"I'm making movies for the masses."There’s this crazy idea out there that making lots of money is an indication of quality. It’s known as Worthington’s Law, and most people will readily admit that it’s garbage. There are a few people out there, Ayn Rand, Ron Paul, Michael Bay, etc., who believe it, but who cares about them?
—2012 director, Roland Emmerich
"Only the best for the working class."
—IWW founder, "Big" Bill Haywood
There is also an even more crazy idea out there that lots of people take seriously: namely that making lots of money means you’re in touch with the common man. Similarly, not making lots of money means you’re a stuffy elitist.
Okay, so, when pressed, most people would still probably admit that being filthy stinking rich doesn’t make you the salt of the Earth. That is, unless you got filthy stinking rich by peddling terrible art.
For instance, Larry the Cable Guy makes more money than David Cross: ergo Larry the Cable Guy is a populist and David Cross is an elitist. During the big Conan O’Brien/Jay Leno conflict, the Jay Leno was portrayed as a populist, not despite the fact that he has an extensive collection of vintage cars, but because he has an extensive collection of vintage cars. You know, like the common folk.
This attitude towards art found itself exposed this summer when all of the previously reliable shitty blockbusters tanked. The Marmaduke adaptation tanked. The Saturday Night Live movie MacGruber tanked. The re-imaginings of Robin Hood, The A-Team and Avatar: The Last Airbender tanked. Even the Adam Sandler movie tanked! Adam Sandler, for fuck sake!
And yet, next year, when Transformers 3: Reckoning of the X-Treme Fallen Boogaloo makes bajillions everybody will go back to talking about what great populists Michael Bay, Alexander Kurtzman and Roberto Orci are. And people who don't like the movie will go back to complaining about the stupidity of the American movie-goer.
The People Demand It?
One of the reasons why the “rich = populist, poor = elitist” attitude holds is that people will watch the movies they want to watch, listen to the music they want to listen to and read the books they want to read, so the particular movies, albums and books that more people buy are the ones that are more popular.
On the surface, this line of reasoning appears to make sense. On closer inspection, however, the holes start to show. One of the biggest holes is when you look at the actual sales figure, you'll find that every form of art and entertainment is a niche market.
Consider the three best-selling musical artists. The Beatles have 1 billion records sold. Elvis Presley has 1 billion records sold. Michael Jackson has 750 million records sold. The total number of records sold by these three artists is 2.75 billion records sold. The world’s population, as of 2008, is 6,697,254,041. So, if we assume that nobody owns more than one record by any of these three artists, that is still a minority of the world’s population.
These are the three best-selling musical artists of all time. But, even combined, they've only reached a minority of the population. This minority becomes even bigger when you consider the passage of time. Would the 16th-century Venetian girls who swooned at Adrian Willaert's villanellas feel the same way about Justin Bieber?
When you consider the question within niche genres, this becomes even sillier. Within the world of hip-hop, there are “elitist” underground rappers like Aesop Rock, who works a day job because of his lack of appeal to the masses, and you have “populist” mainstream rappers like Jay-Z who runs an incredibly successful business named after the man responsible for the Ludlow massacre. You know, because he’s in touch with the masses.
But if you accept that Jay-Z is more populist than Aesop Rock because he’s sold more records, you still have to account for the fact that Jay-Z only sold 50 million records. Meanwhile some random Japanese dude named Michiya Mihashi who sings in a genre called Enka (whatever the fuck that is), sold 100 million records. That makes him twice as ghetto as Jay-Z.
With that in mind, for all of you who really want to show your populist credentials, I say welcome to the ghetto!
If you want this line of reasoning taken to even more absurd extremes, consider the “uptown/downtown” rift within the world of avant-garde classical music. Here, you have the “downtown” avant-garde composers like Philip Glass and John Adams, who attack the “uptown” avant-garde composers like Pierre Boulez and Iannis Xenakis for being “elitist”. Their argument? Glass and Adams sell more records than Boulez and Xenakis, so they must have struck a chord with the masses.
So we have a tiny, insignificant minority listens to the same note played over and over again, while a somewhat tinier, insignificant minority listens to a whole bunch of notes played in accordance with some mathematical formulas. Clearly this is the difference between the snotty intellectuals and Johnny six-pack.
There's a lot of art out there and a lot of people with a lot of different tastes. Liking something more obscure doesn't make you an elitist.
For the Masses or For the Capitalists?
The idea that making money off of the masses means that you're appealing to the masses is closely connected to the discredited idea of Social Darwinism, a notoriously anti-masses philosophy. This held that businesses that were profitable and succeeded did so because they were good for the public at large. In reality they succeeded because they were good for the people who owned the businesses and the businesses alone. Sometimes that would benefit ordinary people, but not always.
If we temporarily leave the realm of art, we find that the "the people demanded it" excuse holds little water. For instance, the oil company BP was able to make a lot of profit giving money to politicians (including Obama) in exchange for laxer environmental and safety regulations. They also ignored the ones that already existed. This, of course, resulted in that ginormous oil spill. But, up until the oil spill it did make BP pretty successful. So did they do all that legal bribery and ignoring of regulations because "the people demanded it"? Of course not! Would anybody in the entire universe make that argument? Okay, let me rephrase that. Would anybody in the entire universe other than this douchebag make that argument?
Similarly, did "the people demand" that Shell back the Abacha dictatorship in Nigeria and have environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa hanged? Did "the people demand" that ITT back the Pinochet's military coup in Chile and the mass executions of workers that followed? Did "the people demand" Chiquita backing similar brutal dictators in central America? No they did not. And yet, all those business made lots of money off of those acts.
At lesser extremes, big businesses regularly underpay their workers, exploit the lack of regulations in third world countries, and make shoddy products while charging way too much. That's how profit works. Profit is the portion of money that goes to the people who don't do any work. To maximize it you have to get as many people to buy things as possible while providing as little as possible.
Now, compared to backing brutal dictators, Fox canceling your favorite show so it could air some "reality" garbage is pretty tame. But still, it's not because "the people demanded" that your favorite show get canceled. It's because the executives at Fox demanded it.
A lot of the things the entertainment industry does are things that make profit regardless of either artistic merit or genuine popularity. For instance, look at JJ Abrams's de-imagining of Star Trek. If Star Trek wasn't a well-known TV franchise, the movie would have tanked. I mean, the acting was terrible, the dialogue was worse, the plot had more holes than actual plot and the action scenes were incoherent jumbles of jump cuts and CGI lens flares. But the movie had the name "Star Trek" attached to it, so every time a Star Trek rerun aired, that was free advertising for the movie. And every time Family Guy or Robot Chicken made a Star Trek reference, that was free advertising for the movie. The same is true of all those mercenary "re-imaginings" of old franchises.
The people did not demand a terrible movie in which Simon Pegg's comedic talent was wasted on a "wacky" sun-glasses-wearing Ewok/Jar-Jar Binks love-child sidekick who sits on pieces of equipment. But when you've had the Star Trek brand beaten into you your whole life, it might skew you towards seeing that rather than, say Moon. I mean come on, that's just a giant rock.
Similarly, all those prefabricated pop-stars get free advertising every time they have a nervous breakdown, or the National Enquirer pretends they have a nervous breakdown. Someone like T. Hallenbeck may have much better songs than Britney Spears, but he wasn't a Mouseketeer.
The most egregious example of this sort of thing is reality television. There are some reality shows that people may genuinely demand. Even if American Idol is pre-fabricated pop garbage, there was at least some effort put into the act of pre-fabrication. Plus, the definition of "reality TV" has broadened to the point where game shows and genuine documentary shows like Mythbusters are included.
But for the bulk of reality TV? Do "the people demand" a Flavor Flav dating show? Do "the people demand" Maricopa County, AZ sheriff Joe Arpaio getting a reality show where he trains actors to trick people into getting arrested? Do "the people demand" yet another show about hoarders? No. So why do all of those shows exist? The answer has nothing to do with artistic merit, and it has nothing to do with actual popularity.
This was shown during the 2008 writers strike, when reality TV shows were used as scabs. You see, the people who edit the footage in reality shows aren't legally considered writers even though, for all practical purposes, they are. So they're not in the union. Similarly the contestants are not legally considered actors, so they're not in the union. This means they get paid less and can be used to break strikes like the. Meanwhile, for a show like The Wire, you have to spend more money, so less profit.
That's not art for the masses? It's art for the capitalists. It's creating art that is designed to make as much money for the capitalists as possible. This means taking as much money from the masses as possible while giving as little legitimate art back as possible.
Stacking the Deck
So if "the people" don't demand all those shitty movies and songs and TV shows and books that make so much money, what exactly do they demand? What is it that causes people to watch terrible action movies summer after summer?
Answer: air conditioning. In the summer, it's really hot. Movie theaters are air conditioned and you get a chance to watch movies in them. On a big screen at that. If you are trying to relax during the heat, the multiplex is a perfect place to do that. And what do the multiplexes show? The movies that make as much money for the capitalists as possible. The movies that get free advertisements during every episode of Family Guy. The movies with stars that get free advertisements with every issue of the National Enquirer. The movies that were made according to a pre-determined formula.
This summer was a bit different. It's not really that the movies were that much worse this year than last year. I mean last year, we had the Wolverine prequel, the Star Trek de-imagining, the Da Vinci Code sequel, the Terminator re-sequimaginaling, the Land of the Lost re-imagining, the Night at the Museum sequel and the Transformers sequel.
But people watched those movies because it was hot, and there was air conditioning, and as long as they were going to a multiplex, why not go for one of the movies that was name-dropped in Family Guy. This summer started on a much better note than last summer with Iron Man 2. But it finally hit people that there was a recession and spending that much money for air conditioning wasn't worth it.
But this summer, there were also apparently some good arthouse movies, like Dogtooth and Winter's Bone. I say apparently because I haven't seen them. I want to, but it's a bit of work to get to a theater that's showing them.
Also difficult to find? A music store that sells T. Hallenbeck CDs. Or a radio statin that plays him. Or Iannis Xenakis. Or Aesop Rock, for that matter. And if you go to an airport bookstore, who do you think will be easier to find? Dan Brown or Steven Brust? And The Wire may be a much better show than Dancing With the Stars, but to watch The Wire when it was on the air, you'd have to pay extra for HBO. And hey, if you watch Dancing With the Stars, you can see Bristol Palin. She was in that issue of the National Enquirer, wasn't she? Oh, look!
Once again departing from the realm of art, people don't shop at Walmart because "the people demand" that workers get underpaid and mistreated. People shop at Walmart because it's convenient and cheap.
In the case of art, the deck is stacked in favor of the sorts of things that maximize profit for the capitalists. They decide what movies will be their tent poles, and the masses have the option of either watching it or staying home and watching TV. And who determines what shows air? Hint: not the masses.
If Dogtooth was a tentpole movie and The Karate Kid (one of this summers successful bad movies) only aired at tiny arthouses, then Dogtooth would almost certainly have been more commercially successful than The Karate Kid. If Iannis Xenakis played on Top 40 radio stations and Britney Spears could only give concerts on grants from the Pompidou Center, then Xenakis would be more famous than Britney Spears.
Of course, some of these attempts at art "for the masses" have some genuine masses-friendly attitudes. While James Cameron may be filthy stinking rich, and not the best writer out there, he does at least have some populist messages. Other commercially successful artists have populist messages. There's John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, The Simpsons, The Office, the Harry Potter books, Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Defining Characteristic trilogy. And, of course, RoboCop.
So it is possible to make commercially successful art that genuinely has populist credentials, although it is often smuggled through. But this is the exception, rather than the rule.
Let's look to our old buddy, Roland Emmerich, the guy in that first quote, who explicitly says he makes "movies for the masses". He is the foremost director in the genre known as "apocalypse porn", with movies like Independence Day, Godzilla '98, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, which is based on fetishizing watching large numbers of people (i.e. the masses) die in large numbers.
That last movie, 2012, concerned the complete destruction of the Earth due to blah blah blah Mayan blah blah blah. The entire Earth, man! That's a lot of stiffs. And of course the whole movie was about the attempt to save an elite group of humans, lead by John Cusack, from the apocalypse, while letting the masses perish in an over-the-top action scene. Not very masses friendly. But it is very elite friendly.
And what of our rapper friends Jay-Z and Aesop Rock? Which song would you say is friendlier to the masses? Aesop Rock's "9-5ers Anthem" or Jay-Z's "Big Pimpin"? Personally, I think Aesop Rock's working class anthem is a bit more masses-friendly. But, Jay-Z is filthy stinking rich, so he must be the one in touch with the masses.
There is a similar discrepancy with JJ Abrams's de-imagining of Star Trek. Leading up to the movie, JJ Abrams gave interviews that portrayed Star Trek fans as elitists and he claimed that he wasn't making the movie for them, but for everyone.
Now actual, JJ-free Star Trek was about a utopian vision of a better mankind free from the trappings of war, poverty, racism and sexism, with an incredibly optimistic view of the potential of all of mankind. If you ask me, that's something everybody can get behind.
JJ Trek, on the other hand, is about an arrogant, bratty Nietzschean Übermensch who single-handedly defeats a bunch of cartoonishly evil (and cartoonishly stupid) miners through the amazing power of plot holes, and is promoted to captain of the most important ship in Starfleet solely because he inherited the Starship Captain Gene from his daddy. And the audience is inexplicably supposed to root for him.
The fact that the bad guys are miners doesn't serve the plot at all. If he was fighting a military invasion it would have drastically reduced the number of plot holes in the movie, so JJ, Al and Bob must really hate miners. This movie is reactionary Thatcherite drivel. But because JJ Abrams made shitloads of money off of it, he must be a populist.
But there was another bit of "elitist" (i.e. didn't make a lot of money) movie the same summer, called Moon. This was about a working class guy struggling against a corrupt elite business that was using him.
Perhaps I'm being a bit too harsh here (no, I'm not). JJ Trek, and JJ Abrams's ouvre in general, does contain a form of populism. Specifically, it contains anti-intellectualism.
In Real Star Trek, there's this race called the Vulcans, who are these really logical aliens. Since JJ Abrams, Alexander Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, don't know what logic is, they weren't able to make the Vulcans logical in JJ Trek. Instead they decided to make the Vulcans an entire race of stuffy deans from a bad frathouse sex comedy. The Vulcans are constantly ridiculed throughout the movie and when they suddenly all die, the audience is only expected to care when Spock's human mother gets sucked into a plot hole.
This hatred of thought is JJ Abram's main authorial trait, going from the "redemption through brain damage" of Regarding Henry to the "man of faith, man of science" garbage in Lost (it's worth noting that Lost, easily the best JJ Abrams thing, is a piece of surrealism that makes no pretense to making sense). The JJ Abrams movie that most typifies this disingenuous form of populism is Armageddon.
In armageddon the heroes are a bunch of oil workers. Actually the main hero is the guy who owns an off-shore oil rig, and the oil workers most cheer him on and have sex with his daughter. If one was legitimately concerned about the differences between the elite and the masses, the difference between the guy who ons an off-shore oil rig, and the workers he exploits would seem to qualify. But, as I've mentioned before, JJ Abrams doesn't see any differences there.
Instead the baddies are those snotty NASA intellectuals who want to stop the asteroid with their science. But most NASA scientists, while highly skilled, aren't filthy stinking rich. They may get paid more than oil workers, but not as much as people who own oil rigs. And like oil workers, but unlike people who own oil rigs, scientists get paid for, you know, doing stuff.
This stems from the iffy nature of populism. "The masses" and "the elite" are kind of vague terms. That's why Marxists like to use those pretentious-sounding terms proletariat and bourgeoisie, because they have explicit meanings. If you're abstractly talking about "the people" and "not the people" you can define it pretty much any way you want to. Since the majority of people are not NASA scientists, you can pretend that NASA scientists are an elite and that anybody who isn't a NASA scientist, whether they're oil workers or professional owners of things, are "the masses".
This is the logic of the Tea Party. The Tea Party are arguing in favor of reactionary anti-working class policies, and their conventions have $549 tickets and lobster dinners. The movement is pretty much in the service of the wealthy elite, but they want to pose as populists. As such, they come up with weird definitions of "the elite" that carefully excludes rich, tea-party-funding businessmen. You've got intellectuals, people from urban areas, people from the coasts, Muslims, atheists, the gays, the French, and of course, the ever-reliable Teenage Immigrant Welfare Mothers on Drugs.
JJ Abrams limits himself to scientists, nerds, atheists, environmentalists and, apparently, miners. Larry the Cable Guy is much more explicit. He's part of the Blue Collar Comedy troop, despite not being blue collar. Rather than obtaining blue collar credentials by being a cable guy, he gets them by being an extremely rich comedian who calls himself a cable guy. Not only is he not a cable guy, not only is he not blue collar, he's not even Larry. His name is Daniel Whitney.
But he still has this blue collar, salt of the Earth act to keep up, so he says things like "The Republicans had a muslim give the opening prayer at there (siconvention! What the hell's going on around here! Is Muslim now the official religion of the United States!...First these peckerheads fly planes into towers and now theys prayin' before conventions!" and other rants against "commie rag head carpet flying wicker basket on the head balancing scumbags".
He also got into a feud with David Cross who he considered to represent the "PC left". He also accuses Cross and other "PC left" comedians of "go[ing] out of their way to treat their fans as if they're stupid." But Larry the Cable Guy deliberately dumbs down his routines, in a process he calls "Larrying it up". This is because Larry the Cable Guy thinks his audience is stupid, but considers it a badge of honor.
While normal shitty "art for the masses" is just kind of depressing, this sort of thing is genuinely nauseating. In general it scapegoats people who are not part of the elite as being part of the "elite", while letting the actual elite off the hook. Nothing good can come of this.
In the specific case of anti-intellectualism, there's another reason why it's nauseating. It's patronizing. It insults the audiences intelligence. It sucks.
Only the Best . . .
This brings us to the other quote at the top of this blog post. The thing is, there should be art for the masses. The masses are nice people, and there's no reason why they should be deprived of good art.
While this disingenuous populism is definitely a problem, there is also legitimate elitism out there, as anyone who has read Anathem can attest to. But this is not a case of two diametrically opposed extremes. Whether you're a JJ Abrams-esque anti-intellectual faux populist or you're a Neal Stephenson-esque elitist, you're still operating on the fallacious principle that all smart people are rich and all poor people are dumb. And you still end up voting for Ron Paul.
So, yeah. The masses should have art that was intended for them. And there is. Some of it (The Simpsons, Bruce Springsteen, etc.) is able to get commercial success. But it's very difficult to overcome the hurdles necessary for commercial success. And artists like Aesop Rock, movies like Moon and comedians like Bill Hicks are far more deserving of the title "art for the masses" than most of the art that gets attached to the title. Why not go for that sort of thing?