A wearied Hollywood opened the 80th Academy Awards with more than a sigh of relief.
There had been a disastrous Writers’ Guild Strike, which left most of the media networks forced to suspend their regular programming and air reruns of their shows. The Golden Globes had been effectively boycotted by the writers—as well as by the actors sympathetic to the writers—leaving the ceremony with little more than two hosts announcing the winners (Ryan, 2008, para. 3).
The strike was, however, resolved sooner than the airing of the Oscars, and the program was aired without a hitch.The host of the evening was the political pundit, Jon Stewart, who had become famous in his program The Daily Show with Jon Stewart for his ridiculing the government’s policies, as well as media network’s idiosyncrasies. That night, he had the responsibility to present the nominees for Best Picture, among them the story involving drug money, serial killers and disillusioned cops (No Country for Old Men), the rise to power of an ambitious oil czar (There Will Be Blood), and a musical about a legendary serial killer from London (Sweeney Todd). “Does this town need a hug?” Stewart jokingly asks. “What happened?… All I can say is, thank God for teen pregnancy” (“’No Country’ wins Best Picture”, 2008, para.
22).This slate of dark films is a sign of commercial degradation of the arts. In recent years there have emerged movies that either cater to the senses in their depravity, or are dark enough to be “acceptable” to media, as it is portrays a more “realistic” environment. Thus, the barbarity of Saw and Hostel met with commercial success and was followed up with sequels, and the Jack-Ripper imagery of Sweeney Todd earned it an Academy Award nomination.One film, however, seemed out of place in the midst of “cinematic masterpieces”: the indie film Juno. Its storyline would have had Hollywood condemn it to mediocrity, as the “realism” of a broken family or a challenged morality is nowhere to be seen throughout the film.
The heroine instead finds herself upholding moral values, and promoting the importance of family. The movie does not focus on “visual panorama” of images, but on witty dialogue with substance. The sight of it among commercial successes in stark contrast to it in theme and style evokes the question of whether there really should be a way to classify Juno, as a masterpiece of art. A more significant question would be whether there is a way to critically go past the “boundaries” that separate popular art from the seemingly “elitist” roster of “masterpieces”.
This paper would thus seek to answer Question #3 by exploring and discovering the striking similarities of two artists in different periods. It will seek to pinpoint the factor that seems to hinder the integration of the two, and coincidentally promote the steady decline in appreciation of the arts. At its conclusion the work hopes to answer whether there is a way to disregard these “boundaries” and resolve any possible crises of “irreconcilability” between the two arts as well as between the audience and the art.
The Romantic SixtiesThe streets are filled with students, workers and intellectuals from different walks of life, their arms raised in protest. Clashes erupt between troops and demonstrators chanting for reform of the unjust regime. News of further orders of censorship by the government provokes an escalation of the demonstrations, and in the midst of tumult, soldiers accidentally fire on some of the protesters. The protest reaches fever pitch; finally, the government capitulates, as the country’s leader is driven off to forced resignation.
The success of the civil disorder in the country sets sparks all across other neighboring countries and barricades and protests erupt throughout cities and capitals. Government troops and police are hard-put to suppress the demonstrations; the air is electrified with resistance. Government collapse or totter to the edge of collapse. The protesters begin to sing paeans to fraternity, liberation, and the end of oppression. It was turn of the decade, two years before the beginning of a movement. This, however, is not a picture of the turbulent Sixties of our times—the twentieth century—but of the Forties of a century before, which served as watermark of the Romantic Revolution.The works of Wolfgang Mozart, Ludwig Beethoven and Francisco Goya are often collectively thrown in among the archaic and elitist “Fine Arts” and worthy only as museum pieces. This is a grave, and common misinterpretation of an age that had so much in common with the 1960s.
The artists mentioned above were living in as turbulent a time as did the activists rising against the Eisenhower “realpolitik”. They were both a revolt against the Conservative systems of their respective periods and both were considered scandalous and offensive.Francisco de Goya could serve as stark representation of two periods in Western culture at that time: the Enlightenment and the Romantic Movement. He was born at a time of great prosperity for the aristocracy of Europe, which commissioned artists to depict masterpieces of a religious nature or fantastic in nature. The Spaniard was born at almost the same period as the Austrian Mozart; unlike the latter, he had several patrons, was paid huge sums for creating portraits for the illustrado—his wealthy patrons from the Floridablancas to the Osunas.
The portrait The Family of the Duque de Osuna depicts the sheer innocence of the subjects, and the times, which seem to reflect somewhat on the tranquility of the painter (Crow, et. al., 1998, pp.80-82).De Goya lavished on his newfound fame, extolling the happiness of the times through his early works, while from the other side of the world Mozart toured Europe, composing masterpieces that provoked standing ovations but with little pecuniary reward. In his trip to Paris, he composed a magnificent concerto for a nobleman, Duc de Guines and music lessons for his daughter, and for his pains was only paid three louis d’or (at approximately $75). Mozart bitterly wondered whether “life was worth living” (Durant, 1967, p.
392). The Austrian’s tour of Europe, his composition of commercially “catchy” music, and their generally “carefree”, naïve nature in stark opposition to his growing personal tragedy—culminating in an early death seem to echo the artists of “prosperity” of the later 1950s, particularly Elvis Presley, who sang for a still-innocent decade, though there were growing hints of rebellion there.The little consolation accorded to Mozart was his early death, which spared him from the horrors of the French Revolution. De Goya not only felt the impact and anarchy that followed, it affected him deeply, and shook him into the nightmare of his later works. The Napoleonic ouster of the Bourbon monarchs in Spain, and the convulsive conflict that raged throughout the Spanish countryside suddenly found the painter with no patrons, and a witness to the brutality of these times.
His paintings depicted not a horror of a patriot seeing the slaughter of his countrymen, but the general soul-tearing sight of wholesale massacres and carnage committed by both sides. This depressed outlook on the world comes out in his Disasters of War collection (Crow, et. al.
, 1998, p.96), and the stigma of a creeping madness and upheaval from his world led him to Saturn Devouring His Offsprint, a nightmarish vision of monsters and the twisted. It was in the agony of his personal Furies that he thus perished (Durant, 1967, pp. 308-309).In striking comparison to this single devastation of a man from prosperity and health to madness and desolation during the Enlightenment and after, is the equally tragic John Lennon. Caught in a “Mozart”-ish popularity, the Beatles was placed squarely at the center of the musical revolution dubbed the “British Invasion”. It was the early 1960s, and though the Kennedy tragedy had shattered the seeming gaiety and innocence of the previous decade, the world had not yet been shaken by the student revolt and intellectual upheaval that would culminate in their own “French Revolution”—Woodstock.
The song And I Love Her has a seeming melody of growing restlessness in his generation while retaining the assurance of a relief and refuge. This song seems to be caught between the innocence of the Eisenhower-Kennedy era and the sadness of the Counter-Culture of the later Sixties, of light and dark, as De Goya’s Conde de Floridablanca centuries before seems to predict the struggles of light and dark within his life.De Goya’s paintings during the Revolution and the Napoleonic era depict the growing alienation of the artist with his world, a feeling echoed by his contemporary Romantic painters and writers. This feeling of alienation also began to wash in the Revolutionary 1960s, and appeared in the Beatles’ Help (1965), The Fool on the Hill (1967), and Yesterday (1969). The three songs seem to depict the degrees of helplessness, isolation and resignation by an individual before the world.
It is milder by tone to De Goya’s Capricho collection, yet the darkness exist: “There’s a shadow hanging over me”, “I long for yesterday”, “I need a place to hide away”.The beginning of the 1970s saw the despair, anguish, and frustration of a Revolution that had seemingly had no direction, and where its artists began to look inward. De Goya’s Disasters of War were works of personal connection to him, as he began to create pieces that were not the subject of commissions but of expressions of self, and thus his growing madness was released in his Black Paintings. It was written following the agonies of a war that devastated his country culturally and socially. In the same vein, John Lennon found himself more and more in resistance to an oppressive world, and his songs became more personal: Imagine and So This is Christmas may be placed in the same light as Disasters of War. The words, devoid of naiveté, compressed in a few simple words, seem to speak of the despair at the sight of the sufferings of war. Cold Turkey is a mirror to De Goya’s El Sueño, as the former depicts Lennon’s personal struggle with heroin addiction and the other is the Spaniard’s struggle with a growing madness.
There is, therefore, a misinterpretation of these classical pieces as “elitist” and “out of step” with the modern world. Distinctions exist that set apart these works of art, as one artistic period was a rebellion of the other, and the period that followed would be a rebellion of its predecessor. It would seem a daring statement to say that Mozart was at par with Elvis Presley, or Beethoven with Jimi Hendrix, but the apparent “absurdity” of the statement lies in the interpretation of these masterpieces outside of the context of their times and as “antiques” of a “Golden Age”, glorious they may be in the eyes of the upper class, or archaic before the masses.The crisis of culture does not lie in the seeming sudden drop in the moral structure of the times, or the influence of the Sixties. The Romantic Movement saw the exploration of the taboo, from the beautification of the grotesque to the glorification of the Devil, and it was seen as a period in decadence; yet it was followed by a new conservatism, in the form of Victorian ethics and morals.
These steep drops in culture are periodic in any age. One significant distinction sets apart our recent society to the societies that preceded us.The Media DictatorshipsAlexis de Tocqueville, in his work Democracy in America (1945), explained that artisans in democratic societies are left with either of these options: first, he may look for a better, more efficient way at mass producing his high-quality work of art, or he can try to mass produce works of lesser quality at equal speed (p.52). The second seemed more feasible, and thus works of art from film, to music and later to TV programs were filtered to what was profitable, regardless of their quality.
Robert Bork, in his work Slouching Towards Gomorrah (1996) lamented how Big Man with a Gun—a song with scandalous context—was acclaimed with Grammy Awards and defended by executives of Time Warner, who marketed the song (pp.131-132). It was profitable; it sold millions of copies, and therefore acceptable.Tocqueville could have foreseen the trend by which democratic societies would treat art, but not in the degree by which it has been gripped by twentieth century society, and the crisis that erupted as a consequence. In the nineteenth century, entertainment was staged in theatres, or in the streets, or carnivals.
The instruments by which the arts was disseminated was still largely remote, and far from the home. The advent of the radio and the television heralded the beginning of the media culture. “The medium is the message”, explained McLuhan in Understanding Media (1964). The cold, impersonal medium—either the radio or the television—has become in itself a new environment, “reprocessing” the message to be disseminated to its target audience (p.ix). The latter finds the instrument without value, except for the message by which it sends. Information, according to Toffler in Third Wave (1981), has exploded in such a level in the recent time that it has become the new lucrative business.Seeing the potential of these medium, and seeking to control the message which is disseminated to the target market, corporations have sought to monopolize these media, from newspapers to radio to television (Bagdikian, 1990, pp.
3-4). Thus strategically positioned, they could filter programs that promote their products, as well as use their “commercial propagandists”, through the use of “repetition of symbols” to win over potential consumers through advertisements (Huxley, 1958, pp.47-48). Works of art that are deemed offensive or contrary to the goals of the corporation are not disseminated. The book Corporate Murder, which was supposed to highlight a history of corporations’ flaws in decision-making, was prevented from being published as the president of the publishing company, Simon & Schuster, felt that the book made all corporations look bad (Bagdikian, 1990, p.30).
The brilliant film Citizen Kane, which seemed to reflect too much on the real life of media giant William Randolph Hearst, was banned from release in the United States, and its creator, Orson Welles, became a practical pariah before the media.Substance has collapsed in the wake of commercial value, and the corporations have turned the media from disseminators of art to an “information market place”. A vulgar example of this is the movie The Island, with product placements displayed throughout the sequence of scenes.
There are some exceptions to this rule: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is seen as one of the greatest movies in the twentieth century, and the equally gripping Apocalypse Now has gained cult status. These are applications of Tocqueville’s first alternative.One medium stands out as the primary player in the rapid-pace destruction of culture. McLuhan (1964) saw it as a “cold instrument”—impersonal, distant, and remote—that is not compatible with its audience’s personal nature, thus alienating the latter from the “reprocessed”, or transformed “cold” message (p.
261). Bork (1996) saw it as an instrument used as a “weapon” to promote rebellion against popular culture (p.127). The most comprehensive explanation, however, is provided in Third Wave: the present society is no longer exposed to long “strings” of ideas, but millisecond images, or “blips” that present, argue, then destroy ideas in the matter of seconds (Toffler, 1981, pp.
165-166).The present culture is thus a “Television Culture” that cultivates the entertainment of imagery, regardless of its substance. The media has capitalized on this and further transformed society to fit its instruments into “imagery-information market place”. Music that is originally disseminated in radios has been given “visual aspect” in the form of music videos. The song Toxic by Britney Spears is more remembered for its fast-paced video than its lyrics or melody. The series 24 is notoriously known for the killing of its major characters, emphasizing instead the minute-by-minute unfolding of imagery. Two movies of recent time—Titanic and Return of the King—swept the Academy Awards from Best Picture to Best Director, yet ominously not Best Actor or Actress.
ConclusionThe movie Juno, its place in the roster of the Academy Awards, and Jon Stewart’s comment deserves a second look. Admittedly, the top awards were handed down to those that catered to the “visual-information market place”. No Country for Old Men was appealing, image-wise, as was its competitor There Will Be Blood. In contrast, Juno shied away from visual dependence, and instead focused on the characters, the traditional medium of communication—the literal world of speech and dialogue—and the substance of the piece. It used a “cold instrument” to successfully disseminate a “hot” or personal message; and for its efforts its artist received the Best Original Screenplay.
Charlie Parker was correct in stating that there are no defined boundaries in art. Seeing Juno alongside the media products There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, as well as the rare masterpiece Atonement sees a culture that provides no delineated border between the “commercial art” and the “fine art”. Juno belongs to the “fine arts”, as it is a masterpiece of substance that does not rely on the dissemination by its medium to be brilliant. The mistake of both sides of the social spectrum, in the works of Mozart, Beethoven and the other Romantics—or the artists of the Renaissance, or the Roaring Twenties—is that they are measured in par with the periods which they were opposed to, and collectively hailed as “masterpieces”, regardless of their context to that time. Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment, in its original form was scandalous and had to be retouched to cover the “grittier parts” (Durant, 1953, p. 716). Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet, though filled with underlying internal human struggles, was for all intents and purposes a slasher-flick, at par with Final Destination.The key, then, is perspective.
These “masterpieces” could be reinvented by disseminating them in their purest form across media, and in the context by which they were made from. De Goya’s imagery is compatible with the anarchistic terror produced by some heavy metal music. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony could be used in Easter celebrations, as it was meant as an ode to glorify.There remains the power of the media moguls, and their seeming blatant disregard of artistic substance for the “visually and commercially appealing”. Television has largely been used to disseminate their capitalistic objectives; nevertheless, high quality programs manage to end up in the other side: Gilmore Girls and Seventh Heaven, which emphasize the morals of family and simplicity of suburban life had run for many seasons, while the innovative Veronica Mars managed to run for three. The media networks have begun to appreciate the inherent value of high-quality programming: thus, Juno rests alongside its commercial products.
The boundaries can be blurred, and done away with. It is a mere matter of changing perspectives. There should be more exposure to the contextual value of masterpieces, and their equivalent in today’s society. Greater appreciation will thus be gained for these artistic achievements, and media-wise will equate to commercial appeal. Faced again with an Academy Awards of commercial products, it can truly be said, “Thank God for teen pregnancy”.