Politics vs. Art in Cinema

Sitting in the comfortable, lofty screener rooms on the sixth floor of the Tisch School of the Arts building, one feels the lights dim before they extinguish completely, as the room is cloaked in blackness.

Cinema is in some sense a safe space. But what happens if behind-the-scenes of that very film, one’s safe space is violated? For a professor of cinema, where does the realm of ethics lie in the context of education? Does one have a responsibility to keep problematic creators out of the conversation when teaching?

Or better yet, can art and politics be separated?

That’s the daunting question Melissa Phruksachart, an Assistant Professor and Faculty Fellow in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University, was asked.

She answers, “Where does the political end and the non-political begin?”

During this post-Trump era, in the shadow of “grab them by the pussy” and “locker room talk”, the political climate has only heightened and in mid-2017, tensions building on the surface finally broke. Like a small ripple that steadily built into a tundra, more women became empowered by the stories of others and came forward with their own stories in Hollywood. Actresses, assistants, and crew members alike all came forward against their perpetrators, with trending social media hashtags such as Me Too and Time’s Up to follow.

The world was starting to make a stand. But what did this mean for Hollywood and the cinematic art form in general?

“It has less to do with the true nature or essence of art, whether it is political or apolitical, and more to do with the interpretive practices of the viewer,” Phruksachart says. “These are questions related not to the universality of the object, but to the subject – the asker – and their ability to think critically about power.”

This interpretive practice allows for the attention to divert from the creators to the viewers. There is power in interpreting art within its context, and room for flaws to be understood and exposed.

Film critics understand this interpretive practice, having to pen and air their opinions on a daily basis. In an Indiewire article by David Ehrlich, “In the Aftermath of Harvey Weinstein, Can We Separate the Art from the Artist”, he explores the idea of separating art and politics in this modern political climate in a post-Weinstein world.

The comments come from critics in the entertainment industry, who on a daily basis are responsible for reviewing films and television to various audiences. One critic from Film Festival Today, Christopher Llewellyn Reed, talks about his teaching methods.

“I can’t tell others how to behave, but in my own teaching I try to qualify the contributions of troublesome figures whenever I feel compelled to mention them in the course of an historical timeline,” Reed states.

The idea of teaching and education in the post-Weinstein area is a questionable one, as there is no precedent for the strength of this movement in Hollywood and beyond.

In her classroom, Phruksachart denies ever having changed her methods of teaching, but she is an advocate for bringing it up and fostering the important conversations along with it.

“What happens when we do or don’t bring up politics in relation to cinema, or cinema in relation to politics, in the classroom? What happens when we don’t bring it up is that the status quo gets reproduced.”

This reproduction of status quo is relevant to the case of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault patterns, where his actions duplicated and went unfounded for years.

When thinking about politics in art, the answer for Phruksachart isn’t about focusing on the ethics behind the artists, but rather the interpretive power of their art.

She diffuses questions to her students in this way, stating, “The question for me is: how does this art/artist make us think about XYZ differently? How does this art/artist help us actively create imaginaries and/or real worlds that undo systems of oppression?”

A recent session Phruksachart attended at Flux Factory’s Utopia School gave her the language to think about this: moving from “non-complicity” (i.e., trying to be morally pure) toward “transformative action” (i.e., “engagement in transformation”).

Conversation and engagement in the classroom through discussion is transformative, and allows for the power of the film to transfer from the subjects and creators to the viewer. Sheltering and hiding films from the classroom due to moral impurity doesn’t allow for the viewer to analyze and expose its harmful context.

In her classroom, students are in charge of deciding what films mean, which informs their impression on society and culture as a whole.

Phruksachart believes bringing up difficult topics in the classroom such as the separation of art and politics is essential.

“When we do bring it up, we learn that the way things are not how they have to be or have always been.”