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Princeton University Press
Hollywood Highbrow: From Entertainment to Art

Hollywood Highbrow: From Entertainment to Art

by Shyon Baumann
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ISBN-13: 9780691125275
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 10/14/2007
Series: Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology , #30
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Shyon Baumann is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto.

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Hollywood Highbrow From Entertainment to Art

By Shyon Baumann Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2007
Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-12527-5

Chapter One Introduction: Drawing the Boundaries of Art

ALTHOUGH FILMS occupy a central place in American popular culture, that place is also, paradoxically, difficult to understand and characterize. Watching movies has been a major leisure and cultural activity for Americans for more than a hundred years. But for nearly the entire duration of their history, there has been an active debate about the movies and their merits. They have been criticized as dangerous, demeaning, dumb, and derivative, as regressive, blasphemous, sexist, racist, ageist, and ridiculous, among other things. But they have also been praised as enriching, enlightening, and enjoyable, as glorious, spectacular, ingenious, moving, and imaginative. Both the detractors and supporters of films have made their arguments well known.

The continuing disagreement concerning the place of films in American culture is a legacy of a number of monumental changes in the American film world over the last century. Some of these changes involve the methods of film production, while others involve the nature of the films themselves; still other changes involve the audiences for films. The primary subject of this book is the major historical change in the perception of films. By this I am not referring to revised opinions about particular films, though suchrevisions are also of interest. Instead, I mean the creation of an understanding of the medium of film as a legitimate and serious artistic medium, and of a body of film works as being legitimate and serious works of art. Moreover, in addition to this change in the perception of the medium of film, this book focuses more specifically on the changing perception of Hollywood films. Over time, a segment of the U.S. population developed and put forth a conventional (to them) understanding that many Hollywood films were serious works of art. This understanding stood in stark contrast to the prior conventional wisdom about the fundamental nature of Hollywood films, as a whole, as light entertainment.

It is thanks to this evolution in the perception of Hollywood films that we can now find among certain groups in society a willingness to intellectually engage with Hollywood films and to experience them as art. For example, the following paragraph led the review in the New Yorker for the film Mystic River:

Clint Eastwood has directed good movies in the past ("Unforgiven," "A Perfect World"), but he has never directed anything that haunts one's dreams the way "Mystic River" does. This extraordinary film, an outburst of tragic realism and grief, was shot in Catholic working-class Boston, a landscape of forlorn streets and brown shingle houses and battered cars. Yet there's nothing depressing about "Mystic River" as an experience of art. The movie has the bitter clarity and the heady exhilaration of new perceptions achieved after a long struggle, and one enjoys it not only for itself-it's fascinating from first shot to last-but as a breakthrough for Eastwood, who, at the age of seventy-three, may be just hitting his peak as a director. Based on a fine, scrupulous Dennis Lehane novel, "Mystic River" offers nothing less than a lucid detailing of malaise, a sense of fatality that slowly and stealthily expands its grasp throughout a community-a foul bloom taking over a garden. (Denby 2003:112)

Film critic David Denby was not alone in his praise for the film Mystic River, nor was he out of step with his approach to the film as a serious work of art. He was in agreement with many other film critics as well as with many audience members.

What makes this situation interesting historically, aesthetically, and sociologically is that there was a time when such a perspective would have been widely ridiculed by critics and public alike. Consider as examples the following passages. In a 1936 essay on the state of American films, William Allen White wrote about the place of movies in American society:

The best books, the best plays, the best music and the best poetry are written frankly for the discerning and the wise. The best in all other arts is conceived, produced, sold and lives or dies solely and with brutal frankness for the approval of the intelligent: in all the arts except in the movies. There, no artists, no directors, no writers, no theatres and no producers are set apart to please people of understanding. The Scarlet Muse of the silver screen sees only money, big money, quick money, the dirty money of her dupes.... [I]n all the movie world no place is provided where persons of wit or gumption may go to find screen entertainment that is directed at the discriminating. (White 1936:5-6)

In addition to its alleged lack of intelligence, the film industry was also condemned as the cause of American society's moral deterioration. "The movies today are the most important single destructive force in our civilization" (Freeman 1926:115, quoted in Beman 1931:86), claimed an author in the pages of Educational Review. It was the responsibility of art to ennoble. The movies, however, corrupted youth and molded society according to lascivious, shallow, vulgar, and materialistic standards and morals: "Socially pathological conditions are the result" (Young 1926:148), wrote one social scientist.

During the early decades of the twentieth century, there was a pervasive view of Hollywood resting near the bottom of a rigidly defined cultural hierarchy. Clearly, at some point the perception of Hollywood took a drastic turn. Understanding the reasons for this turn and its timing is the goal of this book.


The central argument of this book is that the legitimation of Hollywood film as art occurred mainly during the 1960s and was a process driven by three main factors. First, changes in American society over the course of the twentieth century opened up an opportunity space (DiMaggio 1992) in which an art world for film could develop. These changes occurred outside the field of film and include such social phenomena as the cultural consequences of the world wars and demographic, educational, and technological change within American society. The net effect of these developments was to create a social climate in which the cultural contradictions of film's claims to art were reduced and film going could be practiced as an act of artistic appreciation.

Second, change from within the Hollywood film world brought that world more closely in line with other, established art worlds. Some of the most significant changes were the institutionalization of resources dedicated to film as art, such as the establishment of film festivals, the creation of the field of film studies, and the participation of directors in activities that advanced their standing as artists. Other crucial developments involved the evolution in film production and consumption practices such as a shift away from the studio system of production to a director-centered system, the growth of art house theaters, and the relaxation of film censorship. As a result of these changes, the production, distribution, teaching, and consumption of Hollywood film came to bear many important similarities to those of other legitimate art worlds.

Third, the art world for Hollywood film needed intellectual viability, and this requirement was met through the creation of a discourse of film as art and disseminated through film reviews, which were invented shortly after the invention of the cinema itself. But early film reviews employed a discourse of film in which reviewers evaluated films based on their entertainment value. During the 1960s, however, film reviewers began to employ a discourse of film as art that was characterized by a vocabulary and a set of critical devices that provided a way to talk about film as a sophisticated and powerful form of artistic communication.

This explanation fits squarely within the sociological perspective on art that emphasizes the social and collective nature of artistic production and consumption. In this view, most strongly associated with the pioneering work of Howard Becker (1982), the place of cultural productions in society and their status as art are dependent on the development, to varying degrees of robustness, of an art world. That is not to say that the artistic content of cultural productions does not play a part-content does matter and not all cultural production can succeed as the basis for an art world. But it is also to say that the relative merits of cultural productions do not become the basis for assessing artistic status without the collective contribution of an art world. What this case study of Hollywood film adds to our understanding of art worlds is that their development is connected to the opportunities offered by the wider social context. Furthermore, although it is well understood that art worlds are organizational and institutional achievements, this case study demonstrates that they are also intellectual achievements. Because art is an intellectual field, there must be a set of ideas to explain and justify filmic productions as legitimate art. Film criticism, therefore, is a key to understanding how Hollywood films could be accepted as art.


Before we can go any further in answering the question of how Hollywood film became art, we first need to discuss the definition of art. No one has yet found a way to settle every dispute over this question. In some cases there is widespread agreement-classical music, Impressionist paintings, Italian opera. In many other cases there is disagreement, as with handcrafted pottery, rap music, and Broadway musicals. In each case, however, there is an absence of clear and precise principles for making a judgment, and no amount of consensus can hide that fact. Art, by its very nature as an essentially aesthetic construct, is difficult to define. This difficulty is reflected in legal rulings in free-speech cases. Art is a form of communication, and so must be protected as a form of speech. But obscenity is harmful, and communities deserve protection from it. Some photographs, literature, sculptures, and films contain material or messages that some people think are obscene. Who is to say which of these cultural products are art and which are not? As a defining principle "I know it when I see it" is clearly inadequate because we all see it differently.

In fact, we often leave decisions about what is art to "cultural experts"-critics, academics, and other intellectuals, granting them a certain amount of authority. However, they do not always agree with one another. Each group of critics can try to convince the other to see the matter as it does, but in the end, from a logical standpoint, there is no foolproof way to decide who is right. To further complicate matters, even in cases when critics do agree, there is no guarantee that the wider public will accept their judgment. Abstract art, for example, is clearly art in the minds of aestheticians and art critics. In the minds of many citizens, though, abstract art is fraudulent and worthless-it is painting, but it is not art. The question of how we decide what is art, then, becomes how cultural experts decide what is art, and why their judgments are accepted or resisted by the wider public.

Before we address this question for the case of Hollywood films, we need first to describe and understand exactly what film got transformed into. How do we understand the category of art? What makes art special and worthy of our admiration and of prestige? What is the definition of art?

This question has been debated by aestheticians for many centuries. The debate has generated a number of definitions, none of which, it turns out, has been free from devastating criticism. Nevertheless, we can gain some insight into the core concerns of art by reviewing the debate. An early definition was put forth by Leo Tolstoy (1995 [1898], p. 40) in one of his philosophical writings, What Is Art?: "Art is that human activity which consists in one man's consciously conveying to others, by certain external signs, the feelings he has experienced, and in others being infected by those feelings and also experiencing them." The communicative and emotional elements of art are clearly important, but they do not provide an airtight definition. For instance, Tolstoy's definition seems to exclude those works that would inspire in audience members emotions unintended by the artist. It would also exclude works that were never exhibited to an audience-it appears that the potential for communication is not sufficient for Tolstoy. Such exclusions do not seem to square with intuitive notions of what art is.

More recently, philosopher Stephen Davies (1991:1) has distinguished between definitions that highlight what art does ("functionalist" definitions) and those that highlight the process by which art is created ("procedural" definitions). As he puts it succinctly, "The functionalist believes that, necessarily, an artwork performs a function or functions (usually, that of providing a rewarding aesthetic experience) distinctive to art. By contrast, the proceduralist believes that an artwork necessarily is created in accordance with certain rules and procedures." To illustrate the difference, we can take the common reaction to the Sistine Chapel as the heart of the functionalist definition. The awe, admiration, and even reverence that it inspires in audiences are characteristic of art. Because it provides this function, it qualifies as art. The example par excellence of the proceduralist definition is Marcel Duchamp's Fountain. Submitting for exhibition a ready-made urinal as art in 1917, Duchamp upended artistic conventions about what art should be. The key to its status and the status of other pieces like it as art is that they "are created by artists or others who have earned the authority to confer art status; they are discussed by critics; they are presented within the context of the Art world as objects for (aesthetic/artistic) appreciation; they are discussed by art historians; and so forth" (41).

In addition to the philosophical approaches, the essence of art is variously claimed to be related to the biological aspects of its appreciation (see, e.g., Aiken 1998) and to psychological aspects of its appreciation (see, e.g., Arnheim 1986). The upshot of decades of work on nailing down a precise definition of art has been summarized by philosopher Nigel Warburton (2003:126): "We should probably stop wasting our time on the pursuit of some all-encompassing definition-there are better ways of spending a life, and the pursuit is almost certainly a futile one."

Lucky for us, we are not seeking to make a definitive statement on art as a category, nor are we seeking to make an airtight case that Hollywood films are art. Our task is much different. We begin with the fact that a certain body of American film work is widely recognized as legitimate art. Therefore, our understanding of art for the purposes of this book is that very same understanding put forth by the intellectuals and supporters of Hollywood films. Despite the fact that most films are considered entertainment, there is a body of Hollywood output that is consecrated on account of a set of characteristics that sets it apart as genuine art. Different film scholars have valorized Hollywood films for myriad reasons. In my reading of the literature, the perspective of those who have supported the view of Hollywood films as art can be characterized in the following way. What makes these films art is their beauty (in a purely aesthetic, and largely visual, sense); their innovation with or perfection of filmic conventions (dealing with all aspects of creation, such as editing, cinematography, art direction, screenwriting, acting, etc.); their communication of messages (advocating political views or philosophies of life, or raising questions); and their status as the expressive products of specific artists (mostly directors). They are art, therefore, because they succeed on one or more levels, concerning their aesthetic characteristics, their relationship to other films, their communicative dimension, or their place within a recognized oeuvre.


Excerpted from Hollywood Highbrow by Shyon Baumann
Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures ix

List of Tables xi

Acknowledgments xiii

CHAPTER 1: Introduction: Drawing the Boundaries of Art 1

The Central Argument 3

How Do We Know What Art Is? 4

American Film History 7

The Social Construction of Art 12

The Creation of Artistic Status: Opportunity, Institutions, and Ideology 14

Outline of the Chapters 18

CHAPTER 2: The Changing Opportunity Space: Developments in the Wider Social Context 21

The First World War and Urban-American Life: Two Disparate Influences on Film Attendance in Europe and the United States 23

Post-World War II Changes in the Size and Composition of American Film Audiences 32

Summary 51

CHAPTER 3: Change from Within: New Production and Consumption Practices 53

Film Festivals 54

Self-Promotion of Directors 59

Ties to Academia 66

United States, England, Germany, Italy, and France: Changes in the Industrial and Social History of Film 76

Purification through Venue: From Nickelodeons to Art Houses 88

Prestige Productions 92

The Ebb of Censorship and the Coming of Art 97

The Crisis of the 1960s Forced Hollywood down New Paths 105

Summary 108

CHAPTER 4: The Intellectualization of Film 111

Early U.S. Film Discourse 113

The Intellectualization of Film Reviews: 1925-1985 117

Film Reviews Approach Book Reviews: A Comparison with Literature 133

1960s Advertisements Incorporate Film Review 137

Foreign Film: A Pathway to High Art for Hollywood 148

Cultural Hierarchy, the Relevance of Critics, and the Status of Film as Art 155

Summary 159

CHAPTER 5: Mechanisms for Cultural Valuation 161

Why a Middlebrow Art? 163

Film Consumption as Cultural Capital 169

An Emphasis on Intellectualizing Discourse 171

Integration of Factors 173

The Study of Cultural Hierarchy 174

Notes 179

References 203

Index 217

What People are Saying About This


Hollywood Highbrow is a fine account of the process by which Americans came to view film as an art form. The book will be of great interest both to historians of film and to sociologists interested in how certain cultural products become respected and prestigious. Shyon Baumann is the first to address these issues broadly for the case of American film. He writes engagingly and the book is a good read.
Paul J. DiMaggio, Princeton University

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