Monday, 23 January 2012

Is film an art form?

Rose window: Notre Dame de Paris

Early film theory looked at how film differed from ‘reality’ and tried to establish how it could become an art form in its own right. But what is an art form? Some definitions are circular, such “as a genre or activity viewed or treated as an art form”. On the other hand you get definitions such as, “a conventionally established form of artistic composition, such as the symphony or the sonnet”. But a film is a technology, not a form of artistic composition. It can be a documentary or a western, short or long. Is playing musical instruments an art form? According to this definition it is when a symphony is being played but not perhaps when a group of people get together and jam in someone’s front room. The key phrase is, “a conventionally established form of artistic composition”. So how is this convention established? The 3 minute single was a product of technical limitations, so is the convention of the pop single a conventionally established form of artistic composition? In this case we have the word ‘artistic’ to contend with. The definition of which is, “performed, made, or arranged decoratively and tastefully; aesthetically pleasing”. Aesthetically is defined as; “Characterised by a heightened sensitivity to beauty”. So is it to do with defining whether or not an art form can achieve “a heightened sensitivity to beauty”? If so, what are the structures that enable it to do this? If these structures can be singled out, how then do we measure the success or failure of these structures to “capture beauty or heighten sensitivity to it?
Beauty is defined as; “characteristic of a person, animal, place, object, or idea that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure, meaning, or satisfaction”. In the case of a film, I would presume this could be both an object (the film itself) and an idea (the film’s content). I can see how the perceptual experiences of pleasure, meaning or satisfaction could be important, but again how each of these is singled out as a measure of success or failure of aesthetic worthiness is hard to understand.
For example a very unpleasant film may serve to heighten an understanding of meaning. This understanding may give great satisfaction but am I therefore to now read “beauty” as some sort of recognition of ‘meaning’?
Light has at times been thought of as being a symbol for the revelation of God; this can be seen at its clearest in the production of Medieval stained glass windows. If you visit Chartres for example, the stained glass lights your travel through the dark spaces of the cathedral’s interior and you feel the resonance between the building’s religious significance and your experience of how light is controlled by the makers of that time. There is a pleasure in the understanding of how this light is shaped in deference to a deeper meaning and this gives great satisfaction. Therefore it could be argued that stained glass is an art form. As an art form it seems to me that it is not very far away from film. Light is projected into a dark space in order to “illuminate” the audience. However there are also stained glass makers who make inserts for door panels, lamp shades etc. and they do not usually attempt to forge a symbiosis with a grander concept, such as religious experience. However they may for instance develop floral decorative motifs designed to remind us of nature. It must be art if it is, “performed, made, or arranged decoratively and tastefully”. But is it aesthetically pleasing? Where is the dividing line between a weak decorative connection to nature and a deep convergence of religious meaning and formal expression?

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