Is Film Fine Art?

For my job, I am currently gathering research on US high schools that provide opportunities for their students to study film theory and/or learn film production skills. This research entails hours of navigating through (usually poorly designed) websites, trying to find a course catalogue or extracurricular activities page. When those resources do exist, my next task is to determine how that particular school classifies film as a subject. The typical categorizations include “technology/computer skills”, “practical skills”, occasionally “the arts”, or typically the nebulous “other”. Very seldom do I see film considered alongside the other traditional fine arts, let alone within an arts classification at all. Visual arts (drawing, painting, ceramics), music, dance, and theater occupy this realm but usually film is not included.

If you take a look at the Webster’s dictionary, you’ll see 3 definitions of fine art:
1a) Art concerned primarily with the creation of beautiful objects–usually used in plural.
1b) Objects of fine art.
2) An activity requiring a fine skill.
Like the term art itself, fine arts leaves much up to individual interpretation, but the narrative which excludes film from the fine art world does exist in a larger cultural context.

Film was invented at the end of the 19th century, but it really came into its own during the beginning of the 20th century, paralleling the rise of modernism. Among many other things, modernity emphasized the notion of a mass culture, distinguished from that of a high culture. Raymond Williams writes, “Masses is the modern word for many-headed multitude or mob: low, ignorant, unstable” and he later notes that “mass market was contrasted with quality market” (195). Thus fine art became associated with high culture, the upper class, and the idea of quality creative work, while popular entertainment was associated with the “sheep-like” masses. This binary has resulted in many a controversy over how various creative products are classified. For instance, science fiction has traditionally been labeled as popular entertainment and denied the label of literature. In a similar fashion, film was dropped into the mass culture bucket and has largely stayed there, despite the fact that today one can receive a Master of Fine Arts in Film Production.

The original classification of film likely has much to do with cinema’s original construction. In its early years, movies primarily captured everyday activities such as workers leaving a factory or a couple kissing. 

Though modern film seems to be an evolution of the theater, early 20th century audiences didn’t see cinema that way. Rather people went to see moving pictures to marvel at their novelty . . . to ooh and aah over technology’s progress. Films were likened to carnivals, what Tom Gunn describes as “the cinema of attractions”. It took time for filmmakers to get comfortable with the medium and for film to develop into what we see today. Even now, cinema continues to evolve as it is influenced by other media such as the Internet, television, and video games.

Today, however, it’s easier to see that film can and should be regarded as an incredible collaboration between the traditional fine arts–literature (screenplay), theater (acting), visual arts (production design), photography (cinematography), music (score/soundtrack), along with the various other elements of graphic, visual, and sound effects. But even then, as with most art forms, film manifests itself both as fine art and as popular entertainment. The most simplistic form of differentiating between the two is typically considering the role of money: creative productions for profit tend to be considered as entertainment or pop culture rather than fine art. But indeed, the line between fine art and mass entertainment is blurry. Fine art demands a profit for sustainability, and who is to say that a movie or song that appeals to the “masses” is not artistically masterful?

Ultimately, the binary of fine art versus popular entertainment is inherently problematic, drawing a distinction that imposes socio-economic classifications onto creative works. That raises the larger questions of how then should we differentiate between good and bad art or maybe even more basically, what is art itself . . . both questions I’m not even going to try tackle here. Instead I’ll conclude with this: though these classifications are problematic, they are still utilized frequently as I have noted during my research of high schools. While they exist, it’s valuable to remind our educators that while film may have initially been merely spectacle, today it fully deserves a place within the ring of fine art. In fact, it is probably the most influential of all contemporary practices of fine art.

Works Cited:
Gunn, Tom. “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde”, Wide Angle, Vol. 8, nos. 3 & 4 Fall, 1986.
Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York: Oxford UP, 1985. Print.

A Note:
My intention is to publish a new post every Tuesday or Wednesday. I’m a bit late this week because I’ve been traveling back from Europe and battling jet lag. Hopefully this post makes some coherent sense.

Thanks for reading this post! If you liked what you read, please subscribe below and tell your friends about High and Low.
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The featured image is a photo by Martie Swat via https://flic.kr/p/arFDpu. Used by permission of CC license: http://bit.ly/1ryPA8o

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Thanks for reading this post! If you liked what you read, please subscribe below and tell your friends about High and Low.
Please also note that this post may include affiliate links. If you purchase an item through an Amazon link on my blog, I will receive a small percentage. This does not adjust the cost of your purchase, and all proceeds go towards supporting this blog. Thank you so much for your help!

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