In Defense of the Academy

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This Sunday, millions of people will watch the 86th Academy Awards. The commentary-industrial complex will run the gamut from “Top Ten Most Amazing Jennifer Lawrence GIFs” to critic’s predictions of winners and losers to analysis of Ellen DeGeneres’s talents as hostess. But there will also be a number of snarky tweets and blog posts questioning the very need for the Oscars.

Most of the complaint syndrome about the Oscars comes from having a favorite film snubbed—or looking at the long catalogue of “mistakes” the Academy has made in choosing winners and losers over the years. Articles like “The Worst Oscars” point out that Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon lost out to How Green Was My Valley. And from a more populist angle, some wonder: “Have the Oscars jumped the shark?” when the Academy does nominate an artsier film.

These debates share a curious resemblance to the experiences of past artistic “academies,” which Heather Cate touched on yesterday. The fact most students remember from high-school history is that the early Expressionists were rejected by the Academy (established art schools, particularly the French Académie des Beaux-Arts). And just like our biased Oscar voters, the French academic style, too, had its favorite genres: Historical painting was at the top, while still life and landscapes were at the bottom.

But the way our textbooks described the Academy, as a preservation of kitschy bourgeois, “L’art pompier,” isn’t the whole story.

The French academies served as a training ground for thousands of painters and sculptors—including the rebels Monet, Manet, and Matisse—in addition to performing the role of curating the inherited culture of France. They had an intense focus on classical mythology, national history, and Biblical scenes. These academies were storehouses and archives for the democracy of the dead—and therefore always deserve respect, even among the avant-garde.

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Hollywood’s Academy consists of thousands of professionals from the film and television industry. I’m not here to dispute the fact that the Academy has gotten some things wrong. What I would like to argue against is a certain kind of despondency that rolls its eyes at our traditional institutions and shared cultural experience and says: don’t even bother.

The same dichotomy came up in the most recent Superbowl. There was a great essay (after half an hour of trolling friends’ Facebook archives trying to recall who had shared it, I gave up—but it was good) that critiqued everyone throwing up a status or a tweet to the effect of, “Ugh. I could care less about these stupid men kicking a ball around. Looking forward to Netflix and a bottle of wine. #DontCare.”

The gist of the article was that in today’s America, when our communities are coming apart at the seams and we’re more often bowling alone than with others, and when partisan rancor is flying left and right, it’s important to take advantage of the rare luxury of a national pastime. The Superbowl, for all its failings, is part of the American social fabric—and it’s the duty of good men and women to uphold the good in it and protect it from straying into the bad.

The Oscars work the same way. If you have a good attitude, it’s an opportunity to come together (My first exposure was through viewing parties, at home with family).  Those who are bent on rolling their eyes will do so about anything. But I’d say that taking an interest in our artistic output is a duty. Have some favorite films that weren’t nominated this year? Use this as an opportunity to tell people about them—but criticizing 5,000 professionals for not agreeing with you might just be the slightest bit arrogant.

Our Academy is young—like our country. I hope that we will have many, many more years of the Oscars, no matter how many things they “get wrong.”

Tim Wainwright enjoys writing about movies, politics, and the sexes. You can follow him on Twitter @Tim_Wainwright.