American culture is innovation and creativity. We need to invest more in it.
Unfortunately, “Hollywood”, that once producer of great art in a bold, new, immersive format, has become The Hollywood Machine.
Evidence of this is everywhere.
The situation has become so bad that Disney, which owns the rights to the Star Wars franchise now, won’t cede full artistic control to George Lucas.
The mind boggles, but you can kind of see their thinking: With so much money on the line, trusting a project of that size to the sole judgement of a single person would be insane.
What if they get it wrong?
And that’s why great art isn’t coming out of Hollywood right now.
There is no making great art without risking failure.
That’s why blockbusters aren’t the Hollywood gold standard anymore, first-run releases can be streamed in your home for $20, and nothing could drive audiences to the movie theaters in the their old numbers.
Not even blockbusters featuring every major star of the past decade packs them in the aisles anymore. Two decades ago, any one of those actors would have filled theaters with avid movie goers all summer long.
No more. The thrill is gone.
Movie executives, producers, committees of financiers, show runners; everyone in Hollywood needs to sign off on so many aspects of a project now. They aren’t making movies anymore. They are making extended press releases created by marketing and approved by legal, with input from major corporate sponsors about product placement and merchandising.
The result is about as compelling as the side of a lunchbox, and our growing apathy towards the movies reflects that change.
There is no reward in art without risk. Art without risk is boring. It means never breaking the rules, never pushing the envelope, never experimenting.
And no, Hollywood: Increasing the levels of hyperrealistic violence and gratuitous sex is not “pushing the envelope”. It is merely responding to a market where violence and sex has historically meant larger and larger audiences.
Risk in movie making has been destroyed by the demands of The Hollywood Machine. A remake, retread, sequel, or if all else fails, another superhero movie, is the safer bet.
Risk alienating audiences with something they’ve never seen before and might not like? What- and disappoint the investors?
Problem is, art without risk just doesn’t exist. Even the greatest artistic geniuses who have ever lived weren’t batting a thousand.
“I have offended God and mankind,” said Leonardo Da Vinci as he lay dying, speaking his final words on this earth, “because my work never reached the level it should have.”
His dying words.
And as every art student knows, Da Vinci only painted the Sistine Chapel for money. His real passion was sculpting.
That’s artists for you.
Rappers want to make a gospel album. Garth Brooks wants to cosplay as a brooding complaint rock star. A bona-fide popular hit maker chooses some experimental, prog-rock project for his third album and it’s a complete disaster.
Michael Jordan wastes his time playing baseball.
Art isn’t a project. It isn’t an investment. It’s lightning in a bottle, something from nothing. Like all life on this planet, it really shouldn’t exist.
But here it is. Humankind has produced fine art, poetry, music, feats of engineering, spectacular displays of athleticism, art-like in its intensity and glory. America has contributed mightily, with things like electricity, television and jazz music.
And Hollywood. But movie producers aren’t starting with a great story, anymore; they aren’t interested in the muse. They aren’t starting with compelling characters like a stodgy professor moonlighting as a swashbuckling tomb-robbing archeologist.
“Let’s make a new Indiana Jones movie,” one movie executive says to another.
“Ok,” his compatriot answers. “What exactly did everyone really like so much about the old movies? Let’s do that.”
And they’re off to the races.
What we get, on those lovely big screens, in surround sound, with every cool special effect under the sun, is a tired, stilted, overworked, retread as interesting as stale popcorn.
Making great art isn’t like the monkey bars- where you don’t let go of the last rung until you have a firm grip on the next, the process is orderly, and almost anyone can do it, if they work at it.
Making great art is like the trapeze.
You have to fly through the air- launch yourself into the sky with every ounce of strength and nerve you can muster. It takes guts, faith, falling, grit, help, training, failure, plus a lot of hard work, the process is anything but orderly, and almost no one can do it.
Not because making art is so hard. Because deciding to make art is hard. Believing you can make art is hard. Trying, and failing, to achieve an artistic vision is hard.
Failing is very hard.
Why would anyone choose a thankless, low-paying job with so little chance of success? When lawyering, or engineering, or party planning is so much more sensible and lucrative?
We’ve been trained to respond to punishment and reward. We’ve been conditioned to expect positive reinforcements like good grades, awards, raises, higher returns.
Art is a career without any of those things.
If you choose art as a career, most of what you will make, for a long time, will be complete crap. Even when you stop making crap all the time, crap will still rear its ugly head, and often.
Your first album might be a walloping successes-and people will say it came overnight, though you’d been touring and playing in dive bars for five years. Then your second album will be a total flop and you might spend decades in obscurity.
You might never make anything good- and that’s the scariest thing of all.
That’s why more people don’t become artists. They want to write, paint, draw, sculpt, invent, tinker; but the fear of failure, and the need for financial security, prevents them.
Thing is, we need all that bad art- plus mediocre art, middling art, decent art, so-so art, just ok art, reasonably good art- to get spectacular art.
There is no spectacular art with a great deal of passing fair art. But the other side of the equation is true, too: There is no passing fair art without a certain amount of truly spectacular art emerging.
Universal public income is simple; more artists, more art, more great art.
Great art, even decent art, adds a great deal to our GDP, and it could add even more.
Hollywood is what happens when art becomes too dependent on money.
The art and innovation we currently enjoy doesn’t represent the best artists and inventors who have ever lived in America. We are seeing the best business people, those with the skills to market themselves.
The rest of America’s creative potential remains untapped.
Universal public income could change all that. Either you believe the U.S. is a nation filled with hard-working creative innovators- or you don’t.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)