Science and art

(part two of the cynicism series is coming)

I was listening to some scientists on the radio today and there were some things said that I found very relevant to film and art.

Science has become so complicated that it is very difficult for an ordinary person to understand it, even one with a fairly rounded education in science. Extra dimensions, nanotechnology, quantum particles, gravity: we’ve all heard of these things, but understanding them is tough. I’ve tried and I’m still not there.

Yet science continues to get massive amounts of funding, both private and public. Research for things that people don’t understand, that may not even turn out to be true, that may not even have an application outside of satisfying our curiousity. So I began to think of why this might be, while art funding is stuck somewhere in the third world of this universe.

At first I thought it might be that science helped create weapons. But art is a powerful weapon, and film, especially, can be used as powerful propaganda. Even the CIA went about secretly promoting American art during the Cold War because they saw it as an important way of showing what a democracy could accomplish.   Of course, physics will always have the A-bomb, which is the most glamorous and strangely mysterious death machine ever.

So then I thought of application. The researcher on the radio spoke about scientists always get asked about application, when they aren’t generally interested in that.  They just want to find out stuff.  But funders, and people, want to know, what can you use their discovery for? But he was saying that, in essence, you never really know until it is discovered and put into the world. He used an example from DNA research: who could have predicted that discovering DNA “fingerprints” would lead to people being released from prisons for crimes they didn’t commit.

So then I thought about art, because the art world exists in a similar sort of way. Art, fine art, has moved beyond simple representation into territory that is not easily appreciated by the ordinary citizen, or even the people who buy art. So there are people called buyers and dealers, who have a better understanding of the work, who tell people what they should buy. The people with money trust them, because they know what they are talking about and because sometimes you can’t tell if something is great just by looking at it.   Sometimes you need to understand it.

So these thoughts of complexity and funding sort of crossed in my mind thinking about film, which has virtually no funding for research outside of film financing outlets, where the sole justification is immediate profit and where the language is seemingly stuck at a perpetual third grade level.

Films that break rules or try new things are an endangered species because they need to appeal to people that can’t, and shouldn’t be expected to, appreciate them in order to make their money back.  Sometimes critics can help an audience understand, or guide them through a film, but too often this provides only the most superficial understanding – probably at about the level that I understand gravity.

But what was interesting about the scientists was that, despite the fact that they live in a sort of bubble of knowledgeable people, there were millions of laymen out there that were curious about what they were doing and what they were discovering.  They needed it to be explained in ways that they could understand it, but what they are researching is fundamentally interesting.  Everyone wants to know things like what happened before the big bang, or how our bodies are built up from DNA.  These are fundamental questions that we ask from childhood and people remain so curious that they’re will to shovel billions of dollars at things like CERN, which will hopefully discover a graviton, or even evidence of other dimensions.   I’m not sure what they hope to sell from this discovery, but I would buy the T-shirt.

So how can we arrive at the same thing for film, where esoteric films can be made that don’t necessarily depend on the marketplace to finance them?  The answer is, from the people who want to see good films and are curious to know what film can offer that is outside of what they are seeing.  These people are out there.  I’ve seen them at festivals.  I’ve met them at parties.  Sometimes they’re attracted to the glamour, but not always.  Would they be willing to put a billion dollars of tax payer money into making films without really knowing what they are going to get for their money?   Obviously not.

So, while filmmakers are generally concerned with similar inquiries, like, what makes us do the things we do, and how the world works,  that’s generally not what they are getting into the multiplex.  And the more that happens, the less important film as an art appears to be.  If we expect to get government financing, or even private financing, we need to get people excited about what we are discovering by showing them the way into the films that we love, including our own.  Because as people who love film know, once you get hooked on good films, nothing else will do.


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