THE BLOG

You Say You Want a Revolution?

01/17/2013 02:03 pm ET | Updated Mar 19, 2013

2013 seems like a good year for revolution, doesn't it? I'm talking artistic revolution. I know there are plenty of actual bullet and drone political revolutions going on as well, but I think the art world is due. PRI's Studio 360 recently did an excellent documentary about the revolutionary year of 1913, which saw radical advances in many of the arts. Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was the best know explosion of that year, causing riots when performed by the Ballet Russes. But other composers like Schoenberg and Webern were similarly redefining music at the time and meeting with both resistance and acclaim. The Armory Show in New York introduced modern painting to the American audience. D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers was helping reshape the content of literature for a modern age while Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons was reshaping its form. All in all, a pretty dynamic year.

My field of interest, film, can't boast of such revolutionary events. The form itself was only about 20 years old in 1913, so it would be hard to imagine a revolution. Still, there was a symbolic changing of the guard as early titan Georges Melies, who was primarily theatrically bound, was forced to retire and the cinematically-inspired D. W. Griffith left his constrictive home at Biograph to begin making his own features. Soon, he would spring The Birth of a Nation on the public. Maybe because film is such an expensive and collaborative undertaking, it would take a few more years for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and Battleship Potemkin(1925) to complete the revolution.

Jump ahead 50 years. Rock music had been around for awhile, but the Beatles and the Stones released their first singles in 1963. MOMA staged its first pop-art exhibit (actually in December of 1962) and Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein became household names. The Feminine Mystique and The Bell Jar focused attention on the changing role of women in literature and in culture at large.

Depending on what continent you look at, film was either early or late to the 1960s party. In France, beginning in the late 1950s, la nouvelle vague threw down a huge challenge to the old way of doing things. But in the USA, film was late. Mark Harris's fascinating book Pictures at a Revolution describes the tumult in Hollywood in 1967 by examining the five best picture award nominees. Two were bastions of the old (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Dr. Doolittle), while two others were signs of the future (The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde). The winner was a hybrid: In the Heat of the Night, which offered new content in a traditional form. Hollywood would enter a second golden age from the late '60s into the mid-'70s, when the filmic equivalent of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (namely, Jaws and Star Wars) would establish the blockbuster as Hollywood's fundamental product.

(Oh, and just as a footnote, if you do accept 1967 as "close enough" to 1963, consider that the Monterrey Pop Festival debuted, as did Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and The Velvet Underground. A few months after the Stones agreed to change suggestive lyrics for their performance on Ed Sullivan, the Doors defiantly refused to do the same, and thus the American public was subjected to hearing Jim Morrison tell a girl "we couldn't get much higher." The horror.)

So can we get something going in 2013? What are the ingredients of an artistic revolution? Usually there is anger, both with the culture at large as well as with traditionally accepted artistic modes. Both form and content typically come under attack. And there is often a theoretical spearhead or two. You could easily argue that pop music has been the most dynamic artistic medium since the 1960s. Punk, hip-hop, grunge, world. These have all challenged the predominant mode. And they have often been usurped by the mainstream rather quickly. (Is there a product that NWA songs cannot advertise?) The same can be said of the graphic novel's influence in literature. In film, there have been manifestos, trends like Dogme 95, Slow Cinema, and what we globally refer to as the Indie movement. But nothing seems to have taken the world by storm. Surely, with fiscal cliffs looming, recessions threatening and guns ablazing, there is enough anger out there to fuel a revolution. Surely, with recycled Resident Evils and bankruptcy-inducing John Carters out there, people are fed up with the standard operating procedure of mainstream film. I think we just need the visionary. It could come from anywhere on the globe and from any medium. Maybe it's already here just waiting to gain an audience. Unfortunately, as I scan the landscape, the only thing I see right now is Revolution -- Gangnam Style. In 2013, Gertrude Stein could legally marry Alice B. Toklas in a growing number of American states, but given the condition of our arts today, I kind of think she'd still look for somewhere else to live.