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Week 5: Defining Reality

Before the emergence of written language, there existed rock carvings, cave drawings, and stone arrangements in Prehistoric Art. This was followed by Ancient Art’s spiritual and symbolic imagery. Medieval art somehow resembled this, but was leaning towards a bit more gothic themed. Then, eventually, the Renaissance period entered with its prioritization of details, realism, and fascination with elements of nature. In the succeeding eras, these realist features are exaggerated and embellished, until the peak of this grandeur and dramatic style culminated in the Baroque era. The eras that followed, such as Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Realism, and Impressionism, all differ variously in styles, but not in their subject. The subject was always what is real, and the style just serves as an exploration and expression of that reality. It was only in the Post-Impressionism era, when abstraction was put in the spotlight. But even then, and with the emergence of Expressionism and Cubism, art was still about reality. 

“In defining them as art, it must always be kept in mind that even the most creative filmmaker is much less independent of nature in the raw than the painter or poet; that his creativity manifests itself in letting nature in and penetrating it.”

(Kracauer, p,153, 1960)

However, around the early 1900s, Sigmund Freud inspired an artistic movement that explored the surreal, thereby fueling movements such as Abstract Expressionism, and Optical Illusions. But with the advent of industrialization, our focus on dreams and worlds beyond ours were diverted again to what’s in front of us. The emergence of industries paved the way for Pop Art, and has forced art to focus on beautifying commodities so that they will sell. Years later, when marketing principles have been established, art is free again to find its new identity. This rich history of stylistic exploration has eventually led to Contemporary Art, which is ultimately an exploration in itself, of Postmodernism, expressionism, digital, street art, and many more. All these, of course, are still excluding other forms of art such as music, literature, and film. But even so, the emergence of photography and film still served the main purpose of capturing reality in one way or another. However, my primary intention in writing down this brief history of the evolution of art is to emphasize the fact that, in the majority of the entirety of its existence, art’s subjects have mostly been about what is “real”. This leads us to the question of what, actually, is so artistic about reality that attracts us to dwell on it so faithfully? Answering this question will lead us to the examination of the functions of art, four of which, I will highlight. 

First, we are inclined towards making reality the subject of art because we are naturally compelled to record data, more importantly, visual data. In a continuously growing society, time is of the essence, and people are constantly given the task to record as much as they can because, in truth, time will keep running. This is why we have avenues for recording such as journalism, the study of history, photography and, ultimately, film. The more we record, the more we can remember and grasp a moment that cannot be frozen in time. Beyond this, recording is also an effort of communicating, whether it be in today’s time, or from one generation to another. Art has to record because it has to keep conveying and expressing the realities of current generations as witnesses of evolution.

“It is entirely possible that a staged real-life event evokes a stronger illusion of reality on the screen than would the original event if it has been captured directly by the camera.”

(Kracauer, p.149, 1960)

Second, human beings are natural storytellers. Anything about everything can be made into a story. The best storyteller is one that can convince an audience that her/his stories are real events. Real stories are the more haunting ones because they either tell a historical occurrence, or they depict a version based on what really happened. This is why, when we watch horror movies or tragedies nowadays, it is more chilling if the film claims that it is “based on true events”. Of course, this way, art tends to enhance reality for the sake of entertainment and economic value, and people are aware of this and they are fine with “altered reality” because they would easily accept any story told to them, so long as it seems convincing. The world is very much obsessed with “chismis” or gossip culture, which boosts up the economic value of talk shows and reality shows. This is because gossips are real stories, masked or modified, to portray a reality apart from ours. One tendency to this is that people may become tired or bored of their own realities that they are drawn to the realities of others. Another possibility is that we insist on intruding on other people’s stories because we would like to grasp a reality of theirs that may seem unattainable to us and, therefore, is intriguing to us. In short, we want to hear stories of other people’s realities because we would like a taste of that which we may never experience. The value of the truth is so high, that people are so invested in investigative stories and shows that feature infidelities, guess-the-father in unexpected pregnancies, and other stories that are highly intrusive of other people’s lives.

Third, art has long established its function as a social commentary, even as materials for political discourse and propaganda. Art that is based on socio-political realities attracts people who either share similar views or are opposed to it. Since this particular function of art also aims to persuade masses into certain viewpoints by highly influential leaders and institutions, viewers are inclined to question the truth out of it so that they could decide on their standpoint. 

“The viewer is presented visually and ideologically with a single flat picture of the bourgeoisie world not to be unthinkingly accepted as transparent and easy to understand, but to be examined, criticized, and rejected.”

(Braudy & Cohen, p.3, 1974)

Overall, people are drawn towards art that represents realities which can be viewed, questioned, reflected upon, and criticized. This is mostly because people like having opinions and having a safe space to express these opinions. They appreciate commonality, but are also attracted to opposition. With art providing this avenue for discourse, people can keep deciding on matters of the past, present, and the future.

Lastly, art is an outlet for emotions. Humans, being naturally emotional, would always look for avenues to express their emotions. Physically, these are shown very easily through uncontrollable facial emotions and body languages. This is why Balasz, in his essay, emphasizes the value of the closeup. He says that close ups “show the faces of things and those expressions on them which are significant because they are reflected expressions of our own subconscious feeling” (Balasz, p.315, 1945). He further states that, “A good film with closeups reveals the most hidden parts in our polyphonous life, and teaches us to see the intricate visual details of life” (Balasz, p.315, 1945). More than expressing our emotions, we are inclined to find similar emotions in art which we could relate to. But beyond viewing art, another important self expression related to reality is imitation and, when pushed further, interpretation.

“Imitation also permits people to cope with significant experiences. It provides release and makes for a kind of reciprocity between the self and the world…In practice, there has always been the artistic urge not simply to copy but to originate, to interpret to mold.”

(Arnheim, p.185, 1933)

It may be true that the evolution of art is always in parallelism with reality, because reality is what we see, and imitating it is the only way we could possibly make sense of things. This way, we end up treating imagination as symbolism, and we consciously insert our own formative tendencies to depictions of realities. Ultimately, this leads to imagination being a method of redefining reality, where it’s role is just to push the limits of how far we can stretch reality to the point that it is still believable. At one point, there is indeed truth to these statements. But I would like to argue otherwise. I believe that there is no such thing as an absolute reality.

Reality is subjective. We often discuss reality as basically just what we see in front of us. This includes nature, people, societies, culture, etc. But, in my opinion, that is not the case. That is only a fragment of reality. Choosing to see reality as only such would limit it to visual reality, alone. This definition is clearly lacking. Instead, reality is a culmination of everything—the visual truth, historical context, personal experiences, down to emotional value. In the context of film, Kracauer, in discussing cinematic approach, mentions that,

“In strict analogy to the term “photographic approach” the film maker’s approach is called “cinematic” if it acknowledges the basic aesthetic principle…It is evident that the cinematic approach materializes in all films which follow the realistic tendency.”

(Kracauer, p.152, 1960)

This, in the context of my argument, is false because visual realism alone should not dictate the standards for aesthetic principles. To be clear, I am not saying that whatever we see in the world is not real. I am simply stating that they should not be the basis for reality, alone

Artistic movements beginning in the era of surrealism suggests the appeal of the surreal. Even nowadays, we are thrilled by the emergence of augmented reality, multiple-dimensional images and film experiences, as well as virtual reality. As Kracauer mentions, “the underlying formative impulses are so strong that they defeat the cinematic approach with its concern for camera-reality” (Kracauer, p. 153, 1960). There is a strong inclination to the formative approach because we are beginning to grasp the truth that the language of art is not caged in reproducing the physical world. Like in beauty, art is slowly rebelling against standards that have long been set by those in power. In terms of cinema, we are now seeing a dramatic advancement of the experimental genre, as well as a rising economic value for fantasy. Even an imagination of a reality can eventually be another person’s actual reality. The reason why contemporary art has barely any distinct overpowering style is because we are at an era of new discoveries and understanding of the potential of art. Art, therefore, nowadays, is not anymore caged to its ancient purpose of mimicking reality. It aims to redefine reality, talk about it, amplify it, and shape it in whatever form reality might take.

References:

Arnheim, R. (1933). The Complete Film. In Film and Reality.

Art History Timeline: Western Art Movements and Their Impact. (2019). Retrieved 11 October 2020, from https://www.invaluable.com/blog/art-history-timeline/

Balasz, B. (1945). The Close-Up. In Theory of the Film.

Balasz, B. (1945). The Face of Man. In Theory of the Film.

Braudy, L., & Cohen, M. (1974). Film Language. In Film Theory and Criticism.

Jirousek, C. (1995). The Evolution of Art. Retrieved 11 October 2020, from http://char.txa.cornell.edu/ART/introart.htm

Kracauer, S. (1960). Basic Concepts. In Theory of Film.

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Week 4: Investing in Words

How much is art, exactly? A painting on canvas, for example, could range from Php 3,000 if painted by a freelancer/amateur artist, and up to millions of pesos if painted by a professional or well-known painter. This differs from drawings made with charcoal, watercolor, or colored pens, which are a couple of hundreds, at bare minimum. A film, on the other hand, ranges from Php 150 to Php 280 at a local moviehouse, or up to Php 450 if screened at an IMAX theatre. Of course, exclusive screenings are priced differently, depending on the agreement with the exhibitor. Now let’s talk about how much it costs to be an artist. Usually, artists are formed at a young age when their parents decide to invest in their skills. Typical weekend lessons in the arts for the youth are at Php 1,500 per session, ranging from 9-12 weekend sessions. Excluded here are the art materials, musical instruments, or whatever equipment one has to buy to make the artwork. Those cost thousands of pesos, plus maintenance/repair over the years. An art course at a local college is an additional investment, costing hundreds of thousands, if the student is not a scholar or was not given any school allowance. And finally, freelance work would not be kick started without the investment in new equipment and sample art works for portfolio’s sake. In short, it costs a whole lot of money to be an artist. Because of this, it also costs much more to buy or have access to their art.

In an ideal world, art is for everyone. It is wrong to discriminate against those who are naturally gifted, but it is a fact that, gifted or not, the underprivileged lacks representation in the artistic academic field, and ultimately, in the creative industry. This leads to the reality that, in the current world we are living in, art is a privilege. Since art takes a lot of time and resources to make, more often than not, it is produced to make money or to gain patronage by being exposed to as much audience as possible.

“Because art takes time to make, its makers are often those with a luxury of time”

(Mishra & Galchen, 2016)

Artists are trained about form, style, and technique. But because of art’s commercial value, they are also influenced on the artistic content. They are taught to abide by certain templates so as to make their work “sellable”. These templates encompass values, beliefs, and aesthetics that are deemed pleasing and acceptable by the target market—the middle and, most especially, the upper class. This way, these social classes are given the power to dictate what is beautiful, from what is not. 

“Our elders had learned to always, always keep a finger on the pulse of the mass audience, or else risk career stagnation or worse. They might have welcomed a system that rewarded them with “independence,” but the question must be asked: independence from what, or whom?”

(David, 2015)

Their collective opinions are what also influence the artistic representations of those outside their realm, despite their limited knowledge on the world beyond theirs. There is no artistic freedom, as the “freedom” is bound by certain norms and predispositions. Because only a few can afford art, those few are given the power to influence its content. They are also the ones who can judge it according to their preferences. This way, one can say that art becomes a medium of cultural, political and social conversation of the higher classes. But, in the perspective of the artist and the critics, one can also say that art is a medium for communication with those in power.

“Opinions, in so far as it concerns the communicative saturation of the Same, carried over a space of discourse that only requires discussion based on commonality.”

(Mendizabal, 2019)

In today’s society, for a decent conversation to happen, people must be on the same page. It is discriminatory, in a way that they will not be automatically engaged, if the ones they are talking to do not share similar views or are not from the same social status. People like talking about similarities, but they hate having to confront differences. This is why criticism, let alone negative criticism, is usually frowned upon, especially in art—a platform that is considered by many as a “safe space” for freedom of expression. Don’t get me wrong, people love expressing their opinions. They like having the space to let out their personal judgments. This is why social media is so popular. However, social media, according to Mendizabal, “has further obscured opinion into the basic unit of its communicative neural network. It became a marketable product which further blurs its determinateness and further intensifies its commercialization (Mendizabal, 2019).”

But what does criticism supposedly contain that makes the higher classes frown upon it?

“Critique must constitute judgment and comprehension as practices that arrive at Truth.”

(Mendizabal, 2019)

Criticism begins with the experience of art. For film, in particular, this experience is not only limited to the audiovisual encounter of the medium. The kind of experience required entails a radical encounter of something beyond the Same (Mendizabal, 2019). This encounter with the truth of the art form must be full enough to push the viewer into asking questions beyond one’s personal principality. Criticism is not classified as part of popular culture because it requires so much more than just viewing and reviewing the art. It asks for energy and effort from the critic to seek beyond the aesthetics for the deeper meaning and truth behind the art, that is rooted in its historical, political, social, and personal context. To be a critic, one must be overwhelmed and submerged by the art in such a way that s/he is pushed towards starting a conversation about what the entirety of the art intends to tackle. This conversation, unlike reviews, are not limited to the fetishism of aesthetics, but rather, it aims to unravel the political and economic side of art—one that is not talked about, because it brings out the negativity that is rooted from the overall oppression, misrepresentation, and exploitation of the proletariat.

“Among students of culture, the body is an immensely fashionable topic, but it is usually the erotic body, not the famished.”

(Pangilinan, 2014)

Criticism will talk about what is good about the elements of an artwork. However, it will also tackle everything that it stands for. It refuses to discuss norms and preconceived biases towards content, but rather, it challenges the templates of art and seeks to look at the famished and impoverished aspect of it. Criticism proffers discourse beyond an elaboration of the writer’s personal responses (David, 2015). But above all, criticism aims to push for a discourse spoken in the language that those in power could understand.

Given this, we can conclude that criticism is a form of activism. It is a social responsibility that should be taught and invested on. Words are very powerful tools for change. Policies and laws are rooted from words which are, then, rooted from discourse between those in power. Ideally, the duty of those in power is to listen to the plight of the masses who gave them their power. But this is not the case. There is a social language barrier that shuts them off to embrace commonality within their class. Through criticism of art, the critics will be able to speak in the language that the higher classes would appreciate and listen to. It would, initially, open their eyes to a new and deeper experience of the art. Once they reach this brand new level of appreciation, they will be engaged enough to know more about the art, what it represents, and the social forces that brought about its making. 

“There is significant investment in the production of art, but no substantial effort to sustain critical practice and the necessary interlocution to the exceptional aspirations of both artists and audiences as well as to their many productive imperfections.”

(Flores, 2014)

We invest in the artists but not in the critics maybe because we are afraid of the idea of change. In the recent 2020 Netflix hit, Enola Holmes, a quote about politics went viral:

Photo from Netflix’s Enola Holmes
(Source URL: Facebook post by Joseph Justin)

Education is necessary for one to be able to think beyond one’s personal opinions. With education comes privilege. Maybe society does not invest so much in critics because the thought of us confronting our own social classes and our own privileges to pave the way to the inclusion and uplifting of the marginalized scares us. We are so comfortable in our current world that we refuse to question it and engage in a conversation about what might possibly change it. It is not so much that criticism entails a degree of art study and appreciation that is beyond the understanding of a simple mind, but rather, the simple mind refuses to expound on its potential because it is afraid of what its power would bring. It is afraid of seeing the fullness of the Truth in the art because it knows that, once it sees it, there is no going back. After all, there are so many injustices and discrimination rooted from power play that are happening in the world right now. And if we are still not angry, what is blinding us?

Criticism is already powerful, in itself. How much more powerful will criticism be if geared towards something as equally powerful as the arts? This is why the term “starving artist” is popular, because society refuses to give art the value that it deserves. It might end up being too powerful. But words cannot be silenced forever. There will come a time wherein society will be ready to invest in words that will allow them to have an encounter with the Truth. It is inevitable that society will slowly open to change. The question is, by the time that it is ready for change, will we have invested enough in individuals whose experiences with the Truth will allow them to see past current realities and, at the same time, are courageous enough to recognize their duty to talk about it?

References:

David, J. (2015). Pinoy Film Criticism: A Lover’s Polemic. Retrieved 4 October 2020, from http://themanilareview.com/issues/view/pinoy-film-criticism-a-lovers-polemic

Lumbera, B., Deocampo, N., Flores, P., Pangilinan, C., Tiongson, N., Tolentino, R., & Gueb, E. (2014). On Poetics and Practice of Film Criticism in the Philippines [In person].

Mendizabal, Adrian D. “Transforming Film Criticism into a Militant Practice.”Strike II, 15 Dec. 2019, http://strk2.com/2019/12/transforming-film-criticism-into-a-militant-practice/

Mishra, P., & Galchen, R. (2016). Is the Idea of ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ a Sign of Social Privilege?. Retrieved 4 October 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/26/books/review/is-the-idea-of-art-for-arts-sake-a-sign-of-social-privilege.html

SM Cinema to open more IMAX theaters; to go digital. (2011). Retrieved 4 October 2020, from https://www.bworldonline.com/content.php?id=29966

Westhale, J. (2015). On The Privilege And Assholery Of Being An Artist. Retrieved 4 October 2020, from https://medium.com/the-establishment/a-room-of-my-own-on-writing-privilege-and-the-assholery-of-artistry-71cb3ba2c435

Whitlock, M. (2020). Student art: only for the privileged few?. Retrieved 4 October 2020, from https://cherwell.org/2020/05/29/student-art-only-for-the-privileged-few/

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Week 3: Consequences of thought

Education has always been a privilege. It should be a right, but it’s not—at least, not yet. A quick glimpse at the history of education will show us that, in the past, it was given exclusively to male heirs of the wealthy to train them in medicine, law, and religious doctrines. The working class could not access education, partly because of the cost, but mostly due to the fact that they do not have the luxury of time to spare outside the workforce. They could not study because they had to prioritize working to put food on their tables. To add to this, there was racial discrimination and sexism. Women were not allowed to study because they were only expected to stay at home and handle the household. If they were allowed to pursue careers, it would be in vocational courses, such as dressmaking. To generalize, an educated person in the past was a rich, white, male. In the context of the Philippines, it was a wealthy mestizo

The same is true for the study of art. For centuries, it has been limited only to the educated and the wealthy. When art was introduced to the educational system, it was mostly only limited to the enhancement of the skill. Eventually, most prominently in the late 1800s, critical thinking and interpretation were considered as important factors in art education. By then, scholars not only looked at art, but they also studied, interpreted, and transcribed the experience of it. For centuries, there was a greater sum of laborers, not thinkers. People were forced to work, not think. There was no room for thought, let alone for criticism and proper discourse between the classes and the sexes. Only the privileged could think, granting them power to decide what is wrong from right. In the perspective of art, the privileged decided on what to look at, how to look at art, and more importantly, how to interpret and criticize it.

Nowadays, the circumstances have progressed a little bit, as both men and women are given equal access to education. Education is still primarily for those who can afford it, but with the development of technology, everything has been widely accessible, including education and, more so, art. In this digital age, almost everyone has smartphones. With one click, a user can view any painting, watch any film, and listen to any music. With another click, s/he can read what it’s about, the different reviews on it, its history, significance, and basically almost everything about everything. Freedom of information eventually leads to freedom of the mind. Now that information is accessible, there is more room for opinions, especially when it comes to art.  A.O. Scott says in Better Living Through Criticism that,

“…the universal capacity of our species—to find fault. And also to bestow praise. To judge. That’s the bedrock of criticism.”

(Scott 2016, p.10)

We are intellectual and, therefore, judgmental beings, whether immersed in the educational system or not. Technology has provided us an avenue for expressing our thoughts. We have become more courageous with our opinions because we are equipped with knowledge that we can so easily get. There is a downside of this influx, however. Scott further states that,

“There is no room for doubt and little time for reflection as we find ourselves buffeted by a barrage of sensations and a flood of opinion.”

(Scott, 2016, p.12)

With everyone having a say in everything, and with all these opinions publicly expressed, consumers of mass media will end up trying to digest so much, leaving them without thoughts of their own. What is worse than this is that they will try to digest as much information as they could by scanning quickly, without diving into the details. This is a nightmare, not just for critics, but to any individual who wishes for her/his work to be taken seriously and not just be “passed by”. A work of art is made with passion, skill, and awareness towards political, social, and personal surroundings. Beyond being seen, it is also experienced and studied because it holds a great deal of value beyond the physical aspect. With the experience of art comes the freedom of the mind to a multitude of thoughts and emotions. And, as Scott pleasantly put it, “it is the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom” (Scott, 2016, p.13). 

Criticism, as the great Pauline Kael worded it, “is written by the use of intelligence, talent, taste, emotion, education, imagination, and discrimination” (Kael, 1994, p.231) However, at the age of information overload, where fast facts are the preference, people have several tendencies towards handling information such as criticism. The first tendency is that the consumers will just take the collective opinion and adapt it as their own. Say, for a new film, people would quickly scour the internet for movie reviews. If you notice the layout of most of the review sites, they are in a format wherein one could only see the summary first or the first couple of sentences, plus the “star rating”. If the viewer wants to read more, that is the only time they can choose to expand the review to see the rest of the article. This is because people prefer fast facts. They want information instantly such that they end up not thinking anymore, but just consuming. If they see that the majority of the reviewers like the movie, they decide instantly to see it. They do not bother asking the question “Why?”. The collective opinion matters so much that if a minority disagrees with this, they end up being “cancelled” or dismissed. The mob mentality is too strong that individual opinions that are unique or thoroughly processed are rare. This leads me to the discussion of the second tendency of people, which is to choose the convenient opinion, one that is not that difficult to read.

In the context of the Philippines, we Filipinos are not exactly leading globally when it comes to reading comprehension. We are, of course, not alone in this. But, this signifies that the greater majority choose to just let information pass by their eyes and they are not really inclined to process it. Good criticism is rich in information and discernment. It is filled with educational quality references and associations. Back in the olden days, when only the privileged examined art, most people would turn away from art because they regard it as elitist. They could not understand it because they were not taught how. I would say that there is not much difference with our circumstances nowadays because most people refuse to discuss art because they regard it as something that is way past their understanding. They would settle for more simple and short criticisms simply because they are more convenient. There is little to no push for a higher regard to the importance of understanding art because, until now, it is still considered as a privilege. This is a challenge for modern day critics—how can people be encouraged to read past the simple one-liner judgements? How can they be driven to want more? In the age where everything you need to know is being fed to you, how can one be encouraged to question further what one is consuming?

This is where education plays a large role. Scott says,

“That everyone is a critic means, or should mean, that we are each of us capable of thinking against our own prejudices, of balancing skepticism with open-mindedness, of sharpening our dulled and glutted senses and battling the intellectual inertia that surrounds us.”

(Scott, 2016, p.13)

It is easy to express an opinion, but it takes a whole lot of effort to express a knowledgeable one. Idealistic as this may seem, when everyone is given access to education wherein they are encouraged to be open-minded towards different understandings of art, they will be able to produce opinions that will help in the deconstruction, exploration, and enhancement of its experience. 

“Part of me wants to reach those who aren’t so cinephillic, to try and spread enthusiasm for movies that may not otherwise get their deserved attention.”

 (Cook, 2013, p.7)

Good criticism does not just inform, it opens up doors for a greater appreciation, and even improvement, of art. A work of art itself is a piece of criticism, according to Scott (Scott, 2016, p. 18). Art does not just exist, it evolves. It changes according to the taste and preferences of each generation. It is also influenced socially and politically. Say, for example, movie remakes. A lot of people have been commenting that there are far too much movie remakes nowadays. The previous generations are angered because they do not like the classics or “originals” being touched. 

“Imitation is not the erosion of originality; it is the condition of originality.”

(Scott, 2016, p.20)

If one dives further, these remakes are products of criticism from the past and current generations. Some films, for instance, are being remade because they contain racism or discriminatory content that are highly unacceptable in today’s society which, thankfully, is beginning to not tolerate any form of discrimination. Movements for diversity and inclusivity for women and difference races are also being pushed, especially in the film industry. Nowadays, we have females being shown as “badass” characters, playing roles and doing stunts that only men did in the olden films. This is because a generation criticized those old works as not depicting the fullness and realness of what women are and what they can do. The minority is screaming loudly for its rights, and what used to be the majority is being forced to listen, despite their ignorance. 

“Every writer is a reader, every musician is a listener, driven by a desire to imitate, to correct, to improve, or to answer models before them.”

(Scott, 2016, p.19)

These movements of revising art forms are products of criticism of the old art which depicted life in older lenses. Artists are listening to their critics and changing the mistakes of their predecessors. The new art, which is a product of its own time, should also portray life according to its current lenses. There is a huge backlash and resistance, however, in this process of transforming art because some consumers of the old art are stuck in their principles from the past. Sadly, some of the members of the newer generations were also influenced to think via these old principles. The irony is, each generation criticizes art to the point of its transformation. But the generation who brought about changes are also the most resistant to the art’s new evolution. Criticism has evolved far from how it used to be. At this day and age, there is already a space for everyone to criticize art. There are also spaces for everyone to view each other’s opinions on art. This way, we influence one another. With the movement toward more accessible education for all, sooner or later the majority will be more motivated to refine their opinions and become better critics. And given that the consequence of criticism is change, the question is, are we ready to accept this change? Can we, as critics, accept the challenge to experience art through a new generation’s lens?

References:

Carlton, Genevieve. “A History Of Privilege In Higher Education | Bestcolleges”. Bestcolleges.Com, 2020, https://www.bestcolleges.com/blog/history-privilege-higher-education/.

“Film Criticism: The Next Generation”. XXXVIII, no. 2, Cineaste Magazine, 2013, https://www.cineaste.com/spring2013/film-criticism-the-next-generation. Accessed 27 Sept 2020.

Kael, P. (1994). I Lost It at the Movies: Film Writings, 1954-1965. Marion Boyars Publishers.

Scott. A.O. (2016). Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. Penguin Books.

Starkey, Joy. “History Of Art: A Degree For The Elite?”. The Guardian, 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/jan/09/history-of-art-a-degree-for-the-elite.

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Week 2: Misunderstood

Making art is both an emotionally soulful and painfully personal experience. After deciding what form your art will assume, your thoughts and emotions will combine to produce what will inevitably be considered as your style, and their continuous outpour will contribute to the completion of your masterpiece that may or may not be slightly governed by limitations, depending on whose eyes the work was made for. There is already a degree of pressure at this point because these eyes not only look and judge the work, they also interpret, criticize, and ultimately possess the work. These eyes are the root of every artist’s anxiety and insecurity, for with them lies the utmost fear any artist has with regards to her/his work—the fear of being misunderstood. And to be misunderstood would mean two things: (a) being wrongly or imperfectly interpreted and (b) not being sympathetically appreciated. Let us first tackle the former. 

To be misunderstood is to be wrongly or imperfectly interpreted. It is an instance when one’s audience fails to capture the intent of the artist with the work. To understand the context of the audience’s interpretation, we must first look into the need for interpretation. Susan Sontag, in her essay, Against Interpretation, carefully suggests:

“To understand is to interpret. And to interpret is to restate the phenomenon, in effect to find an equivalent for it.”

(Sontag, 1966, p.4)

She further writes:

“The situation is that for some reason a text has become unacceptable; yet it cannot be discarded…The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can’t admit to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning.”

(Sontag, 1966, p.3)

People interpret because they desire to understand the art. And I would like to suggest that this desire to understand stems from the desire to possess and make it one’s own. This is because, beyond entertainment and luxury, people consume art for its emotional value—the very distinct quality that makes the audience feel something upon beholding it. Adorno and Horkheimer once theorized a “Culture Industry” wherein popular culture leads to and promotes conformity because, as the works of art are transformed into easily reproduced commodities, they are standardized with the same templates and formulas that eventually contribute to their predictability. And with this culture industry of conformity that manifests itself in our society today, there is a greater desire to personalize art. With this movement of personalization, the tendency for interpretation is to look beyond what everyone else is seeing in order to make one’s experience and understanding seem unique. This tendency is what brings forth misinterpretation. In order for a viewer to consider an artwork as one’s own, the viewer will attempt to alter and eventually transform it in accordance to one’s own preference, which is usually, if not always, very far from what the artist intended. But do not get me wrong, my intent is not to invalidate one’s own experience with art, but merely to emphasize that such urge to personalize the experience leads to more avenues for over reading, misreading, and ultimate confusion of a work.

In contrast to the points on individualism and personalization, I would also like to put forward the fact that we currently live in an era of collective opinion. Notice, for example, a short film going viral on the internet. At first glance, a viewer may have her/his own experience with the film. S/he might find it despicable or a waste of time. However, after scrolling through comments by other viewers, s/he might find that the majority were very much captivated by the film because of multiple reasons. The said viewer will, in turn, develop a bias towards the collective opinion and s/he will now try to find reasons why the film is good, despite not liking it in the first place. Conformity to collective opinions lead to the perishing of individuality. We live in an era where the minority is condemned and “cancelled”, while the majority decides the fate of an art work, and eventually, the artist. Because of this collective opinion, the artist will end up trying to explain oneself or to make the art explicit of its meaning, to avoid misinterpretation and even “cancellation” as an artist. The sad fact is that this collective opinion often comes forth from viewing the art only at its surface level. It is basically seeing art and judging it instantly without dwelling further on any of its elements, its historical context, and its significance as an art work.

“We live in an era of ordinary criticism…A more concrete way to put the charge is to say that in recent film studies interpreters have paid scarcely any attention to form and style.”

(Bordwell, 1989, p.260-261)

Because of standardization, we have been taught about what to look at and how to look at art. We look at the same things and give the same types of interpretation, only in various forms, over and over again. This leads us to the second definition of misunderstanding, which is to not be sympathetically appreciated. This is an incomplete understanding and underestimation of the work of art. We are unable to go beyond our basic understanding of art because we are conditioned to interpret them based on only specific structures. There is a lack of in depth studying to fill a criticism sufficient to cover the entirety of what the art is all about. In line with this, the study of form and style should not be bypassed. Maybe people need to understand more the elements of a work of art. As Kael puts it, “criticism is written by the use of intelligence, talent, taste, emotion, education, imagination, and discrimination” (Kael, 1994, p.231). Beyond interpretation, the viewer must aim towards a full criticism, which is a skillful work of art in itself. A while ago, Sontag’s definition of understanding art is to interpret it. But beyond this, I think that to understand art is to be able to challenge it.

Overall, interpretations should not just be about putting meanings based on certain principles or emotions. It should also be about questioning the very existence of that work of art. In understanding the context of art or why the work is made, the viewer will be able to connect with the artist and get a glimpse of the artist’s intention. Of course, the viewer may choose to either accept or reject this intention, but the important matter is that the experience of both the artist and viewer will be intertwined in such a way that there can be a discourse.

Proper discourse can only occur when one tries to open oneself up to the world of the other. Interpretation can become an avenue for the viewer to open herself/himself up to the art form, experience it for what it is, and be one with that world for a moment. This way, interpretation’s purpose is further expanded into one that leads to discovery of many things beyond emotions and associations. In this process, maybe one can discover that interpretation can be a reflection of oppression, either of the artist or the viewer. When the viewer becomes more open, the art will be experienced for its entirety. There is lesser risk of it being under appreciated and underestimated. The fullness of the experience of it encompasses different worlds intertwined, triggering conversations. This way, the context of the art may not be limited to the artist’s purpose. Viewers may be able to provide contexts on their own based on their personal experiences with society, for example.

With all these possibilities for different ways of experiencing art, maybe the eventual misunderstanding of the artist’s work is not something to be fearful of because, ideally, it will create a platform for discourse. Whatever emotions and associations were triggered by the art, whether intended by the artist or not, will lead to discussions about issues that matter, things to be talked about, and risks at hand. With discourse comes action that is fueled by passion rooted from the same passion used to create the art work, itself. And with proper and sufficient action comes resolution. It is a very ideal process, but not completely impossible. And at the end of the day, in all sense of the word, maybe art is meant to be misunderstood after all.

References:

  • Bordwell, D. (1989). Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema. Harvard University Press.
  • Kael, P. (1994). I Lost It at the Movies: Film Writings, 1954-1965. Marion Boyars Publishers.
  • Misunderstood [Def. 1, 2]. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster. Retrieved September 20, 2020, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/misunderstood
  • Sontag, S. (1966). Against Interpretation and Other Essays. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
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Hello, random earthling!

My name is Alaine.

I am currently a film graduate student and an aspiring filmmaker.

This blog was first dedicated for my papers in Film 270: Advanced Film Theory and Criticism (2020).

Now, it is dedicated for my Film 299 Research Updates (2021).

If you so randomly find yourself getting lost in this space, feel free to explore my thoughts. There’s plenty of room in this alienated world.