Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
In an interview in October, acclaimed movie writer, director, and producer Martin Scorsese responded to a question about Marvel superhero films by comparing them to theme parks. He said, “I don’t think they’re cinema.” His comment set off a firestorm of social media outrage, prompting not just fan responses but a bevy of celebrity hot-takes as well. The responses were so many, and so overwhelmingly (although not exclusively) negative, to what was an offhand remark in a passing interview, that Scorsese took to the New York Times to write a clarification of his stance. In this NYT piece, he expands on his definition of “cinema,” expresses his concerns about the changing nature of movies as a storytelling medium, and discusses what it is he thinks is lacking from the franchise films of today.
I’m not interested in furthering the argument about whether Scorsese is right or wrong about Marvel films being cinema, or even whether the definition of cinema he offers in his piece is correct or incorrect. The issue is not about cinema at all, but about art. He says in his op-ed, “[cinema is] an art form.” His initial comments, the backlash to them, and his response article reveal that the real issue isn’t what Martin Scorsese thinks of Marvel movies or franchise films in general. The real reason his comments angered so many people is because he touched on an age-old, traditionally unanswerable question: What is art?
My first day in a Survey of Art class in college—one of those 300-plus auditorium classes—the professor posed just this question. A few brave students attempted an answer, and the remainder of the class was spent in disarray as students shouted each other down in the murky light across rows of creaking, maroon-colored stadium seats. The professor did nothing to mediate the arguments and told us at the end of class that anyone who said art could be defined was wrong because art was purely subjective; there was no definition of art. I determined the class was going to be a waste of my time, because I actually wanted to know what art was—or at least how to determine what good art was. The vehemence of people’s opinions within that classroom belied what the professor said, though. Intrinsically, we know that art is something, or we would not care so much about trying to define it.All these struggles to define what art is really boil down to fear—a fear that elitism will strangle joy out of what it is we all enjoy consuming.
The insistence of my professor that there was no definition of art is where we fall into these outrages, such as what happened recently over Scorsese’s comments. We want to define it; we have to define it. But when we try to do so by purely subjective means, all discourse inevitably falls apart. Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, in his recent response to Martin Scorsese falls back into the same grounds of declaring all art to be purely subjective. “Everybody has a different definition of cinema. Everybody has a different definition of art,” he says, but then goes on to list and defend many of the things that his studio is doing excellently in creating good art. Because Feige knows, as we all do, that there must be something intrinsic that defines what makes his films, and any excellent art, as good.
The truth is that art is both subjective and objective in creation and consumption. And if cinema is art, the same applies to it. Therefore, we both can and cannot say what art is, and we both can and cannot say what cinema is.
As a storytelling medium, cinema is a confluence of moving pictures, light, and sound. In that regard, Scorsese is absolutely wrong in saying that superhero movies are not cinema and the backlash against him is justified. But that’s not what Scorsese means—not really. As Scorsese says in his NYT clarification article, he means that cinema is a category of movies that depends upon the element of risk in storytelling. He does not mean that cinema is that thing which makes a movie a movie, but that it is that thing which makes a movie a certain type of art. He says:
“Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes. They are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit.”
In this regard, Scorsese’s argument boils down to a bit of semantics. Here’s how.
When I teach creative writing, I tell my students to lean into genre expectations. In order for a story to be categorized as a romance, for example, there are certain things—certain tropes and expectations—that must be met within the story. This is okay! This is good, and true, and beautiful, even. These are elements of objectivity. Where subjectivity comes into play is what the individual artist does with them. There are no new stories under the sun, and individuals can’t help but tell a new story. This is a mantra of my creative writing classes. No originality—and infinite originality. Subjectivity and objectivity held in tension and in balance. This is the paradox of the creative life. Scorsese, therefore, is applying this principle to how he’s defining cinema as a category of art.
But his argument remains one of what art is. A shifting standard of what is true, beautiful, and good makes it impossible to objectively define what art is. We all, then, fall back on our subjectivity and cry foul when we disagree with an expert. But in reality, there can be no experts in any field—artistic or otherwise—where no objectivity exists. Is Scorsese an objectively good movie director, or is he not? Regardless of our opinion of his work, is it good, and by what standards do we judge it? And if it is thus good, then do we judge his opinion to be valid, whether or not we agree with him?
There can be no offense taken at what we determine a “theme park movie” to be if we don’t have a standard by which to judge theme parks as lesser entertainment than any other type. And Martin Scorsese can be judged no expert of cinema without a way to determine what an expert is, aside from sheer experience in a given field—and Scorsese has that in spades. He has a list of award achievements so long, it is not even accurate to say he has won multiple film awards, as his wins and nominations number into the hundreds. He is an unquestioned authority on what it is that makes a quality movie a quality movie. In questions of cinema, his opinion should matter.
But despite his expertise, Scorsese acknowledges right away in his NYT response piece the dichotomy inherent in all discussions on art. He writes: “Many franchise films are made by people of considerable talent and artistry. You can see it on the screen. The fact that the films themselves don’t interest me is a matter of personal taste and temperament.” Talent and artistry are not up for debate; these things belong to the objective nature of art. But, Scorsese says, these types of films don’t appeal to him as “a matter of personal taste and temperament.” His tastes are subjective.
So where does objective truth come from in the arts? From the same God who created the world and everything in it and stood back to say, “It is good.” And, “It is very good.” We need no one to tell us a sunset is beautiful or that a wave crashing against the shore is majestic. The truths of creation spring from their creator and are passed down to sub-creators through the cultural mandate. They abide in us and color our perception of all we do, all we perceive, all we consume, and all we make. It is by them that we determine some things are more good or less good. We do not operate according to sole subjectivity or see through eyes that belong only to us. We can disagree with Scorsese about Marvel films because we do not subjectively like the same things he does while agreeing with him that cinema is art if it holds to certain standards. Because art is a both/and, not an either/or. And art is for everyone.
I often think all these struggles to define what art is really boil down to fear—a fear that elitism will strangle joy out of what it is we all enjoy consuming. Whether it’s the teacher who tells the child they can’t read a graphic novel because it’s not a “real book” or the movie director who tells the journalist he doesn’t believe franchise movies are “cinema,” those with entertainment tastes that verge on the pedestrian take offense out of fear of being viewed as less-than. But Martin Scorsese is afraid, too. He’s afraid of the changing standards of filmmaking and the elimination of storytelling risk. When market demands and imaginative impulses don’t line up, creative people can feel starved for an outlet to their expression. Scorsese is far from impoverished, but he’s saying many of the same things struggling artists, filmmakers, storytellers, writers, and musicians have long said. Fundamentally, there’s fear that we won’t be able to create what gives us joy and passion, fear that when we do create, people won’t be primed to accept it, and also—I think—(for many on the other side of Scorsese’s equation) fear that we are not creating real art.
This is why we should be thankful that art is both definable and indefinable. It makes it objectively true, beautiful, and good—something we can all aspire to—and subjective to all our personal experiences. Inclusive to all people, cultures, times, places, and tastes. It can be both true that Martin Scorsese is a filmmaking expert who gets to help us define what is excellent in cinema and also true that he doesn’t get to define what is excellent about Kevin Feige’s Marvel superhero films. As writers, storytellers, artists, consumers, we live in the beauty of the paradox of sub-creation.