Encouraging socially-conscious art at the Oscars

By Aubrey Klein

I must admit that I love watching the Academy Awards, and every year I settle in to watch the broadcast that inevitably goes over time. It’s one of those can’t-miss events that you must watch live—recording on DVR and watching later is not allowed.

It’s certainly fun to watch everyone arrive on the red carpet, gaze at the glamorous celebrities in their designer formal wear, watch the musical performances and see the reactions of the actors when they win—or don’t. The Oscars are good entertainment, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want, or even demand, more from them.

This year was the first year I thought seriously about what Oscar nominations and wins really mean and about the delicate politics of representation in film. Watching the Oscars wasn’t just about knowing who won and listening to acceptance speeches; it was an opportunity to think deeply about film, politics and, ultimately, what makes good art.

This year, much of the conversation surrounding the Oscars was that they had been proclaimed “the whitest Oscars” in nearly two decades, though accounts vary in their definitions. For example, this is the first time since 1998 that not a single person of color was nominated for an acting Oscar. One of the biggest controversies this year was that the Martin Luther King Jr. biopic “Selma,” while receiving a nomination for Best Picture, was denied nominations for Best Director (Ava Duvernay) and Best Actor (David Oyelowo).

It’s no secret that the Oscars have a representation problem, and not only in terms of race. The politics of the Oscars are clearly corrupt in some ways, but we know this already and I don’t want to beat that dead horse. Because, for all the theoretical and political grist that the Oscars offered up for thought this year, it also made me think about the more amorphous question of what really makes a Best Picture film.

Since the Best Picture award is one of the highest achievements in film, it represents some sort of ideal, the pinnacle of cinematic art. But what makes good art? Is it a movie that is incredibly creative, highly stylized and is made of exactly the sort of magic that movies are meant to be, like “Birdman?” Or could it be a movie that has done something quite unprecedented in the larger scheme of film history, filming continuously over 12 years like “Boyhood?”

I mention these two because they happened to be the running favorites, with “Birdman” coming out on top. They certainly have their merits. But could it also have been “Selma,” which tells a deeply important story that sparks discussion and even spurs change? That “Selma” didn’t win, which was for a variety of reasons depending on who you talk to, makes me contemplate what makes good art.

I see a distinction between art in an aesthetic sense and art in a cultural or political sense—that is, art with a message. A film can be great because it is a painstakingly good work of art. The creativity, time and effort that went into its creation, as well as its relationship with other films, can make it good art.

But I believe that art with a message—a film like “Selma,” for example—reaches out across more than just artistic boundaries and ultimately has a more lasting impression. Its impact is not purely artistic or limited to the world of cinema. It has social, political and humanitarian implications that affect our lives in a way that is bigger than the joy and wonder of watching “Boyhood,” or the intense appreciation and amazement that comes after watching “Birdman.”

While films like all the other Best Picture nominees besides “Selma” certainly have their place in our culture, as works of art they fail to offer a social or cultural perspective that departs from the status quo. This status quo is a mainstream film industry centered on the stories of white male protagonists, usually told through the lens of a white male director.

These types of art, while beautiful and valuable in their own way, offer only a limited perspective of the diversity that exists outside of Hollywood film. They fail to conjure the sort of ideological thought and activism that art has the rich potential for. If life truly imitates art, then what sort of life are we creating with the largely homogenous stories told in mainstream Hollywood film?

This is not to say that beautiful and well-crafted art can’t also spark conversation, or that works full of activism lack artistry. Still, there is something important about art with a message of social justice like “Selma.” Jessica Goldstein at Think Progress envisions this higher standard, an alternate way of awarding movies at the Oscars that aligns with my own. She says that the Oscars “should reward excellence. Degree of difficulty matters; complexity matters; scope and scale and insight matter.”

Art and especially film, as an intensely visual medium, have the power to make us question our world and challenge our perceptions. Representation and consideration for the ways that social justice and alternative narratives are portrayed on screen is important. Lots of people see movies, but not everyone sees themselves in movies, and that is a tragedy.

Ultimately, the Oscars may be nothing more than a show of spectacular extravagance, and we shouldn’t put much stock in the awards bestowed by a privileged few. But the fact that film, and especially Hollywood film, is an incredible and under-valued platform for activism makes me mourn the state of the Academy Awards.

Whether or not the elite voting members of the Academy think so, movies should be praised and awarded not purely based on artistic merit, but also social impact. Art can and should be used as a platform for social change, so we need to utilize art to amplify the visibility and voice of important people and issues. The privileged platform of the Academy Awards has the power, and therefore the duty, to increase the representation of different stories and different people. It can fulfill this duty by properly publicizing and rewarding the excellent efforts that do so.