What is Art?

It’s really no secret that I like movies. Half of my writing is dedicated to the idea of movies, whether it be the very good, the very bad, or whatever the hell Boyhood pretends to be. Lately, however, the idea of what makes a “good” movie vs. what makes a movie “art” has been under very public scrutiny. Several prominent directors have come out to claim that Marvel movies aren’t real “cinema”, the academy awards wanted to make a separate award for “popular movies” which seemed chillingly out of touch, and there’s been backlash against movies that are deemed too accessible in some ways. That’s not a good thing. 

Let’s start with the most tone deaf argument of all, the recent comments from Martin Scorsese, who commented that Marvel movies aren’t really  art. I’ve no doubt that he made the comments in response to Joker, which was essentially “how can we make a comic book movie but make it Scorsese?” As it didn’t just subtly introduce its influences so much as it strapped it’s influences to a giant rocket and fired it comically at the Batman. Here’s the thing, movies are meant to entertain. That’s kind the first rule of movies: they aren’t meant to be long slogs that we’re being forced to sit through. We need to be able to enjoy them on some level. 

William Shakespeare is known for being one of the best writers of all time. He wrote plays that contained beautiful language to that tore into the human soul, that spoke to everyone on their level, that looked at the very beauty of the world itself. He could also write a fart joke like no one else in history. He could hide some of the filthiest jokes in some of the finest writing. But we consider this high art. And he wasn’t unique in this: classic literature is littered with some of the strangest sex jokes that makes American Pie look like… well, Shakespeare.

We tend to forget that we remember William Shakespeare’s work not just because it was great but because it was popular. Because there was a time when great writers weren’t writing for a select few, they were writing for the masses. They were writing for a universal human condition that shows us how we can live our lives, but wrapped it up in a parable that everyone could relate to. People may have not been Danish Kings who needed to avenge their parents, but everyone could relate to that parent/child dynamic in some way. 

The Marvel movies, despite what Mr. Scorsese says, are rife with themes of parenthood, doing what is right, heroism, love, revenge…yes, they’re wrapped up with amazing spider-children climbing walls or hammers being thrown at your enemies or big green guys who manage to break Harlem. The duality of the Hulk is something that’s in all of classic literature. Iron Man’s struggles of wanting to put right what once went wrong is as old as literature itself. Ant-Man’s shrinking ability… well maybe there’s not a strong metaphor there, but if Hamlet could have shrunk down to an ant’s size we probably wouldn’t have had to sit through four hours of him trying to decide how to act.

Martin Scorsese makes gangster films. They’re well constructed gangster films, ones that do exactly what William Shakespeare struck out to do all those years ago, but when it comes down do it, what makes Gangs of New York’s tales of immigrants trying to find their way through New York any different than the immigrant narrative at the heart of Thor: Ragnarok? The fact that one has Leonardo DiCaprio speaking with a questionable Irish Accent while the other features the great love between a man and his hammer? These themes are present if people look for them. There are a million ways to tell these stories, if we can find them.

One of the bigger moments in all of this talk about art happened a few years ago when the Oscars wanted to add a “popular movie” category that took up all of the films that were… popular, I guess? That weren’t “Best.” I’m not really sure how that was going to work. I think that speaks to the bigger problem that’s happening when we have popular movies vs. ones that are considered best. Part of it is this critical gatekeeping that happens whenever a movie comes out, one that tries to  break apart the “arthouse” movies vs. ones that people just like. But if you need to come up with an entirely different sent of rules to house a set of movies that people like versus what you consider best, maybe you do need a new set of criteria. 

I honestly think that part of this comes from the idea that we need to hold on to that little part of what we think makes us important. It used to be only an elite group of people were able to get a gig reviewing movies, and they picked what they considered “best.” In fact, there used to be consequences when people really liked a movie and critics didn’t. Critics used to lose their jobs if they were off from what the people liked. Now, literally anyone can put their opinion out there when it comes to movies. Myself included! I realize the irony there. I think that’s a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, you do get a variety of opinions, ranging from people who managed to like the latest arthouse movie from Arty McArtface as he took you through 17 hours of pure drama to come to an epiphany. On the other hand, you can get someone who really liked the one scene where they guy threw a motorcycle at the other guy.

But in the end… does it matter? I happen to like the Marvel movies and I like a lot of the more quiet movies out there that are considered “good.” I also liked Justice League. I think that movies, like anything, comes down to a matter of opinion. I also think what we consider art is up to you. I think there’s value in anything we consume, even if we look at it. I think that you can do analysis and pull meaning from any piece of art, and I don’t think we need to apologize for that.

I think there’s a place for big movies and little movies in the theaters. I think we need to go and just enjoy the movies that we enjoy. And I think trying to drum up false drama is counterproductive. Rather than trying to decry movies you don’t find “Good” then locate the movies you do find good and push them up. Or better yet: make your own art. Make the art you want to see. We live in an unprecedented time where you can make all the art you want. And I know that the Marvel movies don’t need my defense, at least financially. But as for something you can make meaning from? I think that is important. 

If you enjoy it: enjoy it. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. 

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