Monday, March 28, 2016

'Batman v. Superman', the consumer culture, and Artistic Appreciation 101

So here I sit, on the Monday after Easter, attempting to enjoy a much needed day off for my hands and ears after a weekend of double drumming celebration at church. I can't help but notice how often physical exhaustion and spiritual nourishment go together. Anyway. How's that for a random introductory thought for everyone? Take it for what you paid for it.

Besides the annual celebration of human history's single most dynamic, beautiful, and important event, something far less notable took place this weekend. The highly anticipated or highly dreaded (depending on your response to things like Batfleck and some inordinately revealing trailers) arrival of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice came to fruition at movie theaters. Being a lifelong Batman fan, a lifelong movie fan, and a seriously interested cultural analyst, I couldn't resist the opportunity to seize the moment and beat the drum (pun intended) of one of my own oft-repeated philosophical mantras.

For anyone unaware, the movie is, according to the vast majority of reports, not very good. (And that's putting it lightly.) Full disclosure: I haven't seen it. I don't plan on seeing it. And while I don't consider myself particularly taken most of the time with what critics have to say, I have found myself intrigued by the overwhelming and homogeneous nature of the reviews. A lot of people are agreeing about a lot of the same things when it comes to why BvS doesn't work, and, as of this writing, the film's Rotten Tomatoes score is below 30%.

Warner Bros.

And yet, despite the almost universal panning of the movie by most of the people seeing it, BvS has still managed to break a handful of box office records. As far as weekend openings go, it's the seventh-most successful of all time, the biggest DC movie release of all time, and with the inclusion of international markets, it generated over $400 million.

Which brings me to my point.

By any financial metric, BvS is a smashing success. When it comes to the bottom line, this film has delivered. While it will be interesting to see if the film continues to rake in the dollars after its initial weekend release, the powers-that-be at Warner Bros. can only be celebrating what appears to be - again, from a financial perspective - a massive home run for their company.

But the financial accomplishment of BvS can do nothing to negate the apparent consensus that it is not a quality piece of art. No matter how much money the movie makes, no matter how many sequels it spawns, and no matter how many toys it sells, the fact remains that it seems to leave a whole bunch of things to be artistically desired.

In the consumer-capitalist culture in which we live, it is far too common to judge the success of any venture according to how it performs economically. Almost everything put out into market is given a kind of pass/fail grade based on whether or not it delivers according to some kind of cost/benefit analysis. If a movie costs x-amount of dollars to produce, market, and release, then we consider it successful if it makes more than x-amount of dollars back in ticket sales. The real artistic value of the product is more-or-less a non-issue. Whether or not the product is actually good has precious little to do with whether or not people conclude that it was a worthwhile idea to create in the first place.

We see this in spades in the sequel-obsessed culture that seems to have arisen within Hollywood. There are seven Fast & Furious movies. A fifth Transformers movie is in production. Disney has promised one Star Wars film every year for the next decade.  The actual artistic excellence of these movies isn't even a consideration when it comes to producing the next installment. People keep paying to see them, so the studios keep cranking them out.

Of course, what has resulted from all of this consumerism is the emergence in people's minds of an attitude that declares that what makes something good - as in, commendable, worthy of attention, or valuable - is how it performs financially. Now, while this may seem farfetched, I have actually had conversations where I am told that my critiques of popular bands, for instance, are illegitimate because, "Well, they've sold a few millions records, so they must be doing something right." I can almost hear the CEOs' relaxed and satisfied sighs.

In this society, the actual artistic value of a piece of art, music, cinema, or literature has been completely overtaken by its financial performance. We judge, not by excellence, timelessness, or any artistic standard, but by popularity, wealth, and relevance to the moment. We become fans of things not because of their artistic merits, but because of what we believe it says about us that we are fans. We are attaching ourselves to things in order to jump onto bandwagons and be in-the-know, not because those things are actually benefiting our lives for having been consumed.

This is not good for art.

Batman v. Superman is simply the latest in a long line of popular artistic offerings that has managed to achieve monumental financial success in spite of severe artistic failings. And, here's what I've learned from my years of frustrated observation: despite the critical rejection of the film, people will still go to see it (this point has already been soundly validated). Because people go to see it, the studios will take it as a sign that people want more of the same, and so they will produce more of the same. People will go to see those films, too. And the cycle will continue. And continue. And continue.

And it will continue until people say "Enough!" and stop spending their hard earned money on art that isn't any good. Whether or not this ever actually occurs remains to be seen. But if the consumer-capitalist mindset is what drives the market (and, unfortunately, therefore, all of the strands of art that enable real artists to make a living), than money will have to be the thing that changes the dynamic. If people want quality art, people need to pay for it and, additionally, stop paying for things that reinforce the notion that low quality, incoherent, and senseless art is something what they want.

Look, popular music lyrics are composed at a second grade comprehension level. All of the literary phenomenons of the 21st century so far have been written so that could middle schoolers can understand them. The Baha Men and Taylor Swift have more Grammy awards than Queen or Jimi Hendrix and despite an abysmal reception by almost every serious film critic in the nation (as well as a few non-serious ones), BvS absolutely wrecked the box office.

Something is wrong here, people. And it doesn't bode well for the future of our culture. Appreciating art primarily through the lens of popularity erodes, corrupts, and debases great art. It sends the message to true artists that their work is unimportant and undesired. It reduces the depth of artistic purpose to nothing more than what will serve to separate people from their money. It makes hypocrites out of all of us who claim to value the same things great art is created to proclaim. And it reduces the capacity for the culture to even understand, comprehend, or treasure great art when they do happen to encounter it.

I've really rambled here (I'm blaming it on Monday), but for those of you who think I'm overthinking or being dramatic, simply realize that how we all spend our time and money has real effects on what comes next. The danger here is that talented and earnest artists will wind up marginalized and unappreciated as their roles are filled by hucksters and charlatans intent on building celebrity empires. It's becoming harder and harder to believe that people are being duped rather than playing their roles as willing accomplices in the dumbing-down of our culture. We need to change course or come to the realization that we deserve what's coming to us.


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