• Andrew McIlroy

Hollywood elite's push for new social order lacks moral authority of past movements

It appears the sex-charged controversies engulfing the entertainment industry across the globe these past months have some way still to run as more and more men and women emerge claiming harassment, discrimination and gender inequality. Women actors and others are speaking out, many with good reason, in the face of alleged bullying, misogynistic and abusive behaviour by men in positions of trust or power. Many of the industry’s artistic elite, including Oprah Winfrey, Reece Witherspoon and Natalie Portman, are rallying to their side, claiming a groundswell of support for their 'Time's Up' campaign, a self-proclaimed new movement.

But can these scandals be seen as truly giving birth to a new socially progressive and authoritative movement of artists, an enlightened ‘avant-garde’, laying a path to our future as claimed, or something much less?

Symbolically black-clad 'stars' on the 2018 Golden Globes red carpet

When rich, extrovert actors or musicians lecture us about social, environmental or political issues, which seems to be becoming de rigueur of late - even here in Australia - our first instinct is cynicism. Is it possible for these artists to garner extraordinary, garish wealth and still maintain sympathy for those undergoing deprivation and suffering?

The answer no doubt lies in the nature, intrinsic value and impact of the art produced by them. In other words, do their actions match their words?

But not all agree that art in the modern context can have such purpose. “No artist has ethical sympathies," Oscar Wilde once famously wrote. "An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. All art is quite useless."

Oscar Wilde

While artists, writers, actors, film-makers or musicians today might well gasp at the thought of Wilde's hedonistic views on art, I am left wondering in the midst of the current controversies just where is the recent body of work upon which these Hollywood celebrity artists can claim their moral authority or utilitarian purpose? Or is their thinly-veneered art merely intended to be aesthetic in nature, or dare I say for the most part, commercial - rendering their social commentary “as artists” from a position of privilege, hollow.

The artist's path from radical revolutionary to social progressive

Artists have long held a exalted place as commentator, and catalyst for socio-political change, both as insiders and outsiders.

In exile from Louis Napoleon’s Imperial France in 1855, art critic and historian Théophile Thoré proclaimed, “Art changes only through strong convictions, convictions strong enough to change society at the same time”. [1]

Thoré was an admirer of Rousseau, Millet, and Courbet, discovered Vermeer and was one of the nineteenth century's prominent spokesmen for a new, more democratic art - equating 'revolutionary art' with 'revolutionary progressive thought'.

Théophile Thoré

Seven years earlier, in the euphoric days following the 1848 Revolution, a new art movement was founded upon the progressive ideals of the February uprising - extolling the “genius of liberty” which had revived “the eternal flames of art”.

Pamphleteer Clément de Ris, writing shortly after, maintained that “in the realm of art - as in that of morals, social thought and politics - barriers are falling and the horizon is expanding.” (Perhaps Oprah’s Golden Globes ‘A new day is on the horizon’ speech this past week had its origin in this?)

Delacroix was generally the painter to whom progressive critics then looked for a fulfillment of the revolutionary ideals of the 1848 uprising. Thoré expressed the hope in Le Constitutionel that Delacroix would paint L’Egalité sur les barricades de février as an ornament to his earlier allegory of the revolutionary ideals of the 1830, Liberty Leading the People.

Eugène Delacroix, La Liberté guidant le peuple

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the term “avant-garde” was first used figuratively to label radical or advanced society, in both the artistic and social realms. French Utopian Socialist, Henri de Saint-Simon, designated artists, scientists, and industrialists as the elite leadership of a new social order.

It is we artists who will serve you as avant-garde . . . the power of the artists is in fact most immediate and most rapid: when we wish to spread ideas among men, we inscribe them on marble or on canvas . . . What a magnificent destiny for the arts is that of exercising a positive power over society, a true priestly function, and of marching forcefully in the van of all the intellectual faculties

Here the term “avant-garde” held a radical revolutionary implication rather than a purely aesthetic one, as was more usually applied in the twentieth century.

Gabriel-Desire Laverdant

The Fourierist art critic and theorist Gabriel-Desire Laverdant, in 1845 wrote:

… whether the artist is truly of the avant-garde, one must know where Humanity is going, know what the destiny of the human race is . . .

The artist's role in a changing world: Hollywood misses the mark

It is the embodiment of these dual implications that appears absent from the response of the broader arts community to this pernicious, octopus-like sexual misconduct scandal. Certainly, the calls for justice and for the behaviours to cease is long overdue but the rhetoric is more soaring and ambitious, calling for a new social order. In attempting to appropriate this mantle, these artists miss the mark.

I would go as far to suggest that this self-congratulating rhetoric - coming after a long silence that cannot be properly explained away - and claims to be in a position of privilege as artists enabling them to best speak out against injustice ignores the need for a more considered, artistic, and far-reaching response. Despite its pretence, this movement is not avant garde.

Jan Vermeer van Delft, Woman reading a letter (1854)

No doubt art and artists must play a role. But what is that role? Can artists really change the world? In short the answer is probably, ‘no’. That job must fall to politicians. But what art can do is remind us that it is possible to change the world - in the tradition of previous great art progressive movements.

Artists can provoke, shock us into action by communicating in ways others cannot. Art too is about trying to gain respect for the grand causes of our times - saving the earth and its inhabitants, the downtrodden, the persecuted, the homeless and those seeking refuge.

The gathering storm around the film-making (entertainment) industry is not evidence of a new Hollywood-led artistic, progressive movement. Without this behind them, the Hollywood artists lack authority. We are yet to see great artworks intended to reflect the artists' convictions, a desire for progress or revolution of thought.

For that it seems, we will have to wait.

Gustave Courbet, The Artist's Studio (1855)

[1] Linda Nochlin, “The Invention of the Avant-Garde: France, 1830–1880” ARTnews, 1968

Main Photo: Oprah Winfrey speaking on receiving her 2018 Golden Globe for "outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment" Photo: AP

Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist, living and working in Melbourne, Australia

Copyright 2015