Just as the “moral majority” merged contemporary religion and politics 30 years ago, pop culture and politics have become increasingly intertwined. That’s not necessarily a good thing. As religion became wrapped up with an activist brand of politics, religious conservatives seemed to alienate their fellow Americans instead of drawing them into the cause. Today, conservatives are coming dangerously close to repeating the same mistakes in their effort to marry pop culture and politics.
The rise of social media has given fans more access than ever before to movie stars, musicians, comedians and television actors, resulting in access to more of their politics than ever before, too. The Left has always been able to weave culture into its politics and politics into culture, while political conservatives have been left on the outside looking in.
Conservatives have tried to play catch up but have found it very difficult. When they’re not snidely refusing to engage on this front, they go about engaging media and culture the wrong way.
I often hear people say, “We need to find conservative writers” or “conservative directors” or “conservative artists.” The sentiment is understandable, but misses the point. Popular culture is ultimately about art. Conservatives should forget about finding the best “conservative” writer and go out and find the best writer. Find the best artists. Find the best directors. Contrary to popular opinion, many artists are not concerned with politics. Rather, their goal is make great art, and if given an idea, they can work within that framework to produce something great.
Conservatives also need to stop focusing on “the message” at the expense of form and execution. I cringe when I see a bad movie or read something poorly written and someone says, “But it has such a great message!” If something is poorly executed, no one is going to care about the message. The Left is not immune, and has also fallen into this trap. Moviegoers rejected anti-war “message” movies such as “Lions For Lambs” and “Redacted” because they were lousy films.
When the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” was released, liberals went ballistic even before they had seen it because the film suggested that some of the information that used to find Osama Bin Laden was obtained using harsh interrogation techniques, which many on the Left regarded as torture. Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal were lambasted for their choices, but to their credit as artists, they did not back down. While “Zero Dark Thirty” did not explicitly advocate enhanced interrogation, it did not apologize for it either.
“Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement,” Bigelow wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times at the height of the controversy. “If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.”
IF SOMETHING IS POORLY EXECUTED, NO ONE IS GOING TO CARE ABOUT THE MESSAGE
“This is an important principle to stand up for, and it bears repeating,” she argued. “For confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist’s ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds, especially when those deeds are cloaked in layers of secrecy and government obfuscation.”
That is the mark of a talented artist. She was interested first and foremost in making a great film and she wasn’t worried about the politics or the message.
Conservatives should remember that pushing “the message” is pointless if the audience hates what it sees or reads.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Kyle Cooper speak at an event. You may not know the name, but you have likely seen Cooper’s work as a title designer for feature films. One of his most memorable designs was for the movie “Se7en,” which was considered revolutionary because the title sequence actually became part of the film — it contributed to the story instead of simply flashing text to convey information. Cooper also did the title sequences for “Braveheart,” “Spider-Man,” “Superman Returns,” “Mission:Impossible,” and “Tron:Legacy,” as well AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” In an interview, Cooper was asked what makes a good title sequence. “It makes you thrilled to be in this theatre at this moment, getting ready to see this movie,” he said in an interview. “It makes you glad that you are nowhere else in the world except where you are, getting ready to see something amazing.”
Similarly, Cooper said something during his talk that really stood out in the context of this overall discussion: “The credibility of our message comes into question when we do mediocre work.”
That is it in a nutshell. Conservatives have to focus on the quality of the art they produce before concerning themselves with any kind of message.
This undoubtedly can be done. But it will require and patience. It will also require conservatives to trust artists who may not be aligned with them ideologically to do the work. No one takes his car into the repair shop and then proceeds to watch over the mechanic to make sure he’s doing the work correctly. When great artists are given an idea and a vision, they can execute it.
The sooner conservatives begin to look at this issue differently, the sooner they will be able to produce results that can make inroads with the broader public in the realm of popular culture.
Jay Caruso is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @JayCaruso.