Next time you see a film produced by the contemporary corporate progeny of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, be sure to read the Latin phrase above the roaring lion's head: ars gratia artis—translated as "art for art's sake." This enduring manifestation of Hollywood kitsch—what you can't understand must be classy—is all the more exotic in that MGM always made its films for money's sake. And yet the phrase reveals a peculiar tendency of film executives, both past and present, to inject respectability into their mainly mercenary ventures by claiming artistry and good taste.
Taste and commerce have long had a difficult relationship. No cultural High Mass reveals this better than the annual Academy Awards ceremony, in which a small coterie of Hollywood film people congratulates, mostly, a small coterie of Hollywood film people. Every year one hears the customary moaning that it is the expensive productions that win the awards, while the smaller, independently produced films are left picking up, at best, soon-forgotten Oscar nominations. The implicit assumption is that commerce undermines art, so the pocket-sized films shot on paltry budgets by directors whose names no one can pronounce are good, while ostentatious super-productions are vulgarity incarnate.
Obviously the problem is elsewhere. A mountain of money won't save a badly scripted, indifferently directed film. Nor can hell be quite as well approximated as that tranquil, intimate oeuvre by the hot new Manhattan-based Mongolian director who refuses to sell out to Hollywood by cutting down his six-hour meditation on yaks to a mere four hours. Yet as Salman Rushdie suggested recently in the New York Times, a crop of new and popular international films, most notably Ang Lee's "shoestring" $15 million epic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, might take U.S. viewers back to the days when they could "accept subtitled foreign films in the giant cineplexes where the big money is made." Crouching Tiger, which took home an Oscar for best foreign film, has certainly made big money: The film has already grossed well over $100 million in American theaters and is still going strong.
What Rushdie implied was that the public would go for taste. Indeed, but just how the public defines what is tasteful, and through what means, has changed considerably over time. Gone are the days when critics and intellectual gatekeepers had an overpowering influence over the public's artistic preferences. Part of the reason is that such figures no longer have a commanding hold on status; in the case of movies, nobody really cares what latter-day Pauline Kaels and Bosley Crowthers have to say. At a time of Internet and satellite communications—in other words, in an age of choice—the public can easily circumvent tastemakers, deal directly with like-minded consumers, and set down subjective guidelines for what they like and dislike in films and other art forms.
Which brings us back to commerce and art. While Crouching Tiger was indeed fine fare, its success had nothing to do with its purported similarity to the art-house films favored by the critics decades ago. Its success came from Lee's ability to read what the market demanded and to fulfill this demand by crafting a Kung Fu fantasy that abided by the infallible rules of commercially successful popular narratives. That he did so while managing to leave behind a piece of himself was all the more commendable. In the end, the public enjoyed Crouching Tiger instinctively, not according to supposedly objective artistic criteria set down by critics who spent several years hacking through impenetrable Amazonian lianas of film theory.
But is that enough? Commerce and art have in fact often been complementary. For example, the creative genius of Renaissance art, despite the aesthetically weighed spin critics have deployed to explain it, was primarily the result of an expansion in commerce that made art consumers (then mostly the upper crust) wealthy and eager to own a larger number of more varied paintings. This, in turn, prompted painters to innovate in order to compete for customers, with success bringing wealth and social status. As historian Lisa Jardine has noted, a Renaissance painter's reputation did not rest "on some intrinsic criteria of intellectual worth," but on market appeal. (See "Buying Into Culture," June 1998.)
So the market can produce quality, but isn't there something irritating, some will protest, in the arrogant way with which Hollywood carries itself? Isn't there something indecent in those astronomical film budgets that provide individual movie stars with more money than most of us could hope to steal in several lifetimes? The first comment is irrelevant, since success belies irritation, while the second is misguided, since the market is impatient with morality. The fact is that Hollywood, for all its flamboyance, is remarkably democratic: If the public doesn't like a film, it avoids watching it. Nor are film budgets in the U.S. paid out of the public's pocket, as they often are in other supposedly more enlightened countries. If Julia Roberts can pout her way to fortune, then it means that she can bring in a great deal more money than the fees she demands.
It is forgotten that Hollywood became what it is, or was, because it had vast reserves of money to throw around. The old studio system was extravagant, but it allowed Hollywood to collect a farrago of the finest directors and actors ever. It was also—as profitable undertakings inevitably are—ecumenical in its voracity, importing regiments of talented foreigners, from Jean Renoir to Alfred Hitchcock to Greta Garbo to Luis Bunuel to Fritz Lang to, well, Ang Lee—the list is endless. Commerce brought these people to the U.S., allowing them to make great films and bad. Money and competition made them ever more innovative. It was art for money's sake. Or better still, money for art's sake.