How is it that Martin Scorsese’s declaration, in an early October interview with Empire, that Marvel movies ‘aren’t cinema’ contained sufficient kindling to fuel a conversation in which responses were still being reported seven weeks later? The length of this conversation became its most remarkable feature, seeming to entail the logic that permitted its perpetual extension. This essay is not meant to further extend that debate as such, but to wonder at the cultural obsession it models. Because the question of whether a particular object can be accurately described as art tends to be less interesting than our obsession with the question itself. Why does this category’s acceptance or rejection of something we love carry such weight?
This particular crisis, worked through on social media and in various news outlets, was not about one of cinema’s great artists announcing his disdain for one of his medium’s most profitable arms, nor his fear that these films were dominating multiplexes at the expense of other kinds of films. These were secondary concerns. Rather, the conflict rode on Scorsese’s implication—when he said that Marvel movies are theme park rides but not cinema—that these films cannot be properly referred to as art. This is the verdict which people rushed to counter or affirm.
Claims about art tend to be interpreted as invitations to be taken up, as utterances to respond to, even (or especially) when meant as the final word. We appeal to definitions of art when seeking reassurance—the reassurance of universal truth, or God, or the rightness of our own instincts. Iris Murdoch, in her essay ‘The Sublime and the Good’, writes that Kant, who looks to universalise the concept of beauty, ‘is afraid of the particular, he is afraid of history.’ Sweeping statements about art (and cinema), about what it can and cannot be, often constitute retreats from the demand to acknowledge an object’s particularity and the inevitable singularity of one’s experience with it. Those who defended the Marvel franchise tended, in their retreat, to define cinema so broadly that the term became impossible to grasp. Joe Russo, co-director of Avengers: Endgame and Infinity War along with his brother Anthony, said that they ‘define cinema as a film that can bring people together to have a shared, emotional experience.’ It is hard to imagine a visual object this wouldn’t apply to.
I’m not seeking to do a philosopher’s work here, deciding what is and isn’t art (determining final definitions tends to be among the least interesting things that writing can do). I’ve not wanted to get wrapped up in the finer details of the Scorsese debate, and I’ve not wanted to finalise whether art (or cinema) is necessarily an evaluative or categorical judgment, or both. I suppose it can’t be purely evaluative, because there is plenty of reprehensible art, the reprehensibility of which does not count it out of the category, but simply makes it bad art. Also, it can’t be purely categorical, because art, even the worst art, presumes a level of aesthetic sophistication that demands an audience response. What I’ve wanted instead is to express some satisfaction at the fact that, in 2019, when so many conversations are had and so many opinions are proffered and dismissed, that there has been a lengthy conversation about what art is. Yet also I’ve wanted to express dissatisfaction at the inevitable impoverishment of the conversation by the venues in which it was had (Twitter, interviews with entertainment websites, polemic opinion pieces not dissimilar to this one). The hot take market reduces debates such as this to binary conflicts around questions of snobbery or neoliberalism, areas worth attention but customarily ludicrously simplified.
About a month after the initial interview, Scorsese re-entered the debate, contributing its most graceful intervention, an op-ed in the New York Times where he clarified his position, reiterating that Marvel films aren’t art because essential to cinema is ‘the unifying vision of the individual artist’. And, as he points out, Marvel films are commodities, shaped by the market to such an extent that the artistic imperative is subsumed by the economic.
I think Scorsese is right; Marvel films have some qualities, but they are largely juvenile, have unsophisticated politics, and are limited in their capacity to deepen their themes beyond the superficial, due partly to the constraints of having to sustain the narrative coherence of a universe bigger than ours. A (perhaps unsatisfactory) shorthand for this judgement is to say that they aren’t cinema. But do I really believe this? To encapsulate and more or less dismiss all 22 Marvel films in a single statement may well mean falling into the fear of particularity that Murdoch identifies, resisting a world in which art is found in the details rather than the totality.
I recently read an interview in which Donald Barthelme, quoting art critic Thomas Hess suggested that ‘the only adequate criticism of a work of art is another work of art’; he went on to speculate that ‘It may be the case that any genuine work of art generates new work.’ This seems correct.
Artistic objects possess an ineffable, invigorating edge that establishes them, in success or failure, as part of a continuing conversation, a conversation best furthered by engaging with the sense of ambiguity, of anxious unfinishedness, to which the most overwhelming art aspires. The colour and texture of our experience is transformed by art in a way that it is not by, for want of a better term, pure entertainment. I am sure of this: the strength of a feeling I experience when watching a film like Casablanca or Strangers on a Train or The Irishman is absolutely nothing like what I experience when watching Avengers: Infinity War. These films that seem to better fit the definition of cinema, of art, assert themselves; influenced by commercial conditions but not bending entirely to the logic of the commodity.
Yet the fact that the definition, of cinema, of art, remains contested, is part of what gives these fields of experience an enduring urgency. We are urgently concerned with what we can and cannot refer to as art because to ascribe something as being worthy of the term is to recognise that the culture we consume goes some way to determining how we understand what it means to be human. The heightened state of agitation that has defined both those arguing with and on behalf of Scorsese, along with those complaining about the apparent interminableness of the argument itself, is evidence of the authority that continues to reside in claims to art and artfulness. There can be solace in the contest.
Dan Dixon is a writer and academic living in Sydney.