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Grant Bartley looks behind the images of the film Robots to find three perspectives on artistic greatness.

Robots is a great movie, but is it great art? Perhaps it’s churlish of me to seek a fault in such a technically perfect film, but it’s because of its technical perfection that I want to review it to explore the questions, What makes a masterpiece? and What’s necessary for a work of art to have enduring appeal? and to emphasize the link between the answers.

Robots is a children’s movie, but there are enough in-jokes, innuendos and subtexts to distract any adult from any fear of condescension. That its fairy tale plot is formularised is merely an irritation. We can recognize that this cautiousness is necessary to keep rich and artistically-insecure financiers calm. Art has always had its patrons, and so its imposed agendas. It’s what artists manage to do within their possibilities that is subject to judgements of quality, and there will be children to whom this narrative pattern is new, after all. It follows the adventures of Rodney Copperbottom, an unpopular adolescent robot from a deprived background, as he struggles to win love and status, and learns a few truths. In Robots’ use of this Hollywood recipe, the most fundamental truths concern illusion and reality: ‘All that glitters is not progress’, that sort of thing. So despite its creative conservatism, the movie does take an ideological stance that is somewhat anti-materialistic. One of Rodney’s lessons is that the shiny and new stuff isn’t always what you need, you know. The Robots’ merchandising team must appreciate irony at a really deep level here.

The negative points are insignificant in light of the detail, care and intelligence with which Robots was made. But crucially for our question of art, the film is set in a world where mechanical and electronic technology occupy every niche of life to solve every problem. So a background assumption of the story is a world where technological omnipresence is a good, natural (sic) thing. (One ominous question is What happened to all the humans?) I will argue that this contextual complacency tarnishes the film’s admitted brilliance in a way that stops it from being a great work of art – or as I should say, will stop it from being great.

Art and Greatness

Many answers have been put forward to the question ‘What is art?’, and no consensus looks likely to emerge any time soon. I think a work of art is a type of experience-creating device. It’s enough that we allow Robots to be a work of art. But in asking ‘What is great art?’ what do we mean by ‘great’? Importantly, who gets to define greatness here, and by what authority? It would be difficult to demonstrate any objective (ie, taste-independent) truth about what makes the most admirable creativity, because ‘greatness in art’ is only a concept, and so only exists in human minds. So does ‘great’ simply mean ‘great for you’, then – meaning you really like it – whether it’s the Sistine Chapel or half a dead cow?

Maybe you’ll allow a more social definition of ‘great’ – instead of, say, your mood. But defined by which part of society? Perhaps ‘great art’ should mean ‘great as defined in terms of the art market’s flying circus of peer pressure, critical analysis and investment speculation’. Is it all about what art pundits can persuade the museums, galleries and billionaire ‘philanthropists’ is great? Or is greatness also recognized by the population? Popular appreciation is a more democratic test of greatness than high art’s authority, we can say without fear of coherent contradiction; but that doesn’t mean we should automatically dismiss it. (That’s sarcasm, for those who didn’t spot it.) In my unreconstructed opinion, the experts’ or the peoples’ tastes are only based on sophistry unless they incorporate ideals of beauty or truth. So this is the first criteria in my concept of great art. Robots satisfies both ideals, mostly.

Another thing we can say is that to create great art it helps to have the ambition to create great art. Robots shows artistic ambition in the thoroughness of its detailed design and its pervasive wit. Is this enough to make a masterpiece?

A further question in tune with a popular use of the term ‘great art’ is ‘Will it withstand the perspective of history, and be remembered in centuries?’ – like the works of Dickens and the Brontës, Shakespeare, Mozart, Bach, DaVinci, Michelangelo. The point is, it’s stuff enjoyed after centuries – whose brilliance remains recognized. But again, whose memory counts, the museum’s or the marketplace’s?

Perfect Form

A useful conceptual division in art is between form, content and medium. The medium is strictly speaking, what the art’s made from. The content is the ideas a work of art may convey. The form is what the art looks and sounds like. I’m going to use this conceptual division between content and form to present a theory about art meant to apply irrespective of the medium.

Inevitably, the distinction between form and content is not so sharp. The concept of form merges with the concept of content so that sometimes it’s not clear which category to put the aspect of creativity in. For instance, the story of Robots has a typical Hollywood moral arc: the nerdy everyday hero proves his metal (sic). It’s a version of perhaps the major global story form, the hero quest. But the categories of form and content overlap here because this following of the narrative rainbow seems as much part of the form as the content. As well as contributing to the ideas being communicated, this rusty chassis could credibly be thought of as a vehicle for communicating the values of the film. (These I and presumably Hollywood take to be small-town-American values of faith, family, determination, hard work, and the continuing potential of industrial capitalism. The ‘great’ thing from the point-of-view of the accounts department, is that paying people everywhere can relate to these values. No surprises there: globalisation ‘works’.)

Many aspects contribute to artistic form, including composition (how all the bits stand in relation to each other); originality and style. Technical skill in the creation of form includes for instance grace (which artistically, I think means achieving the most expressiveness with the least effort), an assured touch and attention: to detail, tone, content, etc. The ideal is the technical ability to create whatever the artist imagines. I think a good artist must at least be able to create in a way which effectively communicates the core of the content. I think, the more of the aspects of the creation of form you can considerately develop in your artistic project, the better your work will be. How you rank the various aspects of form, or better, understand them together, is a major part of the composition of your taste.

In its form, in many ways Robots does fulfil criteria for being great art. Its construction is integrated, intricate, beautiful and convincing. Every second there’s a sight gag or something else to tickle your wit. Robots has verve, panache, and is consistent in its impeccable design and intelligent writing throughout the film.

Robots also uses the most sophisticated art technology, computer animation, thus repeating a pattern through the ages, of great artists seeking to explore the furthest potentials of the newest resources.

This is not enough.

Significance Psychology

For great art, the form must be perfect but the content must be sublime. Not only must you speak your message flawlessly, you must say something worth listening to. The content is more important than the form as the message is more important than the messenger. A work of art can only be as great as its content, I think.

Intelligent content can usually be discerned however mediocre or over-experimental the form; but even perfect form can be rendered nauseous by rank content. Yet as Hollywood has amply demonstrated, a bucketful of superficially reassuring values and a comforting moral core is not enough to guarantee good art, let alone something transcendently fantastic for centuries.

I’m going to say that great content must be psychologically significant: it has to affect minds powerfully and deeply both emotionally and intellectually. So what is significant for an audience? That depends who they are. Meaningfulness is person specific, but deep significance is possible in art developed from deep insights about the nature of life. Generally, the more fundamental the core of your artistic thinking, the deeper your potential impact. (Philosophers should be well placed to become great artists then, since philosophy is about the use of reason to seek fundamental truths, at least nominally. The philosophical evolution to aesthetic beauty has largely yet to occur, unfortunately.)

Significance is a necessary component of great content, whatever cultural direction the art ’s coming from. But this significance must be well communicated. How? Well, the more the art’s deep core ideals are acknowledged through every dimension of its form, the more the art ’s emotional and intellectual power (ie its significance) are coded into it. And in great art, the content is the full justification for the form – in contrast to justifying some aspect of form just because it ‘looks good’ or ‘sounds nice’. So, as far as something expresses deep insight through each aspect of its construction, that far it can be a great work of art. I see the aspects of the form of a great work of art as parts in an integrated machine working together to communicate a significant set of core ideas.

Even the deepest truths are always seen from a perspective on how things are and should be: a ‘ideology’ or ‘worldview’. So even the most basic information will always be presented from some direction. This includes for art. Artistic ideas will always be spun from some ideological perspective, especially the hidden messages (‘subtexts’). Indeed, the values and ideals expressed through art can culturally define a ideology’s borders.

It is particularly satisfying when the overall form is itself an expression of the deep content. This allows wholeness to the experience, as everything from the core of the content to the nature of the presentation fits together to promote experience of psychologically-significant ideas. This applies to any (‘plausible’?) ideals and ideologies which have significance for people. Postmodernism is a departure from previous art ideals, in that it has rejected beauty as a necessary ideal for art. Generally, it says that no ideal is necessary for art. This is because a basic idea of postmodernism is that there is no authoritative standard by which to judge any ideal as better than any other. Thus postmodern art bends the traditional canons of beauty and technical excellence, and if the artists can sell themselves, sometimes ignores the historical targets completely – in favour of an encounter with ugliness, or the self-justification of the chaos of unfettered creativity, say. Yet even in all this, postmodernists are trying to be artistically true to their ideal. The artist wishes to communicate the basic postmodern value (ie, value relativism), even in the detail of the creation of postmodern art. Indeed, now the act of creation is often considered the art. And the only thing necessary for something to be art appears to be for someone to label it ‘art’. Could art get more relativist?

In a serendipitous way, a core ideal of Robots is expressed even in the medium of its creation. The use of the latest high-tech animation to create intricate and beautiful representations of a happy hi-tech future is holographically apt: in this way the core ideal of the movie runs through every aspect of its substance.

It’s a pity it’s a vein of ideological poison.

Layers Of Meaning

There are layers of content for any work of art, that is, depths of potential meanings in aspects of form. There are depths to the ideas by whose guidance each aspect of form is constructed. The moral is the essential lesson of the piece. But alongside the messages in the moral(s), there are also subtexts, as the literary analysts might put it, or as you or I might say, layers of messages. In fiction, each idea that informs a narrative promotes a set of values, implicitly or explicitly. In Robots, the peace-loving family values of Middle America, incarnate in our everyday robot family, are overshadowed by corporate greed, which intends to turn all the old robots into shiny new parts for the few robots who can afford them. The messages this plot promotes are deliberately easy to pick out. One moral is to trust traditional values of goodness rather than big business and its trojan ideals (cf ‘idols’) of financial status and security. Right on, 20th Century Fox! This giant corporation has financed a film with a sceptical attitude to giant corporations (it’s good for the corporate image). Also, and integral to this hero formula, Rodney learns the value of love and of family, and that endeavour brings profit. A traditional morality tale, then. Sound stuff, even if rather predictable after years of exposure to the word from the west.

There are also different layers of form in which content may be embedded. For instance, one layer of form is the context. Robots is set in a world of pervasive technology, and the ideological context of Robots, its ideal, is absolute technological dependability. Unfortunately, this setting was ideologically obsolescent before the first detail of the design was drafted.

Time Wounds All Heels

The ideal of a technological utopia is increasingly unbelievable. We’re at the tail-end of a tantalizing age when a technologically-sublime future still looked like a reachable possibility. However, it is increasingly clear that we must reduce global resource use to regain environmental stability. Even the global ministry of information will soon recognise that it must reflect this significant reality, particularly Hollywood. Any contrary view will, I suspect, become simply irrelevant. So the ideological foundations upon which Robots’ technical perfection were built were rotten before the first robot was computer-animated. Excellence in all other areas is highly impressive, but is it enough to be great?

We’ve returned to the idea that it depends who and what you’re asking the question for. As with all purely mind-dependent things, ‘greatness in art’ depends on perspective. And as any professional creative is aware, to sell your ideas, it’s important to understand your audience. Who’s interested in what you’re creating?

Moreover, to help distinguish ‘great’ from ‘fashionable’, we want the settled opinion of time. I think the ‘great’ question of art is actually some variant of ‘What yields long-term recognition of the excellence of something’s form developed according to significant content?’ Appreciation after centuries is certainly a compelling endorsement of any art. More consideration has been given to it. But by whom? Pop culture doesn’t line up with the tastes of the art academies and the monied market the academics fertilise with their analyses. Even in the fine arts, it often takes decades for the general public to get used to the higher market ’s evolving palate.

So, ‘Is Robots great art?’ could mean, “Will it eventually be recognised as great by the higher intellectual and financial powers, according to whatever criteria they convince themselves to adopt in the far future? ” Alternatively, it could mean, “Will Robots be treasured by the future population as classic entertainment with a profound or humane message? ” Will Robots become part of the canon, as the art priests say, and/or, will Robots be enjoyed later by actual people? I don’t think we can rule out either formula. Both are valid uses of ‘great’ for art.

First the popular definition of greatness. To ensure current mass appeal, a message in tune with how the zeitgeist is spooking your audience is something it ’ll feel involved with. People can identify with their own situations. For the same reason, major current events can make effective hooks on which to hang messages. Familiar and comfortable threads of creativity can also help an audience to identify with and (so) enjoy something; for example, a familiar everyday setting within a familiar plot, revealing a comfortable morality. Hollywood specializes in this marketing strategy, and Robots also ‘benefits’ from this formula, as mentioned. The human connection is also important for sentimental purposes. People emotionally resonate with what happens to people emotionally. So to ensure your moral hits the spot, cloak it with emotional drama. Bring it home to the heart! Make your characters likable, admirable, desirable or abominable, then put them through the mill. One emotional trigger that works particularly well in narrative is to manipulate the audience to strongly want the protagonists to achieve their goal. The more the characters become overwhelmed with hopeless obstacles, the more you hope for them to win in the end. The sense of emotional relief when the protagonists finally get their good reward can be like the snap of a bowstring.

But what must it be about art which gives it lasting appeal? Universal truths by definition will have a resonance across time as well as space. So artistic content which will touch many people even across time involves archetypal truths of the human condition. I’m talking about birth, death, tragedy, love, despair, hope, and tapping into the universal stories and other symbols that go with them. If you can communicate about these realities at a deep level, you’re doing well.

Specifically in terms of ‘great children’s fiction’, imaginative morality tales like The Waterbabies or Aesop’s fables, or Beatrix Potter’s stories; or sagas full of ideas and invention, like Alice in Wonderland, have survived cultural change. And Robots is idea-packed. Unfortunately, as I say, it seems inevitable that the background ideology of this movie will soon be anachronistic. This does relate to Robots’ artistic greatness according to time. Technical brilliance cannot be the only significant factor for longevity. There has to be continuing relevance too. Yet I predict that future mass arbiters of the label ‘childrens’ classic’ will care as little for a story whose context is a technological paradise as our high art judges presently care about the classical canons of beauty. Irrelevant, except as a teaching tool or curiosity.

What about definitions of greatness by future art intelligensias? Who knows what the high art orders will think once they get over postmodernism? I don’t think anyone can make any useful predictions about future art critiques. The principle here is that no-one can ever know in advance what will or won’t last culturally, or for how long.

So will a film as perfectly constructed as Robots be remembered as great by future generations? Only future generations will see for sure.

© Grant Bartley 2008

Grant Bartley is Assistant Editor at Philosophy Now. Some of his short stories can be read at authortrek.com.

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