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The Medium is not the Message

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I believe that art is 80% intention, 20% posterity’s reaction. It doesn’t matter what your medium is — oil paint, photography, music, words on a page, dance, clay, film, or even a guest spot on General Hospital — if an artist sets out to make art, that will be the result. Now, whether it ends up being good or bad art is up for (endless) debate. That’s the 80%. The opposite end of the spectrum, the 20% part, is how the cognoscenti and the rest of us perceive the work. Cavemen drawing on the walls in Lascaux more than 17,000 years ago were most likely trying to entertain themselves, or maybe perform some sort of ritual, but the art world recognizes their efforts as the earliest forms of painting. The beautiful drawings are usually the first slide in Art History 101 classes. In this case, the 20% posterity’s view  trumps intention, as the cavemen aren’t around to argue the point.

I’ve been thinking recently about art films. The performing arts lend themselves more easily to earning cash and public acclaim (or disdain) and just plain awareness than what’s happening in the art world.

Many more people go to see a movie than go to an art gallery or a play or a concert. But while there is undoubtedly a level of artistry in a movie like Transfomers: Revenge of the Fallen, no one is likely to call it art. That wasn’t the intention. The filmmakers’ aim was to make beaucoup bucks and blow things up — a lot.

But a surrealist film like Luis Buñuel’s and Salvador Dalí’s graphic-for-its-time Un Chien Andalou (The Andalusian Dog, 1929) or Jean Cocteau’s avant-garde Le Sang d’un Poete (The Blood of A Poet, 1930) or Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 2 were intended as art from the start. While they may have made some money at the theater (Un Chien Andalou, originally intended for a limited showing in Paris, was so popular with the public that it ended up playing for 8 months), the films were created with artistic, non-Hollywood intentions.

The auteur theory, in which “a director can use the commercial apparatus of film-making in the same way that a writer uses a pen or a painter uses paint and a paintbrush” hinges on talking about movies made with artistic intent. Some of the directors that fit the bill include François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman, Roman Polanski, Orson Welles, Woody Allen, Alfred Hitchcock. Is every one of these filmmaker’s movies art? Not by a long shot. But the intent is there in many of their movies, and most would agree that Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), Det Sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957), Knife in the Water (1962), Citizen Kane (1941), Manhattan (1979) and Vertigo (1958) qualify. Well, I may have to re-think Allen. He’s definitely an auteur, but his attempts to make art don’t usually hit the mark for me.

When photography first started to be shown as art in galleries there were many that protested that such a mechanical process could be considered art. Some even maybe a wee bit threatened. Pablo Picasso has been quoted as saying, “I have discovered photography. Now I can kill myself. I have nothing else to learn.” But Picasso survived, and photography became another artistic medium, and cameras another tool, like paintbrushes. What is high art and what isn’t has been one of the main debates of the 20th century and has dribbled into the 21st in regard to film.

By writing that “the medium is not the message” I am having a bit of punning fun with the famous quote nugget from Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). McLuhan talked about many aspects of media and culture, art among them, “Art at its most significant is a Distant Early Warning System that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.”  

McLuhan believed that the medium (television, advertising etc.) was the thing, not the content it transmitted. One of his famous examples was that the medium of television was powerful, regardless of whether it was showing children’s cartoons or violent programs. I’m turning that idea on its head in relation to art and art-making by positing that the medium employed by the artist — whether film, or words, or painting, etc., is irrelevant. What is important is the end product, the art experience. The ideas and feelings taken away by the viewer. If a piece has something to say, and talks in the language of art, no matter what medium was employed, it’s art.

Of course if I go on too much longer, I’m at risk of sounding like the “Man in Theatre Line” from Annie Hall. McLuhan also said, “Art is anything you can get away with.” Sounds like a Woody Allen line. Allen brought the man, McLuhan, into this wonderful scene in Annie Hall, and just for the sheer brilliance of that bold stroke, gets put back on my art/auteur list.

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About xoxoxoe

  • Jordan Richardson

    And I again wonder how these classifications came to be, Butch. Who gets to decide that art is in opposition to commerce? Or is it? Can it be?

    People have been trying to describe what art is and what art isn’t for ages.

    Wikipedia, ever so helpful, “defines” art as “the product or process of deliberately arranging items (often with symbolic significance) in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses, emotions, and intellect.”

    Does this definition overshoot the mark, in your view? Is it too broad?

    I think it’s pretty apt, personally. And I think the more valid discussion to have pertaining to art is what good art is versus what bad art is – at least in terms of personal preferences.

  • Butch

    xoxoxoe – I want to apologize for my pompous tone in my previous comments. Your article is interesting and it’s a good conversation starter. Thank you for the reply. I still disagree in many ways.

    Jordan – I don’t agree it is pointless to discuss art versus commerce. I didn’t express my thoughts as clearly as I should have. I do not mean to imply that collaboration of any kind makes art…not art. My main point is that Hollywood studio filmmaking cannot be classified as art, no matter how well executed the movie is. There are, and always have been, artists working in the medium of film.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Here’s why movie are not art: they are the product of numerous participants

    So music isn’t art either? Is a mural painted as a collaborative work with the brushes of many painters a work of art? Probably not.

    I’m curious as to where you found these “regulations,” Butch. Or why you think work that is “diluted” isn’t, by nature, artistic?

    But perhaps the most interesting thing this helms on is what you mean by “artistic expression,” Butch. You say a movie cannot be a means of artistic expression because it is “intended” as a mean of commerce. So we have two disqualifications (who knows where they came from).

    I suppose I could chisel a piece of rock, but the second I asked for a second opinion it would cease being an “artistic expression” and become…something else. Or I could play a musical instrument, but it had better be alone and not in a group or I’m not making art.

    Do you see how ludicrous this is? Better still, do you see how pointless it is?

  • You’re right, I have been thinking about film as art, and wanted to get my thoughts down. I won’t argue your points about film being a collaborative medium, but I must point out that it is a myth that most art is created by lone individuals. That is certainly true for a few, but most successful artists – and for the purpose of this article and argument I am talking about successful ones – operate in a studio situation with assistants. Some have many on staff.

    When I was in art school I was one of many students who worked on and helped paint a group of my teacher’s paintings, even though it was only his name on the canvas and in the reviews. There is an entire strata of gallerists, critics, assistants, etc that help a contemporary artist produce their product. This was true of artists from the past as well – Dali, Picasso, Michelangelo, Velasquez, etc.

    At least according to Tim Burton, Ed Wood thought he was an auteur. As I said in my piece, having intent doesn’t guarantee quality. Paintings, sculptures etc. may be done by an individual, but in the case of the successful ones, usually aren’t. It takes a huge crew to create modern sculpture. And “fine artists” are just as interested and involved in making product as Hollywood. The art world isn’t all that different in structure, it’s just a different audience. I guess I am trying to get at when the audiences overlap. When artistic intentions enter films, like in the examples I cited.

  • Butch

    Since this article was obviously inspired, at least in part, by my comments on your “review” of The Ghost Writer, I feel I should comment.

    Your assertion that “intent” is what makes art is flawed, to say the least. How do you know what Michael Bay intends when he makes a movie? Ed Wood believed he was making artistic statements, so I guess because of his intent, he succeeded? No.

    Here’s why movie are not art: they are the product of numerous participants. All the forms of artistic expression you mentioned, with the exception of film, can be achieved by one individual. Undiluted. This cannot be said, with very rare possible exceptions, of film.

    I should have made clear – though it would take me an entire artile (or more) to fully explain – that I did not mean ALL films were intended as entertainment. Hollywood does not make art. Regardless of the delusions of some filmmakers, Hollywood produces product for mass consumption designed with one ultimate goal: lining pockets.

    Yes, Bunuel and some of the others you mentioned (not Hitchcock, good Lord!) did intend on infusing their work with artistic expression. There are films that are produced with a relatively common goal to provoke thought and emotion, regardless of financial return.

    But focusing on studio films, even the ones that purport to be “independent”: the amount of money and the input of so many people ultimately dilutes the artistic intentions of the filmmakers. There are too many minds at work, from the writer(s), to the director, to the actors, the editors, and of course the real power figures: the producers. Choosing movies as one’s form of artistic expression is simply the poorest choice available.

    Pick up an instrument and play it. Chisel a piece of rock. Write down words on a page. But movies as a means of expressing artistic vision? That is a fool’s errand. THERE, I SAID IT.