Cinema has maintained a liberating anti-Puritan ethos since its conception, but how long can that last in today’s febrile and sensitive culture?

Words by David G. Hughes

When the movement known as “Aestheticism” began to disseminate during the 19th Century, there could not have been a more radical riposte to the Victorian puritanism of the era. Inspired by the Germanic aesthetic philosophers, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Immanuel Kant, and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, aestheticism proposed that the most fruitful way to understand art was to emphasise its beauty — formal sensuousness — over ideological interpretation. “l’art pour l’art” was the slogan espoused by figures such as Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, Walter Pater and Harold Bloom, embodying a belief that moral and didactic utilitarianism should be absent in the object d’art. It was an approach that revelled in pagan hedonism and decadence, rejecting conventional ascetic religious wisdom of the time in which art served a Christian God.

It now seems that the repressive puritanism and frigid conservatism that once demanded art serve a singular ideal has been resuscitated. To cite the argument of aestheticism reveals the extent to which this is so, but also the extent to which it remains radical. Aesthetician Matthew Arnold once said that the role of the art critic is: “To see the object as in itself it really is” (no easy task, requiring a level of perspicacity and discernment rarely ever achieved). Yet, to the bourgeois liberal class that make up the contemporary arts establishment, the artwork is known a priori, already deciphered, and conforms either to a moral good or moral bad to which they are privy.

To this class, God may be dead, but a pseudo-religion has taken its place, whereby art should serve the purpose of social engineering and this shall be done via politics — “progressive” politics. The original sin that plagues us all — be it racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or Islamophobia — can only be absolved by a “positive” representation of “oppressed” groups, works that reveal “unconscious bias”, “latent sexism”, and “institutional racism”, and subsequently amend these prejudices and imbalances. Even with such noble intentions (or perhaps because of it), a neo-Victorian moralism that seeks to better the denizen of art, to make them in a particular image, is back.

The masses, however, enjoy a particular type of aestheticism that makes them averse to over-interpretation, alongside a blue-collar ethic that values competence and craft. Camille Paglia was correct when she said: “Artists are craftsmen, closer to carpenters and welders than they are to intellectuals and academics.” So, it is no surprise that the masses have lost all interest in contemporary artworks, where middle-class anti-aesthetic intellectualism reigns supreme and alienates. To many, banal “shock” tactics out to “expose” your crimes merely reek of pretension, illogicality, mediocrity, and disconnection from the concerns of the real world we inhabit. These artworks are quite useless, ironic considering the value placed on moral utilitarianism.

To merely cite the aesthetic argument and reject the total politicisation of art is considered taboo, a suspect negation of socio-political issues tantamount to an endorsement of the worst vices in Western society.

Matthew Arnold (1822 - 1883)
Matthew Arnold (1822-1883)

This, of course, can go too far the other way. Aestheticism does not provide a satisfactory grand theory for the arts in as much as it can become an intellectual non-starter that shuts down inquiry and valid interpretation to the point of being philistine, thus muting arts power. Like any theory, it is susceptible to dogmatism. Yet it is a valuable point of view, the exclusion of which today highlights the paucity of genuine discourse about arts function in society, revealing the authoritarian hegemony that has taken root. To merely cite the aesthetic argument and reject the total politicisation of art is considered taboo, a suspect negation of socio-political issues tantamount to an endorsement of the worst vices in western society.

Politics is certainly not irrelevant to the arts and nor should the topic by avoided, but political interpretation, no matter how inappropriate or fanciful, has become the only tool in the arsenal and it is a blunt tool at best. Art must be free of all stifling ideologies and totalities, free from “the tyranny of wisdom”. Without that freedom, creative intelligence — the dialectic itself — evaporates. Instead, we have become obsessed by the blood sport of politics, and nothing has been left from its corrupting touch; artists must choose sides and those visionaries of the past must undergo the indignity of a culture war over their legacy. It’s strange that the same people who disdain politics openly, bemoan how power corrupts, also seek to spread its influence onto everything, including the most noble of human achievements; “the best that has been thought and said in the world”, as Arnold writes.

Yet there is hope. If any art has maintained an effective defence against the new puritan hegemony, it is cinema. In words of outré historian Thaddeus Russell, for whom puritanism is his bête noir, “popular culture has always been a repudiation of the puritan work ethic, a counter force.” Outside of religion, cinema is the most popular cultural expression in the history of the world, and throughout its relatively short history has retained its rapport with the masses and their values which, as mentioned, concern competence and the pleasure principle. Kantian notions of immediacy, purposiveness, beauty and sensus communis are still valued in cinematic production and spectatorship; it does not demand your piety and is no solipsistic enterprise. It is a collaboration between labourers and artists, a healthy tension between art and commerce, between fanciful ideas and hardcore reality.

Considering its relative defence against top-down morality, it should be of little surprise that cinema ­— which has always been pagan in its regard and admiration for sexuality and violence ­— is the next major battlefield of the culture war. Lenin was correct when he said, “Of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important.” Rhetoric from what moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls “safetyism” is beginning to seep into the way we talk about movies. In a trend that will have Mary Whitehouse jumping in glee, content is now “harmful”, “problematic” and should come with “trigger warnings” and provide a “safe space”. The way films represent gender and race dominates the critical discourse; what actors say and do is now, we are told, of extraordinary political relevance; award ceremonies are mostly comprised of political speeches, and films have a major obligation to “platform” correct messages. For all the merits of this approach and it’s well-meaning ambition, nothing could be further from aestheticism, which argues that art cannot be burdened by social obligation.

Microscopic analysis now means uncovering the sins of the film, and if none are to be found, fabricating them, unearthing them with a blunt archeological scalpel.

Mary Whitehouse (1910-2001)
Mary Whitehouse (1910-2001)

This gentrification of cinema, in which all elements dirty, transgressive, uncomfortable, or even naively Romantic, should be of paramount concern to the denizen of cinema, the guardians of the medium. Yet, many of those tasked with this duty — film critics — are at the forefront of this moral crusade. In film criticism, of all places, a new demand that calls itself radical but is no more than unthinking reactionary moralism has become the cultural norm. With supreme arrogance, many critics mute the film and do all the talking, exploiting the very popularity of the medium to espouse solipsistic political persuasions. Consider it: a film, the cumulative result of intensive labor, vision and finance, in which workers and artists pour their sweat and soul into an alchemy of sound and vision that will hopefully resemble something meaningful, is then taken merely as an opportunity for a writer to pontificate about how it doesn’t fit within their political agenda. It’s bizarre, narcissistic and quite outrageous, exploitative of the medium’s popularity for egoistic virtue signalling.

Paranoid writing with phrases like “stealth racism”, “smuggle”, “giveaway” is common to see. One has to wonder what the purpose of “exposing” these omnipresent regressive tendencies are; if it is so latent and hidden, why make it intelligible for all the unkempt masses to latch onto? Is the insinuation so flattering as to suggest that the marauding racists also interpret the film in this manner and feel consoled and endorsed by such an accomplished depiction? Or is it in fac, merely an opportunity for intellectual grandstanding? Microscopic analysis too often means uncovering the sins of the film, and if none are to be found, unearthing them with a blunt archeological scalpel, or even fabricating them. In this tribal mentality, scalps are what counts — who can unearth the most egregious sins and claim a victim? So it is that more and more innocuous films, usually enjoyed by the hoi polloi, undergo strenuous “analysis” of its covert “fascism”. Our attitude towards cinema more and more resembles the opportunistic acts of the corrupt puritan witchunter of The Witchfinder General (1968) played by Vincent Prince, who is all too willing to accept tenuous evidence of someones witch credentials before burning them in righteous fury in order to bolster his social capital.

One of the most egregious examples is Richard Brody’s outlandish review of First Man (2018) in The New Yorker. Once the publication of esteemed Amazonian critic Pauline Kael, it is now the soundboard for Brody’s bizarre political and racial obsessions. First Man is a biographical film about Neil Armstrong as he trains and prepares to land on the moon. Naturally, like most of Brody’s reviews, a provocative click-bait title hovers the piece: “An Accidental Right-Wing Fetish Object.” But how he justifies this claim is perhaps more incredulous. One of Brody’s chief gripes against the film is that: “There is no hint of where Neil stands on the pressing questions of the time.” This is a curious thing to criticise the film for. First Man is chiefly about the psychology of an individual traumatised by the premature death of his daughter, in tandem with the physical endurance of intensive preparation for space travel — turbulence of mind and body. In other words: the phenomenology of extreme experience. Director Damien Chazelle goes to great effort to capture the feeling of space travel, employing point-of-view perspective and sophisticated sound design for maximal affective audience response. It’s a haptic film, and therefore about the experience of an individual. But to Brody’s chagrin, it doesn’t mention Jim Crow, the racialist segregation laws in effect at the time of the films historical setting. An ostensibly admirable sociological-political impulse is determining this critique; because the film is set during times of social unrest in the United States, that, in Brody’s view, is what the film has to be about.

John Keats described the principle characteristic of art to be “Negative capability”, that is: a vision that leads to intellectual confusion and moral uncertainty but you are impelled to pursue nonetheless. It negates opposites.

First Man (Damien Chazelle, 2018), Universal Pictures, USA, 16 mm / 35 mm, colour, sound, 141 minutes, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll)

But it’s not just race. Neil’s musical tastes are also met with ideological protest from the critic. Actor Ryan Gosling has explained how he connected to the character through their shared love of the theremin, a musical instrument chiefly employed in corny sci-fi films and famously used in the Doctor Who opening music. Armstrong’s favourite song was “Lunar Rhapsody”, a track that makes extensive use of this instrument. It was also the song shared between him and his wife Janet (played in the film by Claire Foy), and thus represents familial bond and earth-bound love. The obvious poetic coincidence between the track’s association with the Moon notwithstanding, it also bares distinctly autobiographical real-world resonance. With this in mind, composer Justin Hurwitz incorporated the instrument into his excellent, thumping soundtrack. All of this has apparently gone unnoticed by Brody, who says that the choice of music merely represents a conservative “war of commercial kitsch against both high culture and youth culture”, going on to criticise the film for failing to acknowledge the cultural shifts of the era: Little in the film suggests that the world of pop has undergone a change or that culture and mores were changing with it. There is one brief scene of a party at which something like rock music is playing, but there’s no sense of what Neil’s perspective might be on the Twist, the Beatles, or anything else going on in the turbulent sixties.

Brody’s naive obsession of 1960s counter-culture notwithstanding, the creative treatment of actuality in regard to Armstrong’s real life appears inconsequential in this critique. Brody appears to be demanding that, in the manner of an interrogation, we get all of Armstrong’s hot-takes on the political issues of the time and then, presumably, we can, from the comfort of the present, determine whether he is sufficiently progressive enough. And if he’s not, perhaps we can retro-fit the past to meet the current political agenda, and disregard the legitimacy of an individual’s experience. To call the films alleged disregard for socio-political impluse “artistic obliviousness”, as a Brody does, can only make you question what Brody considers art to be.

Furthermore, the film, we are told, is “unabashedly patriotic”. The implied demerit of this is questionable enough, but what is evidence for this? It is bearing witness to the American flag on the moon. Brody concedes that they have forgone a flag-planting scene, but, he fussed, we see the flag not once, but twice. Close to satire, who could have thought that historically accurate mise-en-scene — the realist impulse of the film medium — could be so problematic? First Man is conservative in other ways too. Perhaps the main gripe Brody has against the film is that it doesn’t regard Armstrong’s stoicism as a “character flaw”. For context, Armstrong is portrayed as a taciturn and shy individual, a reclusive attempt to deal with the trauma of his loss. Brody’s demand that the film portrays this trait as a flaw, no matter how accurate it may be to the historical individual (the film is based on the biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong), falls neatly in line with the American Psychological Association’s diagnoses of traits associated with masculinity, such as said stoicism, as a mental disorder. The humorous thing is: a case could be made that the film does in fact portray Armstrong as suffering from some such condition; it maintains constructive ambiguity about what is, it seems, emotional constipation. One could quite easily make the case that the film is completely aligned with the APA.

This professional cynicism, this pathology of intellectualism, bares no redeeming features; there is an absence of metaphysics, of spirit, of historical knowledge, of empowerment.

Richard Brody (1948- )

Yet, the film is also adept at showcasing how Neil’s emotional reserve, you could say his neurosis, is also something that makes him the right man to lead the moon mission. Poet John Keats described the principle characteristic of art to be “Negative capability”, that is: a vision that leads to intellectual confusion and moral uncertainty but you are impelled to pursue. It negates opposites. It is also a basic Freudian point of sublimation: that there is only socially useful neurosis. In the words of Norman O. Brown, “man’s superiority over the animals is his capacity for neurosis, and his capacity for neurosis is merely the obverse of his capacity for cultural development.” This is not jingoism. This is humility. First Man dramatises the great ambiguity of civilisation itself — trauma that lifts us to the stars, that transcends our lowly origins. Is it not a truism that human achievement is undergone under a shadow of ignoble imperfection? This fundamental goes unconsidered by Brody, who instead craves Neil’s take on The Beatles.

This is in no way exclusive to Brody; he simply provides a useful account of a wider, ever-increasing issue. The issue is a professional cynicism, a pathology of intellectualism that bares no redeeming features. We are seeing an absence of metaphysics, of spirit, of historic knowledge, of empowerment. A universalist criterion cannot help the arts. Budding film critics, seeking respectability and acceptance in a desired profession, adopt the nomenclature of problematics in order to seem legitimate and acceptable to the already established clique of critics. Tossed by the wayside are considerations of form, industrial particularities, medium history, craft, the erotic, the beautiful and psychological. This new approach, this new cynicism, bereft of humanity or empirical seriousness, is pushing the cinema more and more towards the irrelevance of the tame, elitist and agenda-driven institutions already lost to the putrid culture war.

When cinema was invented, people forget that it was dismissed as a trivial distraction for the unkempt masses. Even its inventors, the Lumiere Brothers, regarded it as “an invention without a future.” The development of the medium parallels the development of civilisation and consciousness broadly — from “primitive” expression toward “sophisticated” culture. But, as any psychologist knows, the archaic part of the psyche cannot be forgotten or repressed: a bond must be forged between the high and low, the new and old. Cinema has hitherto been extremely sophisticated in this, maintaining a deep connection with its lowly origins as a “cinema of attractions” while at the same time delving deep into humanity’s most profound abstract questions, sometimes producing a transcendental cinema.

This radical balance is at threat by this new form of what I call cyne-cism (cynical cinema criticism). Wilde defined cynicism as, “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” The inordinate value and radicalism of cinema is going unnoticed or worse, it seems many critics, by indication of their actions, are actively sabotaging all that is good about it. Cinema has to retain this balance, its rapport with the masses and its understanding of craft and beauty. It cannot tip into abstraction, propaganda or oppressive intellectualism. Its time critics stopped fawning over the simplicity of politics and started opening themselves to the complexity of beauty. Only then will they see the power of the art they are tasked with defending.

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.