I was sad to see, in the recent New York Magazine treatment of Doug Liman, a note of agony. Liman talks about his new film, Jumper, as something that "completes my sellout trilogy." He calls Swingers, his first film, "the one film that was truly not a sellout." Liman believes that Mr. and Mrs. Smith cost him his "indie credibility."
There is something faintly old fashioned about this agony. From an anthropological point, I can’t help feeling like I am looking at a little bit of New York history, an artifact of a time gone by. What we are hearing in Liman is the modernist insistence that the world must be dichotomized into art and commerce, that those who make one can’t make the other, that art is necessarily worthy and commerce necessarily craven, that credibility goes to art, condemnation to commerce. Those who engage in commerce instead of culture are "selling out."
From an anthropological view, this concept was installed with special virulence in popular culture sometime after World War II. Any one who made culture for commercial purposes (art directors, copywriters, TV producers, Broadway producers) were filled with self reproach. It was customary for ad executives to let you know that they were "working on a novel," lest you imagine that they took advertising seriously. The wonder is that Manhattan turned out so much brilliant popular culture, when so many of its meaning makers were so conflicted, so self hating.
But there it is, the modernism was clear on this: culture that comes from commerce was compromised, bad, dirty and wrong. From an anthropological (aka, a Martian point of view) it was an amazing vital and formative cultural construction. And it exists still. It torments still. When Liman talks of "selling out" for making films that have entertained millions, it is virulent.
But here is the post modernist view. (I wonder if we shouldn’t call this the "past modernist" view, because when we wish to say "not modern," we don’t necessarily mean what "post modernism" has come to mean.) There are two ways to make the case.
First, culture that comes from commerce has got steadily better. This says the "art vs. commerce" argument was wrong. People insisted TV was a waste land from which nothing good could ever come. And of course, now we watch The Wire, Six Feet Under and other HBO productions with the conviction that its pretty good indeed. Even the major networks now turn out great work, as I think Raines, Life, 30 Rock demonstrate. This evidence is extraordinarily damaging to the "art vs. commerce" argument. Good work should never have come to TV or Hollywood, if the dichotomy were real. (See the work of John Carey, Tyler Cowen, John Docker, Steven Johnson, D.L. LeMahieu, and Robert Thompson, as below.)
Second, we are coming to see that art and commerce are not mutually exclusive, that it’s ok to do both. This argument accepts the original argument: art is better than commerce. But
it says that we no longer have to choose. People who do one can do the other. Specifically, people who do commerce can still do art. (Actually, it might be that the argument still works when transposed. It may well be that those who do art can’t do commerce. That would be agonizing…but it is a topic for another post.)
When Elvis Mitchell asked Steven Soderbergh what he was thinking as he prepared to make his movie Out of Sight, Soderbergh replied:
If you blow this, you will be doing art-house movies for the rest of your life and that’s as bad as doing big budget things. I wanted to do both.
This is I think the signature of our postmodernism, that conviction that we will not submit to the tyranny of dichotomous categories, that we will not submit to choosing between art and commerce, that we want both. The post modern self is a voracious creature. We want everything on offer. Now. Ours is a time of expansionary individualism.
This is not to say that there are not moral issues here, that we are not obliged to think about the kinds of value that different kinds of film-making creates, that we are not obliged to choose with care. It is merely to say that the art-commerce dichotomy is now an exhausted cultural artifact, a moral antique.
Carey, John. 1992. The Intellectuals and the Masses: pride and prejudice among the literary intelligentsia, 1880-1939. London: Faber and Faber.
Cowen, Tyler. 1998. In Praise of Commercial Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Docker, John. 1994. Postmodernism and popular culture: a cultural history. Cambridge. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Fishman, Steve. 2008. The Liman Identity. New York Magazine. January 21-28, 2008, pp. 36-41, 124. http://nymag.com/news/features/42823/
Johnson, Steven. 2005. Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter. New York: Riverhead.
LeMahieu, D. L. 1988. A culture for democracy: mass communication and the cultivated mind in Britain between the wars. Oxford : Clarendon Press.
To Eunice Hong and The Brown Daily Herald for the photo above.