More than seven decades ago, writer Albert Maltz predicted Moonlight’s “best picture” win at the Oscars. For that matter, he also predicted past victories by Spotlight, 12 Years a Slave, and American Beauty.
“If a work, however thin or inept as a piece of literary fabric, expresses ideas that seem to fit the correct political tactics of the time, it is a foregone conclusion that it will be reviewed warmly, if not enthusiastically,” Maltz wrote in the New Masses in 1946. “But if the work, no matter how rich in human insight, character portrayal and imagination, seems to imply the ‘wrong’ political conclusions, then it will be indicted, severely mauled or beheaded — as the case may be.”
The Academy Award nominee and Hollywood Ten member warned fellow Communists against embracing “art as a weapon” and rejecting art for art’s sake. This past week the Academy displayed its favoritism toward films that flatter its political outlook by honoring a movie about race, sexuality, class, repression, and bullying. A film exploring such subjects needn’t come across as preachy; and Moonlight doesn’t. But the Oscars, which went native on Sunday by sermonizing to an audience already at their daily limit for preaching, did.
Maltz, never broken by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, nevertheless quickly cracked under the pressure of the Communist Party to denounce his essay. As critics increasingly react to a film’s politics as much as to its aesthetics, Maltz’s rejection of art for art’s sake under pressure eventually became a stance freely taken by others in his industry.
More than a decade before Maltz authored “What Shall We Ask of Writers?” in the New Masses, the same publication advanced a program calling for artist “agitprop troops” pushing left-wing ideas while appropriately donning uniforms, which Communist apostate Max Eastman described as “a corps of obedient pen-pushers dressed up in blue blouses and ready to write whatever any Russian politician tells them.” The surreal and silly image of “artists in uniform” sparked Eastman to write a book by the same name. Last weekend, the artists in uniform left the blue blouses at home and wore tuxedoes and gowns.
Ideologues now understand that wearing uniforms or armbands undermines their political aims. They wisely operate, to a point, in stealth mode. But with applause rather than shut-up music greeting Oscar-night denunciations of Donald Trump’s proposed wall and “police violence” (strangely in conjunction with an award for a film about O.J. Simpson), Hollywood still wears its politics on its sleeve—just not in a literal sense.
Josephine Livingstone recalls Maltz’s “What Shall We Ask of Writers?” in an important new essay in the New Republic. A woman of the Left, Livingstone nevertheless argues for “an aesthetic space whose boundaries are not defined by the president. Unless we believe in and nurture this space, the critic is stuck forever explaining how this or that book is crucial reading ‘in Trump’s America.’” She argues for freedom in which the current regime does not bind the artist to create art reacting to it in some way or another. Livingstone writes that “when criticism ties itself to anything it risks acting like the scholar who can only see the poet as for or against his emperor.”
Should we believe that the crowd that rabidly cheered speeches denouncing the man they consider emperor on Sunday night in Los Angeles elsewhere judged films without political considerations in mind?
Best picture-winner Moonlight pushes the correct cultural buttons, albeit softly. Race plays as a theme but not racism in that the almost complete absence of non-African Americans means the protagonist’s struggles come courtesy of other blacks. It’s a film about homosexuality that treads lightly on the sexuality. It’s Manchester by the Sea for black people, a sad, slow vehicle for actors that overlooks the need for script, story, and plot and mistakes depressing for deep. It’s a three-star movie worth watching but not much worth remembering. The Academy made a mistake when it corrected Faye Dunaway’s mistake.
But in an era when Hollywood values art as a weapon over art for art’s sake, Moonlight’s competitors likely imagine the mistake theirs, and one they likely don’t commit again, for not pressing the hot buttons in their films. Art as a weapon in this way works as a force multiplier.
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