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Film Art Not

Why do people defend so vehemently the idea that film is art? Many people also suggest that some films may not be art, B movies, for example. “But why are B movies not art?” we may want to ask. What is the meaning of ‘art’ anyway? Also, are art mediums given a priori or can we continue creating or can we discover new art forms? And furthermore, has technology produced new artistic forms and/or helped traditional art forms develop or instead has it killed art? The answers to these questions can be useful for the present discussion of whether film is or is not art. A recurrent problem in these kinds of discussions is what or who decides where the line between art and non-art lies. But an interesting aspect of the foregoing question is that if I am able to even pose that question, then it would appear that art is by definition subjective. But I do not want to believe that art is subjective. I do not believe that anything could be art. Thus to determine where to draw that line, I must propose a method of looking closely at those art forms that everyone accepts as art to see what they have in common. By and large, I think that true art forms share a common language, so to speak, that transcends conventional language. Also, I will propose the idea that art does not speak for itself, but rather through the individual who experiences it. Art, I argue, reveals itself through the beholder, but never explicitly by the art work itself. 

I realize that rejecting the possibility that film might be art is not an easy position to undertake and is very controversial. The difficulty in denying that film might be art is due to the enthusiastic support by modern film lovers (and modernity in general), as well as the exceptional achievements of contemporary film makers. My thesis, nevertheless, is that film is not art, but rather a form of entertainment, like video games, which may or may not produce instances of meta-artistic results.

As I have indicated, the question of whether film is art obviously pushes us back to a more fundamental question, and that is, the question of what “art” means—what is art, and who decides what it is? It seems reasonable to me to say that if we want to answer the question of the nature of “art”, we must consider an anthropological and historical explanation. I recognize two true arts: painting and music. I am not suggesting that painting and music are the only two arts (though I lean in that direction), but rather I think that they are unquestionably arts, and thus I shall use them as points of reference. Painting and music are two examples of arts because they belong to the nature of our species. Presumably, cavemen did not write or talk or act, nor did they need to. They drew symbols on the cave walls and produced sounds. Cases of synesthesia and absolute pitch I believe show the human’s innate ability to create art. All other future mediums that people deem art today, such as film, photography, literature, etc., are cultural phenomena created for visions that go beyond primitive human, artistic expression. In today’s culturally and technologically advanced societies, we find ourselves immersed in systems of capitalism where layers upon layers of cultural illusions, delusions and fashions, pile up hiding and changing the meaning of art. The purpose of art in the modern society has been contaminated and warped to produce entertainment, to generate wealth, and to promote other such lucrative purposes. Consequently, modern thinkers now assign the title “art” to mere electro-mechanical entertainment mediums such as film and photography.

But if film is not art, what is it, and why do so many people think it is art? I think that nowadays art fans’ enthusiasm is very remarkable. All accept painting as art; all agree music is art, film, photo, dance, sculpture, and anything else that is profitable to be named “art.” Our species has evolved and many aspects of humanity and ideas people entertain are merely cultural or artificial. Modernity has killed art leaving a gap to be filled—a thirst to be quenched. It is this thirst and the frustrations caused by modernity that make people believe that they can create new art mediums. But in reality they often end up exploring non-artistic venues. Modern man is no longer satisfied with painting. He demands perfection.[1]  When photography was invented, a man-made mechanical image could give that sense of perfection to the modern individual that a painting could not give. But painting was not meant to provide real, perfect images, nor did painters necessarily intend to provide naturalistic perfection. Eventually, photography no longer was able to satisfy the growing hunger for perfection. Theatre offered a sort of visual naturalism by imitating the world with people impersonating characters. Still, that was not enough to satisfy human’s curiosity, and film was invented to finally capture reality as close as possible. However, film is not a new art medium but a medium capable only of imitating art. Film turns the world into images, picture frames made of dots that display an image on a screen. The camera deconstructs the world and the dots reconstruct it on the screen, leaving art outside. Film thus is the illusion that we have found a new medium, but in reality film has changed art’s entire identity.

As a result of this delusion, many people today would call anything art: a chair, a piece of excrement placed in a glass behind glass, a urinal, a film, any film, a photograph, a jerk of the leg… In February 2005, for example, two individuals presented an alleged work of art in New York City’s Central Park. The project featured what they referred to as “gates” lining the Park’s paths. Hanging down from those gates, there were orange-colored curtains. I am not convinced that that was art. But I am certain that by merely declaring something to be art in our brainwashed society makes it art. This celebration of the banal is a feature of modernity. Modern people suffer from a form of artistic boredom, and so unwittingly create caricatures of art to satisfy their need for novelty. This to me is a clear indication that art mediums are finite, a truth that human beings cannot accept. Not everything can be art. If we concede that any product that is intended as art is art, we can easily see the kind of slippery slope we generate. There must be a division, a limit, a boundary of some sort; but, we too know its limits are blurry.

Modern people’s view of the world contains the covert assumption that we are evolving and that science gives us a truer and truer account of the world; based on this assumption rests the idea that we are doing things the right way. The reality I think is that all human scientific knowledge lacks of certainty. As Quine puts it[2], “the totality of our so-called knowledge is a man-made fabric” that we constantly modify based on our experience. This leads us to the belief that we can continue creating new art forms. I think art is finite but we have the illusion that it is infinite because we ourselves evolve as a species (granted that we do evolve). What I mean by finite is not that at one point in time humans exhausted all artistic ideas within a certain medium, but rather that art forms are finite or that are given a priori. The finiteness of art forms, I argue, is due to the finiteness of our nature. Art is like our alphabet: the number of letters is finite, though the number of possible combinations of words and phrases is infinite. Namely, the possibilities of new ideas in music or in painting are infinite, while the number of mediums is finite. Perhaps our limited mental abilities do not afford our continuing to find new ideas. I believe that the lack of new ideas is evident considering the fact that, to mention a few examples, classical music was “replaced” by contemporary music, which has long come to a halt; popular musicians too seem to have exhausted all idea; and rock musicians are re-playing the 70’s because they are at a loss for new ideas. Painting seems to have been thoroughly exploited. Consequently, we have abandoned art to find new pseudo-artistic mediums. At any rate, it is in our nature to produce sounds and signs, but not in our nature to produce film, which is the task performed by mechanical devices such as cameras and celluloid, then, and digital cameras and computers now. 

Another peculiar characteristic shared among the arts is the way in which art communicates. Art I believe does not speak for itself, but rather speaks through the beholder. The language spoken by art is a language that transcends conventional ways of communicating. A speech or a film is not art. A speech and a film show or verbally describe reality by conveying precise messages in conventional language understood by all who share a common grammar and syntax. By contrast, the way in which art communicates a story and conveys certain feelings is implicit. We might say that art communicates in a way that is unexplainable—it just happens. Film does not just happen. When we admire a beautiful painting or listen to Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, we experience inexplicable feelings or we feel as though the painting or the piece of music is recounting a story through us. And it is, but this “recounting” occurs at a synesthetic level. The music in the Stabat Mater Dolorosa expresses pain, beauty, and helplessness by interacting directly with the mind of the individual who is experiencing the sound. But it might just as well generate different feelings to a different individual. Hence if we say that art narrates, metaphorically speaking, it does narrate through each individual in disparate ways, generating different feelings, and communicating a different story to each individual.

When a person listens to a piece of music that uses harmonic progressions of minor chord changes, that person may experience a feeling of sadness for reasons that he or anybody else is not able to understand. Why is it that a mi minore and a re minore have the power of making us feel blue and a sol diesis or a do maggiore have the power of making us joyful? The truth is that we cannot explain why—it just happens.  Art has the power of communicating disparate feelings and telling a number of stories through the individual in a subliminal way. These feelings and the subliminal power of narration are not possessed by film due to film’s mechanical and realistic nature. Film narrates stories in a conventional way by copying and pasting, as it were, the naked reality onto the screen, using real characters, using sound, and music. If I watch Kramer vs. Kramer I may feel sad but I know why. The feeling of sadness is conveyed by the heartbreaking events that occur in the film, i.e., the wife deciding to leave her husband and fight for the custody of their children.

And a film need not be portraying realistic events in order to be understood in a conventional way. Think about Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example. Even though the film is about a fantastic subject, astronauts and a crazy IBM (HAL) computer that takes on a life of its own and decides to murder the ship members, those tragic events are clearly understandable. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge might put it, the reason we feel moved by a film such as 2001 is that we suspend our disbelief concerning the implausibility of the events. Suspension of disbelief, however, is not necessary when we experience art, which I think represents another important difference between art and non-art, between music, painting, and film. Furthermore, film does not speak the language of art because film is produced by a number of people who work—and by work here is meant occupation/job. These people work on ideas, on a script, create a plot, all of which represent ways of conventional communication. Film is mechanical reproduction of reality; the images can be adroitly captured by the camera, but it does not follow that film is art. Art operates differently because it tells a story directly to the brain. But I will further discuss the idea of film not being art due to the mechanical aspect of film in a later paragraph.

There is an important aspect of music that makes it art. Music is in our natural makeup; it is an innate disposition, an a priori cognition of the mind, to use a Kantian concept, that humans possess, which enables them to produce sounds and music. Absolute pitch, for instance, is an indication of our a priori disposition for music. Music has mysterious properties that come from within humans. But music is also part of nature in that the world contains the possibility of sound and harmony. Music does not recount or speak or show directly or clearly a certain message, though when we hear music we experience a synesthetic perception evocated by the art work. Film, on the other hand, does not come from within us. Film is artificially produced by technology and comes to us as a technology that allows the modern man to reproduce the images of the world outside of us, with absolute and surgical precision.

Painting works similar mysterious ways to the mind. A beautiful painting never ceases to awe the viewer and to convey inexplicable feelings. These emotions cannot be qualified or simply explained in the same way as those we experience when we watch a film. We may like or dislike a film but, unlike music or painting, we know exactly why we like or dislike it. Granted, one may argue that by watching a film one feels emotionally moved. But that is because of concrete and clear aspects of that film, which are not found in music and painting, and which are explainable. Namely, images speak for themselves. A film has a story that features real people, actors, who narrate a story or event by means of dialogues that take place in the real world, which is captured, almost by accident, so to speak, by the cold eye of a camera.

I should like to suggest one more controversial viewpoint with regard to art: the very fact that we ask whether film is art appears to me to be due to the killing of art by technology and modernity. I think that whenever people think of art, they take something for granted—they assume that because life continues and individuals somehow evolve, art too continues and must evolve and transform in order to conform to different times and traditions. I am not certain that it is true that art is a kind of “entity” that can extend its life ad infinitum. I suggest it is not the case that art can live forever. My sense is that art has been dying of a slow death since the beginning of the industrial revolution. And the moment human beings became aware of a certain cultural behavior they named that behavior “art.” Film, as well as photography, and other technological crafts, represent perhaps a way to depart from art. We are unconsciously bored with art. Instead of exploring new ideas within art, we abandoned art to find newer and more exciting mediums that can satisfy our modern needs, whatever they may be. We modern people have a capitalistic mentality, that is, we buy and consume and throw away our refuse. Unfortunately, we follow the same pattern when it comes to art. Consequently, we need new ways to express ourselves in order to satisfy our need for change, the need for a faster pace, and for extremes. But what we consider art today is not art but a caricature of it. Film is not art but a meta-art in that it imitates art and relieves us from the frustration of real art, which is no longer adequate for modern minds. Art was killed and replaced by technology.

Another interesting issue is this: even those who positively believe that film is art recognize that not all film is art. I am quite certain that advocates of film as art agree that porn film is not art, or that certain Blockbuster comedies or cheesy horror flicks do not enter the temple of art. This is a problem because it seems to me it makes it more complicated for those who posit that film is art to spell out exactly why film is art. Namely, what makes Fellini’s or Antonioni’s films art and why or what makes a Bob Clark’s, Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s, or Lucio Fulci’s films not art? My sense is that the very idea that people do not agree that all film is art is a clear indication that film is not art at all, but rather a technological medium meant solely for entertainment purposes.

Perhaps it will also be productive to see what film experts have to say about this matter. In Film as Art, Rudolph Arnheim writes that “There are still many educated people who stoutly deny the possibility that film might be art.” (319) As I have openly admitted, I am one of those people. As I read Arnheim’s piece, I am surprised that many educated people still stoutly defend the view that film is art.  Arnheim says that those of us who reject the idea of film being art employ the argument that film merely reproduces reality mechanically. He argues that,

People who contemptuously refer to the camera as an automatic recording machine must be made to realize that even in the simplest photographic reproduction of a perfectly simple object, a feeling for its nature is required which is quite beyond any mechanical operation…(320).

What Arnheim has in mind here is that a film maker has to make many choices involving the depth of field, lighting, delimitation of the image, and other such technical tricks. But I think this line of reasoning is circular. For it appears to me to be stating that film is art because a film maker in capturing images does it artistically. But the fact that an image can be poorly or superbly rendered in proportion to the level of the film maker’s skills does not equate film with art. After all, anybody can learn how to use a camera; and nowadays, with the help of digital cameras, digital editing, and computerized special effects, literally anybody can make a film—and judging by the movies being released today, it seems that indeed anyone can get behind a camera. Art requires a more romantic approach; that is, the individual alone, unlike a film maker who works along with a number of other people, some unknown to the film maker, having mastered particular skills at, say, painting, projects his immediate intention into the work he wants to create. The artist undergoes a mental process that leads his intention to the achievement of a work using the medium of painting. The artist creates a work through abstraction and re-interpretation of the outside world. And the artist conceives and develops an idea alone. The purpose of this idea, I submit, is not to be shared with others. A film is by definition a collective effort destined for social consumption.

To return to the concept of image, it has to be noted that a well rendered image, as Arnheim describes it, can be compared to a well made kitchen cabinet or chair that a carpenter has built. I have always equated film making to carpentry because they are both crafts. A skilled carpenter, for example, chooses the appropriate kind of wood that will endure time and withstand the pressure of tools. He then carves out of the same wood the components that assembled will construct a chair. But we do not speak of a chair as a work of art, except metaphorically, because we do not regard carpentry as art, but rather as a craft.  The fact that a film maker employs certain techniques does not make him an artist. After all, these techniques are learned and developed with respect to the use of cameras and other electro-mechanical devices. A film maker uses computerized cameras to capture images just as a mechanical engineer uses a computer to design a boiler or as a graphic designer uses certain software to design a new Mercedes Benz, or as a game designer uses a computer to design a videogame.  Thus, a film is the product of a craft rather than art. But a film can also be, unlike a chair, a medium of entertainment, like a video game. 

Arnheim also says the following, “Film resembles painting, literature, and the dance in this respect—it is a medium that may, but need not, be used to produce artistic results.” (219)

I disagree with the foregoing statement. I believe that music and painting cannot be used for purposes other than to produce art. In the first place, music is not created or invented in the same sense as film. Music is a feature of nature, as is painting, and an innate human characteristic. Film is unlike music or painting in that technology invented film and photography and cinematography.  And while music and painting are arts by definition, film was not intended as an art medium when the first cameras were created. At any rate, it is hard to find an example of music or painting not being used to produce artistic results. If we speak of music or painting in the strict conceptual sense, they are mediums that exist in nature—or perhaps I should say that nature is such that sounds can be arranged to create music and symbols and colors can be arranged to create paintings. We cannot, it seems clear to me, speak of film in the same respect. In fact, film is in no way a feature of nature or a feature of human nature. Thus, when Arnheim, and others who think in the same manner, say that film is like other arts because film can be used for purposes other than artistic ones, they do not speak of arts in the strictest sense. Of course I can use an excerpt from Verdi’s Nabucco for a TV commercial. But the Nabucco itself is still art—misused, but art. 

Arnheim also says that colored cards, military marches, and real-life confession stories are or intended to be art. (I would also include in this list the famous orange Gates of Central Park). Although they are not art, Arnheim does not take the trouble to explain why. However, I would not be surprised if some people regarded a march as art or a colored card or a story or stand-up comedy as art. But what happens if I intend a military march to be art or I intend that orange curtains in the park to be art or a strip tease to be art? If I make a post card and decide it is art, is it art? Is the mere intention, the averment that something is art, what makes something into art? But a colored card is not painting and a military march is not music. True painting in the strictest sense of the term can only produce art, unless we are speaking of a caricature of painting, which may be used for whatever purpose we can imagine.

I think the confusion arises out of one’s misapprehension of the distinction between art itself and the work of art. Consider painting as an abstract discipline rather than as the work itself, i.e., a painting. Consider painting the natural condition subsuming the possibility of using combinations of colors and symbols. Now, painting in that sense has no other purpose than to give the possibility of creating art. But there is no abstract discipline or natural condition of film that subsumes the possibility of making motion pictures. Music and painting, insofar as we consider them art in the strictest sense, are mediums that can only be used to produce art. If one wants to stretch the meaning of painting by saying that any visual reproduction that contains signs and colors, such as a post card, for instance, is painting, I can still say something indisputable. Namely, painting in the less strict sense has two modes, an artistic mode and a lucrative mode. But think about film. We all agree that a movie is pure entertainment and a lucrative enterprise, but show me its artistic mode. That is not possible, I maintain, for the very fact that it is a disputed mode. The only way to show me a film’s artistic mode is to point to examples, such as films that one considers artistic. But as we have seen earlier, there is no objective method to say that Ingmar Bergman’s Smultronstället is art and Sylvester Stallone Rocky IV is not, or the other way around. I personally find them both entertaining for different reasons. And although I am certain that most people regard the work of Bergman as art and Stallone’s as bunk, I consider both to be the product of the entertainment business and not that of art.

An objection here might be that this abstract discipline I am referring to is nothing but an imaginary domain. Music and painting are not objective art domains, but mere subjective cultural interpretations. Thus film is art like music and painting. But if one argues thus, the implication is that music and painting are merely subjective cultural phenomena, and thus they could or could not be art. And film too could or could not be art depending upon one’s personal tastes. And ultimately we would conclude that anything could be art, including military marches, speeches, orange curtains and what not—but we all know that this is not the case.

A few more words about the way in which film is made may also help clarify why film has no artistic mode, but only a lucrative and entertaining one. In my artistic days, I tried to become a film director of some sort. I borrowed a video camera from a friend and started shooting a few images. I “killed” my mom with a plastic knife while holding the camera and directed her to put her arm inside her sleeve and placed a plastic bone in its place, topped with tomato juice. I thought at that time that I was using an art medium to express my artistic ideas. Mine was not, however sad to admit, art. First it was not art for I believe the artist to be such must have mastered certain skills related to the specific medium he wishes to use. In this case, if one wanted to argue for film art, he would have to admit that a film maker, in order to be considered an artist, must have become quite proficient with the camera and with many other aspects of film making, which I did not.

But a second though most important point is that art cannot arise through a merely mechanical process whereby the artist has limited control over his creation. What I mean is this: a film is the product of mechanical processes facilitated by technologically advanced cameras. The film maker, though he may have some idea of the direction he wants to take, has to deal with a number of factors out of his control. He could be alone, but that would not create a film in the way we are used to see a film. To create a film, a film maker needs the collaboration of a number of people, who contribute to the creation of a final product through disparate methods, modes, and states of mind. A film starts with many people working on a script and a story board. In modern film making, the story board aspect is generally bypassed. Next, a number of people work to find locations, and then there are people who take care of lighting, microphones, make-up, and so on. The film material then goes to a studio where people with special software edit the images captured by the camera. These people also decide one angle from which to tell a story. This process subverts intentionality.

It has to be considered that a film is never made for artistic purposes but rather for monetary ones. The film makers do not sleep at night thinking about ideas for the next film when they have not yet finished their current one. It is a rather brutal business. It is not even necessary to point out the ruthlessness of Hollywood directors, producers, celebrities and the like. A film is created by money for money. Sometimes the right combination of crew members and film maker’s skills produce meta-artistic results. By meta-artistic I mean that due to the mechanical nature of the procedure required to make, a film can only imitate art. A film takes years to be released and during this time no one in the process thinks about the artistic aspects of it. Granted, the reader now may object by saying that Hollywood is not a good place to find film art. But where, then, should we look? Should we consider Fellini, Hitchcock, Antonioni, and so on? But were these directors not financed by entities such as political parties—in the case of Fellini, for example—who needed an enormous amount of money to release films that only a limited audience went to see—the same audience, by the way, who accepts film as art?

Art is for many a social phenomenon aimed at communicating with others. Perhaps this is not necessarily true. Art is perhaps an individualistic expression of humanity. The most basic, animalistic expressions are music and painting/sounds and symbols. We cannot escape from our nature. Film is not in our nature, and this means that art mediums are given a priori; if they were not a priori, then anything and everything would be art. But we know that this is not the case. Art is the skill that humans use to express their relationship with nature. A painting, e.g., does not itself directly reveal a specific message to the observer. This is because the purpose of art is not to be a social phenomenon. Capitalistic mentality has created the idea that art’s purpose is to share something. Art is not necessarily created to be shown and shared with others. This showing and sharing are cultural phenomena. Unlike film and photography—which are necessarily social media—painting and sound need not be intended for others. The artist captures what is given by nature and transforms it into artistic work. The difference between art and non-art, between music/painting and film, is that art is a physiological function, as it were, while film and photography are external, social phenomena created and destined for entertainment purposes.

Film is not part of human nature, it is an artificial meta-medium created through technology and destined to reproduce images mechanically or, I should like to say, nowadays, digitally. Film was never invented to produce art. As film makers began playing around with the camera, it gave rise to the illusion that film could produce art. In reality, film can only imitate art because film is not itself part of nature or part of our nature. It is meta-art in that it can capture art by filming music or painting. But can we say that film is the art of capturing images? I think we cannot. In fact, if painting is the art that contains the a priori possibility of using signs and colors to produce artistic works coming from nature and channeling through the artist with his skills and his intention to produce art expressing his relation with the external world, what are film’s nature and possibilities?  Can we say that film is the art of making films? Or can we say that it is the art that contains the possibility of creating images? But images are produced by a number of people using electro-mechanical devices and various techniques of montage, which are performed by other machines and people, which requires yet more machines to be seen (TV sets or mega screens).   Images can be produced by a camera or even mentally by an individual or by video games. But an image produced by our mind is not film or photography. An image can be a cartoon, or even by flipping rapidly the pages of a flip book. A dream also produces images. And images are those we see and experience every day. 

In conclusion, in our time, there are a number of people who find it soothing to say that film is art. But why do they say this? After all, technology has brought to us cameras and film, and, as a result of those technologies, film makers create movies by a process akin to carpentry or computer graphic design. We do not speak of chairs or cabinets or computerized images as art, and rightly so. Take video games, for example. They are electronic devices able to produce vivid images. Current video game technology allows designers to create interactive games, games that have a plot, games that narrate stories, and so on. But by no means do we regard video games as art. Art, as I hope to have shown, comes from within us, that is, it is a mode in which we exist that enables us to express our relation to the outside world. Most importantly, it is nature that contains the possibility of creating art. From this perspective, we see that neither in nature, nor within us, can we find film; thus film is not art, but rather the name of a man-made process whereby electro-mechanical devices reproduce images that eventually may or may not be used as forms of entertainment, just like a video game or a flip book used to amuse a child.


[1] The same happened within music: one of the aspects of the development of music is a constant search of perfection. Humans were not satisfied by acoustic instruments and invented electric ones. And the varieties of genres in music show a need for perfection. For example, the invention of drum machines or triggered drums, and also from rock to metal to progressive to math rock, represent a subconscious search for perfection. However, the same need for perfection lead people to abandon art.

[2] Willard Van Orman Quine “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” §VI. EMPIRICISM WITHOUT THE DOGMAS, http://www.ditext.com/quine/quine.html.