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Week 12: A Time to Talk

In 1997, the famous Ms. Universe pageant asked, then candidate, Sushmita Sen a question that would trigger discussion all over the world. She was asked, “What is the essence of a woman?” To this, she replied,

“Just being a woman is God’s gift. The origin of a child is a mother, a woman. She shows a man what sharing, caring, and loving is all about. That is the essence of a woman.”

(Sen, 1997)

Although her answer highlighted the caring and nurturing qualities of a woman, it also put a spotlight on motherhood. And, while the whole world was discussing what should be the answer to this question, most were agreeing that to be able to give birth or to mother a child is the essence of being a woman. This, in itself, is troublesome because it puts aside women who are unable to produce children because of medical reasons. It also disregards women who choose not to have children, or could not adopt, or could not afford surrogacy, and so much more. Pinpointing the essence of a woman to just her ability to reproduce is locking her purpose into a society-given task which, if she fails to do it, would decrease or even eliminate her value as a person. Sen’s answer, as heartfelt as it is, highlighted “sharing, caring, and loving” as women’s traits, despite the fact that these qualities should be present in all types of people. As a matter of fact, in any way one looks at the question, there could never be a correct answer because the question, itself, is what is problematic. To look for the essence of a particular person is to basically ask what differentiates her/him from anyone else. It’s a question of identity, and it’s troublesome because it cages and reduces that person into a certain trait or quality. It is a question that does not seek to explain, but rather seeks to impose a definition, as a means of exerting power. The fact that this question was asked to a woman, in the most prestigious pageant in the world where she is supposed to reign, just shows how the world belittles a woman’s glory and tries in any way possible to take her away from her rightful pedestal. I, for one, would argue that the essence of a person lies in their sense of identity and the strength and determination that goes with assuming this identity. But with a world so obsessed with defining someone’s identity, this “identity” becomes a task, an element to be proven and questioned, rather than what one ought to live by. For people to live out their respective identities, they must face the challenge of getting out of society’s definition of them. This is exactly the unnecessary challenge imposed on members of the community, most particularly on the LGBTQ+ community.

With the rise of the LGBTQ+ empowerment, the world is determined to better understand their identity, but in the process of doing so, we are once again falling into the pithole of putting stereotypes. These stereotypes, not only serve as limiting entities, but rather they instill certain impressions on these groups of people in order to generate further hatred and avoidance geared towards that which they do not understand. It is only common, after all, to fear what one does not understand. 

“It is the ideological function of the lesbian body to warn the ‘normal’ woman about the dangers of undoing or rejecting her own bodily socialization. This is why the culture points with most hypocritical concern at the mannish lesbian, the butch lesbian, while deliberately ignoring the femme lesbian, the woman whose body in no way presents itself to the straight world as different and deviant.”

(Creed, p. 101, 1995)

The lesbian community, for example, have been stereotyped for being the “tomboy” persona, a woman who typically dressed and acted like a man out of her desire to be a man. This stereotype puts the “essence” of the community in the way they dress and behave. This also completely sets aside lesbians who are society’s definition of “feminine” in action and appearance. In the context of film, along with the butch lesbian is typically the comedic gay character, who acts “feminine” and dresses in women’s clothing. They are also typically shown in beauty parlors, as well as comedy bars. Do not get me wrong, some of these stereotypes are truthful. There are such people as butch lesbians and comedic gays in parlors, but there is an outrage for such representation in the media because it limits people’s image of them to just those. Such images are what people get used to, and when they end up being shown something else, they react negatively and shocked because, to them, what they are seeing is not anymore Queer Cinema, but misrepresented people who are “bad” examples. The danger is in idealizing a kind of queer because it marginalizes and, therefore oppresses, everyone else outside that limited definition.

 “…the politics of representation is still the method of choice in the popular gay press, where it has devolved into movie-star interviews that let us know which actors are out of the closet, and brief film reviews that help us to locate “positive” or “liberating” images of gay people.”

(Hanson, p.6, 1999)

The world is so curious and invested in people coming out of the closet. Whenever a celebrity does it, it’s always all over the news. A person’s sexuality is always a big deal to the point that people are bombarded with questions the minute there is a speculation about their sexuality. Someone’s sexuality is none of anybody’s business, whether the person chooses to hide it or not. It should be celebrated but it is not for another person to pry on. The dream is to live in a society where people don’t have to come out anymore because being queer is normal. Technically speaking, “coming out” is at the service of the heterosexual, as much as it is a celebration of the identity of the person coming out. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where sexuality is a huge part of gossip culture because to be queer is to be “unnatural”.

“We have been compelled in our bodies and in our minds to correspond, feature by feature, with the idea of nature that has been established for us. Distorted to such an extent that our deformed body is what they call “natural,” what is supposed to exist as such before oppression. Distorted to such an extent that in the end oppression seems to be a consequence of this “nature” within ourselves (a nature which is only an idea).”

(Wittig, p.9, 1992)

By this definition of Wittig, during oppression, that is, in the state of queerness, one exists as an “unnatural”. She furthers by saying that “One is not born, but becomes a woman” (Wittig, p.10, 1992). I definitely agree that it is nurture and culture which forms the identity, and not biological factors. However, the use of the word “unnatural” is problematic for the masses. To say that being a lesbian, for example, is “unnatural” because women are formed and are not born by “nature” just makes it easy for society to tweak this and put on a negative connotation to being queer. We are arguing that gender due to nature does not exist and it is extremely ironic that nature, particularly biology, is also the primary argument for the discrimination of the queer community. People who take pride in discriminating genders would just argue that being “unnatural” connotes a problem, psychological perhaps. The challenge in this case is, therefore, how to translate the cultural contribution to one’s identity in a way that could be understood well by the masses and not be an added factor to further discrimination.

“To refuse to be a woman, however, does not mean that one has to become a man…For a lesbian this goes further than the refusal of the role “woman.” It is the refusal of the economic, ideological, and political power of a man.”

(Wittig, p.13, 1992)

This beautifully put quote from Wittig further emphasizes that things are not just black and white. It was never about being just either a female or a male. There is a wider spectrum between the male and the female that people have to understand. And the breaking of these black and white definitions goes beyond furthering into the borders of masculinity and femininity. It also involves the refusal of an ideology and an economic and political assertion of power. To deny the dualist stereotype is to deny power to a system that placed dualism as a dominant structure in the first place. This is why the call for a progressive representation, not just in media, is important because it goes beyond dualism and tries its hardest to explore and understand the marginalized communities. But what is, in fact, a progressive representation?

“Instead of psychological complexity, we find predictable types and cardboard role- models. Instead of intellectual depth, we find a political slogan disguised as a narrative. Instead of aesthetic ingenuity, we find a stilted form of social realism. Instead of “accurate” or “positive” images of the gay community, we find an anodyne fantasy of the gay community.”

(Hanson, p.8, 1999)

“I was troubled by a pronounced audience tendency: the desire for something predictable and familiar up there on screen.”

(Rich, xxii, 2013)

As previously mentioned, it is very likely for society to keep falling into the trap of stereotypes, especially because queerness is attached to capitalism because it is linked to what is marketable and what the audience will like. We cannot change the tendency that the audience will want to look for a familiar stereotype or something that they are used to. However, we can try to change that which they are used to. 

“Instead of being politically correct about what we see, we are asked to be politically correct about how we desire.”

(Hanson, p.13, 1999)

We need to examine our own desires as much as we need to examine what is being desired. It is important to call out misrepresentations, but it is equally as important to look into our own tendencies and, therefore, our own standards because, more often than not, these standards are highly influenced by the power in play in the society. A progressive representation is that which is inclusive, therefore, our standards have to be inclusive, as well. All representation matters because, the moment you put people in a box, you oppress them. Queer people, just like any other character in a film, have to be able to be everything, from heroes to villains. Their representation should not be limited only to what is “politically correct” because this is, yet, another definition that may be limiting. When there are limitations, chances are, you remove their possibilities. 

In order to promote inclusivity in forming queer characters in cinema, there has to be enough discourse. Another danger to this is the bias against emotional discourse. Wittig describes it as “the one which says: you do not have the right to speech because your discourse is not scientific and not theoretical“ (Wittig, p.26, 1992). It is, in essence, a wrongfully put assumption that you do not know what you are talking about because of your biological limitations characterized by your emotions. For example, people feel strongly about their sexuality as being queer, but this identity is invalidated by society because they assume that it is based on emotion and not scientific facts. The society nowadays, being in an age of exploration and new discovery is, fortunately, more open to discourse. However, in this discourse, a common mistake is to engage in conversation for the mere purpose of generating yet another definition. Society should stop trying to define. It seeks to get a glimpse of queerness, for example, just so it could be put on a canvas. It’s effort to understand is equated with the effort to produce something marketable and definable. This way, cinema is not progressive in its totality, but performative because, more than trying to market queer, it is also still sanitizing it to fit a certain definition. Current cinema, in this sense, is still a barrier to progressive representation.

Lastly, just as with the argument that nothing is ever natural and that culture prevails, we have internalized everything, including homophobia and biased judgment towards the queer community. We were not born politically correct and incorrect. Rather, it is us who decided which aspects of culture we will allow ourselves to be instilled with. This is why discourse is extremely important. We need to keep talking about these things because they matter in as far as people are actually being oppressed. The moment we stop talking about something, it ceases to matter. So we need to keep discussing progressive representation, especially in the media, which is highly influential. And in doing so, we need to ask the right questions, and not keep questioning the essence of things, seeking to define a scope which is immeasurable in the first place because, at the end of the day, the essence of a person is not what matters, but rather her/his freedom to assume fully the person that s/he is born to be.

References:

  • Creed, B. (1995). Lesbian Bodies: Tribades, Tomboys and Tarts (1st ed.). London: Routledge.
  • Hanson, E. (1999). Introduction. In E. Hanson, Out Takes. Duke University Press.
  • Rich, B. (2013). Introduction. In B. Rich, New Queer Cinema. Duke University Press.
  • Wittig, M. (1992). One is not born a woman, The Straight Mind. In M. Wittig, The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Beacon Press.
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Film 270 Post

Week 11: Visual Transcendence

There was a brilliant 10-minute short film that went viral a couple of times in social media. It was made back in 2018 and is entitled “Leading Lady Parts”, written and directed by Jessica Swale, produced by Rebel Park Productions, starring a number of female celebrities including Catherine Tate, Emilia Clarke, Lena Headey, and Florence Pugh, to name a few. As the title implies, the film is set in an audition room where several actresses come in for a script read in front of the casting director and crew who, in turn, dictate what they want from each actress in terms of both emotion and physicality. In one of the earlier scenes where they ask an auditionee what they thought of the character, she replies with “I think she’s pretty”, to which the panel sighs in relief, but is eventually disappointed when the auditionee meant to say “pretty clever”. The panel responds, “Clever’s not really something we want or care about, at all, actually. You do realize this is the leading lady part?”. The film went on to show extremely unrealistic demands of the casting panel, such as in an instance when they were talking about making the character cry, to which they emphasized, “She could cry, but not like ugly cry. More like sensual sexy crying, like wet, in a shower of crying…and smiling.” Lastly, the panel also went to the extremes, discriminating auditionees of color, as well as those who are not of the “ideal” body type as dictated by the highly unrealistic standards of society. The most notable quote of the film from the panel is when they asked Florence Pugh to lose weight, saying:

“Could you just be a bit thinner? We really saw her as thin, like a twiglet. You know, feminine, vulnerable, delicate, thin, but with a great rack! Stick thin with boobs and hips, but not big hips not, you know, “baby bearing” hips…It’s not rocket science darling, we’re just asking you to be thin and curvy, sexy and innocent…Just you know, “leading lady”.”

– from Leading Lady Parts (Swale, 2018)
A screen caption from Leading Lady Parts (Swale, 2018)

The film ended with the panel ultimately casting Tom Hiddleston for the leading lady part, without even letting him read lines from the script. It was, overall, a brilliant criticism of the ridiculous expectations from women in the industry, as opposed to men who can just choose and get the parts that they want simply because they are men. It was a stab at the dominant sexism and racism towards women which, unfortunately, go beyond the boundaries of the film industry. In this discussion about the expectations from women, it is also important to tackle their public portrayal in film that is the root of these expectations. Throughout the history of cinema, they have been shown as many things, five of which I will highlight in the succeeding paragraphs.

“The determining male gaze projects its phantasy onto the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.”

(Mulvey, p.11, 1975)

First, and arguably the most common one, is that women are usually shown as objects of pleasure. They appear on screen for the sole purpose of being looked at. Everything, from their head to toe must be conventionally attractive because it is their job to attract, not only the leading men, but also the audience. Mainstream film has been structured to direct attention to the female human form. She is admired, fantasized on, examined and, as I would like to put it, visually stripped and harassed. The gaze towards her, no matter how innocently it begins, eventually turns erotic, as it is designed to be developed in that manner. Most especially in early cinema, the female character never drives the plot, but rather freezes it as she turns all attention towards her. She is both an attraction and a distraction. She never gives too much emotion or action, so as not to drive too much attention away from her physicality. Mulvey perfectly captures this in her essay, saying:

“…her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation…As Budd Boetticher has put it: ‘ What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance.’”

(Mulvey, p.11, 1975)

Second, in the evolution of cinema, women have been given a wider scope in their roles. They are now given the freedom to execute one important gesture of emotion that they were trained so well to do—cry. And it is with all the intensity of sarcasm that I intend to say that it is extremely delightful that women were also given the chance to play between being scared, sad, angry, and vulnerable. It just proves how well they give the “distressed” part to the role of “damsel-in-distress”.

“Obviously their emotions have overpowered their reason, and they can’t control themselves.”

 – Plato’s view of the soul and body (Spelman, p.115, 1982)

Turning away from film a little bit, there are countless times wherein women would not get elected for a government position because people would argue that they are so hormonal, they could “start a war within 10 seconds”. But then again, just as a journalist pointed out, weren’t all wars started by men? In the context of cinema, it was established previously that women were intended to pause the narrative to gain attention for themselves. That would mean that the male characters, down to the viewers, are overfilled with their erotic desires that they literally freeze to look at that which captivates them. This implies that it is the men, not the women, who appear to have no control over their emotions. They are the ones whose reasoning is overpowered by their desire. Such emotional triumph over thinking not only limits the narrative, but also limits the art in the perspective of the viewer, who cannot help but reduce it to merely satisfy a visual pleasure.

Third, women are treated as lower beings. Spelman mentions that “slaves, free laborers, children and animals are put in their place on almost the same grounds as women are” (Spelman, p.118, 1982). This brings about oddity, as one would not typically fetishize over something they look down on. Fetishism is usually a product of admiration, not of hatred or classism. In relation to this, women are also treated as possessions. The clash between fetishism and discrimination is ultimately bridged by possession, which is an act of trying to own and grasp things which you cannot understand. Since it has been difficult to understand women, emotionally and physically, because of their difference to men, they are being admired and oppressed at the same time. It mirrors the urge to possess and give meaning to art so that its transcendence may be brought down to something more reachable to the common man.

Fourth, women are used to represent and embody men’s insecurities. They are everything which a man cannot and should not be. A man ought not to dwell on his emotions, according to society. He should be a thinker, not a household laborer. His physicality and disposition should neither be equated to weakness and femininity. He can only give out reasoning, not empathy, discourse, not compassion. The image of a woman as a castrated man enrages the male because the absence denotes the void in his being, as well as his limitations.

“Woman’s body is slashed and mutilated, not only to signify her own castrated state, but also the possibility of castration for the male. In the guise of a ‘madman’ he enacts on her body the one act he most fears for himself, transforming her entire body into a bleeding wound.”

(Creed, p.52, 1986)

Lastly, women are portrayed as bridges in a man’s story. They are passersby, never heroes. The woman neither brings questions, nor answers. She is simply there to stop by and leave for the narrative to go on. She becomes the subject of the story when she is looked upon, but as soon as the gaze reaches an end, she has to vanish, for her existence will only hold back the man from fulfilling his purpose. The man, by all means, has to succeed. He has to move on and reach the epitome of his being and purpose, and he has to do it in the absence of that which represents everything that he cannot be. As Creed directly puts it:

“She is no longer the subject of the narrative; she has become the object of the narrative of the male hero. After he has solved her riddle, she will destroy herself.”

(Creed, p.61, 1986)

Given all these primitive standards of portrayal that continue to exist for women, it would be unfair to say that cinema has not progressed after all these years. Women are continuously on the way to getting the respect and place that they deserve in society. With the rise of feminism, they have been given main roles, roles that defy the typical “feminine” character, and even roles that highlight their womanhood as strengths, not weaknesses. Throughout the years, women became warriors, bosses and heroes, while being mothers, wives, and sisters. However, as prevalent in the short film mentioned in the introduction, women are still not completely free from the double standards of society. To this, I would like to raise an argument that the concept of female liberation will only be possible through the death of the body.

Plato, in all his misogynistic views, mentioned that “when one is released from the body one can finally get down to the real business of life, for this real business of life is the business of the soul” (Spelman, p.111, 1982). In the context of cinema, for the art of the film to transcend, the fixation on the human body should cease. Voyeurism, as an extremely male tendency, would be difficult to eliminate because, after all, cinema exists partly for pleasure. However, if one wishes to appreciate art in its entirety, one must suspend her/his bodily tendencies and allow the art to be experienced in its absolute form. In watching and telling a story, both the viewer and the artist should aspire for the “death of the body” so as to get to the core of the soul of the art. Something about the body distracts us, and this is the mortal beauty that it is attached to. Plato further argues that,

“Yes, there are beautiful things, but they only are entitled to be described that way because they partake in the form of Beauty, which itself is not found in the material world.”

(Spelman, p.111, 1982)

Cinema has always been fixated on the beauty of the woman. This trickles down to a certain obsession on youth that has led to further discrimination when women reach a certain age. Meryl Streep even said in an interview that by the time she turned forty, she kept being offered witch roles, and this is already coming from one of the industry’s most decorated actresses of her generation. The industry praises men for aging well and applauds them for being “versatile” when they play less physical and more dramatic work as they grow old. Meanwhile, women are seen at a “downfall” in their acting career the minute they begin playing mother roles. Plato mentioned that “to have more concern for your body than your soul is to act just like a woman” (Spelman, p.115, 1982). It is absolutely incorrect to assume that women do not value their souls as much as they value their physicality. However, it is true that they put a great effort to beautify themselves, but this is only because they are told to do so because they are not free. Women have to be beautiful because beauty is all society ever sees value in. They are still slaves to patriarchal standards that they are fighting really hard to break. This brings us to the subject of female liberation. In her essay, Spelman quotes Friedan,

“…men have done more important things, the mental things; women have been relegated in the past to the less important human tasks involving bodily functions, and their liberation will come when they are allowed and encouraged to do the more important things in life. Her (Friedan’s) solution to what she referred to as the “problem that has no name” is for women to leave (though not entirely) women’s sphere and ascend into man’s.”

(Spelman, p.122, 1982)

In my opinion, “liberation” is too much of a word. Women are not to be liberated by becoming thinkers because they already are thinkers. They are philosophers as much as they are mothers. They are scientists and astronomers as much as they are household helpers and laborers. To isolate liberation to the idea of having no room for labor, is to only focus on the upper class. Women work for a living just like men. All people are subjected to labor because they have to survive. That does not mean that they are any less thinkers. To use the term “liberation” is to imply that women, once again, are damsels-in-distress who need to be saved. They are oppressed, yes. But they are more than capable of saving themselves. Their sole existence, as they are, regardless of their function in society, so long as they are not being held back by patriarchal standards, is freedom, itself, beyond the concept of liberation. Women are free. We have reached the point in society where women can be who they are and express how they feel. We, the viewers and consumers of art, are the ones who are not free. We are still trapped in the standards of voyeurism and fetishism that we, ourselves, set. And so long as we keep choosing to be enslaved by the visual prison we have made, we will continue to be deprived of seeing art, and women, in their absolute freedom and transcendence. 

References:

  • Creed, B. (1986). Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection. Screen27(1), 44-71.
  • Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen.
  • Rebel Park Productions. (2018). Leading Lady Parts [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEdJ4PIGad4
  • Spelman, E. (1982). Woman as Body: Ancient and Contemporary Views. Feminist Studies8(1), 109.
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Week 8: A Room for Second Chances

Every year, film communities, critics and enthusiasts, as well as seasonal moviegoers from all over the world tune in for the awards season in different countries. One of the highly popular and highly awaited award shows is Hollywood’s Academy Awards, more popularly known as the “Oscars”, which have already been running for 91 years since its establishment in 1929. The Academy, which has more or less 9,000 members as of 2020, has the power to give the most prestigious awards in Hollywood and, the way it works is that this exclusive club of members stretches over 17 branches, while its membership is bestowed via invite and sponsorship from within the Academy only. Because of the intense exclusivity, for many decades, it has been dominated by white males, the majority of which are over the age of 60 already. As the industry began to recognize its bias, and following the 2016 #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the push for diversity within the Academy has intensified over the past years, thereby increasing female membership, as well as that of people of color. What is even more surprising is that it is formulating a 2025 diversity initiative for the qualification of films in each category, which supposedly will include criteria involving the inclusion of women, LGBTQ+ community, people of color, people with disabilities, and other underrepresented groups. Failure to include parts of these communities in the film would mean an automatic snub for the major award categories.

The reason for the statement of these facts about the Academy Awards is to give an example of some of the standards and criteria that the major industries have set for the judgment of films and filmmakers. Normally, films are judged for a competition based on their plot, cinematography, sound, originality and other factors, but the facts indicated above just shows that there is more to judgment than just looking and watching the films. Filmmaking is, after all, business and politics. However, the usage of award shows as an example does not equate the deliberation process of these shows to film criticism. Criticism is involved in the process, for sure, but it is overshadowed by so many other factors. The objective for these examples are merely to show that any film industry uses set standards and templates for the judgment and criticism of art such as film. Handpicked members, who are a privileged few, of numerous organizations, are formed to pinpoint which of the films produced in a year are considered the “best” and which ones are worthy of the general public’s time and money. Moreover, these decisions put the selected films on the pedestal which, in turn, influences other critics and movie reviewers regarding the “content” that they should view and write about. The whole process is an institutionalized viewing of art and picking out the ones that are deemed “good” based on their standards, with the intention of, not only recognizing and advancing the careers of the film auteurs, but also influencing the taste and standards of the general public, as well.

“Cinema is quite simply becoming a means of expression, just as all the other arts have been before it.”

(Astruc, p.17, 1948)

Film is an art of self expression as much as viewing it is an art of self realization. Just like any other artwork, the experience of it differs with every viewer. This is because viewing a film is not limited to watching it. Rather, when one watches a film, one takes all of her/his experiences, moods, personal history with oneself and experiences the art according to these very unique and personal realities. At the height of its flexibility as an art form, true enough, Astruc mentions, “The cinema today is capable of expressing any kind of reality” (Astruc, p. 21, 1948). And if there is any truth in the statements that each experience of art is unique, why then are these experiences being quantified? Why has there always been a need to set standards to quantify them and classify which art brings out good versus bad experiences? Based on these quantifications, certain qualities are also being identified as staple qualities that somehow become “required” in order for the art to be labelled as “good”. This leads to the development of templates that artists, should they wish their works to be recognized, must follow religiously. Divergence to such templates will result in either negative criticism or the general snubbing of their work. As such, does it mean that the setting of aforementioned standards destroy the essence of art and should, therefore, be considered unnecessary? Not exactly.

Art such as film needs certain standards because it has a commercial purpose. The process of creating it does have a personal aspect to it, and there are artworks created for personal use, but the majority are created for public consumption. Thus, in order for the public to properly digest and appreciate the art, the artist must partially speak their language, as well as gain their attention through the identified elements that the public is known to pay attention to. Here lies the never ending argument of whether or not a dot on a canvas or a banana taped to a blank wall is considered art. They can be and, for some people, they are, but can they be sold for a million dollars? 

“For the new soul is still a bud, still going through its most dangerous, most sensitive stage…Those “buds” often behave more like tough nuts”

(Kael, p.24, 1963)

Standards are necessary so that art could evolve and be contextualized, as well. Emerging artists, some of which tend to already be entitled upon entering the industry, are in need of being formed according to the context of the art in the current generation. These templates are also their gateway to the public’s attention, in a way. Ultimately, standards set are useful, but that does not mean that they are not limiting. In an industry where form is given a whole lot more importance than content, it will be extremely hard for the art to fulfill its purpose for self expression. Several aspects of it are bound to be toned down to meet expectations. However, these expectations are, more often than not, already preconceived judgments of the works of art based on several factors, one of which is the criticism of the work based solely on the auteur. In the case of film, if we were to use the auteur theory, this would be the director.

“An artist who is not a good technician can indeed create new standards, because standards of technical competence are based on comparisons with work already done…Just as new work in other arts is often attacked because it violates the accepted standards and thus seems crude and ugly and incoherent, great new directors are very likely to be condemned precisely on the grounds that they’re not even good directors, that they don’t know their business”

(Kael, p.14, 1963)

Pauline Kael seems to put into words these preconceived judgments in the elaborate statement above. Just as how form is considered superior, the act of putting down a verdict on a film exclusively based on the technical competency of an artist is completely unjust and unfair because of several reasons, two of which, I will expound on. 

The first is that filmmaking is teamwork. As an art form, it is an incorporation of several different arts such as music, digital animation, illustration, etc. Its complexity is achieved through the hundreds of people working to create a certain effect based on a unified vision. Focusing on the director alone is a total disregard for the multitude of people who were hired to help her/him achieve this vision. 

“A badly directed or an undirected film has no importance in a critical scale of values, but one can make interesting conversation about the subject, the script, the acting, the color, the photography, the editing, the music, the costumes, the decor, and so forth.”

(Sarris, p.562, 1962)

Also, it takes the focus away from the other elements of film (cinematography, sound, etc.), which should all be taken into equal consideration when making a criticism. They should not just be secondary conversation elements, as Sarris claims. The discussion on cinematography, for example, merits an equal space in a criticism as the discussion on direction. Passing on these elements drives criticism on a shallow level, concluding only upon the basis of an initial judgment. 

“What are fifty thousand new readers, who do not fail to see each film from a novel, if not bourgeois?…What then is the value of an anti-bourgeois cinema made by the bourgeois for the bourgeois?…Workers, you know very well, do not appreciate this form of cinema at all even when it aims at relating to them”

(Truffaut, p.16, 1954)

Second, the problem lies in the factors surrounding the setting of these expectations based on technicalities alone. This is where power comes in. Cinema, nowadays, is still the cinema of the bourgeois designed to meet the standards set by the higher classes because, logically, they are the ones who can afford access to the art. It is the bourgeois who make up the institutions who classify the good and the bad artworks, and it is also them (or us) who pretend to understand the struggles, likes and dislikes of the lower classes so that they could derive the formulas by which the majority could be fed with. These formulas, depending on the intention of the governing minority, may be genuine acts of communicating with the public, or they could be composed based on personal or political agenda. This is not to invalidate the fact that cinema, in its genuine progression as an art form, has proactively reached out to the other classes and has transformed itself into something that anyone could relate to. But it is hard to take the classes out of the picture because they are the consumers. Astruc says that “Up to now, the cinema has been nothing more than a show” (Astruc, p. 19, 1948). Films can be relatable to everyone, but they are not necessarily accessible to everyone. And until they are, chances are, cinema will remain as nothing more than a show whose progression will only be dictated by those who have the power to watch it.

Fortunately, in terms of the era of art, we are currently at an age of exploration. This is not only limited to the exploration of new methods and technologies that will further film’s boundaries, but it is also about the exploration of methods that would make the medium more reachable for the masses. But with the continuous battle for commercial value and significance, where will innovation take its place in an artist’s priorities?

 “The auteur theory, silly as it is, can nevertheless be a dangerous theory — not only because it constricts the experience of the critics who employ it, but because it offers nothing but commercial goals to the young artists who may be trying to do something in film.”

(Kael, p.25, 1963)

At the age of exploration, innovation or divergence of an artist from the norms can possibly lead to the beginning of a new movement in art. Kael creates a great emphasis on how criticism that is imposed by the industry should not aim to limit or constrict the artistic value of film, because it may hinder the development of film as an art. As an aspiring director, I would like to know what criteria I’m going to be judged by and why. However, new generation filmmakers such as myself are also aware of the practical need to comply with the industry standards set by the powers of the previous generation. The challenge in every generation is to fit the need and the desire to innovate in this tiny gap of control that an artist has with her/his art. However, it would be unfair to assume that criticism, unlike art, has not evolved from its conservative roots. Like the movement in the Academy Awards, film criticism is evidently progressing towards focusing on empowering the artist, as well as the viewers. Kael claims that,

“He is a good critic if he helps people understand more about the work than they could see for themselves; He is a great critic, if by his understanding and feeling for the work, by his passion, he can excite people so that they want to experience more of the art that is there, waiting to be seized.”

(Kael, p.21, 1963)

I absolutely agree with this statement and I do believe that film criticism is driving forward with this objective in mind. Inclusivity in the industry and openness to less commercial and more innovative works are good beginnings. And when the viewers are led to exploring for themselves the unique personal experience of the art, beyond its commercial value, the work will assume its full potential. The goal is to have, not only an empowered artist, but also a free one. And with critics not only focusing on initial judgments through limited elements, future filmmakers such as myself will have plenty of room for second chances in the industry we ultimately aspire to be in.

References:

Astruc, A. (1948). The Birth of a New Avant- Garde: La Caméra-Stylo. L’Écran Français.

Kael, P. (1963). Circles and Squares. Film Quarterly, 16(3), 12-26.

McKittrick, C. (2019). How Does a Film Qualify for the Best Picture Oscar?. Retrieved 5 November 2020, from https://www.liveabout.com/qualifying-for-best-picture-oscar-4071766

McKittrick, C. (2019). Who Votes for the Oscars?. Retrieved 5 November 2020, from https://www.liveabout.com/who-votes-for-the-oscars-4021744

Rottenberg, J. (2020). New Oscars standards say best picture contenders must be inclusive to compete. Retrieved 5 November 2020, from https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2020-09-08/academy-oscars-inclusion-standards-best-picture#

Sacks, E. (2020). Who makes up the academy? A breakdown of the exclusive Oscars club. Retrieved 5 November 2020, from https://www.nbcnews.com/pop-culture/awards/who-makes-academy-breakdown-exclusive-oscars-club-n1126866

Sarris, A. (1999). Notes on the Auteur Theory. In L. Braudy & M. Cohen, Film Theory and Criticism (5th ed., pp. 561-564). New York: Oxford University Press.

Truffaut, F. (1954). A Certain Tendency in French Cinema. Cahiers Du Cinéma, 9-18.

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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 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.