What Every Single Critic Doesn’t Get About Capitalism and Art
(And Yes, I’m Sometimes Guilty of It As Well)
Early in Stephen King’s magnum opus It, future best-selling novelist Bill Denborough is in the middle of his college writing course. All of his fellow classmates and teachers are pretentious who are exactly the kinds of people that critics of higher learning have been arguing against for decades. Finally after another long endless lecture on symbolism that everybody in the classhas agreed about for over an hour, but the class keeps droning, Denborough gets to his feet and says the following:
“Why does a story have to be socio-anything? Politics…culture…history…aren’t those natural ingredients in any story if it’s told well? I mean…can’t you guys just let a story be a story?
After a long silence, the instructor says softly ‘as if to a child having an inexplicable tantrum, ‘Do you believe William Faulkner was just telling stories? Do you believe Shakespeare was just interested in trying to make a buck?”
When Bill ‘honestly considers the question and replied, “I think that’s pretty close to the truth, in their eyes he reads a kind of damnation.”
“I suggest,” the instructor says, “that you have a great deal to learn.” The class breaks out into applause. Denborough perseveres, and when he writes his next story, it is given an F, labeled “PULP. CRAP.” Denborough then sells the story for $200, and when he receives the letter of publication, the professor writes another F. Denborough drops out of college and becomes a best selling novelist before he’s twenty one.
I have many problems with Stephen King — I have many problems with It in hindsight — but this segment resonates me with me now as much as it did when I first read the book (which I reread at least a dozen times before high school ended) nearly thirty years ago. King will never consider himself as great a writer as Faulkner or Shakespeare, but in less than a few pages he has successfully explained what has been the eternal dissonance between critics and scholars for centuries and certainly in the last several decades in particular.
Every professor of English literature, every New York film critic, basically anyone who has looked at any form of art basically ignores any idea that it was created to make money for someone, certainly not the artist. Whether they were a poet or a painter, a musician or a filmmaker, no matter how long ago or what country they were in, they were doing solely for the purpose of making art. Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, Tennyson wrote The Charge of the Light Brigade, and yes, Orson Welles made Citizen Kane only for the purpose of making art. They did it for free. They didn’t need to eat or pay rent. No they created art solely for posterity and their patrons and absolutely no other reason.
That’s some weapons grade bullshit. All of these scholars and academics will go through the motions of saying, it’s a shame that Renoir and Keats or Chopin died in poverty and unknown at the time, but they live on through their arts. Somehow the horrors of poverty, homelessness and disease only seem insignificant when it comes to artists. I guarantee you that Rembrandt or Schubert or any of the dozens or hundreds of other artists would have gladly sacrificed the idea of being remembered if they could have had heat in their home or food on their table.
But the field of the liberal arts, of which my field is related, has decided fundamentally that all great art exists in a tabula rasa. It also fundamentally assumes that all of the artists we consider great succeeded not just because they were white men (although let’s not pretend that’s not a major factor) but because they were better than them. Which again, weapons grade bullshit. Was Da Vinci or Michelangelo truly better than any of a dozen other Italian artists of their era? Maybe not. But the Medici’s and the Pope thought so, and gave them money and freedom to do so. Was Shakespeare really a better playwright than Ben Johnson? An academic question. Elizabeth I liked his work, so he was allowed to write a lot more, and more importantly, more of his work survived. Was Mozart really a better composer than Salieri? Despite what you may have seen in Amadeus, it might be a closer question than that. But Mozart was more popular among the crown princes, so his work survives and Salieri is the villain. Some artists are better known than others because they were in the right place at the right time. That’s true for everything. But they also wrote their pieces because their patrons wanted them, not because they truly writing or doing what they wanted most of the time.
I’ve read over and over that capitalism has destroyed society. (I’m actually going to make a point on this later.) Maybe that’s true. But face facts: art would not and could not exist without it. If someone wasn’t willing to buy a portrait or read a book or see a movie, no one would finance it being made. And it is that divide that has fundamentally become the problem with so many critics in my field over the years. At the core of their belief is ‘art for art’s sake.’ I’m certain no one would have become an artist if they were just making art for themselves. You can not eat a portrait, you can not live in a book, and you can’t sleep on a symphony. How many painter, musicians, writers have had to work lowly day jobs to support themselves until they became successful? Stephen King couldn’t make living selling short stories so he taught night school. He was going to give up writing before he finally sold Carrie in 1975. Now he’s that one of the biggest literary successes in history, he’s not an artist. I have no doubt that if he’d given up writing and become a teacher, by this point some literary scholar would have found some stories in his magazines and wondered about ‘his untapped potential’. You’re either an artist or a sell-out, there is no in-between.
And it is this type of cynicism that fuels so many of the critics who yearn for the ‘good old days’ where movies were ‘about something’ and every other film was not ‘a franchise’. They conveniently forget that back in the ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’ every studio had ‘franchises’. They were just called B-Movies. What do scholars think series devoted to Andy Hardy and Mr. Moto movies were but Tyler Perry and Hercule Poirot movies made for much less money? Because those movies were made in a matter of days and were essentially lightweight doesn’t mean that studio heads didn’t value them more. Hell, Louis Mayer once said about the classic Ninotchka that an Andy Hardy movie cost half as much and made more money. And Batman and Superman were just as prevalent in the theaters in the 1940s and 1950s as they are now. The difference was, of course, that they were short subjects and animated cartoons.
And such as always been the way. Gone With The Wind was not considered the greatest motion picture in history for half a century because it was a particularly brilliant epic nor had towering performances. It was because it was the biggest moneymaker in history to that time. The eight Academy Awards it received were not confirmation of its brilliance but rather a coronation of it in the eyes of Hollywood. ‘Art for Arts Sake’ may have been in Latin on the MGM motto, but it’s not because Mayer or Goldwyn believed in it. Hell, I’ll bet neither of them even knew Latin. Some art designer thought it looked good next to the roaring lion, and they shrugged it off.
For decades, there have been anecdotes from countless writers and directors in the studio system all along the lines that they were interesting in money over art. We greet them as jokes because accepting the opposite would go against everything critics and scholars are taught. Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Raymond Chandler all did stints writing screenplays for Hollywood in the golden age because that’s where the money was. Scholars and critics never look at their works in any literature course I know of, and invariably dismiss it as ‘slumming’. They couldn’t possibly have been working ghost writing dialogue for bad B-Movies because it paid better than the novels that they are remembered for, no, it was because they thought they could add art to Hollywood.
But that’s always the way in art. If a writer or a director or a talent of any kind makes millions at his job, he is inferior to directors who might be better. Spielberg spent years being considered inferior to Martin Scorsese because Raging Bull and Taxi Driver were art and Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T., merely ‘blockbusters’. Stephen King and Tom Clancy will never be considered great novelists compared to Jonathan Franzen or Donna Tartt because they are (or were) ‘genre writers’ instead of real ‘authors’. Stephen Sondheim may not have as financially successful as Andrew Lloyd Weber, but his fans will always declare him superior because his work was not as ‘commercial’ as Weber’s. The fact that for decades Sondheim’s backers had to accept his shows would lose money; irrelevant. After all, ‘art isn’t easy’. (The fact that Sondheim wrote that line in satirizing the level of art and money is no doubt lost on most scholars.)
And that’s the thing that pisses critics off today. They have never accepted that capitalism drives film and television the same way it drives everything else. I have a feeling that’s why so many of them automatically snub comic book movies or sci-fi movies or any film that isn’t made for under a million dollars and isn’t even released in theaters. In essence they are like the students in Stephen King’s fictional college course; they believe those writers are working to make art. It’s why they find deeper meaning in everything, even if it isn’t there. They can not accept that those independent film makers are just interested in telling stories or trying to make a buck as much as Spielberg or the makers of Spiderman: The Mutliverse of Madness. If those same filmmakers told them as much, they’d dismiss it.
Fundamentally, I think all critics — of film and literature, perhaps TV to a regard — have to accept that capitalism drives all art. It always has and it always will. Is it easier to accept that when the movie is The Rise of Skywalker rather than The Power of the Dog? Of course. But in both case, everybody connected with the film did it to make money first and then maybe to make art. Perhaps in some cases, it was just to make money so that they could make the projects they really wanted too — filmmakers like Gus Van Sant have admitted that with some of their all-too-commercial projects. But in either case, capitalism does drive everything.
And I think that same level of concern needs to be taken when it comes say, to criticism, itself. Perhaps not so much artistic criticism, but certainly almost all the criticism seen, say, at a blog like this one. All of the columnists at this blog may say they are writing their opinions to enlighten and inform about the world, about art, even about how capitalism has destroyed the world. But lest we forget, they are only writing about it at this blog in the first place because they are making a living doing so. I may be an exception, as I’m not making money writing this column or others like it, but that is only because I have yet to find a way to do so. Like everyone else who history might some day think to call an artist, I’m just doing what I can to make a buck.
Of course, criticism is like everything else. If I were to try and follow my model Roger Ebert, try to find art in the modern blockbuster as much as I did a silent movie, try to sell criticism on television and make it accessible to –gasp — the average citizen, I would no doubt be considered by my fellow critics as a sell out, someone who is making a mockery of his profession. Better to be a David Denby or a Rex Reed, someone who writes only for his fellow critics and scholars, for posterity not for the masses, even though they too are making a living by it. Unlike everyone else in society, if you’re making money at your living, you’re not a true artist. (Wait a minute…does that mean I am?)