Commercial as a dirty word

Right out of college, I worked for a small film festival that attracted a significant percentage of extremely low-budget submissions. Once I reviewed an OK film with a larger budget and told the next reviewer that I didn’t love it but that the production quality alone made me inclined to give it a thumbs up. Reluctantly, she confessed that she had found it a relief to see attractive actors. We both knew that it shouldn’t matter, but somehow it did: actors’ appearances do influence the way we engage with a film.

Appearance is also purported to influence the degree to which we find someone sympathetic. There’s a lot of research on this general topic. My brother pointed to some interesting quantitative analysis on the OKCupid blog; one entry is focused on appearance and response rate.

But I started this entry thinking about commercial appeal and art, and I have got to get there from here somehow.

I guess it’s this: that I have always thought I was operating outside of the mainstream, cultural taste-wise, but the experience at the film festival (born out again and again over the years with the music, books, etc, that I’m drawn to) proved to me that I have trouble connecting with purely indie efforts. At the same time, I’m often turned off by towering cultural phenomena. This leaves me “betwixt and between,” in Virginia Woolf’s parlance, aka middlebrow. My go-to source for half-assed research contains an interesting description of the emergence of these cultural brows.

The same article summarizes Dwight MacDonald’s work on “masscult” and “midcult.” The former “copies and manipulates both these traditions [highbrow and lowbrow], with factory creations made without innovation or care expressly for the market, ‘pleas[ing] the crowd by any means.’”

Ah, factory creations made expressly for the market! Everything leads me to Andy Warhol these days. That he understood these brow distinctions on a visceral level and subverted them on his own terms – ie, charging wealthy (allegedly highbrow) patrons $50K for portraits in which he transformed their images into factory-produced, soulless (lowbrow) iconography – is genius. That today anyone can Warhol-ize a snapshot at the local Michael’s adds a whole new dimension (middlebrow to lowbrow?).

Would Warhol have approached his so-called art business quite the same way had he not fought for much of his early career to shuffle off his notoriety in commercial art? I doubt it. Commercial, after all, is a dirty word.


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