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Socialist Reading Series II: Walter Benjamin [Part 5]
Section VII and Nicole Kidman's AMC Ad
We’re halfway through! Here’s the text.
In part 3, we covered a bit of the broad history of aesthetics, focusing on the shift from representationalism to expressionism and, finally, to art-for-art’s-sake. This brief history is once again relevant here. Recall, on the representationalist framework, good art is art that accurately represents the world and a good artist is someone who can capture their subject matter best. Photography poses a serious challenge to this notion: if the goal is to show what things actually look like, a photograph does a much better job than any other kind of manually produced visual art form. And if that’s the case, then it appears that anyone with a camera suddenly becomes an artist and anything produced by this little machine is art (indeed, maybe better art than anything previously produced by hand)!
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The response to this challenge was to deny that art really was about accurate representation after all. Instead, the role of the artist and the function of art shifted to, on the one hand the accurate representation of the internal world—the artist’s emotion, their feelings, intentions, etc.—or, on the other hand, to the exhibition of the formal properties of the piece itself. In other words, representationalism was out and expressionism and formalism were in. This allowed us to answer the question of what art was, but it left open the question of whether photography was an art from.
The question seems silly to us today—of course photography is an art from—and it appeared just as “devious and confused” for Benjamin in 1930. For him, however, what’s interesting is not the way in which the question was settled, but the way in which the whole debate represented a “symptom of a historical transformation.”
By calling it a symptom, Benjamin is, of course, reminding us that it was not the discourse that was driving the development of art, but something else: namely, the change in means of (re)production. First come the technological changes, then come the symptoms. Or, to put it another way: first come the material changes, then the ideas—not the other way around.
This, of course, escaped the notice of his contemporaries. Instead of asking whether the very nature of art had changed because of the invention of photography, they, instead, asked the nearby (devious and confused) question of whether photography fit into the existing understanding of art.
[Here, I think Benjamin is being a little uncharitable since, quite clearly, the shift towards expressionism and formalism does indicate an awareness that art itself had been transformed. It is possible, however, that he is addressing some select group of thinkers who claimed that art has always been about the expression of emotions or the presentation of significant form. And some people really did write this way. If that’s the case, then, Benjamin’s point still stands: this is a kind of ahistorical, confused way of understanding what’s happening. I digress]
Crucially, Benjamin was seeing the same discourse play out in his day with regard to film with theoreticians raising the same confused questions. What interests him the most here is the regressive understanding that such thinkers offered of film, and specifically, how their attempts to see film as art inevitably draws them back into the cultic and to the supposed ritual value that film must have.
The pattern is the same as with photography: having not realized that it is film itself that has changed art by virtue of its mechanical reproduction, the theoreticians and critics try to fit film into the preexisting mold of what counts as art. This has a twofold effect: first, it makes them ask stupid and confused questions (viz., is film art?), and second, it makes them try to answer these confused questions by appealing to the existing and mystified understanding of art—namely, through an appeal to the aura. Hence, on the one hand, the advocates of film as art try to stress that film is magic (“Do not all the bold descriptions we have given amount to the definition of prayer?”; “Only the most high-minded persons, in the most perfect and mysterious moments of their lives, should be allowed to enter its ambiance.”); and, on the other hand, those who argue against its status as art try to stress that it lacks that magical element (“The film has not yet realized its true meaning, its real possibilities…these consist in its unique faculty to express by natural mans and with incomparable persuasiveness all that fairylike, marvelous, supernatural.”)
Now, you may be tempted to think that this is some curious artifact of the novelty of a new art form—a kind of temporary lack of media literacy that Benjamin is putting his finger on—but I think we’re very much seeing the same thing happen today. In fact, chances are you’ve seen it happen without even realizing it. Let me explain.
Let’s talk about Nicole Kidman and AMC
It’s reasonable to say that we are in an era in which the means of art (re)production have shifted—to put it pithily, whereas Benjamin was witness to the age of mechanical reproduction of art, we are witness to the age of digital reproduction of art.Art, in all of its forms, can now meet us freely at any moment right on the screen of the little computers we keep in our pockets at all times. Not only do we not have to go to the museum to see a Van Gogh or to the choral hall to listen to Mozart, but we no longer even have to be limited to specific prints or records of those paintings and arrangements. After all, a poster of Starry Night is always just a poster of Starry Night—with the help of the internet, however, your phone can show and play you anything.
Chances are that, like me, you probably subscribe to some kind of internet streaming service. For just a couple of dollars a month, each of us now has access to an unimaginable quantity of films beamed directly into our homes. This was a godsend during the pandemic when going to the movies was impossible, and although this way of consuming media didn’t raise the question of whether streaming movies were art, it did raise a couple of other reactions that fit Benjamin’s analysis rather well.
In particular, I want to talk about Nicole Kidman’s commercial for AMC. You can see it below:
I kind of love this ad because, even before we factor any of the stuff I’m about to talk about, it’s weird (I’ll leave why that is for the footnotes).Here’s the full transcript for those who can’t watch the ad.
We come to this place for magic.
We come to AMC Theaters to laugh, to cry, to care. Because we need that, all of us.
That indescribable feeling we get when the lights begin to dim and we go somewhere we’ve never been before.
Not just entertained, but somehow reborn together. Dazzling images on a silver screen. Sound that I can feel.
Somehow, heartbreak feels good in a place like this.
Our heroes feel like the best parts of us, and stories feel perfect and powerful…
Because here…they are
Notice, first, what the ad wants us to believe (cynically or otherwise): going to the movie theater is a unique and un-substitutable experience. The language used is strictly the language of mystification. To go see a movie is to commune with the magical; the feelings that one experiences in a theater are not only indescribable but also, and at the same time, socially necessary, completely familiar, and inverted; to see a movie in a theater is to participate in collective rebirth; it is to catch a glimpse of the possibility of our better nature and realize it. Wow!
Do the advertisers who put this together mean all this? Probably not. In all fairness, like all advertising, this commercial is trying to do get you to do something, but the language that it uses in order to do so is not incidental. The language used is language that at least some people think will be effective, and it is supposed to be effective because, at some level it’s supposed to be plausible. The ad could have been written to stress other aspects of going to the movies, but it precisely hits on the notion that just like seeing a painting in person is special because of its aura, so going to see a movie in the theater is special for the same reason.
But let’s do away with the mystification. What American Multi-Cinema Inc. wants you to do is to pay around $15 to go to a space that, for the last three years or so has been virtually abandoned because it posed a serious public health hazard.They want you to spend the same amount of money on a single movie that you can spend with a streaming service in order to see hundreds of movies. And the way in which it chose to do this is to double down on the ritual value of the art form.
To put it another way, this is a response to the material changes in the means of art (re)production. These changes have torn film away from the aura that it has in relation to its physical location and have made film cheaply and widely accessible to more people than before, which, in turn, has brought forth a crisis regarding the old mode of (re)production. And just as manually reproduced art retreated into ritual value of the aura in the face of mechanical reproduction (remember: you have to see the Mona Lisa at The Louvre!), so movie theaters retreat likewise in the face of digital reproduction (“We come to this place for magic.”)
This is what Benjamin is talking about.
JSTOR has this really nice short piece on this history here: https://daily.jstor.org/when-photography-was-not-art/. Here, wee can see that those who argued that photography was art and those who thought it wasn’t circle around the same assumptions. Those who argued it was art point to the importance of the artist’s vision in the selection and arrangement of what is captured by the camera; those who argued that it wasn’t focused instead on how such vision wasn’t strictly necessary since the mechanism produced the end result all the same. These are just two sides of the same coin, though, both rooted in expressionism.
I’ve become increasingly interested in the idea that both the pressing philosophical questions for any given era say more about that era than any of the supposed solutions offered, and that the way in which we pose such questions can already obscure important insights to those questions. The continental philosophers are, as usual, lightyears ahead in exploring these topics but who wants to read inscrutable French of German? Not me!
I’ll eat my hat if there isn’t at least on essay out there called “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction.”
Perhaps I spoke too soon here. I think there has been some pushback against the movies and television shows that are exclusively produced by streaming providers. At least in the popular imagination, though, perhaps also as a matter of fact, these films and shows tend to badly written and cheaply shot in comparison to their big studio counterparts. So, implicitly, there may be an indirect critique that such products are not quite art, or, perhaps, worse art than traditional film and television.
Let me be clear: I think Nicole Kidman is a fantastic actor, but she comes off as completely alien here. Part of this is, no doubt, due to the fact that she is the only person in this seemingly abandoned theater. Now, on the one hand, this fits: Nicole Kidman is an international superstar, so if she’s going to see a movie at the AMC (!!!), she’s not gonna do it with a bunch of townies—she’s going to rent out the whole theater. But even if she does that rather than, I don’t know, just watching a movie in a private theater, would she not bring friends along? While there’s nothing odd about going to the movies alone, I think there is something weird about wanting to be the only person in the movie theater. After all, going to the movies is a social thing and part of what makes it fun is the fact that you’re watching the same thing with others (this is perhaps most obvious for comedies and horror films where the laughter and anxiety of the others amplify the experience, but I think the same holds for other genres). Yet, we’re watching Kidman seemingly disassociate to a couple of movie trailers in a completely empty room. All this does is give the audience the impression that she really is not like other people and, intentionally or not, only serves to undermine her comments—maybe Nicole Kidman is balling out so hard at the theater because she’s just a real weirdo.
At the same time, rather than giving the intended impression that Kidman is walking through a sacred space, the emptiness of the theater gives the impression that she’s wandering around in some kind of pristinely preserve post-apocalyptic ruin. Put in the context of the COVID pandemic, it only serves to remind the viewer of just how abandoned movie theaters must have been during that time and, implicitly to remind them of why they didn’t go there for so long. If one gets especially dark about it, one can almost imagine that the theater would have been full but for all the people that died over the past three years. Spooky, sure, but not something that makes me wanna go out and spend $15.
The current movies shown at my local AMC are as follows:
Insidious: The Red Door
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny
Spider Man: Across the Spiderverse
Sound of Freedom (THE QANON MOVIE!!!)
No Hard Feelings
Transformers: Rise of the Beast
The Little Mermaid
Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken
Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 3
ODESZA: The Last Goodbye Cinematic Experience
I’ll leave it open whether any of these films can deliver on what AMC promises.
AMC did not do well in the pandemic. That low point in the graph is right at the height of the pandemic and those high points were the apex of the meme stock craze. As you can see, that trend was short-lived. AMC desperately needs you to go back to the theater.