book Glittering Images. It was on off hand remark, in fact it may have been no more than a comment he posted on that ubiquitous social network. Truthfully I don’t think Alex actually read her book. I know that I didn’t. But his comment resonated with me, just as I hope it resonates with you. Of all the spectacles Hollywood has churned out for us to slather over with mixed enthusiasm, surely Revenge of the Sith is not “the the most powerful work of art in any genre in the past 30 years — including literature.”
Her review of Star Wars III left me with only one conclusion: that Camille Paglia, despite her encyclopedic knowledge of our shared visual history and heavy involvement in scholarly pursuits, has not consumed, herself, enough pop entertainment to properly write in the defense of its merits.
Either that or she was trying to lay a snide insult against contemporary art.
This opening is a digression, because I don’t want to write about Paglia. This essay is not an effort to disagree with her. I absolutely agree with the spirit of her pronouncement. My problem is that contemporary art begs for harsher ridicule, and pop culture needs more familiar praise. I had been stewing over the idea for a long time before reading about (about, because I did not actually read the thing itself) her book, and have been giving it much thought since then. Art has changed, and though many might agree with that banal statement, I am urged to define its changes. So I find myself grappling with that which I detest to the point of doing shoddy research (notice above). Simultaneously I don’t feel that I possess a scholarly demeanor, yet I press on.
In pre-industrial times art was much more difficult to produce. Obviously. But let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of just how much more difficult it was.
There were no art supply stores. The Renaissance men did not buy their paints at Dick Blick. Artists had to know what pigments were best, they had to find the pigments (buy them, gather them, stumble upon them as they pulled weeds from their gardens, who knows) and they needed to know how to produce a medium that would deliver that color to a surface. Tempera is an old reliable delivery system; a fast drying egg based paint that has an exceptionally long life, in terms of conservation. A lot of those medieval paintings and Renaissance works were done with egg tempera, before linseed oil became ubiquitous. Manufacturing tempera is relatively easy, if you have some eggs, but acquiring the ground compounds to use as pigments is above the knowledge base of most modern artists. Some of those ‘olden times’ artists even became just as famous for their ability to produce vibrant colors as for their skill at painting life like images, like Titian, who became known for ‘Titian Blue’. His skies surpassed what others could mimic, his recipe somehow different than what his contemporaries could manage.
And once these magic recipes for color were expensively gathered, the fast drying medium of tempera allowed for few mistakes. Now, let’s be clear, I am not lauding the ‘old ways’. I am not calling for our generation to move back to tempera. Heck, there are even artists who still use it today. The point I want to make is that the value of pigment has fallen, and the price of mistakes is no longer ruinous. And by mistake, I mean mishaps in craft.
If you’re concerned about the cost of the color cartridge on your printer, just imagine the budget for the Sistine chapel.
How did we move away from the preciousness of paint? Two inventions (more than two probably, but two stand out in my mind) helped. One was the collapsible metal tube. That’s the thing you get toothpaste in, or oil paint. It will store your goop, and you can squeeze some out when you need it, whether its tooth cleaner or a viscous oily pigment. This item started seeing use in the eighteen hundreds (industrial revolution). It’s what allowed artists like Monet to go out in a field all day and paint the gradually changing light that illuminated his haystacks. It became really easy for artists to shed their studio for the outdoors, since mixing and maintaining their mediums was suddenly not a prerequisite for production. It also allowed for the thick impasto style of van Gogh, whose paintings sometimes look like they were actually squeezed from the end of a tube of paint. After all where would that aesthetic come from, without a tube? And before manufactured paints who would want to waste their carefully ground and mixed material so flippantly and carelessly? And secondly, who could have afforded to?
The second invention that really shook things up was, of course, photography. Traditional skills started to become moot. Translating what you saw flawlessly onto the canvas, creating a facsimile that looked ‘real’ was no longer the singular domain of the human mind and hand. Chemically treated paper could capture the world quickly and accurately in surpassing detail (not to mention what its accomplished in the digital age, with infinite copies all over the internet). As such, observational work started to change. Futurism and cubism and surrealism and the list goes on; artists started to invent knew ways to see, almost in rebellion against that which science had conquered.
As our opinions on observation changed, so too changed the domain of art. The old hierarchy and standards crumbled. The past hundred years have seen the definition of ‘art’ get pushed, abstracted and rewritten until the playing field was beaten into its current state. The territory is endless. It would not be hyperbole to say that almost any activity can be given the mantle, with the proper argument and proper context.
What does this have to do with Revenge of the Sith, you might ask? I’m trying to draw some lines in the sand. I’m trying to stake out some boundaries. I’m trying underscore the idiocy of comparing modern movie magic to paintings.
In 2010 Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association ruled that video games are protected under the first amendment as free speech, giving them legal protection as creative works. I’m positive that movies and television are afforded similar (if not even better) protection, though I neglected to do the research (what can I say, I’m a millennial). The debate about whether or not video games are ‘Art’ with a capital A is ongoing. Its the sort of conversation that I tend to avoid. It is, after all, a slippery slope towards another conversation: what is Art? And that’s not a question I want to get mired in.
Yet I press on.
We can be sure of one thing. Its all made up. Giving Art a definition is not like identifying a rhinoceros. Some things are definitively a rhinoceros, and some are definitively not. We cannot expand the definition of a rhinoceros without doing some damage to the practice of zoology. Art on the other hand is our baby, our creation, both of the actual objects and of the practice at large. We can kill it, nurture it, and pervert it to our hearts content.
Identifying what Art Is can be like, well, like a lot of things. There are metaphors I could quote. Metaphors like “trying to herd cats” (which is not very accurate), or “like trying to catch moonbeams in a jar” (which is substantially better). When you’ve caught the moonbeams, maybe they’ll tell you. I’m not the guy to do it. After over a century of beating the poor word senseless, and moving it from common usage to stranger usage, one can’t help but to try and steer clear.
For the sake of brevity, let’s just settle on art being a form of entertainment, and weight it on those merits. This is not meant to undervalue Art, or paint it as less (pun alert!). Entertainment is not, in my mind, a synonym for shallow. All I really want is to make it easier to measure art against these new forms of expression, games, movies and shows.
How does art entertain? It can move you, dazzle you, interest your eye, and even arrest your heart. It can reach into the slimy muck of your mind and shine light on your humanity. It can do these things.
Revenge of the Sith does not (for me, I’m open for rebuttal).
Does art even exist? Is music art or is music music? Is Harry Potter Art? What if the movie was Art, but the book was just literature? We are entering into the the realm of the unreal. We tread on ground that is not. Let’s pull back, veer left, no your other left! Let us not descend into the pit of madness, but ascend to specifics.
Movies, shows and games are the the most contemporary form of expression, as different from the painted canvas as they are from the first Greek performance of Oedipus. They are the product of surpassing craft, which is an element that contemporary Art is often accused of lacking, especially by those who have not been indoctrinated by its formal study (I have a Bachelors in Fine Art, in case you were curious. And by ‘indoctrinated’ I don’t mean ‘educated’. I used a synonym for brainwashed on purpose).
Most animated films display more visual production than the collections of whole museums (I’m not going to cite that claim, you’re just going to have to swallow it like a big boy (or girl (or gender neutral))). And then there’s the concept art that never reaches the screen.
Heck, logging into facebook you’ll see more pictures than you find in some museums.
Live action movies also have extensive production, and use both expensively created props and endless digital effects. But like I said, we need to ascend to specifics. I already said I have a BFA. I majored in sculpture. Two of my old classmates were very interested in prop making, and after graduating went to New York City, and began working as fabricators. One of they’re post graduation accomplishments was making a prop for the show The Americans. It was an extremely lifelike hand, complete with the proper skin tone, hairs and even finger prints (more like finger textures, since I don’t think the prints match any real person). It contained a pouch of fake blood in the palm so that when it was stabbed onscreen it would bleed. Its craftsman, my old schoolmate, told me ruefully that after over thirty hours of work, the prop was onscreen for maybe a whole second.
If this much craft goes into one moment, what is the sum for a feature? Is not the hand itself a work of art? How can we leave the decadence of that spectacle? Do we ever feel the need to circle back to the white room, the immaculate but visually sterile gallery space with its collection of single static images? Can we really be touched by something so untouchable, so inscrutable, and above all boring?
I guess where I’m going with this is I don’t like how people use the word art. We’ve been using it as a synonym for “creative project” for a while now, and it has burned holes in our scholarship and our thoughts that let people compare Revenge of the Sith to everything in “the past thirty years including literature” to art like Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road or the 2003 HBO miniseries Angels in America, or (my personal favorite) Tekken 3, a video game for the PlayStation 1 (it also existed in an arcade format, you know, eating quarters). Heck, even the 2005 installation in Central Park titled The Gates, by Christo was better than Revenge of the Sith.