Tag Archives: art

Can Films Still Make a Difference?

What filmmaker wouldn’t be pleased with a critic like Joan Gibb Engel? Here’s what she writes about 1913 Massacre.

We were treated to a complex story, excellently told, replete with black and white stills from the period depicting the miners, the strikers, the town, the children, and the hall before it was torn down, and there were colorful scenes from the present of townspeople reflecting on the tragedy and their versions of what really happened. It had mystery, drama, sentiment, dance, and of course, the now-famous song sung in the film by Woody’s son Arlo.

Gibb Engel was in the audience when we showed 1913 Massacre at the Calumet Theatre in October of 2012, and she recalls the event in a paper she contributed to Confronting Ecological and Economic Collapse: Ecological Integrity for Law, Policy and Human Rights. (The book came out last year, but it wasn’t until yesterday that I came across her article, while looking for some notice of the film’s May Day screening in Oslo, Norway.)

It turns out that Gibb Engel comes to bury our film, not to praise it. She offers her experience at the Calumet Theatre as a “dispiriting example of the failure of a film to make a difference.” And it’s not just 1913 Massacre. “I don’t believe a film, even a beautiful one…can do much for us now. We are already too awash in virtual reality depictions of the future, and no generation has had more reason to question their respective validities.”

The question whether a film can still “make a difference” in the world is one I’ve struggled with myself, written about (e.g., here, here and here), and discussed often with friends and colleagues. Gibb Engel arrives at her pessimistic view mainly after viewing and thinking about another film — Journey of the Universe, a big-budget television documentary produced by Mary Eveyln Tucker and Brian Swimme — and then she finds that view reinforced by an exchange she has, or tries to have, with a young man seated next to her at the Calumet Theatre watching our low-budget, independent film.

He was “a local high school student” who had come to the theater that day with his girlfriend, and he “had been playing with his mobile phone prior to the lights going down.” When Ken or I — we usually take turns at this — asked everyone in the audience to please make sure their cell phones were switched off, “he turned it off as requested for the performance.” So far so good! The trouble comes after the film is over, when Gibb Engel

turned to the young man and asked what he thought of it. He answered in a voice completely devoid of colour: ‘it was interesting.’

And on the basis of that exchange, Gibb Engel concludes that 1913 Massacre failed to “make a difference.” What are we to make of this?

It’s worth pointing out from the very start that Gibb Engel seems to have nothing but praise for the film, but her argument in this paper is an exercise in a foregone conclusion: what she really wants to say here — what she in fact says immediately after having dispensed with Journey to the Universe and 1913 Massacre — is that there isn’t

any way forward except to do what GEIG [the Global Ecological Integrity Group: Gibb Engel’s husband, Ron Engel, sits on the executive committee] and its members have tried to do these past twenty years: make a personal connection with some part of the Earth and help others do the same; work for social and ecological justice; fight for people and policies that matter to the Earth’s flourishing; get our hands dirty.

Exactly how this noble or necessary or dirty work is to be accomplished, and why there should be only one way forward, she does not bother to say. There’s also a whole messy argument to untangle here about the possibility of unmediated experience (of nature) and the role of language, story and representation in forging “personal connections” and helping others do the same, working for justice and fighting for policies, etc. that Gibb Engel doesn’t come close to addressing here. I’m not going to press the issue. Instead, I want to go back to the moment where she turns to the young man sitting next to her in the Calumet Theatre and asks him what he thought of 1913 Massacre.

It’s an odd moment to focus on, and I am reluctant to allow Gibb Engel’s account of her exchange with this young man to stand for the audience’s experience of the film. There were plenty of reasons to think that 1913 Massacre did make a real difference to that Calumet audience — maybe even to that local high school kid.  And this isn’t just because I am one of the film’s producers. The house was packed for three screenings; the crowd gave the film successive standing ovations; the whole house laughed and cried and rode the film like a wave. (My diary of the Calumet Screenings is here). Gibb Engel enjoyed herself as well. But she wants to divert our attention from the audience’s experience (“we were treated to a complex story, excellently told”) to the experience of this one young man.

Now having been a young man of high school age, I can tell you that at that time in my life I probably would not have even managed “it was interesting” if asked by a middle-aged woman sitting next to me what I thought of a film. If I had been there with my girlfriend, as he was, I probably would have been even more reticent; or I might have said or done something awkward in an effort to impress my girl, or disentangle myself from the mutual attention of these two women, or get off the witness stand where this lady had put me. In other words, what Gibb Engel fails to consider here is that “it was interesting” was in all likelihood a social cue, meant to nip the conversation in the bud. (Remember when your parents’ friends used to ask you how things were going at school? “Fine.” It’s still a good rule not to trust anyone over 30, at least until you’re 25 or so.)

Even more puzzling is that Gibb Engel takes her cue from this high school student and then puts the failure to connect in a meaningful way on the young man. But surely Gibb Engel has an important part in the little social drama she describes, as the young man’s grown-up antagonist or interlocutor. That’s the position she’s in after watching the film and turning to the young man; maybe it’s fair to say it’s the position the film put her in. These two probably would never have had occasion to address one another were it not for the fact that they happened to be seated next to each other at the Calumet Theatre for a screening of 1913 Massacre.

So, as my friend Marc Tognotti pointed out when I shared the passage from Confronting Ecological and Economic Collapse with him, 1913 Massacre did make at least one “obvious difference” in Gibb Engel’s world: first of all, it prompted Gibb Engel to turn to the cell-phone-wielding young man next to her and ask what he thought of the film. (And before that, it prompted the young man to turn off his cell phone — to take his life offline and participate in a public screening of a film, or at least sit quietly through it.) And when he gave her a cue “devoid of colour,” Gibb Engel by her own account seems to have let the whole thing drop, without adding any color of her own. She could have offered what she herself thought of the film, expressed the appreciation she later put into writing, asked what he meant by interesting, addressed his girlfriend and asked her what she thought, asked them both if they grew up in Calumet and had ever heard the story. And so on: the possibilities for improvisation, new relationship and conversation after the colorless “interesting” cue were many, especially because in Calumet nearly every high school kid has some family connection to the Italian Hall or the mining operations or the Finnish music Oren Tikkanen sings in our film. Gibb Engel didn’t pursue any of those.

What Gibb Engel doesn’t acknowledge here or anywhere in her discussion of 1913 Massacre or Journey of the Universe is that the difference film or any work of art makes is always one that we have to make, among ourselves. Marc puts it this way in an email:

Our tradition with film and with all art is to believe that meaning resides within the art object, or within the mind of the author/artist, etc.  But the meaning of art, if we take a pragmatist perspective anyhow, is actually something that is realized in the public domain, in how the artwork changes the conversation, changes the way in which people coordinate their actions with one another and towards the world, natural and artificial. Once we realize this, we can stop treating art as something for individual consumption, we can stop objectifying meaning in a way that renders us passive observers, and we can begin to take responsibility for creating meaning and creating change.

The work of art is not just the inhuman object that remains when the craftsman puts down his tools; it is the human activity that can begin only after the artwork is brought into the world.

On Making Yourself Useful, Or Not

The Effective Altruists have persuaded Rhys Southan that his screenplay-writing is of no social value and ethically idiotic. They may be right, but he’s going to keep doing it anyway.

Good for him, I suppose. Keep trying, expect failure and look for unexpected outcomes. Take some time to think about why you want to write a screenplay or make a film or pursue a project. (This post by Jay Webb is a good place to start.) But don’t bother with people who tell you to make yourself useful.

Southan is bothered by them, I gather, because he seems to be confused about what art is and the work that artists do — a theme I touched on the other day in a post about the misappropriation of a sentence from Aquinas’ Summa, and a couple of weeks ago in my post on the word “sullen,” where I discussed Ingmar Bergman’s disciplined solitude.

He seems to understand his screenplay-writing and for that matter all art as “self-expression”; and then he asks that art improve society. On the one hand, he reduces art to vanity — not a disciplined encounter with humanity of the kind Bergman describes, but an elaborate selfie. On the other, he subordinates art to half-baked social engineering schemes and encourages didacticism or morally uplifting platitudes of the sort Alain de Botton has foisted on to the collection at the Rijksmuseum.

To ask whether art is useful is to ask the wrong question of it — or at least to invite a Thomistic quibble that restricts the meaning of the term and helps move the conversation away from confused Romantic ideas: as an operative virtue, art is useful to the artist. “The craftsman needs art, not that he may live well, but that he may produce a good work of art, and have it in good keeping.”

What’s more, to live merely by calculations of utility of the kind the Effective Altruists urge is not to lead much of a life at all: you may set out to do others some good but you probably won’t have a very good life. May I enjoy a fresh fig or a cigar, split town and head for the coast, putter around in my garden, consider an idea, make love or make a friend without submitting to a utility calculation?

Of course I can and should and will, and this isn’t just a matter of opting for pleasure over other considerations of utility.

A person who becomes my friend, or professes to love me, based on calculations of utility would have to be a sociopath or a monster of some kind. A person who tells me how I might make myself useful — appealing to moral criticism in order to advance a social improvement scheme — would be equally suspect.

To question the altruism of Effective Altruism may ultimately be an altruistic thing to do.

Rickaby’s Doublet — Doing the Work Philosophy Bots Won’t Do

The other day a Twitterbot called @AquinasQuotes tweeted this:

While others retweeted it and favorited it and seemed to identify with it, I thought the translation sounded ungainly and struggled to make sense of it.

As I’ve noted before, most philosophy bots seem to operate without editorial (let alone philosophical) oversight; so it’s no surprise to find misattributions, awkward translations, sentences taken out of context and once coherent thoughts rendered nonsensical. There’s often not much editorial discernment on the other end of the communication, either; if it sounds vaguely encouraging and uplifting, it will find an audience.

The quotable items the bots serve up usually appear without any link or citation that would allow them to be tracked down and read in context, and in most cases they aren’t even lifted from a work of philosophy. Instead, they’ve been pulled from some existing compilation of quotations — which was made, in the majority of cases, from some other compilation. We are almost always at several removes from the original text.

In this case, I tracked down the quotation about living well and working well to the Summa Theologiae, 1ae-2ae Question LVII Article 5. Here Aquinas takes up the question: Is Prudence A Virtue Necessary to Man? The full argument runs as follows in the translation by the English Dominican fathers.

Prudence is a virtue most necessary for human life. For a good life consists in good deeds (bene enim vivere consistit in bene operari). Now in order to do good deeds, it matters not only what a man does, but also how he does it; to wit, that he do it from right choice and not merely from impulse or passion. And, since choice is about things in reference to the end, rectitude of choice requires two things: namely, the due end, and something suitably ordained to that due end. Now man is suitably directed to his due end by a virtue which perfects the soul in the appetitive part, the object of which is the good and the end. And to that which is suitably ordained to the due end man needs to be rightly disposed by a habit in his reason, because counsel and choice, which are about things ordained to the end, are acts of the reason. Consequently an intellectual virtue is needed in the reason, to perfect the reason, and make it suitably affected towards things ordained to the end; and this virtue is prudence. Consequently prudence is a virtue necessary to lead a good life.

I understand the impulse to get away from “a good life consists in good deeds” or “good works,” but the translation of bene operari as “to work well, to show a good activity” doesn’t really help. First, it tries too hard to articulate the Latin verb, so that instead of a simple construction (“to work well”), we have to grapple with an unnatural sounding doublet. The English Dominicans seem to have understood that it’s not really all that necessary to fuss over the verb operor here, since Aquinas spends the rest of the article breaking down what he means by it: not only what we do but how we do it, from right choice rather than merely from passion or impulse, and so on.  And if we try to parse “show a good activity” we might run into other problems, since it could easily be confused with hypocritical display.

The trouble seems to have started with the publication of Father Joseph Rickaby’s Aquinas Ethicus in 1896, where the Stonyhurst philosopher offered “to live well is to work well, or display a good activity”. I’m still not sure what Rickaby was trying to accomplish with this doubling of the verb (why “display”? why “a” good activity?) and by what contortions he managed to get the adjective “good” for the second half of his doublet from the adverb bene. I take it that with “display a good activity” he’s reaching for something like Aristotle’s “activity of the soul in conformity with excellence or virtue” and that in bene vivere consistit bene operari the Jesuit hears Aquinas hearkening back to Aristotle’s definition of eudaimonia or happiness as eu zen (living well) and eu prattein (doing well).

It’s unfortunate that Rickaby did not consult with his friend Gerard Manley Hopkins for a more felicitous phrase. The thing might at least have had some rhythm to it.

In any case, it was only a matter of time before someone tried to make things a little more natural sounding and came upon the word “show.” (I haven’t yet tracked him down, but I should.) That’s how we find Rickaby’s doublet reproduced (without comment) by creativity guru Julia Cameron in her book Walking In this World, in Forbes magazine’s “Thoughts on the Business of Life” feature, and on a whole batch of sites offering inspiring quotations to live by.

I wonder how Forbes readers or Cameron’s readers make sense of this sentence from the Summa, without the benefit of Aquinas’ explication. Do they find in it something like Garrison Keillor’s exhortation at the end of Writer’s Almanac to “do good work”? Or do meaningful work? Or do the work to which one is called? (Can we still talk meaningfully about vocation?) I wonder, too, whether it genuinely clarifies things for them, or why they might wish to identify with the statement and pretend to themselves and others that it clarifies things or inspires them.

This isn’t just a matter of being fussy or snobby about the misreading of Aquinas or deploring the degeneration of philosophy into a meme, though I do have that reflex, I confess. I’m noticing something else happening here, and it has to do with confusion that Rickaby’s doublet causes, or at least fails to resolve, for modern readers around the English word “work.”

Consider just for a moment the appearance of this sentence from the Summa in Cameron’s book on creativity. It hangs there in the margin on page 105, as a gloss on the following passage: “When we start saying ‘Can’t, because I’m working,’ our life starts to work again. We start to feel our artist begin to trust us again and to ante up more ideas.” We have to make room for “our artist,” who retreats when we are busy and over-scheduled, to come out and play. Then and only then will our life “work” again. That’s Cameron’s word, not mine; she’s saying that when we cordon off time for artistic work, our life “works” — makes sense or becomes meaningful again.

This idea of a life that works should bring us back into the territory of eudaimonia as human flourishing, or happy activity; the life of the working artist flows, but not because she acts in accordance with virtue, but because she takes measures to care for the self and allows “her artist,” or what used to be called her genius, to come forward without fear or interference. “We forget that we actually need a self for self expression,” Cameron continues, and that is why we have to say “no” to invitations and other demands on our time: “Instead of being coaxed into one more overextension of our energies in the name of helping others, we can help ourselves by coaxing our artist out with the promise of some protected time to be listened to, talked with, and interacted with.”

The notion of an artist abiding within us who needs to be drawn out and cared for and listened to would be entirely foreign to Aquinas and the Aristotelian ethics on which the Summa draws. That aside, I’m sympathetic to the argument Cameron is making here. Just recently I wrote admiringly of Ingmar Bergman’s “disciplined solitude,” and I know firsthand how hard and how critical it is to secure protected time in order to do one’s work. There’s that word again: work. Maybe it’s always been a confusing word, and maybe that’s why in the 19th century Rickaby felt he had to render it with that doublet. But I have to point out that the “work” of artists, writers, craftsmen, creative people — the work Cameron wants us to put aside time for so that our lives will start to work again — isn’t at all the work Aquinas is talking about at this juncture in the Summa.

In fact, Aquinas takes great pains in this part of the Summa to draw a sharp distinction between the work of the artist and the performance of action: following Aristotle, he distinguishes the artist’s making (facere) from doing (agere); and with this distinction in mind he defines art as “right reason about things to be made” and prudence as “right reason about things to be done.” So the considerations that apply to “working well” or prudent action do not apply to the artist’s work. “The good of an art is to be found, not in the craftsman, but in the product of the art.”

Consequently art does not require of the craftsman that his act be a good act, but that his work be good (ad artem non requiritur quod artifex bene operetur, sed quod bonum opus faciat)….the craftsman needs art, not that he may live well, but that he may produce a good work of art, and have it in good keeping: whereas prudence is necessary to man, that he may lead a good life (bene vivendum) and not merely that he may be a good man.

By the time we’ve gotten to Cameron’s book and its ideas about creativity, the quotation from the Summa has lost all connection to Aristotlelian ideas about “work” as virtuous action and the other-directed performance of duties (or what Aquinas calls the “due end” of action). Instead, the focus has shifted here entirely to the self and the demands of “self-expression.” What Father Rickaby called “the display of a good activity” is now sounding more like self-display. Through accidents of translation and misreading, the idea of work that Father Rickaby tried to capture in his doublet has drifted from an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence — or virtue — to what might amount to nothing more than the production of an elaborate selfie.