Art and Realism in a Digital Age
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If you take a long-term historical view, ours is clearly a period of techno-capitalist obsession. We trade-in gadgets for newer gadgets every couple of years. The idea that the brightest and most creative minds now work in start-ups, rather than as artists, has become a commonplace. The New York Times runs a new op-ed every week about the effect of technology on love, conversation, dating, mental health, and/or the economy. Vast amounts of information and capital are flowing to corporations in California. Our society is undeniably entering a new profit-driven digital order.
The study of film, which is a technical medium itself born in a similarly disorienting period, has tried to keep up. New appellations have appeared: screen arts, digital cultures, media studies. There have been debates about what exactly defines a “film.” Does it have to do with materiality, a technical apparatus, a kind of viewer experience? What will filmmaking look like in a hundred years? What will we be talking about when we talk about film?
The polemics are often caricatured as between “forward looking” new media theorists and “conservative” essentialists. This seems to me to miss the point. There is of course the question of terminology: if what “film” denotes is too delimited, isn’t “media” so all-encompassing as to be vaporous? But the much more important question regards aesthetics. It concerns the continuing importance, and unique status in our discussions, of art. Art as opposed to information or “content” or “media flows.” Multiple avenues of research are of course useful. But if we, as humanists, stop thinking about art––if we relinquish the category of art and, implicit therein, great art––quite frankly we are out of a job. We become a subfield of the social sciences: of mass-communications, sociology, technology studies and demography. All are admirable disciplines, but they are all more or less helpless in the face of a great film: whether that film is Sunrise (1927), Vertigo (1958), Killer of Sheep (1978), The Circle (2000), or Two Days, One Night (2014).
Great art can almost be defined by its inability to be reduced to pure ideology. (This is true whether ideology is defined politically, materially or technologically.) Exceptional, rather than average, works are able to be re-experienced in new and fertile ways. They superabound the categories of the social sciences. They belong to our present. It will be our job, then, as film scholars in the digital age, to do what criticism has always done: to argue for what is truly great amid what is merely representative or interesting, and to come to terms not only with the changing ways art is experienced but with the new ways art itself documents and approaches experience. There is no reason for us to shy away from comparative judgments. Nor should we try to couch our findings in pseudo-scientific jargon. There will never be a truth-test of the kind found in physics for why film X is better than film Y. The value and meaning of a film will depend on our conversations––the ongoing conversation of criticism––and on the different purposes we believe art to possess at a given time. It will depend on what a film (or other media artwork) opens up to us.
In periods of wholesale technological transformation, such as ours, there tend to be two critical schools. One group hails the change as liberatory, the other as dystopian. Both tend to oversimplify. If one danger facing film criticism is to replace the study of art with the study of media technology, another is the reverse extreme. It is to reduce art to the tradition of avant-garde pessimism. If you like, one group follows McLuhan, the other Adorno. A much more promising third way is the long tradition of cinematic (and pre-cinematic) realism. This tradition is anti-spectacular and anti-virtual. It believes in the unique capacity of the camera to reveal the physical world. It engages questions of historical development and change, the relationship of the individual to society, and what Erich Auerbach called “the everyday processes of life.” At a time when the very fabric of our lives is being remade by media technology, those films that reinvigorate and expand the realist tradition, that allow us to see how we are embedded in the social world and in history, take on a special importance. The great dream of our techno-capitalist age is connectivity (the great fear is a lonely obsolescence); the best films of this century can do more than any smartphone to make us aware of how we are connected.
Joshua Sperling is a graduate student at Yale University in Comparative Literature and Film Studies. He is finishing a dissertation on art and politics in the work of John Berger.