Free Film School #123: Are Films Art?

Girl with the Pearl Earring

Welcome back to CraveOnline's Free Film School, my gentle pupils. I trust you're sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin. We're not going to beat about the bush this week. I'll just ask the question outright and see what response I can get from you: Are films art?

I'm sure the bulk of you said “Of course! Who's askin'?” Another segment of you probably shouted back: “Define 'art.'” Some of you probably said “What films are we talking about here?” The artistic merit of any created work – or even natural work – can and has been hotly debated for centuries upon centuries. As humans, we are artistic beings. As a group, we tend to be constantly drawn to art and artistic expressions. We write, we draw, we sculpt, we sing. It's part of our makeup. And just as old as artistic expression is the discussion as to the merits of it. As long as there have been artists, there have been critics.

In terms of the broad scope of human history, the cinema is a relative novelty. It's a medium that is contingent on technology (unlike, say, theater), and the motion picture camera was only invented about 120 years ago, so film itself only spans a small segment of our artistic heritage. What's more, the motion picture camera was not, perhaps, invented to make art, but merely to record movement. It was an observation and recording tool. That people thought to put theatrical dramas in front of a camera was, perhaps, a later innovation. Due to the form's nascence, the artistic merits of cinema have been hotly debated by critics and sociologists over the course of the last 120 years.

It's usually agreed by most film critics that movies are indeed art. Ask any critic worth their weight in Raisinets, and they'll immediately argue that films are important. That they are the dominant art form of the technological age, and their popularity reveals their strength as a medium. It's worth looking at movies and dissecting them because we are receiving important cultural information coded within each and every one of them. To analyze a culture's art is to analyze the culture itself.

Spider-Man

But are films art? Consider it for a second.

For those who would demand that I define “art,” I'm afraid I'm at a bit of a loss. Some recent critics have gone so far as to say that art just cannot be concretely defined. And, yes, art is an ephemeral thing. Works of art have a semi-permanent quality both in cultural status and actual tangibility, but art itself is an eerie, ethereal notion that speaks more to individual minds and philosophies than to actual definitions.

When I ask the art question of colleagues, many point to a recent book authored by comic book artist Scott McCloud called Understanding Comics. McCloud argues for the artistic potential of comics, so often associated with cheap superhero thrills and kid-friendly characters, by explaining how broad the definition of art is. He feels that anything human beings do that is not directly associated with their survival is art. All dancing, sketching, whistling, and indeed all pleasures are an art form. By that definition, film must be art.

Band of Outsiders

But I am not comfortable with this definition. If all pleasurable activities can be considered art, doesn't that devalue the word? If all things are art, then nothing is. If everything has equal artistic value, then there is no difference between a paper clip bent into the shape of a small animal and St. Basil's Cathedral.

I think we can all agree that the word “art” automatically suggests a value judgment. Art is not just a created thing, but a valuable created thing. Dictionaries define art as “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.” This, I'm a little more comfortable with, as it mentions that the created thing must be “beautiful” or “appealing” or “significant.” Those are all value words. Art can be very subjective, and this definition incorporates that.

But film most certainly does not automatically fit into that definition. Film does have “aesthetic principles,” but then almost anything can be given aesthetic principles. Not all films are beautiful or appealing; throw a rock, and you'll hit a crappy movie. Indeed, if a film is significant, that doesn't necessarily mean that it is art. I can think of movies that are beautiful, appealing, and significant, and still not think of them as “art.”

There is a lesson to be had in all this. Not all films are art. In fact, very few films are.