Media must award innovation, not fall back on safe choices

Ruth Scherr Mar 5, 2017
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There is a problem with the Oscars. It is not that so-and-so should have won this, or someone shouldn’t have won that, or even that the idea of a ceremony where one piece of art is ranked above all the rest is fundamentally flawed because the worth of art is entirely subjective and depends upon the person experiencing that art. The real problem with the Oscars stems from their branding.

The Academy holds itself up as a gatekeeping institution that dictates what “good art” (or “good film”) is. Trying to definitively decide what art is valuable or worthy of attention is, again, inherently flawed, but if you’re going to set yourself up as an arbiter of culture anyway, then you are making yourself responsible for the cultural zeitgeist, or the most prominent cultural ideas of a society.Oscar winners are what the Academy holds up as meaningful art. An institution of the Academy’s intended influence calling something meaningful art tells the world that the message of that film is worth listening to. Even if they did not want to, it is impossible for them to pick a film that has no message because everything created by human hands sends a message.

Art for the simple sake of entertainment and no message has a right to exist as much as any other art — but the fact is it doesn’t exist at all. Even if a film is a stupid comedy movie that is just there to make people laugh or to make money, that film still has a message. It’s still saying something. No creator can control what people think about their art — they can try really, really hard, but once it’s out in the world it’s out of their hands. The author may not be dead, and they may even still be influential, but they aren’t God. The only way to control what an audience thinks about a piece of art is to never give it to an audience.

The only person who decides what message you take from a film is you. (This is a moot point anyway, because the Academy has always painted themselves as arbiters of culture, and thus whatever film wins Best Picture as culturally relevant).

The media we consume has a significant impact on who we are. Study after study has shown that when people who experience media with sympathetic portrayals of people “different” from them learn to empathize more with that group of people.

Empathy is a crucial part of how we relate to other human beings. Bigotry and hate come from a lack of understanding and demonization of the “other”, but also from a lack of empathy. Art that asks us — that challenges us — to empathize with characters different than the straight, white male “default” moves our society towards being more empathetic and understanding. One film may only move us a tiny fraction of step, but the more empathetic art we create and honor, the closer we get.

The problem with the Oscars is not the Best Picture mishap. (Although it has had the repercussion of forcing Moonlight, a radical film about an extremely marginalized group, to share its stage with La La Land, a film that is decidedly not that.) The problem is not even that everyone thought La La Land was going to win.
The problem is that, based on the history of the Oscars, La La Land was the best bet. Before this year, five of six Best Picture winners in the 2010s were movies about filmmaking or filmmakers. (The King’s Speech and Spotlight were not, technically — but both are about public performance and art making and are really just giant metaphors for filmmaking, so I’m counting them).

This isn’t really that strange — filmmakers like filmmaking, shockingly enough, and I won’t attack anyone for liking stories about themselves. But if the Academy wants to hold themselves up as a bastion of culture and ask the millions of people who have no investment in filmmaking to trust their judgment?

Well, it’s easy to empathize with ourselves or people who are like us. What’s hard — what’s crucial — is learning to empathize with people who aren’t. By holding themselves up as an integral institution of culture, the Academy has made it so that, every time they choose a Best Picture winner, they are telling the world: “This is good art. This is art that should be lauded, praised, and supported. This is the kind of art we should all make more of.”

I don’t believe that art should be safe, careful movies that ask audiences to empathize with the same people over and over. Moonlight may be the first step in a new era of truly culturally relevant Oscars. For now, however, it is an exception.

The hardest thing the Academy has asked us to do is empathize with its own members — over, and over, and over again.