Thursday, March 11, 2010

Why do we condemn successful people for "selling out"?


I'm a big Kevin Smith fan (link may be NSFW). I understand his limitations -- the childish bathroom humor, the penchant for jokes about oral sex, the somewhat obvious philosophical/religious points he makes when he's being serious  -- but I think his jokes are funny, and I enjoy his films. I even thought Jersey Girl was "good enough," which is more than many thought of it. (Full disclosure requires that I admit the only Smith film I haven't seen is Zach and Miri, but that is not a conscious decisions -- I just haven't gotten to it yet.) So, this weekend Kim and I saw Cop Out and it was fine. It was funny and escapist. Tracy Morgan is a lunatic. Some of the direction was sloppy and there were moments of terrible acting, but it was perfectly acceptable for a Friday night and the people in the theater were laughing really hard. All good.

I recognize that there will be people who don't like it and critics will attack it for a variety of reasons. This is also fine. But at least one critic has obliquely attacked him for taking a "studio paycheck" and others have chided him for selling out. Smith himself tells us that he took a tremendous pay cut to do the film but that doesn't concern me here. Instead what bothers me is the notion that once someone gets successful they are suddenly deemed unworthy of artistic respect. Lots of people claim to have known a rock band "before they were big," and others get infuriated when their favorite musician, or in this case, favorite director, does a project "for the money." But we all do things mostly for the money all the time. Most people don't dream of working everyday in cubicles filling out TPS reports, and most kids don't fantasize about being dental assistants. But we all do it anyway because money is a good thing to have. Furthermore, the job of an artist is not just to create art. It is to make sure that one's art is seen (or heard, or read...). The larger the audience, the more people experience the art, the more impact the art has, and the more influential the art can be. Being successful is good and is so for almost every reason.

Now, we can have a discussion about whether or not Cop Out constitutes art. If it does, it's certainly not "high art." (In my mind, the two candidates for films that look like low art but might actually be high art are South Park: The Movie and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, the latter of which is certainly high art in a different sense as well.) But that debate misses the point. If Kevin Smith wants a project because it's fun or because it's something different, or simply because it makes him some money, why should he be condemned for it? Why do we want our artists to be pure? Why do we only think art for art sake (and for no other result) is the only kind of art that is inherently valuable? This seems an odd position to hold and largely the only time we, in our culture, expect this kind of purity.

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