Is art dead?

21

Dear Artist,

Last month, director Martin Scorsese, when asked in an interview what he thought of blockbuster superhero franchise movies, replied that in his opinion he doesn’t think they’re cinema. After a deluge of outrage at this remark, Scorsese penned an op ed in Monday’s New York Times to explain that over the past 20 years the movie business has changed, as have many art forms. “The most ominous change,” he wrote, has come “stealthily and under cover of night: the gradual but steady elimination of risk.” To Scorsese, the exploration of the unknown for both an artist and her audience are what make a work of art.

Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro on the set of Taxi Driver, 1976 Steve Schapiro photo

Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro on the set of Taxi Driver, 1976
Steve Schapiro photo

Cinema as art, writes Scorsese, is based on the backbone of auteurship — what he calls “the unifying vision of an individual artist” — in other words, art needs an artist in order for it to be art. Because most of the movies made today are “market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption,” he says, they minimize or completely eliminate the riskiest factor of any creative endeavour — the artist. As a result, filmmaking is split into two fields: A worldwide audiovisual entertainment industry — and cinema. Overlap between these two fields is increasingly rare because the financial dominance of the first threatens the existence of the second.

 Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro on the set of Raging Bull, 1980

Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro on the set of Raging Bull, 1980

If you’re thinking that Scorsese is ignoring the time immemorial artist-patron relationship and that money has always corrupted the creative process, he says that unlike today the old Hollywood studio system was at least a productive force. “The tension between the artists and the people who ran the business was constant and intense, but it was a productive tension that gave us some of the greatest films ever made.” For his current inspirations, Scorsese cites his peers: Paul Thomas Anderson, Claire Denis, Spike Lee, Ari Aster, Kathryn Bigelow, Wes Anderson. “When I watch a movie by any of those filmmakers, I know I’m going to see something absolutely new and be taken to unexpected and maybe even unnameable areas of experience,” he writes. “My sense of what is possible in telling stories with moving images and sounds is going to be expanded.”

Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese on the set of Goodfellas, 1990

Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese on the set of Goodfellas, 1990

Sincerely,

Sara

PS: “[Cinema] was about confronting the unexpected on the screen and in the life it dramatized and interpreted, and enlarging the sense of what was possible in the art form.” (Martin Scorsese)

Esoterica: Martin Scorsese was born in Queens, New York in 1942 to a seamstress and a clothes presser, both aspiring actors. Before he started school, his family moved to Little Italy where Martin was raised as a devout Catholic. Because of his asthma, Martin couldn’t play sports, so his family went to the movies instead. After failing out of a preparatory seminary while still in high school, Martin enrolled at NYU and would earn an M.F.A in film studies there in 1966. Seventy-six-year-old, Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese, known for his masterpieces “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas” and “The Departed,” says that art’s death cannot be simplified to a matter of supply and demand and giving people what they want. “If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing.”

Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese on the set of The Irishman, 2019

Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese on the set of The Irishman, 2019, which after a limited theatrical release will start streaming on Netflix on November 27.

“For anyone who dreams of making movies or who is just starting out, the situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art. And the act of simply writing those words fills me with terrible sadness.” (Martin Scorsese)

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“It was an art form. There was some debate about that at the time, so we stood up for cinema as an equal to literature or music or dance. And we came to understand that the art could be found in many different places and in just as many forms.” (Martin Scorsese)

“So, you might ask, what’s my problem? Why not just let superhero films and other franchise films be? The reason is simple. In many places around this country and around the world, franchise films are now your primary choice if you want to see something on the big screen. It’s a perilous time in film exhibition, and there are fewer independent theaters than ever.” (Martin Scorsese)

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21 Comments

  1. the British still seem to come up with wonderful cinema and they do not employ just people that look good and are skinney

  2. “…there are fewer independent theaters than ever.” That about says it all. And it’s true. We never had a lot, but now they’ve fallen like leaves in autumn. Formulaic writing, formulaic acting, and direction via formula. Books, painting, music, it’s almost all that way. No wonder there are so many makers today. Everyone is trying to find something creative.

  3. Go Martin! It’s funny, with all the accessibility in the world, what we end up with is reductive. Sameness, because we feel save with “our own”. We actually LOOK, for what we know, because we don’t know what we don’t know. That is the importance of art. The essentialness of art. It aligns itself with the creative force and expands us. Go Martin. What an artist. X

  4. I am not a huge Scorsese fan. But in this case, I think he is right about what is happening to film. In some cases even fine art. Most people want their art to be popular and sell. It is hard not to paint what you think will sell and stay true to your vision. I think the same is true of many studios and film makers.

  5. Years ago my cards said “commissions cheerfully accepted”. That was, until I actually got one. The person wanted to buy a painting that had already been spoken for, so I agreed to do another one.
    The “clients” wanted first a smaller one (more difficult to execute, but I didn’t realize that), and different colours. Teal greens (because the recipient liked that) rather than sap & Jenkins greens. And they didn’t like the result. I said fine, I’ll keep it. They eventually paid and left with the painting. It was a good experience. I do not do commissions anymore.

    In this technological world, it is possible to pass a painting at a show, covertly snap a photo, take it home, blur out the signature, and make greeting cards or other items to sell, claiming it as your own. For those who must make a living with their art, my heart bleeds.

  6. Kathleen Scott on

    The same thing has happened in music. If older people feel like new music lacks the depth music use to have, they are right. It’s become formulaic and based on what can catch people in the first few notes. Something familiar. It’s no longer acceptable to create something new that grows on people and put it into mainstream exposure. I take comfort in what Martin Scorsese said, because I rarely feel drawn to modern movies or TV. I rarely get any sense of mystery about what is going to be presented to me any more. Seems like edgy, vulgar visuals and adrenaline stimulation is the rule of the day, instead of really good story telling.

  7. I do so agree with Martin Scorsese and “we came to understand that the art could be found in many different places and in just as many forms“ which for films leaves us in dire circumstances with the dominance of franchise films. I am hungry for great films that surprise and tantalize my imagination in unexpected ways but, as he notes, they have become rare. Until reading this post Sara I wasn’t sure why. What does this mean for other art forms like painting? Certainly not dead yet but is risk-taking on the canvas in decline? Maybe not for individual artists but as a whole field of art it might be. Cheap reproductions come to mind, along with expensive studio space and limited storage to explore with work that doesn’t have a ready immediate market. I argue vehemently for my painter’s creative freedom – do the work first and then find a home for it is my approach…. and it works because I can still take the chance on finding an art collector for an experimental painting without financial ruin. But how many of us can? Half? A quarter? Less even? Something to think about for sure as I package up the painting that sold this morning to an international art collector.

  8. Depressing. But thanks for the awareness. Making note of these names:
    Scorsese cites his peers: Paul Thomas Anderson, Claire Denis, Spike Lee, Ari Aster, Kathryn Bigelow, Wes Anderson.

  9. I am painting since I was 5 (?) What was and is, to this very day, making me paint? SUPER CURIOSITY about entering new realities that must SURPRISE ME. Hard to do this on flat surfaces of paper or canvas, or screens. But I can see beyond my flat surfaces and see my paintings as just keys to enter my living realities. I call my art Subconscious Reality, where intuition is unveiling new existences, far beyond our common, repetitive visions and understating, suggesting to apply badly abused “tools” to make up “arts”… In our time those “works” that loudly wish to shock you and get your attention by manipulations of colors, break things and “invent” creatures, using random technological tricks, gluing together common, overworked “modern” and traditional recycling ideas, well, all that mess together is mistaken for Fine Art. Traditional Art is not truly known to the crowds who are trained to see what is selling to them today. Art shall never depend on crowds. It is forever deeply intimate way of life for the true artist. The ultimately vulgar and cynical markets would never allow privacy. Look into rare private studios of struggling creators. Not famous movie-makers.
    As Everyone wants to be called an artist to sell “art” as it seems so easy when public admire the most primitive and even idiotic tryings whether in architecture or fashions !! Speaking in general Art cannot be dead. It is a living Nature itself that is more and more hard for us to neither comprehend nor even notice it.

  10. My childhood was a nightmare. I am painting since I was 5 (?) What was and is, to this very day, making me draw and paint? SUPER CURIOSITY about whether I could find new realities to escape to, to be SURPRISED and fascinated. I was drawing on paper then on canvas when was able to pay for it. Hard to find new worlds on flat surfaces of paper or canvas, or superficial screens. But I could see beyond my flat surfaces and considered my drawings and paintings as just keys to open and enter my living worlds. I call my art Subconscious Reality, where only my immediate intuition is leading my mind, unveiling for me new existences I have never seen before.
    Entering the unknown.

    I have to look for these endlessly new worlds far beyond our common, repetitive visions and understating, and badly abused tricks/methods to make “arts”… In our time those known “art works” that are to loudly shock you and get your attention by manipulations of disturbing colors, forms, made-up,“invented” creatures and primitive characters to scare, disgust, seduce or intrigue you for no meaninful reason, all that mess together is mistaken for Fine Art.

    Traditional Art is not truly known to the crowds who are trained to see values in what is getting sold to them today. Art shall never depend on crowds. Fine Art is forever deeply intimate way of life that is crucial for the true artist. The ultimately vulgar and cynical “art” markets would never allow privacy. The only way is look into rare private studios of struggling creators. Not famous movie-makers or show-producers.

    As Everyone wants to be called an artist these days to sell “art” as it seems so easy when public admire the most primitive and even idiotic tryings… whether in architecture or fashions or songwriting !! Speaking in general ~ Art cannot be dead. It is a living Nature itself that is more and more hard for us to neither comprehend nor even notice.

  11. Mr. Martin Scorecece is absolutely right! I have given up most movie watching except what I find on TCM (Turner Classic Movies). There you get to watch cinema! Two nights ago I watched Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath”. The
    new movies (franchise movies) are all the same! Lots of noise, movement and explosions. No story line. No real human characters with life changing decisions to make! It is sad indeed.

  12. After reading all of the above , I now know why I’m concerned at the age of 91 and a painter for fifty years, about the future of fine art. I was taught the technique of the Old Masters early in my career but have also tried my hand at other techniques and even “carry a knife”. Mixed media seems to be the magic word at my local galleries. Perhaps galleries are closing their doors for reasons other than internet sales.

    Times are a changing, but we must stand firm and create art from the heart.

  13. When I hear things like the Scorsese story, the cynic in me thinks this . . .
    Art? What is Art?

    Do we really need to ask anymore?

    Today, everything can be described as Art, and everyone who claims to be one can do so and no one openly disputes it!

    When everything is art and anyone can be an artist what you have is a ‘devalued creative currency’!

    Skill, who needs it, just do whatever you ‘feel’; after all it’s really the story (preferably a negative one) of terrible ordeals suffered that sells! The art is actually secondary . . . get people’s imagination hooked on the ‘story’ and they can be talked into loving the art.

    When ‘’Art” is devalued to that point, and your audience cowed into silence or conditioned into accepting repetition and mediocrity . . . what in darnation do you expect?

    Movies or paintings they become all about formula and hype. It reminds me of Shakespeare’s “Sound and fury, signifying nothing” line. That’s what devalued art is!

    When the cynic in me subsides and I step up to my own easel, it’s an exciting dive into the unknown. I’m not undisciplined or detached from my inner creative exuberance, so teasing out the wisdom and understanding that lurks behind every foray into the unknown, is fine by me. The very exercise of ‘real’ art making, excites my imagination like nothing else. When I am thus engaged, the tip of my paintbrush uncovers a world of awe and wonder!

    Finally, at this time in my life, I don’t have to rely upon others to start making art like that! So no, art is not dead!

  14. Felicitations Sara – your letter accomplished a lively response from thoughtful people who understand the value of Art, in all media. I thoroughly enjoyed reading such beautifully expressed letters. This proves Art is not dead. As long as some appreciate that there are solitary, dedicated explorers who toil unheralded to express their objectives – Art remains the better aspect of humanity

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