March 7, 2013

STALEY: In Defense of Snobbery

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It is March. The Oscar buzz has quieted and theaters around the country have begun to screen the films that summer, fall or winter refused to claim. These lonely releases are heavily advertised with trailers and posters but receive little love and attention, like show dogs without an owner. Due to the selection of high caliber titles in the fall and high grossing releases in summer, the worst of the worst comes out in spring. For these three months, we critics in the Arts and Entertainment section rotate our noses up and look away.With this protest to “lesser” movies, I find the need to defend the notion that there is objectively better and worse art and to illustrate that some people do have more right to categorize art. This is the section of the Sun where members chose Moonrise Kingdom as the best film of 2012 and discouraged The Dark Knight Rises from a high place on that same list, so I find this an appropriate space to play out the argument on the side of the snobs. I recently stirred the debate over whether there is an objective quality of art with two friends and their back-and-forth drew like so:Friend 1: A movie cannot be objectively good. If you were to show a kid from a far off culture high-brow art next to a random photograph, he may say that the photograph is better even though it required much less effort. It is unfair to delegitimize his perspective. The matter is entirely subjective, and quality depends on a consensus of the majority’s points of view.Friend 2: The fact that the kid knows nothing about the art form or its context is the point. If the viewer is a cultural tabula rasa, he or she doesn’t have the eye and education to tell what is best. If you understand a movie’s influences and what literature and ideas it references, you can judge how original or cultivated it is and count how many questions it is raising. If you need a higher level of understanding to access a film, it is a tougher and better work of art.Friend 1: Emerson said that, “Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this”. No one owns the terms “good” and “bad”. All taste is subjective. In the sum of many perspectives, a universal “good” reveals itself.Friend 2: There is no vote on what is best. If you have a higher level of understanding of an art form, you are in the elect. The elect are the arbiters of quality. The masses are the arbiters of appeal.There you have it: Taste is not democratic and although expressions of high taste insult our egalitarian political appetites, I take this perspective. Although we don’t like to hear it, art is a top-down media. One could argue that modern art helplessly accommodates the perspectives of a small number of people — usually the wealthy. In Ortega Y. Gasset’s The Dehumanization of Art, he argues that modern art is deliberately anti-popular and seeks to lodge itself into the attitudes of a small demographic, usually theelite — reckoning “to be great is to be misunderstood by the masses.”  Some art is fundamentally meant for only a small amount of people; the more education these people have obtained, the greater their right to say whether or not this art achieves an objective greatness.So if the A&E section’s perspectives offend the average Cornellian (shout out to Sam Bromer ’16 bashing A$AP Rocky’s latest commercially acclaimed album), so be it — let us believe that we have the authority on quality. After all, audiences go to critics instead of box office results to judge what to go see and look to critics not as forecasters of the audience’s approval or disapproval but representatives of a group that understands movies and quality.That being said, I would like to give praise to the movies that are loved by haters and philistines alike: those rare films that engage ideas (for the critics) and sensations (for the average audience) equally. These directors rank amongst the few writers F. Scott Fitzgerald referred to when he wrote that all artists “who have attained real permanence from Shakespeare to Mark Twain have appealed to the many as well as to the elect.” Let’s hope that this argument can be suspended in the coming of one of these films. I bet you, however, that it won’t be released in March.

Original Author: Henry Staley