The Artist as a Dictator OR The Death of the Audience

There’s a lot of debate flying around these days as to the state of movies, television, and by extension, art in general (these being the two artistic mediums that still have thriving industries built around them). The abbreviated conversation goes something like this: now that we are in the midst of the Internet age, never before have we seen such unprecedented access to both art and creative tools. This is generally accepted as a blanket statement. The point of contention: is this necessarily a good thing?

To begin, we need to consider what exactly constitutes the line between artist and audience, in the context of our times. In days long gone, this was a black and white distinction; an artist was someone who created artistic product, and an audience was made up of individuals who consumed the product. Art and commerce have been married for quite some time, and thus the input of the audience has always been a factor, as far as those individuals concerned with the commercial success of art have been concerned (these being, namely, those individuals and/or conglomerations of individuals with enough capital to produce art on a mass scale, referred to hereafter as “patrons”). Before the Internet had given everyone with a pulse and limited brain function the ability to make their voice echo across time and space, the methodology by which artists and patrons monitored the pulse and wants of the audience was crude and imperfect. In hindsight, pretending that these methods yielded anything but a vague shadow of the audience’s plainly stated wants and needs seems ludicrous. The studios drew conclusions about trends and assessed risk based on box office performance, something they still do. Focus groups took tiny slices of the audience and showed them pieces of films prior to release, making tweaks in order to maximize the potential for commercial success. Many artists complained and still complain about this practice, but without getting ahead of myself, the tweaks and edits based on focus group data pales in comparison when stood alongside the state of the industry today.

I’ve often heard disembodied voices, far older than my own, speaking on podcasts about the “voyeur” aspect of movie fandom these days. Even back in the mid to late 90s, nobody knew very much about films until they had been screened and critics had published their opinions in things called newspapers. In those days, the breadth of criticism immediately available to a household was blessedly small. I remember my mother, a weekly movie-goer, knew all of the critics on the staff of The Dallas Morning News’ names, and made decisions about which films to attend based on how consistent she found the critics’ opinions to be. That was true of a middle-aged housewife then, but even I, a budding film enthusiast with access to the Internet (albeit through a dinosaur-like 56kbps modem) knew very little about even films I was looking forward to besides basic plot summaries, directors, and stars.

That’s all gone now. Entire scripts are available with the click of a button months before projects even begin principle photography, to anyone with even the slightest idea of where to look. Criticism, in the classical Roger Ebert vein, has nearly bitten the dust, or at least, it’s become borderline meaningless. By the time a film actually hits opening day in the United States, it’s already been released in several other countries, been illegally downloaded by 50% of its target audience, and dissected so far past the point of rigor mortis that a critical, well-thought out inspection of the film’s artistic merits is completely moot. We have 9 out of 10 critics/bloggers writing “exclusives” about posters for movies that don’t come out for another year, for God’s sake.

There are many reasons to hate the Internet, and they have been written about many times, but it’s impossible to couch them in anything other than an inherently cynical worldview, so I won’t beat around the bush: it’s great that everybody with an Internet connection can pick the latest buzz about the movie industry to death. That is, until the movie industry begins taking the “village of idiots in extremis” model of discourse to the next level. Here’s an experiment to try. Go on any website that allows comments, be they news sites, Reddit, or even YouTube. And begin debating (trust me, it won’t take long to find an opinion you disagree with wholeheartedly). Keep at it, and count how long it takes before you throw up your hands in disbelief and ragequit the conversation, then count how long it takes for you to recall the incident to one of your friends. Now forget all of those times, because it will take your friend exactly zero seconds to tell you some version of “it’s the Internet, who cares?”

Somewhat paradoxically, it’s the movie industry that should be taking the advice of our friends to ignore people like our friends who make a lot of noise about what movies they like and don’t like, and more importantly, what sorts of movies they want and don’t want. To be perfectly blunt (and not to point fingers at you, dear reader), most people on the Internet are probably stupid, and it’s even more likely that most people making a lot of noise on the Internet, facebook, social media, and other things that constitute the “new media feedback loop” that so many studios and marketing “geniuses” put stock into nowadays are even stupider. Should we really be trusting anybody, much less somebody who sits around the aintitcoolnews forums all day to accurately describe not only what they want (a dubious proposition in and of itself), but for them to come together with other likeminded commenthounds to present a stunningly accurate picture of what film audiences want?

All angry rants aside, this seems to be a problem of economics. Those who defend movie-thieving often point to overall ticket sales being up (as though that had any bearing on whether not theft is wrong), but the truth is behind the curtain. Movies, at least “mainstream” movies, are doing commercially better because they are doing artistically worse, and they are doing artistically worse because the commercial stewards of movies have figured out exactly how to give the lowest common denominator what they want, which seems to be sheer, unadulterated garbage. This strategy may be working for the patrons of commerce in the short-run, but from a long-term point of view, it seems like a misstep.

The bulk of folks watching mainstream, summer blockbuster, tentpole pictures these days are what I call “distraction” viewers. They go to movies for release and release alone, and tend not to care that A Good Day to Die Hard is boring, or that Grown Ups isn’t funny, or that The Smurfs is like sticking rusty nails through their eyes. These viewers only want product, and they want it now. The commerce patrons want to supply this content and they’ve allied with advertising to drive home just how cool all of the franchises nobody has cared about for the past fifteen years are today (Battleship, Transformers, The Wizard of Oz, Jack and the Beanstalk, Hansel and Gretl, Snow White, the list goes on and on). This seems like a foolproof system, giving easy to churn out junk food to dumb intellectually obese people and watching the cash flow in, but eventually the theater system in America is going to get so terrible (it’s hard to imagine it being worse than it is now, but it’s well on its way), that even these tried and true cash cows will stop trudging out to the multiplex with their broods of failure and instead opt to stay home (which will become a more attractive option as the tech gets better).

The people who will save the industry in the long-term are the ones being given the shaft right now. People who want to watch real movies and real stories rather than 90 minute rehashes of fairytales or toy commercials will see movies less and less, and by the time the capsized industry rights itself, it may be too late to get them back with tentpoles that aren’t dreamed up by the marketing department. Maybe.

On the flip side, another reason movies are so bad now is that all of this voyeuristic audience-shirking (the refusal of the audience to remain uninvolved with the production of the artistic product) is killing novelty. When was the last time you were ever truly surprised in a theater? Is that because the studios and filmmakers are getting lazier and shoveling the tripe on without trying, or is it because the audience is so obsessed with fancying itself part of the creative process that they are just as bored with the project by opening day as the fimmakers are? Audiences (and people in general, really) today remind me of spoiled children who constantly make demands for things they think they want and then find themselves painfully empty once they get them. Why not leave storytelling to the storytellers, leave filmmaking to the filmmakers, and stop pretending that seeing a lot of movies makes us experts on what Paramount should or shouldn’t do with its summer slate?

Once we, as audience members, acknowledge that professional artists got to be professionals because they are uniquely gifted at connecting with people, then perhaps we can let go of this notion that our opinions on the creation of art means anything, and that an undue focus on our “wants” and “needs” has yielded a tableau of things that aren’t good for us. Even the most indulgent parent won’t let their child eat happy meals every day, not only because the parent knows it’s not good for them, but because raising a child isn’t a democracy. Making a movie shouldn’t be one either.

One thought on “The Artist as a Dictator OR The Death of the Audience

  1. This is definitely an interesting talking point in another conversation about how many people consider the quality of television today to be in it’s prime.

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