In Defense of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (and Just a Little Bit, Commercialism)

Way back in 2011 I wrote a piece on the intersection of art and commercialism that's been a steady workhorse for me over the years, driving traffic to my blog, never in large numbers at a time, but a little here and a little there, and adding up to quite a bit. With the arrival of the new Star Wars, I thought it might be fun to check in on the topic again, specifically whether or not it's fair to dismiss Star Wars as less than art.

The short answer is: no.

Sure, it's made a gazillion bucks, and for that reason alone it's excusable to approach the film with a healthy dose of skepticism. After all, buck-making is a big deal on our side of the pond, and capitalism ensures the drive to make big bucks. But Star Wars isn't capitalism incarnate -- it's commercialism, and commercialism, by definition, needn't suck.

Think of commercialism as a sometimes (but not exclusively) "dirty" art; an art form fallen from the pure faith. Consider: there's creativity, and discipline. There's expression, communication, and emotion. There's also the sharing of experience between creator and consumer. Arguably the only things separating commercialism from so-called "high art" are:

  1. The number of creators behind the project.
  2. The intent for mass appeal.

But these points are both misleading. For instance, the number of musicians on stage producing a Beethoven symphony doesn't dilute the product. And what artist doesn't want to pack the house?

Enter LA Times' Michael Hiltzik, and this article in which he asserts Star Wars: The Force Awakens can't rightly even be called a movie.

The simple answer is that Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is not very good. It's professionally made in the sense that it displays an industrial level of Quality Control. But it's depressingly unimaginative and dull in long stretches, and -- crucially -- reproduces George Lucas' original 1977 movie slavishly almost to the point of plagiarism.

This isn't to say that it's not an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. If you're among the millions who plainly have done so, bless your heart. The issue, however, is whether The Force Awakens even deserves to be considered as a movie, because it's not. It's the anchoring element of a vast commercial program, painstakingly factory-made for maximal audience appeal, which means maximal inoffensiveness. The result tells us a lot about the state of entertainment today, and about the future of Hollywood.

Reading Hiltzek's criticism of Star Wars, I was struck by its lack of self-awareness, bless his heart. His issue with Star Wars, ostensibly, is that it's derivative. But there's a deeper argument being made that badly undercuts the first, and it goes like this: Commercialism isn't art. Commercialism, by definition, is crap. Commercialism, and the blockbuster specifically, is ruining Hollywood.

Now if this kind of criticism sounds familiar, it's because it is. To borrow from Hiltzek's own Star Wars review, his criticism reproduces hundreds of years of bad criticism, slavishly, almost to the point of plagiarism.

Everyone say it with me, one more time: commercial appeal is not synonymous with low-quality art.

Commercial appeal simply means a thing is popular. The problem comes when one tries to assert that commercialism is by definition "not art." That's what's known as a good old fashioned fallacy by extension. (And if you're new to this debate, let me introduce you to a guy named Andy Warhol.) But let's consider the other point -- the "slavish" reproduction of Lucas' original.

The Star Wars saga has always been about the Skywalker family. Its intent is to tell a generational story. It's in the DNA of the piece -- the sonata allegro form, if you will. Of course it's derivative of itself. Mix one Skywalker family soap opera, one superweapon threat, some Force mumbo-jumbo and a few lightsabers, and: boom! You've got a Star Wars movie.

(Sorry LA Times, I meant to write, Star Wars "anchoring element of a vast commercial program, painstakingly factory-made for maximal audience appeal, which means maximal inoffensiveness." But jeez, that's a mouthful -- can we just admit it's a movie now?)

Let's cut the crap. The movie is a media darling. Critics are largely delighted for the fresh blood, as evidenced by its oh-so-coveted Rotten Tomato score. So what gives with the LA Times thing? I should think it's obvious; some folks won't be happy until popular art strives to be "high art," no exceptions. And no, I don't believe them when they say, "It doesn't have to be 'high art,' it just has to be [insert something else, anything else]. That's a non-argument. Constructive criticism is evaluating a piece for what it is -- not what you want it to be. If your argument is we can't call a movie a movie, you've essentially tossed reason out the window.

But wait -- it gets worse.

Criticism of this kind isn't just annoying, it's harmful -- it damages the perception of high art in general. And there's an important place for high art in our society, arguably now more than ever. High art elevates human experience. High art is set above the average fare for good reason -- it's set above by virtue of how damn good it is. Period.

And it ain't easy to produce. What's more, it pays shit, and, in any given audience, at any given time, a sizeable portion of the consumer isn't capable of even giving a damn. Maybe they're tired. Maybe they're under the weather -- I don't know. But anyone who has served their time in the arts sector knows what I'm talking about. That fat cat who'd rather write a check to the New York Phil than be forced to sit through a concert. The guy in the third row who thought it was cool to leave his cellphone on while Daniel Barenboim was conducting Mahler. The world is full of people like this, and I don't say that to judge, I say that to speak to the balance of power between performer and consumer in the realm of art.

What percentage of people who came to hear Bruckner (bad example?) will leave the hall invigorated by the experience? Does the LA Philharmonic -- which seems by all accounts to be a vibrant organization -- command the same visceral response from its patrons as My Chemical Romance? Is that a bad comparison? You tell me.

Point is, popular art asks very little of its consumer, while high art asks a lot. For most average folks, Art with a capital A tastes like medicine. This isn't news.

Enter the critic. Having established that it's hard enough for the average consumer to "appreciate" that low budget art-house film, (and let's not hold back -- let's say the goal is to really appreciate) now the critic wants to "snob" me into seeing it? What does s/he suppose my disposition will be, going in?

Fact is, snobby critics drive audiences away from the very art form they claim to cherish. No one fun wants to hang out with a snob -- not even other snobs. And why would they? Snobs don't enjoy much of anything. Nothing's ever good enough for a snob. The wine is never the right vintage, the risotto always sucks, and there's always something nearly detectably wrong with everything. Snobs are the spoiled brats of the art world. Is it any wonder that Hollywood gives us 99 percent superheroes and lightsabers and one percent art-house films?

If you're a snob, and you truly care about the arts, it's time you recognized that the arts are all one big family. There's nothing wrong with having good taste. There's nothing wrong criticizing popular art. Star Wars, Adele, James Patterson -- you name it. Chop away at plot holes, bad intonation, or hired help writing novels with your name on it -- have at it. But there is something wrong with the brand of criticism that says: this book ain't a book, this album ain't an album, and this movie ain't a movie. That's the definition of intellectual dishonesty -- and it ain't furthering your cause.

Oh -- and Adele, if you're reading -- hello.