When Profit Drives Art — Is it Intrinsically Wrong?

Is there inherent harm when a thirst for profit fuels the drive to create art? Let’s explore the issue by taking a look at cinema’s early history.

The idea that the love of art fueled cinema rather than a pursuit for profits is a common misconception that permeates society’s collective consciousness. This misconception is the result of either a superficial examination of the cinematic landscape or an unwillingness to realize the truth about art as a whole: Art and the pursuit of profits are intrinsically linked in a capitalistic society. One cannot exist without the other. It’s a disconcerting thought, considering art is the physical manifestation of human creativity and many people believe art should transcend avarice, but the inherent nature of capitalism facilitates a symbiotic relationship between the two.

grea4Consider the early history of cinema as laid out in Robert Sklar’s Movie-Made America. For the most part, innovation in plot, filmmaking technology, etc. was the consequence of bored audiences, not an appreciation for the form. According to Skylar, even Edwin S. Porter, the most talented and well-known auteur of the early 1900s, intentionally did little to progress cinema as an art form. The Great Train Robbery, regarded by audiences at the time as Porter’s greatest film, accidentally changed cinema with its advanced editing and elaborate set pieces. Porter, however, considered an earlier film as his masterpiece, ignoring the unique experience that The Great Train Robbery provided to audiences. This suggests that Porter wasn’t interested in film as art. Instead, as someone who preferred working with machines instead of people, film was little more than an end to a means. Regardless of intent, Porter’s works still established some of the basic rules of cinema, rules that are still in place today.

Even more influential is Porter’s benefactor and employer, Thomas Alva Edison, despite the fact that Edison never made a single film of significance. His various business dealings, however, fueled many changes in the film industry. Each one of those changes affected the way producers shot their films, linking Edison’s drive for profits to the final product, similar to the modern studio system, with its obsession with creating safe, profitable franchises with hundreds of sequels. Edison’s creation of the Motion Pictures Patent Company, subsequent near takeover of the film industry and attack against independent filmmakers and nickelodeons changed the competitive landscape (and ultimately the art itself) when the indies created the “star” system to strike back against Edison’s oppressive Trust. The star system continues today with even more fervor than ever before.

Some would argue that many of the changes arising from film’s reliance on capitalism ultimately diminishes its artistic value, but that viewpoint is borderline elitist. Who is the arbiter of what’s “artistic” or not? Is the catalyst as important as the final product? Edison hired Porter because of his skill as a tinkerer, not an auteur, and yet Porter’s influence on future filmmakers – namely, his editing techniques – isn’t viewed as a negative to those who know about Porter’s lack of ambition. In America, we have a tendency to take compliments and place them at odds. Take the concept of “yin yang,” for example. We tend to refer to this philosophy as “yin and yang,” separating the two and placing them against each other. At the end of the day, the main question is: “Why are we so opposed to profits driving art?”

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