The New York Times – Sunday July 1st, 1928
As Lillian Gish Views Art
“Are We Creating Art?” was the title chosen by Miss Lillian Gish for a special article on the film world which she wrote for Vossiche Zeitung the other day while in Berlin consulting with Max Reinhardt concerning the details of the film in which she will play under his direction. The Berlin newspaper headed the article by the American actress “The Most Moving Film Star on the Film.” Here it is:
“Perhaps the greatest evil afflicting the film at present is the over-enthusiasm of its champions. For they have made up their minds that the film must be ranked with the fine arts; and the film-regardless of how thankful it may be for this compliment – suffers heavily under the burden of the responsibility thus thrust upon it and suffers from the heroic endeavors it must make in order to show itself worthy of the good opinion of its champions.
“It seems to me that the word ‘Art’ is about the most misused in our language. Quality and beauty alone no longer satisfy the public. Some sort of big words must be attached to them; we are no longer satisfied simply to take things as they are, no matter how charming they may be, with their many-sided possibilities; we always feel the need of clothing them, as it were, to an ‘esthetic Legion of Honor.’
“How is the film art or not? We can just as easily cite evidence for it as against it. But I think such citing of evidence is useless, aside from the fact that human beings are inclined more or less to measure their own work with special yard-sticks and to attach greater importance to it than it really has.
“For what is art? Art is beauty idealized. And there are minutes – only minutes probably – when the film meets this requirement. And there are hours – unfortunately many hours – when it falls quite outside the borders of this requirement, just as do drama or painting, plastic art or music. If the film is not art because of the many thousands of trashy films that are turned out, then maybe painting isn’t art either because of the many thousands of ‘Greenwich Village’ trashy paintings and music isn’t art because of the thousands of ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas’ that are produced.
“It is generally said that the theatre is art and that the film isn’t. Apparently the film is not regarded as art because it lacks the human voice – the theatre’s auxiliary. But isn’t it possible to read dramas? And furthermore, aren’t some of the most gripping and profound moments experienced in the theatre just when not a word is spoken, those moments of silence when pain and joy, the torments or the deepest emotions of human beings, speak only through their facial expressions, through their gestures?
“On the other hand, suppose we wanted to put the drama upon the screen with absolute and clear faithfulness to the text? This is quite possible, although not customary. Then we have, or rather we would have, presented a drama with silent actors to a whole house of listeners, just as, in reading, it is presented to a single person by silent actors who appear upon the stage of the readers imagination. Besides, if the film lacks the third dimension, so does painting. If is has no spiritual content, then the theatre piece called the best in the world has no more. If children can find pleasure in films, they do the same with ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘Mikado.’
“But let them call the film what they choose, the question is: How often, according to their own administration, does it awaken genuine feelings in the hearts and souls of sensitive persons? Not too often, I know. But you can’t judge a thing justly if you look at only its worst effects instead of its best. Finally, every mountain in the Alps isn’t a Matterhorn.
“We must remember that the first short film-like piece, “The Kiss,” appeared in 1896 and that the first real film of the sort we are acquainted with today, ‘The Great Train Robbery,’ was produced only twenty-three years ago. In these relatively few years the film has developed a hundred times more than, for example, architecture in its countless first, unoriginal centuries. So if the film cannot be called art as yet, isn’t it conceivable that it can be in the future? Isn’t a film like ‘The Last Man’ already a step along this road? Hasn’t it literal beauty, a powerful form and an impressive mental and spiritual content? Isn’t it played as well as the best theatre drama produced the same year? Isn’t it deeply rooted in human life?
“The film, like the theatre, is not a school for morals. Just as little as the drama, is it suppose to educate men and women; it ought only to make them think about things they know anyway; it ought to show them the difference between lofty and low thoughts and feelings. This is the goal of the best films, just as it is of the best theatre pieces. The battle for the film will not be easy, but I feel that there is courage and strength enough at hand to be able to venture it. There will be many difficulties; there will be many defeats; but I believe that some day the film will be victorious. It will not be victorious because somebody calls it art, or no art, but simply because it actually can work with the same means as the theatre. And besides we must remember that just now progress is being made with the talking films. And finally we must remember that if the film is at present dumb and consequently, in the opinion of many persons, cannot be called art, that Michelangelo’s ‘Moses’ is dumb, just as are Tintoretto’s ‘Miracle,’ his ‘Cathedral of Beauvais,’ and his ‘Lost Son,’ and Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ and ‘A Sunset on the Havel.’”