High Art and Low Art

Without a doubt, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has become one of, if not the preeminent sources of entertainment in the world today and sparked debate about the artistry of superhero films.

The whole superhero thing fascinates me from an artistic perspective because it touches on so many facets. There is the mythos itself, which hearkens back to the mythologies of countless cultures, in fact becoming a modern mythos (even when it reinterprets existing mythos like Thor, Zeus, and Ra). Much of that storytelling comes in the form of comics and graphic novels, inciting the high art-low art debate in literature. Being a graphic artform as well, it sparks the debate in the visual arts. With the leap to the silver screen, enhanced by the MCU, it brought the debate front and centre in film.

Ethan Hawke recently shared his views on the subject, which forms the basis of the post today:

I don’t think there’s a difference between high art and low art. There are movies that people put their heart into, and there are movies that people try to cash in on. And the ones I like are the ones people put their heart into, and you can feel it in a superhero movie, or you can feel it in an arthouse movie. I was making the joke that if Logan and Dark Knight and Doctor Strange are great art films, what is Fanny and Alexander? Those are my favorite superhero movies, LoganDoctor Strange, Dark Knight, those are great films. But they’re not the only thing and young people grow up today thinking that’s, you know, that’s all there is.

It’s a nuanced take that captures my complicated perspective on the arts, and that perspective comes down to complexity itself. Any given artform has compositional elements and there’s a craft to assembling them – that aspect of art I do not regard as debatable. That is not to say there is a specific prescription for employing them, and the absence of certain elements can say even more than their presence. In other cases, deliberately eschewing compositional elements speaks volumes. History has plenty of artistic movements centred on dramatic changes to specific elements.

Rather than high art or low art, perhaps it is better to say skilled and unskilled. I believe that ties back to Hawke’s assertion that there exists art into which people put their heart and there exists art into which people seek only cash. These two elements form a 2-part distribution of skill and commercialism (wherein a particular work ranges from zero skill to mastery, and from passion project to commercial).

When a 7-year-old does their awkward drawing of a giraffe (or a 40-year-old attempts to pick up the medium), it’s not “low art” – it’s art that lacks skill and experience. It’s still art though. The key difference is that they are doing the best they can.

Then there are the people who possess the skill but produce a less creative project because the point is the money. This is where things start to complex for me. I do not begrudge professional artists doing things for the money because people have to live. And depending on the project and the medium, such as a film, the resources are often controlled by other people (like a studio). Those structures need to operate as a business because the revenues they acquire become the resources for future projects, so lower risk projects designed to yield more revenues make perfect sense.

The result is formulaic projects. They lack creativity because the established formula yields results, so why risk a formula that may return nothing? Audiences (viewers/readers/listeners) sometimes vocally rebel against this, lamenting the lack of creativity, but make no such rebellion with their money. Audiences shell out for the formulaic books, movies, and music.

The more creative projects may be misunderstood by audiences or may simply fail to find a wide enough audience to return the studio revenues necessary to encourage future investment. Film studios, for example, do produce arthouse films, but audiences rarely respond to them (and when audiences do respond, it typically generates a new formulaic stream of copycats).

One of the tragedies I see with art is the gap between artistry and artistic appreciation. Artistic appreciation is not an elite club; understanding compositional elements is not knowledge beyond the understanding of a person (we see this in other areas as well, like STEM). But the Dunning-Kruger irony of it is that mostly the people interested in producing art, the artists, take the time to understand those elements. Those content to enjoy the arts may not, meaning that decisions made by artists can elude the audience’s understanding and therefore appreciation.

As much as audiences lament a lack of creativity by those creating projects, audiences lack a widespread appreciation of those same projects. “It’s formulaic” does not register as a criticism of the artists because that is known to all parties. It was deliberately formulaic because artists know that will produce returns. The creative turns go unconsumed and misunderstood.

I know as an aspiring novelist it remains one of the biggest challenges I face – how challenging do I make this? It’s a separate question from the calibre of the writing, the skill a writer possesses. I’m an advocate of what I call “dense writing,” wherein everything in the writing serves a literary purpose. It may not further the plot, but it speaks to characterisation or tone. Descriptions solely meant for world building have no purpose – I prefer to leave those details to the reader. The problem is that the average reader paying attention has a lot to unpack. It can be exhausting to consume that sort of writing, and many readers may want simple entertainment. Scare me, thrill me, amuse me, make me fall in love.

Again, there’s still the matter of skill apart from all of this. One can write a less creative, even formulaic piece that evokes those emotions without resorting to cheap tricks and gimmicks. No audience member wants to feel manipulated into feeling something – they want to feel it organically. That is where Ethan Hawke’s earlier point comes into the conversation.

My concern in the artistic debate is that audiences have grown lazier with respect to artistic appreciation, owing more to the state of the world and less to a lack of education. People are exhausted from simply living their lives, so when the time comes for entertainment, they want something easy to digest.

The problem is that the message sent to the producers is that is what audiences want. It makes them less likely to invest in more creative endeavours because no one, even the most skilled artists, have no idea how audiences will react to them. Making pitches is less about finding the best (most skilled/creative) projects and more about finding the most marketable ones. Amazing films, books, records, and the like get rejected often.

I know from a literary perspective the conversation is often about what publishers are seeking. That is hit-or-miss for writers as it is. If what is popular with audiences is high fantasy involving vampires, a particular writer may not have much in the way of that. One could pursue it for the commercial opportunity – earn some money and raise one’s profile – but that may result in a less creative, more formulaic approach to the story. That’s especially true if editors reject the more creative ideas for a project because they are untested and may alienate the exact intended audience.

That sort of rejection is highly impersonal. It’s a matter of numbers. Especially larger publishers, studios, etc., they do their market research and often know the audience better than they know themselves. Audience members have limited resources and will be picky about what they consume, meaning they often take fewer risks. Market trends tell producers where those less risky avenues are, and funnel resources into those.

The irony is that while audiences might complain that the most popular, highest grossing projects lack creativity, it’s because they are the most popular and highest grossing. The people involved in the projects don’t lack creativity. They are extraordinarily creative people who are providing the products that producers know audiences will consume.

There is no difference between high art and low art. What we need, if people want more creativity in the art they consume, is a greater understanding of artistic appreciation and a financial reflection of that understanding in their consumption.

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