Last night I went to my annual Oscar party, a night I look forward to each year. We each fill out a ballot to see which of us will win, which usually comes down to who guessed the winner for best short animated feature. The night was filled with sarcasm and criticism of movies and actors/actresses, red wine, popcorn, and Jon Stewart…what a great combination.
At some point in the night someone mentioned that it was great to see the Oscars because they judged movies on ‘art’ and not on mass appeal or box office numbers. And I want to second that notion, but also maybe go a little further with it.
According to Heidegger, ‘art’ is what a culture has/develops that not only encapsulates that culture but propels it, it not only symbolizes but creates. The Greek Parthenon, the ancient Catholic Cathedrals, etc, are works of art because they create the culture they are a part of. And they only do this when they are ‘working’ (insightful wordplay on ‘work of art’). The Greek Parthenon is not ‘for us’ a work of art because it no longer ‘works’ as it did for the Greeks.
How does this relate to the Oscars? The movies that win Oscars are oftentimes what I would consider “works of art.” They are movies that ‘work’ at creating our culture. There are many movies that have come out this year that were box office smashes, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars. And I think that they are successful because they tap into the culture, they encapsulate the culture, they are, in a word, ‘relatable.’ But they do not move into the category of art, in the Heideggerian definition, because they stop at encapsulation and do no move on to propulsion. I would consider many box office smashes ‘culture leeches’ while I would consider many oscar winners ‘culture propellers.’
Notice though that this is a general observation and not always the case since some box office smashes are also oscar winners and not all oscar winners are ‘works of art,’ but I did find that an interesting distinction as I sipped my red wine last night and made fun of Cameron Diaz and Miley Cyrus.