Art vs. Propaganda

The Oscars Adopt Impossible Standards

The Oscars recently announced that certain inclusivity and diversity standards must be met if a film wishes to compete for the “best picture” nomination. The Los Angeles Times reported on the development, commenting that, “To be eligible for best picture, a film must meet at least two standards across four categories: ‘Onscreen Representation, Themes and Narratives,’ ‘Creative Leadership and Project Team,’ ‘Industry Access and Opportunities’ and ‘Audience Development.’”[1] Within each category, underrepresented members of society, such as women of color, LGBT folks, or other minorities, must be duly given a voice for the film to be considered for nomination.

Hollywood has long been heavily influenced by left-leaning and progressive ideologies, especially regarding sexuality, and, given the turmoil in the past few months, this honestly does not come as much of a surprise. At first glance, this initiative seems quite good and progressive, a step in the right direction for more equal representation in the entertainment industry. Undoubtedly much talent has been historically overlooked in Hollywood because of a person’s sex or skin color. That kind of discrimination needs to end. But is there something about this development to question as well? While it’s one thing to welcome all kinds of different people to participate in moviemaking, it’s another to make this the ruling standard for the Best Picture Nomination. I assume that just about everyone has seen an Oscar-worthy film that fails to live up to these specific standards. For me, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, even though it doens't meet these new inclusivity standards, remains an excellent artistic achievement because it is based on a wonderful story that all people can enjoy and learn from. In addition, many movies are historically based on particular people and events, and simply can’t align with these inclusivity standards while still preserving the integrity of the film. Filmmakers will undoubtedly feel coerced to put material in their films which may simply distract from the central story, plot, or actual character development. There’s obviously no restraints that exist now against putting all kinds of material in movies. In fact, it’s already incredibly popular to do so. So why is it necessary to mix the standards at all? That's a recipe for conformity, not diversity. 

There are several good movies that do justice to real issues involving minorities and the disenfranchised without pushing a certain agenda on the audience. The film Dallas Buyers Club, starring Matthew McConaughey, illustrates the 1980s AIDS crisis and the conflicted individuals who were affected. This film shows the tender humanity of the people seeking medication and help. But the movie wasn’t trying to meet inclusivity standards–it was merely trying to tell the story faithfully. I left the movie feeling more compassionate for the people who suffered in the crisis, but did not feel like I was being forced to adopt a progressive view of sexuality. This is what all good art is meant to do: inspire empathy for the characters in the story and compel one to appreciate the work on its own terms. The first prohibition in all forms of art is moralization or seeking to manipulate the audience so they may adopt a certain point of view. It then ceases to be art and becomes propaganda.

Roger Scruton, in his book Beauty, writes insightfully on this: “Works of art are forbidden to moralize, only because moralizing destroys their true moral value, which lies in the ability to open our eyes to others, and to discipline our sympathies towards life as it is.”[2]

I hope that honest filmmakers will continue to create good work so that the vision Scruton lays out may be realized. We should not be afraid to compromise artistic integrity to get political points. We need artists who are interested in truth, beauty, and goodness, not propaganda.

[2] Scruton, Roger. Beauty: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.

Peter Biles is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories. He graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 2019 and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications, including Plough, Dappled Things, The Gospel Coalition, Salvo, and Breaking Ground.

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