Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Why does Bergman matter?

Ingmar Bergman's death has triggered off a mini-debate about the merits of art cinema. Here is one example, from today's Times; last night's Newsnight is another. The question being asked – and I welcome the fact that it is being asked – is why we should care about film-makers whose films are not popular, and which are in the opinion of many, unenjoyable.

This question goes to the heart of what art really is. If art is meant to be enjoyable (in some broadly defined sense) and if each person's view counts as much as any other, then surely, the argument goes, the Farrelly Brothers are greater artists than Bergman ever was.

Appealingly democratic though this argument is, I think it misses out on an essential aspect of enjoying art, which is adaptation. Our response to a given stimulus is not fixed from birth to death, but capable of undergoing change. In many cases, enjoying something involves learning: we have to undertake an initial investment to even be able to appreciate the thing. This initial effort may not be enjoyable at the time, but is undertaken in the hope that it will lead to greater joys in future.

Consider what happens with food. The first time we go from fish fingers and ketchup to good tomatoes and olive oil, it doesn't seem nice (or at least it didn't to me), but over time you learn to enjoy food in a way that makes the entire process of eating more fun, not less. A business invests money, foregoing profits in the present to add to profits in the future. In the same way, this sort of training is a hedonic investment: a decision to enjoy a little less in the present in order to enjoy more, or more sustainably (I'll write more on this aspect in a later post), in the future.

So what has all this got to do with art? You could argue that art is essentially a sort of product or service whose enjoyment requires specialized training. The idea is that learning to appreciate the artform opens up new possibilities for enjoyment, and it is in the hope of realizing these possibilities that anyone bothers. Of course, there is a strongly subjective component to all of this, so each individual has to make a guess as to exactly which hedonic investments are likely to pay off for her. (Typically this is done by looking at people who we assess to be in some way like ourselves, and who have clearly learned to enjoy something, and then following the route they've taken. In other words, we use role models.)

Coming back to the specific case of Bergman (or for that matter any relatively unpopular but feted artist) I think what tends to happen is that at a given point in time, only a small number of people make the effort, or even have the inclination, to seriously get into cinema. Over time, their tastes certainly evolve away from the mainstream, but there is a sense in which these film-buffs are getting more out of their trips to the cinema than the average person. They love Bergman, and we can appreciate their specialized ability to enjoy film, even if we do not share it, so we take note when he dies. This seems perfectly reasonable to me.

Furthermore, since most film-makers tend to themselves belong to this small set of serious cinema fans, over time these arthouse films influence more popular work, to eveyone's benefit. Indeed, many of today's popular films – Pulp Fiction or the Usual Suspects say - would have seemed far too complicated for popular consumption in the 1950s. But their makers are film-nerds. They themselves made hedonic investments, devouring films that others may have thought unenjoyable, and learning how to enjoy, and use, storytelling devices which were not common in the mainstream. Years later, they've been able to use that learning to craft widely enjoyed but relatively sophisticated entertainment. That sounds like progress to me.

No comments: