Thursday, April 7, 2011

Movies Are The Art of Our Times: A Theory

Ed Harris playing Jackson Pollock as the genius of the Hamptons; Patrick Stewart playing Gurney Halleck as the war hero of Dune.

Movies do not leap to mind when we think of great art because for over a century most artists, theorists and historians have used the military metaphor of the avant-garde to imagine what is most valuable about the art of our times. Shock troops leading the charge in battle, was never a good metaphor for artistic greatness. It puts the highest value on imagining art as an environments of chaos, as artists as heroic individuals willing to place themselves at the controversial front lines of intellectual life, and over values the most explosive art. The avant-garde misrepresents both modern warfare and modern art. They set us to the task of looking for tall trees (heros and masterpieces), when we should be looking for the greatness of the forest. The art of our time is not a work of art, it is an artform: movies.

In his book, The Battle for GuadalcanalSamuel Griffith (one of my three grandfathers) quotes an Naval officer saying "I don't know what the hell this 'logistics' is.. but I want some of it." The singular image of the mushroom cloud obscures a more lasting achievement, the army of nameless technicians that worked in obscurity to build the atom bomb. Modern warfare has never been decided by individual heroics, we tell stories of men throwing themselves on grenades but forget that "this 'logistics'" is what now makes the difference between victory and defeat. The US Navy entered WWII without logistics, but the cultural technology of marshaling and coordinating diverse technical expertise, equipment and groups of people needed to execute massive projects has spread to every sector of our complex global economy. An early reviewer of Star Wars, struck by the extraordinarily long scroll of credits at the end of the film, commented on "the peaceful army of technicians" that contributed to the film. Those long lists of obscure names and titles are now standard finales for movies. They are the antithesis of the names of the fallen recorded on war memorials. Movie credits are lists of the kinds of men who we guiltlessly forget after a war.
The Right Stuff (1983); Apollo 13 (1995)

What passes for a standing ovation in New York movie theaters is for the audience to keep their seats and watch the credits in their entirety - it is a strange ritual, but one I have always found touching. In art we make too much of the heroic names at the front of a film, but it is those army of technicians that is what makes movies the art of our times. Movies are the most visible expression of the logistical wonders that surround us, most of which we never think about much less look at, because most of it is infrastructure, what Stewart Brand describes as "something grey behind a fence." Movies are the great exception. They are where we go to watch the combine efforts of thousands. They are the cultural expresion of arguably our civilization's greatest achievement.

In his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson writes a lot about the infrastructure of "networks." The internet is of course the network of networks, but cities are also networks; reefs are networks; on and on. He is looking at the way the spaces we inhabit shape our thought, trying to identify the best networks. Here is one he stays far away from: Art. Johnson's defines networks in the broadest sense - the term is used to cover everything from offices to notebooks and brains. But just as not all cities are healthy fun places to live, and not all brains can produce good ideas, not all networks are created equal. Johnson's book explores ways to identify and build the sorts of networks we value the most: the kinds that foster new ideas. To that end he borrows an idea from the computer scientist Christopher Langton, that networks can be grouped as "gaseous", "liquids" and "solids." Johnson's book is concerned with identifying and fostering good ideas, but the network metaphor is one that can be used to reconsider what we value most about art. 
The network of ideas, and Steven Johnson's chart of innovation before and after the formation of city networks

That Johnson doesn't write about art making is telling - it is a hard environment to parse, very chaotic to insiders, so it is the sort of territory a savvy tech writer is smart to avoid. But reading about networks has me thinking a lot about the place of movies in today’s cultural life; more about roots and estuaries, than battlefields. Movies are not the tip of the spear. They stand at the center of today's artistic production. They are the liquid exchange between the solid-state of architecture and the almost entirely ephemeral (I hesitate to write gaseous) production of contemporary art.

According to Johnson, bands of hunter-gather tribes are "gaseous" networks - dispersed and loosely organized; too chaotic and disconnected to be very innovative. Johnson shows with a chart (above) that before humans began living in cities, innovation moved at a crawl - like gaseous environments, the important interaction needed to foster good ideas couldn't take place, or take place too infrequently for real gains to be made. The appearance of cities on the Johnson's chart marks a big upswing in human innovation. But not all settlements are created equal. The highly-structured networks of medieval cloisters and the strict stable hierarchies of palaces are too ordered to be very innovative - just like ice, not much happens there. 
Quest For Fire (1981); Blade Runner (1982)

The networks that Johnson is most interested in are the "liquid" networks, these are like the early oceans where life emerged, dense, watery environments. What makes modern cities so much more innovative than their medieval predecessors are their high density, interconnectedness, and, most of all, the sloppy nature of those connections. Like earth's early oceans, cities and the internet boarder on chaos, but have enough order that life can take place. Todays great cities are, like the internet, logistical achievements of peaceful armies of technicians. They are infrastructures, networks of networks where all kinds of dissimilar things, behaviors (many illicit), people and ideas are constantly bumping against one another. Because of those interactions between unlike things, and because there are so many of them so densely packed together, all kinds of new ideas emerge. They are objects of desire loaded with contradiction, but they are not art. Movies are infrastructure as art.

Movies, the ways they are made and consumed, are networks of networks made visible. They stand between our most important cultual solids - contemporary architecture, and our most cultural liquids - contemporary art. Darwin, when he was imagining the environment life emerged, imagined tidal pools: "some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity." Since that time deep sea volcanic vents have been served up as another likely spot. These are extreme environments, the meeting of two totally dissimilar and equally extreme incompatible environments, but where they mix, life (i.e. innovation) flourishes. The mix of salt water and fresh in estuaries are fecund lively environment, they provide all sorts of opportunities for species that the open sea and rivers do not. That is the liquid state that movies occupy, the boarder between extremes; between the intimate and the public, the popular and the transgressive; between the chaotic loose ephemera of contemporary art and the more solid land of architecture.

Young artists work in loose gaseous networks - thinly connected to the artworld by means of intermittent purchases of expensive glossy magazines, bursts of gallery visits followed by long periods of isolated work in the studio, discussions with friends, professors, curators and collectors inform that work, but again, for most young artists, even those still plugged in to the networks of art school,  the great majority of their attention is focused on their own work. The output of these artists is small, ephemeral and idiosyncratic. On rare occasions something is produced that is explosively exciting to the small group of insiders that follow contemporary art, and, on even rarer occasions, to the more general audiences. Technocrats like Johnson don't look to contemporary art for signs of progress because it is little more than artesianal background noise.

Because stakes are low for young artists and those who show and collect them, experiments and risks can be taken that would not be possible in more structured spheres of cultural production. A lot of fuss has been made lately over copyright judgments against artists, but it is important to note that no amount of punitive settlement in the courts will stop or even slow down artist’s appropriation of imagery from wherever and whom ever they want. Artists will continue to defy authorities and get away with it. Galleries and museums will show the work. Collectors will buy it. And only when prices get high enough will offended parties will sue, but even if they win judgments against individual artists they will not impede the misbehavior of contemporary art more generally. The network is too dispersed and decentralized. The biggest corporate bodies (private, non-profit, governmental) in the art world hardly rise above mom and pop concerns when compared to other spheres of production. There is no one to nail to the wall.
Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg's Polystyrene Zamboni (2005); vs the all too real billion dollar Ambani House

Contemporary architecture is solid. If the world’s richest man decided he wanted to build the world’s tallest buildings he would face a lot of daunting impediments. His plans would be examined in the press, approval from government agencies on the state and local level would need to be attained, and community groups either silenced or won over. If you had a billion dollars to burn, you can build a really ugly tower in country with a weak civic structures, as Ambani was able to do in Mumbai. I imagine he was able to buy off officials and bully neighbors, but even he cannot stop the ridicule of the press. I am guessing that India has learned its lesson, and that it will be much harder to build a tower without first building broad public support first. That other billionaires will look to Ambani as a cautionary tale.

We take out built environment very seriously - this is not a place we generally allow frivolous experimentation. If a polystyrene Zamboni collapses in an art gallery, a few egos get bruised, if a building collapses people die. Not to mention, bad art goes away. Bad architecture last for decades, even centuries, and an ugly skyskraper mares an entire city, they have the power to shame an entire nation (as was the case with the Ryugyong Hotel Tower in North Korea).
Richard Serra Torqued Elipse; Ryugyong Hotel

Movies stand between the extremes of the glass and steel towers and polystyrene installation art. A couple hundred thousand dollars in in production costs would get you a top of the line Richard Serra Torqued Elipse (Leonard Riggio got one for a million dollars from Larry Gagosian, you do the math), but two hundred thousand dollars wouldn't get you much of a movie. 200 million would get you a James Cameron blockbuster, but a piss poor Skyscraper. 

Likewise if a film flops, careers and finances can be damaged or even destroyed, but nobody dies. And even if an awful film like Cider House Rules comes out, that, for some inexplicable reason, is so wildly popular that it beats out Fight Club for the Oscar nomination (WTF). 11 years later everyone will remember that the first rule of Fight Club is and wonder what Cider House Rules was even about. If Cider House Rules had been a skyscraper we would all still be looking at it and wondering why they didn't build fucking Fight Club. The biggest blockbuster represents a relatively small risk for society at large when compared to architecture. We have stronge barriers against building in our cities because we have to live with the results (and die with the failures). 
The Cell (2000); Ocean's Thirteen (2007)

Because movie audiences are so large, blockbusters feel at times like tower edifices, that what we see on screen has the depth and solidity of architecture, but it dosen't. Movies are nothing more projected light, no more substantial than the paper and polystyrene constructions made by contemporary artists. Because they are ephemeral, we allow movie makers to delight us with things we would fight against in a more solid form. Movie making allows for the intermixing of incompatible world views, and aesthetics.

And like a good city there is plenty of space for unscrupulous movie makers to steal from those around them - here more gaseous networks make for easy pickings. The Cell appropriated imagery from every major gallery show from Matthew Barney and Damien Hirst, to Shirin Neshat. But in the years since the Cell was made movies have out paced contemporary art's long held transgressive role. Movies are where we now go to be shocked, blasphemed, and overwhelmed.
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) Daybreakers (2009); Inception (2010)

But while movie makers steal with one hand (far more from one another than contemporary art) they give with the other, making a place for imagery that would otherwise be impossible to imagine. In the wake of the collapse of Modernist architectures' utopian social programs, critics have complained that architecture has been reduced to entertainment. But in that same period entertainment has become the home for great architecture. While our cities don't lack for exciting and entertaining architecture, its at the movies where our greatest architectural fantasies are now realized. Singular spaces where we can see perfectly performed dances on the tips of bamboo accompanied by strange jarring scores.

But unlike the best of cities, movies can build as high as they want without ever asking their neighbors for approval or worrying about the geological stability of the site. This is not the tip of the spear. It is the benthic edge of artistic production: the moment of confusion at the tip of a tree's root, where root, fungus and soil cannot be distinguished. 
The Benthic edge of a root's tip; gawking crowd of Superman mouth-breathers 


  1. I was just wondering about the definition of "progress," and by proxy, "innovation" and how they relate to the notion of the "avant garde" and whether there was any use of that term anymore. So here you define innovation as "new ideas," and there seems to be an assumption that new ideas is intrinsically desirable. Is that true?

  2. I have been writing a series of posts about art in relation to technology for the past few months. Check it out here:

    I think it is interesting that Johnson along with Kevin Kelly and others are reviving the idea of progress in terms of technology, but stay away from art - you will notice I don't think movies are important because they are technically innovative. It is how we make them and watch them together in relation to how we live and work together today that I find important.

  3. Those essays are great. I tried to email you about them but they bounced back. After reading them I'm back to an earlier question about innovation than before though: What is it? "New ideas" seems a necessary simplification now. In part 4 you started to get to the meat of it, and within that progress and innovation were defined as an ordering of information, but you also point out "direction is not destination."

    That seems like it should be enough of a definition, and I'm struggling to explain why it isn't to me right now. I think I believe in progress and innovation, but distrust those who make innovation (or more to the point novelty) their primary intent.

    Saying "there is no progress" also seems silly though, mistaking an asymptotic tendency for zero itself. I also don't know if I believe in regression, or if that's just a form of innovation that is negative.

    And today (this crisis began around noon), I feel like I need to determine what I even mean by progress or innovation before I even answer this. I may disbelieve in it as it's been presented, but there may be something very like it that I believe in...

  4. In the face of existential angst, I will do my best.

    What has been helpful for me as I have been writing about this is to acknowledge that cultural progress is counter intuitive. That as technology becomes more refined we become increasingly crude - not cruel, but crude. In a civil society everyone knows there place. We are an incivil society. Litigious, vulgar, informal and lewd. Next to Moore's Law that is hard to register as a step forward - more often then not it gets cast as evidence that we are increasingly uncivilized, but that is not the case. A human being alive today has the a historically low statistic chance of having their brains bashed in by another human being. Incivility is not violence, it is the oposite. A good thing, a truly weird brand of progress.

  5. Are you guys even talking about movies? And Powers; Steven Johnson, architecture, "peaceful technicians" and liquids? You haven't responded to my points so far. I'm off to read essay #2. Start thinking about your grandmother's recipes.

  6. Talking about things by talking about the things you're talking about is so... literalist.

  7. My crisis about innovation is really less about what specific innovations are as what the term itself means. Greenberg and Fukuyama both made their names by defining superficial trends of progression and deciding that those were the point of progress itself. They ended up prescribing destinations by evaluating the direction.

    So with that as a warning, when I evaluate examples of what I'd consider progress, I want to find the common theme- the traits that define it- without coming to a prescriptive destination. Once I write that off though, I'm left with Kuhnian paradigm shifts where the frames of social thought themselves are shifted and/or a situation where whatever comes next is progress from whatever came before (so innovation just becomes a description of sequence).

    My problem with these, is there's nothing preventing regression. The Tea Party is a new phenomenon, and in many way unprecedented, yet it frames itself on accidental parodies of old ideologies. If society underwent the paradigm shift they desire, we'd find ourselves fighting many of the wars of McArthyism again. The paradigm shift and sequence based definitions of progress allow for that. In which case, progress isn't always desirable.

    To avoid that, I have to impose some sort of value based desirable condition that is refined in order to be progress. But that's what Fukuyama did. My problem with him may be the values he used to evaluate progress, but I'm not presumptuous enough to believe that universalizing my value system would be less imperial than anybody else's.

    I keep bouncing between these poles. When I see what you've written I am still attracted to the idea of progress and innovation, but I need to break this impasse somehow.

    I think the answer has to come from expanding the system somehow. Going meta about it, or showing how what was mistaken as a need to deny the existence of progress (what you describe in your 90s MFA) can actually lead to a different form of progress. Something more modular and nuanced.

    And this is important because without this definition, I don't know what attributes = good innovation and I have trouble evaluating whether film is the artform of our times. I think this has everything to do with what you said you were getting to in your other essays: "What does art want."