[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on March 9.]
Usually, I just check the internet to see which films won which Oscars. I don’t really have any strong desire to hear the rich and famous pontificate, posture, and “use their platform” to push this or that cause. I have nothing against them doing so; I just don’t want to watch it. This sort of exhibitionism has been given the name “virtue-signaling,” in virtue of the tendency to show how much more virtuous one is than some other one who has not shown the same virtues he or she holds up as virtuous.
But: those who seem to be most vehemently against this form of signaling one’s virtue are not quite as virtuous as they suppose themselves to be. In reference to movies, short-handed as “Hollywood,” they will say things like, “This is why I don’t go to movies!” Or they will talk about the cesspool of Hollywood and its filmmakers, and decry the immorality of it all (of which, of course, there is enough to provide a rich tableau of examples).
“Hollywood,” however, is no more univocal than any other segment of culture, popular or otherwise. Of course there’s trash. Of course there’s immorality, at least from a Christian’s point of view. There’s gratuitous (a strange word for it, with its connotations of grace) violence and sex, with which the film could clearly do without and be no less rich—if it is indeed rich. But music and books are no less subject to the inundation of trash. The point cannot be that Hollywood (as synecdoche for filmmaking) produces immoral things or low-quality things, since that is true of anything else that people produce. Hypocrisy and double-speak is no more endemic to Hollywood than it is to any other class of people engaged in the same kind of work.
And this, also, means that filmmakers, like authors and musicians and other artists, are no less or more qualified to offer their opinions on the various issues of the day—nor are they less or more qualified than the masses of people who cheer or decry them. A thing, a person, a work of art has to be judged by some standard of merit, according to its (his/her) own merits, and not according to its place in some group or category. The standard by which one judges, at least as far as a narrative goes, is probably what needs to be explicitly stated. No universal standard—even if a person believes that there is indeed such a standard—is universally accepted; hence the inability even to understand one another when we (culturally or societally or politically) converse.
I would say that one of the most damaging things a piece of “art” can do is align itself explicitly with a group, or a cause, or an identity. Then it shades into propaganda. I don’t mean that art of whatever sort can’t have a point. But it (I’m thinking of film here) had better be within a good and well-told story, believable as an account of the way things are (though such accounts can be given through absurdity and surreality), rather than transparently an attempt to “move” a “narrative” forward, or effect change in some way or another. To use art forms in such a way is, to me, the definition of bad art. You’re only convincing those who already think like you and isn’t that the definition of “virtue-signaling”? The more one has to signal something, the more unbelievable that something proves itself to be.
All of this is to say that people are free to make or watch (or create or write or view or read) anything they want. That seems self-evident to me. Which means that if some piece of art is clearly propagandizing against something I hold dear, or doesn’t ring true to the thing it aims to criticize, I don’t have a lot of time for it. I’m not going to obsess over it, look for a place to hide from it, or rail against it. I’ll simply ignore it. I’m under no illusions that everyone who creates something will agree with me. Nor do I think that because some people working in an art form create trash, that everything associated with it (in this case, film) is trash.
And this gets to the wider problem of the polarity in our culture. Something must be this or it must be that. It is either completely good or completely bad, entirely true or entirely false. There is a desire for an unachievable purity that infects everything. I see it in the Church, when certain authors are off-limits (in the eyes of some) because they don’t—apparently—get “enough” right. (Perhaps such critics need to produce their own Syllabus of Errors so everyone can know what is acceptable to read and what isn’t. Again, not that there isn’t bad theology, but the way to deal with bad theology is to teach good theology—which contains its own critique—not censor the bad.) I see it from the “moral” right when an entire form of art is criticized because some people create trash. And I see it from the illiberal left when they refuse any criticism or deny everything but full, immediate, and loudly declared support for the cause du jour.
Nuance does not exist; no one can (or wants to) follow an actual argument for or against; no one seems capable of reading beyond a headline or listening past a soundbite. None of this is good for any kind of art, and none of it creates any sympathy or furthers understanding (which is the stated goal of much of this sort of thing).
So give me a good story, a human story, a lived-experience story, and allow me to reflect on what is true and false about the story from my perspective. Don’t sentimentalize or attempt to manufacture some kind of feeling. Let the story do its work, and let it stand or fall on its own merits or virtues, not on some perceived need to join a cause or support an agenda, whether left, right, religious, or secular.