A month ago, artists Michelle Vaughan and John Powers made a bar bet — I’m guessing it was a drunken one — over one of Powers’s bombastic claims. He made the sweeping statement that “movies are the art of our time.” Not one to step away from a challenge, Vaughan disagreed. Eventually Vaughan, who is a painter, and Powers, who is a sculptor, decided to transition their debate online and I offered to judge their exchange and declare a winner.

Today is that glorious day.

First, all the posts (in chronological order):

  1. Movies are not the “Art of Our Time” — The Black Von Scrolls (March 24)
  2. Part 1: Movies Are the Art of Our Time: A Theory — Star Wars Modern (April 7)
  3. Part 2: Movies Are the Art of Our Time: A Theory — Star Wars Modern (April 7)
  4. Without an Artists, There is no Art — The Black Von Scrolls (April 10)
  5. I Want to Be an Old Artist, But Movies are the Art of Our Time — Star Wars Modern (April 13)
  6. my latest comment to Star Wars Modern — The Black Von Scrolls (April 15)

What I found peculiar about this argument/discussion was that each of the writers found their own version of the topic and hammered away at their preferred perspective. It was a view shared by one of the commenters, j_d_hastings, who on the April 13th post writes:

I feel as though this debate is at cross currents with itself. I feel that Vaughan is answering “which art form currently produces the best art” while Powers is answering “which art form best represents the time we live in.” I think the original question “what’s the art of our times” allows for either interpretation, and that both sides have presented their views pretty well. The judgment of who wins may come down to which of the 2 questions the judge is more interested in, though, without the other party actually being “wrong.”

But, alas, someone must win.

I found both arguments intriguing but no one scored a complete knock-out, though the occasional job or punch landed on the money.

Vaughan seems preoccupied with a more traditional notion of art; in her vision the singular artist creates some of the most outstanding objects and experiences. But she doesn’t seem open to the idea that in the last few decades many artists (starting with Warhol) function more like movie directors rather than our romantic notion of the artist. When contemporary artists are forced to orchestrate major production schedules in a studio that employs dozens of individuals, the product is more akin to what we associate with film rather than traditional art.

I also think her definition of cinema is too Hollywood. Indie films, experimental works and non-American pictures (among other types of film) are produced in so many ways that to argue that certain big Hollywood studios — driven by crass commercialism — is the ultimate manifestation of “film” seems incomplete. But that’s not to say that I was convinced by her argument that art that poses questions without answering them can still be construed as successful, while films often don’t have that luxury — that ability to pose questions without answering them feels like a very contemporary state of being and very much of our time.

Now turning to Star Wars Modern, Powers is a very convincing fellow but I found one fatal flaw in his logic that occurred early on in the competition and I wasn’t able to shake it. In his long missives about cinema, I kept wondering what made film different from television. I occasionally stopped to mentally swap the words and found that almost everything he said was as true about TV as film. Is television film? I don’t think so, so I wondered why he thought TV lacked the same powers he claimed for film, particularly since the medium has the added punch of instant and continuous access. What was it about film that trumped all that?

His argument did use some beautiful (if peculiar) imagery of cultural solids (architecture) and liquids (visual art). Cinema, he says, is the liquid that travels between the two. He writes:

That is the liquid state that movies occupy, the border between extremes; between the intimate and the public, the popular and the transgressive; between the chaotic loose ephemera of contemporary art and the more solid land of architecture.

How about theater, the internet, or anything else … how do they fit in?

At the end of the argument, I just couldn’t be moved to buy the notion of cinema as the art of our time. Perhaps as the art of the 20th century, but I would require more convincing to think that cinema is the driving force in our current culture. Also, Mr. Powers, your claim that artists talk mostly about cinema when they get together seems a little far fetched. I know you enough to know that it is you that keeps bringing cinema up. 😉

Verdict: Michelle Vaughan TKO.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

3 replies on “Are Movies the Art of Our Time? The Verdict”

  1. John may be eating a little crow, but Michelle now must eat something that tastes of crow. A word to the wise, check all the “best served by” dates on the ingredients prior to this meal.

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