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Accessibility and Greatness in Art and Filmmaking

Jazzalo​ha

over 3 years ago

A good friend and I frequently have this debate about the qualities of a great work of art. He feels that accessibilty is a key criteria for greatness. By “accessibilty” he means that the nature of the work is such that many people can appreciate the work of art. In contrast, inaccessibility would mean that the nature of the work—either its subject or style—would result in smaller numbers of people appreciating the work in question.
Furthermore, let me be clear that my friend assumes that the work in question is of a high quality—so this would rule out the art that is accessible because it appeals to the lowest common demoninator.

The example he likes to use is Rober Frost. He recounts a film he saw on Frost where a bunch of farmers recite Frost’s poetry and talk about how meaningful the poetry is to them. Frost’s poety is great because of it’s content and style, but the fact that it can reach and touch so many people makes it even greater to my friend. I see what he’s saying, but I have a hard time swallowing this because that would mean that any artist dealing with difficult subject matter or possessing a more difficult style (say an avant-garde approach versus a more narrative based one) would automatically be a lesser artist than those that do not. So, a Kurosawa would be a greater artist than a Godard or Tarkovsky for example because the former is accessible while the latter are not.

What say you?

Rissela​da

-moderator-
over 3 years ago

If greatness is subjective, then naturally more people would say that an accessible work is great because that’s the definition of the word “accessibility”

Dennis...Brian

over 3 years ago

timelessness needs some sort of accessibility, not sure timeless and great are the same thing though.

Jazzalo​ha

over 3 years ago

@Risselada

Let’s put aside what the masses would say or what the consensus would be about great films for a moment. When you assess greatness, do you factor in a film’s accessibilty?

@Den

What do you mean by, "
timelessness needs some sort of accessibility,…."

Matt Parks

over 3 years ago

There’s something to be said for accessibility, but I don’t think it has to be a feature of greatness. Frost is great, but so is Hart Crane.

Malik

over 3 years ago

I don’t think we should automatically equate ‘accessibility’ with ‘lowest common denominator’ as I’m sure many will do. I wouldn’t say it’s the sole indicator, or even a necessary indicator, that something or someone is a great artist. Obviously all subjects and styles won’t appeal to the same amount of people, however there is merit in the idea that something is a piece of great art because it’s able to touch a, subjectively, large amount of people.

Dennis...Brian

over 3 years ago

I mean in order for the thing to stand the test of time and never be out of print or rotation
it needs acessibility

Jazzalo​ha

over 3 years ago

@Matt and Malik

But here’s the question: should we consider a work greater if it touches more people? Let’s say we have two films of exceptionally high quality, but one is able to touch more people (perhaps because the form and style and subject matter make it more accessible) than the other. Is the former somehow superior work of art? This is sort of my friend’s position.

@Den

OK, I understand. You’re saying that timelessness is a significant part of greatness; therefore, accessibility must be linked to greatness because something can’t be timelessness (it must be in print) must be accessible.

I don’t know if I agree with that because I’m thinking of accessibility in terms of the film’s style and content. For example, Tarkvosky’s Mirror is pretty inaccessible compared to Singin’ in the Rain. Yet, “difficult” films like MIrror can still stay in print, etc.

Malik

over 3 years ago

No.

Jazzalo​ha

over 3 years ago

@Malik

Well, let me play devil’s advocate. If you can convey truth and beauty—move a lot of people, without compromising your art—isn’t that somehow a greater achievement than making art, by it’s nature, will only impact on a small audience. Isn’t it a greater achievement to provide good art that can reach the common person versus art that only intellectuals and sophisticated individuals can appreciate? (And no one word answers allowed, young man. :)

Matt Parks

over 3 years ago

Assuming two hypothetically otherwise exactly equal films? I think I’d say yes, if one is more accessible it could be argued that it’s the greater film. Depends on if you’re defining “great” as public or private, though.

Jazzalo​ha

over 3 years ago

@Matt

_
Assuming two hypothetically otherwise exactly equal films? I think I’d say yes, if one is more accessible it could be argued that it’s the greater film. Depends on if you’re defining “great” as public or private, though._

Well, that is sort of the situation. By “exactly equal” I’m only talking about .the quality of the films. So they might not be about the same things or presented in the same (or similar) way. (By “private”/“public” do you mean subjective/objective?)

Matt Parks

over 3 years ago

-by “private”/“public” do you mean subjective/objective-

Pretty much. If someone thinks that “greatness” is purely a matter of their own subjective impressions than there’s no point in worrying about its relation to other people.

Jazzalo​ha

over 3 years ago

@Matt

So if we’re talking about a "public’ definition of great, the film that reaches more people would be considered superior? Let’s say the two films are something like Citizen Kane and 8 1/2 , assuming CK reaches more people than 8 1/2.

Eric Beltman​n

over 3 years ago

Why can’t an artist knowingly target a limited audience? There is no correlation between the size of a work’s audience and the size of its power for those targeted few.

Jirin

over 3 years ago

Greatness and accessibility are orthogonal factors.

Malik

over 3 years ago

It’s a greater achievement yes. That doesn’t make it better art however.

Matt Parks

over 3 years ago

-So if we’re talking about a "public’ definition of great, the film that reaches more people would be considered superior?-

Right.

LEAVES

over 3 years ago

My god. If I were to dream up the most inane topic possible, and then make it worse, this would be it.

Also, it’s about semantics. Hilarious.

Here’s the answer:

Greatness does not inherently have anything to do with popularity. If you want it to have something to do with popularity, then you can present the word in that context. That’s it. Period. By contextualizing words you can use them in any way you want. What is important is expressing what you mean, not a discussion about whether some word means something or another. Provide context and the words will mean what you establish them to mean. Stop worrying about semantics.

Here’s the important question:

IF a film is greater because it is more accessible, does greatness matter?

No.

Matt Parks

over 3 years ago

-Greatness does not inherently have anything to do with popularity.-

So there are great works out there that NOBODY likes?

Jazzalo​ha

over 3 years ago

@ Jirin

Greatness and accessibility are orthogonal factors.

Orthogonal? (I’m too lazy to look this up.)

@Eric

Why can’t an artist knowingly target a limited audience? There is no correlation between the size of a work’s audience and the size of its power for those targeted few.

Well, I hear you. But do you see a difference between an artist knowing that her style and/or content will only interest and be accessible to a small audience and an artist who intentionally chooses to target a smaller audience? In the former case, the artist may want as large an audience as possible, but she realizes that realistically only a few people may be able to appreciate and/or have an interest in the work. For example, if a filmmaker decides to make a film using a non-narrative approach, the filmmaker may recognize this will limit the size of her audience. At the same time, she would love to reach a wider audience.

In the other case, the artist intentionally wants to reach a smaller audience. Now, if that film resonates with an audience larger than the targeted one, then that’s a sign of the film’s artistry and power. However, if it only resonates with the smaller, targeted audience, I have a harder time saying this film is a lesser work of art.

On the other hand, the rational for my friend (I think) is that the more people the film impacts the more universal it is and the more universal a film or work of art the better it is. How would you respond?

@Malik

It’s a greater achievement yes. That doesn’t make it better art however.

But why not?

@Matt

Suppose the artist intended a small audience. For example, say I made a film that involved the contemporary culture of Hawai’i and made a lot of references to history and politics of Hawai’i—so much so that people unfamiliar with these things would have difficulty relating to the film. Now if it an audience outside Hawai’i responded positively to the film that would be something, but if it didn’t—i.e. only Hawai’i people loved it—would that make it a lesser work of art?

Or suppose I was an experimental or avant-garde filmmaker. Let’s say I made a film about something truly profound and suppose that the way I conveyed this was artistically wonderful. But because of the avant-garde nature of the film, only a small audience appreciated it. Is this film lesser than a more conventional film that a lot of people love?

I guess, I could agree that the film that reached a wider audience was superior if both films were dealing with the same subject.

Mike Spence

over 3 years ago

Yes to Matt, but I can’t prove it because if I name one it negates my argument:)

Isn’t this the old “if a tree falls…” question? If a film is made in a tiny country with a unique language only a few people speak and you happen to somehow see it, with subs, and it’s amazing, why would you consider it less amazing because only the few people who speak that language and lucky people like yourself have seen it?

If you think that’s a silly comparison, because your query assumes that the film in question is not inaccessible because of any language barrier than you’re forgetting that there is such a thing as art-speech. Cassavetian is its own language and it took a while for most of the supposedly art-loving world to learn how to speak it. The simpler art-languages such as Spielbergian aren’t greater because everyone speaks them.

LEAVES

over 3 years ago

So there are great works out there that NOBODY likes?

Since the term is inherently subjective, no. But my statement didn’t imply that there was. Accessibility is not a measure of whether one or each person likes a film.

And, yes, the paradox arises because of the paradoxical use of the word ‘great’ as something not determined subjectively but aggregately. This is how paradoxes arise, by semantics. Semantics semantics semantics. You’re all wasting words on semantics.

Suppose the artist intended a small audience.

hahaha oh god

The filmmaker is not at fault for the idiocy of the masses.

Now if it an audience outside Hawai’i responded positively to the film that would be something, but if it didn’t—i.e. only Hawai’i people loved it—would that make it a lesser work of art?

Define lesser. The definition will answer your question. Semantics. Stop.

I guess, I could agree that the film that reached a wider audience was superior if both films were dealing with the same subject.

This is fucking horrific.

odilonvert

over 3 years ago

Cassavetian and Spielbergian — love it!

“So there are great works out there that NOBODY likes?” — works created by the ultimate misanthrope, right? :)

odilonvert

over 3 years ago

Honestly, I think the question about accessibility is related more to the issue of form than message. Can there be a film that is “difficult” but has an enduring message? Yes. Can there be a film that is accessible and does NOT have an enduring message? Yes.

Jazzalo​ha

over 3 years ago

@Mike

I like your example. But let me ask a question about this:

Cassavetian is its own language and it took a while for most of the supposedly art-loving world to learn how to speak it. The simpler art-languages such as Spielbergian aren’t greater because everyone speaks them.

But suppose both “languages” were used to convey the same content and one reached a wider audience and the other didn’t because the former was more difficult, while the latter was easier. Assuming that both languages were equal artistically speaking, could we not say that the easier language was superior?

@Odi

Honestly, I think the question about accessibility is related more to the issue of form than message. Can there be a film that is “difficult” but has an enduring message? Yes. Can there be a film that is accessible and does NOT have an enduring message? Yes.

Right. But what if the “message” were incredibly dark and unpleasant. Suppose the message was the following: lower classes living in deplorable conditions is needed to sustain the middle and upper classes. (Maybe that’s not dark enough. How about this: everyone has the potential to be a homosexual; that homosexual tendencies are a part of our sexual drive. Even if an accessible message were used to present this “message,” I think the message would be so dark and unpleasant that we could describe that message as “inaccessible.” Or do you disagree with that?

odilonvert

over 3 years ago

Well no, I don’t think an enduring message has anything to do with being agreeable. The story of Medea, a woman who kills her children, is alive and well. People still do that. We have light and dark, that’s the truth. And it applies through centuries. We all have the ability to be murderers. There can’t be a darker message than that.

Medea is pretty straightforward about its subject matter. Another artist could come along and make it less straightforward in their work, which would appeal to someone’s curiosity and make someone else impatient and walk away. Hence, form, not message, is the issue I think you’re concerned about. The more accessible work with the same dark message will appeal to a larger audience, and the second more “difficult” work with the same dark message will appeal to a smaller — but the message for both is still enduring, and still powerful, no matter what.

Am I making sense?

Jazzalo​ha

over 3 years ago

@Odi

Yes, you’re making sense (or at least I think I understand what you’re saying. :) It sounds like you’re disagreeing with me, specifically that accessibility refers primarily to form, non content—i.e. a work of art is not inaccessible because of a difficult subject matter. The reason I use the term to refer to disturbing content is because I think difficult content can limit the audience. Medea is not hard to understand (never saw or read it), but the unpleasant nature of the subject may prevent people from seeing it. Something like Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible is similar.

If a film attracts a smaller audience because of its content, does that make it a lesser film? (I’d say no.)

@Mike

You said, “Isn’t this the old “if a tree falls…” question? If a film is made in a tiny country with a unique language only a few people speak and you happen to somehow see it, with subs, and it’s amazing, why would you consider it less amazing because only the few people who speak that language and lucky people like yourself have seen it?”

Yes, this part resonates with me (getting out of my devil’s advocate role). Suppose we agreed that this film far surpassed any other film we could think of. We would have to say it was great, right? The fact that it was made in an obscure language seems like a superficial reason to say the film has less artistic merit (i.e. less great) than other great films. We should evaluate a film (or work of art) on its own terms. Whether a lot of people love that film or not; whether the film is influential, should be secondary considerations, right? Well, that’s sort of how I feel, personally.

On the other hand, the extent to which a film (or work of art) is deemed important by a lot of people—because it resonates with many people; influences other filmmakers, films and artists; or influences the larger society and culture—is also an indicator of greatness, too. I guess my position right now is that these other factors are secondary.

Fraser-​Orr

over 3 years ago

Jazz: But suppose both “languages” were used to convey the same content and one reached a wider audience and the other didn’t because the former was more difficult, while the latter was easier.

This supposition is made on false grounds. I’ve said it before on these forums and I’m sure I’ll say it again: form is content, “language” is content, the style is the message, what is being said and how it is said are tied up together. You can’t change the style without changing the philosophy a film is putting forth.

Part of the point of Cassavetes’ films is that the characters are hard to understand, moments are confusing, it’s at times impossible to tell who’s right and who’s wrong, there are no easy answers. You know, like real life. If Speilberg remade Woman Under the Influence or Faces all of these difficulties would be removed, and the fundamental point of the films would vanish.

Matt Parks

over 3 years ago

-Suppose the artist intended a small audience . . . -

I think you have to contextualize your definition of “accessible” to suit the realities of the situation. I’m using “accessible” to mean that the work is comprehensible to a large portion of its intended audience, not strictly in the sense that a large number of people have access to it (which, obviously, can be influenced by factors that have nothing to do with the work itself).