Martin Scorsese recently made the news for complaining that his films are treated as mere “content” by streaming platforms like Netflix. On the surface, his grievance is understandable. Films require an incredible amount of vision, talent, hard work, and money to produce. And great films can have deep, lasting impacts on culture. He’s also correct to highlight the downsides of algorithmic curation. Nonetheless, it’s time to admit that art fundamentally is not sacred. Treating art as content is not only an honest appraisal of reality, it also empowers audiences to accurately assess the ultimate value of art in the modern world.
“Content” is an incredibly general term, but it’s not a disparagement. Online, basically everything that’s not code or design is content. That includes everything from Dogecoin memes to New Yorker opinion pieces to the complete works of Shakespeare. Does Scorsese really think Goodfellas is fundamentally superior to Othello?
Admittedly, most content online is not Shakespeare. Still, web content is not inherently some lowly thing. The people who create and publish content on the web are generally referred to as “content creators,” when in fact they are authors, editors, videographers, public speakers, and artists. Even on a site like Walmart.com, you find several well-produced videos, a wealth of photography clearly taken by professionals, and marketing copy with voice and style. All of this content was created by highly educated, highly skilled professionals who take pride in their work, despite the fact that the content they produce on a daily basis has no claim to being “art.”
But even if “content” were a term synonymous with “cheap, poor quality, uncultured trash,” Scorsese should still embrace it. When art stops trying to latch onto pretentiousness, it’s good for everybody. Pretentious things become walled off from the general public. That’s bad for the artist and bad for the audience. If Scorsese’s plea were taken to its logical extreme, then films would only be shown in highly sanctimonious settings, like museums or cathedrals. (The average movie theater wouldn’t qualify; many of them have the ambiance of an airport waiting area with the lights dimmed.) Is that the end game? If so, it seems like a pretty great way to kill people’s love of movies.
I can understand that Scorsese wants the art of cinema be respected. In his words, he doesn’t want film to be “systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator.” But the test for whether some creative work is worthy of respect and admiration isn’t whether or not the term “content” applies. Instead, there’s a simple test that I believe audiences naturally apply to all content. And that is to ask the question, “Who does it serve?” For example, the film clips on Walmart.com were created to serve the bottom line of Walmart Inc. That’s not very grand or aspirational. So, neither are those video clips. Othello, on the other hand, was created to serve complex, universal themes about romance, jealousy, power, and race relations. I’m sure the play was also created with the intent to line the pockets of some theater company, but I can’t imagine that was the driving force behind Shakespeare’s pen.
On this front, it seems clear that Goodfellas has more in common with Othello than it does with Walmart.com. And this assessment wouldn’t change whether Goodfellas was shown on Netflix or on a big screen at the Museum of Modern Art. So Scorsese doesn’t need to worry. If he really wants something to worry about, it’s that audiences continue to place higher value on Marvel movies than he deems appropriate. He doesn’t seem to be winning any new fans with his argument that Marvel movies aren’t cinema.
Meanwhile, the latest news in the world of cinema is not a new Scorsese film; it’s a 10-second clip authenticated by blockchain and sold for $6.6 million as a new type of digital asset known as a non-fungible token. Ironically, this new and ostensibly “highbrow” piece of art has a real argument that it’s not content. Rather, it’s a form of currency.