Argument: George Lucas is the “greatest artist of our time”

Camille Paglia explains why she believes George Lucas is “the greatest artist of our time”:

Who is the greatest artist of our time? Normally, we would look to literature and the fine arts to make that judgment. But Pop Art’s happy marriage to commercial mass media marked the end of an era. The supreme artists of the half century following Jackson Pollock were not painters but innovators who had embraced technology—such as the film director Ingmar Bergman and the singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. During the decades bridging the 20th and 21st centuries, as the fine arts steadily shrank in visibility and importance, only one cultural figure had the pioneering boldness and world impact that we associate with the early masters of avant-garde modernism: George Lucas, an epic filmmaker who turned dazzling new technology into an expressive personal genre.

The digital revolution was the latest phase in the rapid transformation of modern communications, a process that began with the invention of the camera and typewriter and the debut of mass-market newspapers and would produce the telegraph, telephone, motion pictures, phonograph, radio, television, desktop computer, and Internet. Except for Futurists and Surrealists, the art world was initially hostile or indifferent to this massive surge in popular culture. Industrial design, however, rooted in De Stijl and the Bauhaus, embraced mechanization and grew in sophistication and influence until it has now eclipsed the fine arts.

No one has closed the gap between art and technology more successfully than George Lucas. In his epochal six-film Star Wars saga, he fused ancient hero legends from East and West with futuristic science fiction and created characters who have entered the dream lives of millions. He constructed a vast, original, self-referential mythology like that of James Macpherson’s pseudo-Celtic Ossian poems, which swept Europe in the late 18th century, or the Angria and Gondal story cycle spun by the Brontë children in their isolation in the Yorkshire moors. Lucas was a digital visionary who prophesied and helped shape a host of advances, such as computer-generated imagery; computerized film editing, sound mixing, and virtual set design; high-definition cinematography; fiber-optic transmission of dailies; digital movie duplication and distribution; theater and home-entertainment stereo surround sound; and refinements in video-game graphics, interactivity, and music.

Read the entire interesting argument.

Four quick thoughts:

1. This broadens the common definition of artist. It acknowledges the shift away from “high art,” the sort of music, painting, and cultural works that are typically found in museums or respectful places to “popular art” like movies and music.

2. The argument doesn’t seem to be that Lucas is the best filmmaker or best storyteller. Rather, this is based more on his ability to draw together different cultural strands in a powerful way. Paglia argues he brought together art and technology, combined stories from the past and present, promoted the use and benefits of new technologies that were influential far beyond his own films.

3. Another way to think of a “great artist” is to try to project the legacy of artists. How will George Lucas be viewed in 50 or 100 years? Of course, this is hard to do. But, part of creating this legacy starts now as people review an artist’s career though it could change with future generations. I wonder: if technology is changing at a quicker pace, does this also mean the legacy of cultural creators will have a shorter cycle? For example, if movies as we know them today are relics in 50 years, will Lucas even matter?

4. How would George Lucas himself react to this? Who would he name as the “greatest artist” of today?

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