The first in a series of essays in honor of André Bazin.
is so inaccessible to mainstream intellectual thought as popular
art. Popular art derives much of its glamor from the sense that
it is new, at one with its time — to see its roots in the past is to
disenchant it. At the same time, its very currency, the
perception that it is wholly of the present, robs it of value, brands
it as transient. Add to this the modernist notion that art with
mass appeal is fatally compromised by commercialism and you have a recipe for
confining popular art to an intellectual ghetto. It can be
studied as a sociological or political subject, as a stepchild of high art or as
amusing, suggestive ephemera, but it cannot be examined on it own terms.
The modern academy, and the critical traditions associated with it, may
sometimes attempt to examine popular art as an aesthetic and historical phenomenon
but the standards for such an examination are shabby — they would not
be tolerated by any other academic discipline.
The proof of this, I think, can be seen in the fact that we have no
critical language for discussing the unique visual methods of
movies. The standard critical concepts for discussing movies are borrowed
from literature or painting. The unique methods of cinema must be
suggested impressionistically or simply avoided. In their
critical study of the films of King Vidor, Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon state
honestly that they have made no attempt to analyze Vidor's visual
methods, feeling that it's impossible to do so apart from the physical
presence of the films.
Of course it's easier to critique a work of art, especially a work of
visual or plastic art, in the physical presence of the work, but that
is not to say that critics have nothing useful to say about painting or
sculpture or dance — that their physical effects cannot be evoked and
discussed in words.
André Bazin took an heroic first step towards creating a critical
language for analyzing the plastic phenomena of film images but it has
never led to a general system of terms and concepts.
By the same token, there has been no systematic examination of the
aesthetic roots of cinematic technique, except insofar as these were based in the
literature of the novel or the stage. There has been no
comprehensive investigation of the history and aesthetic of the comic
strip, though the comic strip has been with us since the beginning of
the 19th Century, and no comprehensive investigation of the history and aesthetic of Victorian academic
painting — that is to say, painting in the age of photography.
Yet the comic strip and Victorian academic painting were far greater
influences on movies, on the aesthetic methods of movies, than the
literature of the Victorian stage, from which movies are customarily seen to have derived.
Intellectual fashion and a territorial segregation of word and image in
the academy have left the crucial arts of our time unexamined. On
the whole this may be a good thing, since art that is unexamined in
this sense tends to be more innovative and vital than art which feels
itself accountable to an intellectual and academic authority.
Still, we should recognize the state of things for what it is. We have no substantive intellectual access to and are discouraged from engaging intellectually (in any truly rigorous way) with the most vital and innovative arts of the past century and of our own time.