The Importance of Aesthetics in Video Art

To me, cinema is a work of art displayed in motion. In film theory, students learn that cinema as art is a topic with which to be debated; but I feel cinema, as a moving image, is the very embodiment of art itself. If a still image created by an artist can be considered art, then a moving image can only increase and intensify the artistic and aesthetic quality. This is not to say that all cinematic pictured are created equal. There is a significant difference in artistic quality between avant-garde cinema and commercialized, mainstream films designed to make big bucks at the box office. Auteur filmmakers interested in artistic quality often seek to have a deeper meaning in their shots which may or may not be instantly recognized by the viewer at first glance.   Examples of this include using the cinematography to case a shadow on a part of the character’s face to symbolize sadness or doubt; or, arranging a carefully placed mis-en-scene using objects to give the appearance equal weight and balance at each side of the frame.

I believe the term “cinema” is used to describe all aspects of the film industry, not just the motion picture. Everyone from the director, to the actors, to the set designer, and any individual that offers contributions to the motion picture is working in cinema. A cinematic image may be a still image taken from a film, although to earn this term the still should embody some aesthetic qualities. Film, from what I gather, is a generalized term to describe all motion pictures. Some films may be commercialized and feature little to no artistic merit; others may be independent films which rely heavily on avant-garde techniques. In video art, artists make often short motion pictures, rooted in conception, usually with sound and video altered and deviated from normal, often to convey a deeper meaning.

In his opening passage, Bill Viola describes that a camera, by itself, does not serve a purpose in art. A lonely camera may capture anyone who walks in front of the lens, but as Viola states, “a camera has no story to tell.” What Viola suggests here is that it requires a filmmaker behind the camera, with intent and a goal, to truly give a motion picture substance and purpose. A surveillance camera, for example, has no agenda, no rhetoric, no story; it’s simply capturing objective reality. However, if a filmmaker’s intention to only capture images of the every day world, at that point it would be art since that is the motive of the artist and art lies in the intention of its maker. Viola suggests that true cinema involves a creator with a story to tell.

Viola distinguishes between two different methods of art. First, he talks about iconic art where idea of the central image may represent a concept or an idea or a specific person already considered sacred by many. Consequently, these iconic art pieces become iconic in and of themselves for the very idea they intend to represent. Most religious pieces would fall into this category, such as Michelangelo’s David and Sistine Chapel, and Leonardo’s da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Since this idea being represented is already sacred, artists have extra pressure to perfect their piece. These images become icons by their content alone (Viola 479).

Another situation in art about which Viola speaks is when pieces become iconic after they are created without a predetermined sacred idea. In a sense, pieces like this can be more inspiring as they never set out to become iconic images but did so on the basis of the artist’s substance. Viola speaks heavily of artist Filippo Brunelleschi, who invited individuals to look through a wooden box with a hole drilled into the side. According to Viola, Brunelleschi was the first to paint something like this, and thus it became iconic by its very nature. Regarding cinema, Viola describes it as a phenomenon that only enhanced the artistic integrity of still images. With cinema, Viola writes, “images now had a behavior, and the entire phenomenon began to resemble less the material objects and more the process of the mind that was moving them (482).

In art history, I’ve learned about several pieces of still art that have a special meaning to me. The Spiral Jetty in Utah, created by Robert Smithson, is a good example of this; many see it as a beautiful monument or landmark, others apply a deeper meaning to it and relate it to the cosmos, and some consider it meaningless, gaudy, and an eyesore. I, however, view the Jetty as a constantly spinning spiral of time, only to end suddenly as a drop in the water, symbolizing life and death. The Spiral Jetty is a testimony that art is mostly subjective.

Viola felt the use of time now embodied in video art and cinema not only increased the aesthetic quality of the art, but added something new entirely – a spiritual depth or complexity that is not present in still images. According to Viola, “time itself has become the material prima of the art and the moving image” (482), suggesting that time is the most important role in that of a moving image, and that the inception of time in moving picture art can break away still images from their inherent time constrain and expand them beyond conventional artistic methods. Viola continues “duration itself is the medium that makes thought possible, therefore duration is the consciousness as light is to the eye” (482). Here, Viola suggests that time is necessary for thought. He states time is more like a cloud than a rock, since clouds are in constant motion while rocks are stagnant. Viola believes, while a still image may inspire beauty and aesthetics, time is necessary to inspire thought and consciousness. In this regard, viewers of art can get a much deeper spiritual connection with images involving time.

A great example of a motion picture that uses the elements of light, time, and movement is Spring Breakers (2012). The plot of the film, which can simply be described as a group of teens’ trip to Florida for Spring break, may appear, by that synopsis alone, to be just another teen film. Director Harmony Korine makes his film a visual feast, using neon filters, slow motion, and heavy symbolism. In one scene, for example, the teens rob a drive-through business whilst in a car. In the frame, the car and drive through window are visible, with one of the girls holding a gun out to the employee. Here, the filter is pink and classical baroque music plays drowning out any dialogue. Korine plays with time here, as not only is this done in slow motion, but the car is seen going around the building several times, stopping at the same drive-through window, even though this situation only happens once. In another scene, the girls meet a drug lord in a bubble bath with bright neon pink walls. The bubbles also appear like the drug lord is sitting on a cloud, in Heaven, with a pink background. In a later scene, the drug lord is found dead in the same bathtub, yet the walls are white. The many examples of the film’s unique color schemes can be found here .


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