Academic journal article Afterimage

Always Already: Affinities between Art and Film

Academic journal article Afterimage

Always Already: Affinities between Art and Film

Article excerpt

The exhibition "Art and Film Since 1945: Hall of Mirrors" claims to illustrate a moment of cultural progress beyond modernism toward a more enlightened era. The most telling essay, however, in the exhibition catalog - a catalog that does include other very good essays - is the least supportive of such an idea. Jonathan Crary's "Dr. Mabuse and Mr. Edison" concludes that "[o]ne of the most persistent features of modernity is the potent seductiveness of the phantasmagoria of progress, and among the ranks of the seduced are those who believe that modernity has somehow been exceeded."(1) The historical dating the show proposes is itself part of the "phantasmagoria," as Crary implies through his own references to cultural history. Though Crary discusses two of the artists included in the show - Jean-Luc Godard and David Cronenberg - and one of the works in the show - Cronenberg's Videodrome (1982) - he spends most of his time on films and artists from the 100-year period before this show's subject begins. Crary spends more time on Thomas Edison (1890s) and on Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse film series (1922, 1933, 1960) than he does on Godard or Cronenberg; and be discusses non-film artists such as Richard Wagner and Paul Cezanne without mentioning any non-film artist included in the show. One might consider Crary's contribution an appropriate historical prelude, but it is more accurately understood as a refutation of the show's main point and of its periodicity, a refutation I want to expand.

The introductory essay by the show's organizer, Kerry Brougher, poses 1945 as "a loose but convenient marker indicating that moment when the modern era slipped past the innocence of its utopian dreams, and when both the cinema and modern art entered states of crisis, decline and self-examination, a 'post-modern,"post-Hollywood' era that has seen the separations between high art and mass culture, art and kitsch, art and film, even further blurred."(2) I disagree with every major and minor point in this statement. 1945 is an arbitrary date; the modern era did not slip past anything of significance, nor were its pre-1945 dreams ever non-dialectically characterized as innocent or utopian except for very brief moments that ended long before 1945 or by handfuls of artists who were recognizably demented or quickly disabused of their utopianism. Neither cinema nor modern art, broadly understood, has entered any serious state of crisis or decline, while self-examination in both realms has been relatively constant from the beginning. There is as yet no countervening postmodernist and certainly no post-Hollywood era; heroically individualistic artists and pandering commercial values are still the paradigm in each of those realms, respectively. High art and mass culture, art and kitsch, and art and film are no more blurred than they ever were, which is not very - high art and mass culture define a spectrum, certainly, but are most often themselves easily distinguishable. Andy Warhol made high art out of soup can labels and pictures of Marilyn Monroe; the mass-cultural audience who loved Campbell's soup and Marilyn hated Warhol's art. To the extent that the mass-cultural audience has learned to love Warhol's art, it is no longer understandable as high art. From the elite-cultural perspective of what high art is - radically defamiliarizing, original, personal, socially and culturally incisive, spiritually redeeming - mass enculturation of Warhol has trivialized his work.

Art and kitsch are perfectly distinguishable in the same way. And art and film have influenced each other from the inception of cinema; there's nothing new about that. (Definitional work on "art" is needed - Art and Film sometimes uses it to mean painting and sculpture, sometimes to mean something grim can be.) Cinema has, since the late 1910s, included works of high film art: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919, by Robert Wiene) and Light Play Opus I (1921, by Walter Ruttmann). Cinema has, since the 1910s, produced mass-cultural works that are also considered film art, but those works at that time such as The Birth of a Nation (1915, by D. …

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