Somewhere out in the realm of art, there is a line.
Where it is, how it should be treated, and what it applies to are hotly debated subjects.
This line divides authentic art from escapism.
What is authentic art?
Human beings are beset by two sets of desires. Human beings have the shallow desire to give in to their baser passions — Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Laziness, Anger, Envy, and Pride. These desires call us to make our god some lesser aspect of creation, reject discipline, ignore the pursuit of truth, and hide from the one, true God. But human beings have a deeper set of desires. We desire Greatness, Holiness, and Excellence. Humans desire to build habits of Chastity, Temperance, Charity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness, and Humility. We desire to be all that God created us to be and unite with Him at the end of the journey.
The drama from great art arises from the tension between these two desires. The tension runs largely in between people, creating villains and heroes. But it also runs right down the middle of every human heart. Some of the greatest writers to address these high matters in the English language are William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and J.R.R. Tolkien.
What then is escapism?
Escapism rewrites the rules of reality to de-emphasize the true drama of human life. People might, for example, pursue “coolness” rather than Excellence. The cool people are often deeply flawed people who habitually give in to baser temptations. However, their “coolness” nevertheless acts as a substitute for authentic virtue, carrying these people to sympathy in the minds of their audience and also delivering them success in their endeavors. Oftentimes, the “cool girls” are successful, stunning-looking specimens who flit in and out of sexual relationships without an emotional scar or a single case of conception. The “cool guys” often dashingly break the law, administer vigilante justice, and personally bring to a bloody end hundreds of their enemies without suffering so much as a stubbed toe. Modern escapism promotes “coolness” as an alternative to Virtue and Greatness.
Why is that escapism? Can’t reality work that way?
Escapism soothes a struggling conscience. The heroes are not real heroes. The only difference between us and them is that when they do something sinful and wrong, they get away with it and typically benefit from it. In Pretty Woman, a story is told of a young 20-something hooker (played by Julia Roberts) who sleeps with a rich guy and ends up happily married to him in an explosion of romance. Sadly, the reality is not so rosy. Hookers are typically under the dominion of a tyrannical pimp. And the average life expectancy of such a person is 21 years old. That’s right. Dead by 21. The idea that either a selfish, lustful rich man or a hooker have the virtues necessary for marriage is also a fable. In Boondock Saints, prosecutors of vigilante justice make bloody piles of their enemies. There are oceans of men in the federal penitentiary that operate under the delusion that they attempted some sort of glorious vigilante justice. James Bond sails through life with minimal virtue and rarely a scratch surrounded by large-breasted women who he whips through without any true emotional damages or conceptions.
That is not art. That is escapism. And that is what Hollywood largely peddles these days.
One of the cleverest deceptions of the cultural Left has been the promotion of “coolness” as a substitute for Greatness. Virgins or people who believe in Chastity are portrayed as clueless losers who can’t score a one-night stand. The sad truth is that those people who develop habits of one-night stands are going to end up struggling with child support payments, sexually transmitted diseases, single motherhood, or abortion weighing on their lives and hearts. It is those who develop habits of Excellence that go on to accomplish great things personally and professionally.
Hollywood still bitterly complains about the Legion of Decency and the Production Code written by Father Daniel Lord, SJ, and enforced by the Motion Picture Association of America (the industry trade association) which censored Hollywood from 1934 to 1968:
- No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, or sin.
- Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
- Law, human and Natural, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
This, Hollywood elites claimed, stifled their inner creativity by subjecting them to the misguided morals of the oft-boycotting Catholic populace. Sadly, since MPAA has ceased censorship and gone to the ratings system in 1968, Hollywood has embarassed itself by producing primarily escapist garbage that promotes destructive habits as a positive good. They then flatter each other at the Academy Awards about each other’s “art.”
It seems that having the morals of the American populace was the exact ingredient that Hollywood needed to succeed in producing the movies of the Golden Age of Hollywood.