Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Is Art a Desirable Goal?

Over at Bombastic Element, a really cool piece up on music in the work of African cinematic masters like Sissako and Absa. Of course, the term "African Cinema" is loosely applied here. Nothing of this applies to Nigerian film. From the piece he linked to from Beatriz Leal Riesco at Buala:

Since the early days of African cinema, music has formed part of a (self) conscious discourse concerning the problematic realities of Africa. Its use has rarely been gratuitous and goes far beyond the traditional—and much less experimental—Western customs of dramatic punctuation, of evocation of place, of establishing an emotional relationship with the spectator in which the image is almost always predominant, or as accompaniment to the never-ceasing rush of action that hardly leaves one time to think… In African cinema, music is stressed in terms of its cultural, poetic, and artistic functions in relation to oral tradition, with reference to such figures as the griot; it is used to critique the reductive commonplace of tradition versus modernity employed by partisans of a fabricated, purist, and ultimately nefarious—in its insistence on the notion of an “unadulterated essence”— “return to the roots”; it is blended into narration as an essential component and as a marker for critical moments; it works to evoke spaces where time slackens and opens up, giving way for ambiguity and reflection; and it mirrors the continuing urbanization of every aspect of African life, its constant contact with a West for which music is often a tool of domestication, of modernization, and of cultural imperialism.

This post got me thinking about the goals of art, if there need to goals at all, or even if art is a desirable end in itself. Music in Nigerian film, of course, is mostly a hodge-podge of often pop ballads, even jingles, that do little to heighten the mood, if not worsening the scene with sickening heights of melodrama. No high-mindedness preoccupies the filmmakers, and this often is enough for their audience.

It's not like Nigerian films cannot be studied; far from it. They tell you a lot about the collective mindset of country today, but one cannot study Nigerian cinema as a unique way that Nigerian filmmakers approach film in itself. To study an approach to film would imply that the idea of making a film was to produce art, not a product. Yes, there is a thin line between art and product (Art is often sold for profit, after all), but for my money, an art form is qualified as such because what drives the artist something beyond the material gain. An artist makes money, yes, but that's not entirely the point.

I was into books and creative writing long before I started watching film, so maybe my lenses are a bit tainted here and a "good" film should not be defined the same way "good" literature often is. Still, I wonder what it says about Nigerian film that we cannot study aspects of the filmmaking by many Nigerian directors the way we can work by Ousmane Sembene and the like, particularly since our industry is so huge and so well-received. I think the ability of a culture to create and present art, and for it to be appreciated and even find an audience from where it can make money is healthy, even desirable, in any society. I think a society should have a healthy appreciation for artistic expression, and have individuals capable of thinking outside their wallets. I don't even think that there needs to be a split between entertainment and art -- I have read a lot of books lately that blur that line (Lola Shoneyin's "The Secret Lives of Baba Segy's Wives" comes highly recommended). Increasingly, though, I wonder if this line of thinking just shows my own bias and nothing more.

I don't know for sure that "art" is the best goal, if it's even the most desirable goal. I think it is, but I can't give any cogent reason for that. All I know is that in Nigeria only a handful of our films can qualify as art, and precious few of our filmmakers are interested in making good art. I wish I had more than my knee-jerk aversion to this fact, but all I know is that I don't like it one bit.


  1. I think the Nigerian film industry as an art form and Nollywood are two separate entities - there are a number of amazing artists like Tunde Kelani who are still producing beautiful artist movies in Nigeria today and have much to offer those seeking art in film. Nollywood at its purest form is like entertainment TV - whose sole aim is to share African stories to Africans. Until that process finds its place amongst the more traditional methods of story telling, it is hard to expect it to find its artistic core.

  2. Have you seen Welcome to Nollywood?


  3. @ ade - I don't think that we have as much of a Sundance/20th Century Fox split as you say. The fact that you can only name Kelani says a lot. And does the guy actually make money? Are his films widely available? Are marketers willing to take it on? Marketers have decided that Jesus is the Answer and comfortable stereotypes on men and women is what is sellable. These films don't throw shades of light or dark and depict us as we are, and yet so many of us watch it. It's maddening and, I would argue, very damaging to our national psyche.

    Besides, a lot of people who make films like Restless or Araromire, the Andrew Dosunmu types, are not necessarily Nigerian filmmakers in anything more than name-only. They may have Nigerian names, but they very often live abroad because it's easier to get financing for their projects, not to mention support from marketers. So a lot of those Sundance African films don't actually get shown here, and when they do, they're on two screens in Lagos for two weeks, and end up showing at a loss, barely breaking even after paying the cinema their exorbitant fees for renting their screens.

    And while I get the "entertainment" part of it, it cannot but worry me that so many of us consume this lackluster garbage with questionable messages, particularly for women. If I see another film about a woman who, upon making money, started to control her husband, I'll scream and break something.

    @Rivky - No, I haven't! I'll check it out once my wireless starts behaving itself. No way I'm watching it on my pay-per-the-KB internet modem :)