In an effort to further examine the criteria by which art in general and cinema in particular is evaluated, I considered Noël Carroll’s definition of medium specificity from a chapter of The Philosophy of Motion Pictures, “Medium Specificity”; Hugo Münsterberg’s consideration of cinema as an artform in “The Means of Photoplay”; and Walter Benjamin’s discussion of the authenticity of cinema in an excerpt from “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” These pieces define medium specificity and speak to the virtue of mindful consideration of the attributes specific to a given medium as artist and academic, all the while demonstrating it problematic employment as an evaluative device in that it requires the use of a Platonic Form of sorts of an ideal exploitation of the “distinctive possibilities of the medium” as a standard of measure, similar to fidelity’s requirement that some piece of work be elevated as a wholly original piece against which another text is to be evaluated (Carroll 36).
Carroll describes the idea underpinning media specificity as every medium having a “range of representational, expressive, and/or formal capacities” serving to “identify and individuate” that medium (36). Medium specificity prioritizes medium integrity, advocating strict adherence to the boundaries and strengths of each medium. Carroll brings the concept to cinema and explains that cinema is film art only to the extent that it transcends the mere “mechanical recording of that which stands before the camera” (43). For a film to achieve such transcendance automatically qualifies it as superior to another that does not; as well, such transcendance qualifies that film as film art—as superior to other art that fails to sufficiently “exploiting the distinctive advantages” of it respective medium, bringing to mind Dudley Andrew’s equivalence of the “position elements occupy vis-á-vis their different domains” (Carroll 45, Andrew 69). The appending of Leitch’s point that while media appear to “have essentially distinctive properties, those properties are functions of their historical moments and not of the media themselves” to Carroll’s definition seems appropriate as together they still urge “filmmakers and film viewers to pay very close attention to many of the most important variables whose manipulation have made the cinema such a powerful channel of expression” without attempting to preserve the status quo through absolutes (Leitch 107, Carroll 50).
Carroll’s criterion for cinema achieving the status of film art is challenged by Münsterberg’s consideration of the distinctive advantages of cinema—while echoing an entail of medium specificity that mixing conventions diminishes the artistic integrity of media. Münsterberg begins by establishing the aim of art as the isolation of a “significant part of our experience in such a way that it is separate from our practical life” while maintaining a “complete agreement within itself” and then goes on to argue that cinema satisfies both by its very nature (138). In Carroll’s treatment of Lessing, he discusses how a “defender of film” might focus their attention on “the ways in which the inherent properties of the film medium result” in imperfect representation of its subject thus qualifying it as film art, and this is the core of Münsterberg’s argument: Film, as a two-dimensional representation of the three-dimensional external world, which “only the mind molds into plastic things,” and characterized by its own montagic logic rather than causality, is necessarily free from the constraints of the unalterable outer world” and becomes more reflective of the human mind (138, 141). Issues of aesthetic harmony aside, considering these qualities of the cinematic medium at present would allow us to better understand our it as an extension of ourselves.
Benjamin presents cinema as an empowering and instructional extension of ourselves that is being used as a means of control. Cinema, by its nature, liquidates “the value of tradition in the cultural heritage” and exists as assembled art with a capacity for improvement that represents a “radical renunciation of eternal value” (149, 152). Cinema represents a technology of artistic expression that operates as an instructional means by which human beings are trained in the “apperceptions and reactions needed to deal with a vast apparatus whose role in their lives is expanding almost daily” (Benjamin 151). The actor in cinema serves as a champion of the people by performing “in the face of the apparatus” and avenging the surrender of their humanity “in the face of an apparatus” in offices and factories and such; the invisible audience the actor avenges is whom he ultimately confronts as it is “they who will control him” (Benjamin 154, 155). Rather than the cult of celebrity, it is “the cult of the audience” that reinforces the corruption in order to “supplant the class consciousness of the masses” (Benjamin 156). Studying the distinctive attributes of media would help us to better understand how we might be manipulated through them.
Andrew, Dudley. “Adaptation.” Film and Literature An Introduction and Reader, 2nd ed, by Timothy Corrigan. Routledge, 2012, pp. 65-73.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” Film and Literature An Introduction and Reader, 2nd ed, by Timothy Corrigan. Routledge, 2012, 148-157.
Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Motion Pictures. Blackwell Pub., 2008.
Leitch, Thomas. “Twelve Fallacies in Contemporary Adaptation Theory.” Film and Literature An Introduction and Reader, 2nd ed, by Timothy Corrigan. Routledge, 2012, pp. 104-122.
Münsterberg, Hugo. “The Means of Photoplay.” Film and Literature An Introduction and Reader, 2nd ed, by Timothy Corrigan. Routledge, 2012, pp. 138-143.