I believe that art is 80% intention, 20% posterity's reaction. It doesn't matter what your medium is — oil paint, photography, music, words on a page, dance, clay, film, or even a guest spot on General Hospital — if an artist sets out to make art, that will be the result. Now, whether it ends up being good or bad art is up for (endless) debate. That's the 80%. The opposite end of the spectrum, the 20% part, is how the cognoscenti and the rest of us perceive the work. Cavemen drawing on the walls in Lascaux over 17,000 years ago were most likely trying to entertain themselves, or maybe perform some sort of ritual, but the art world recognizes their efforts as the earliest forms of painting. The beautiful drawings are usually the first slide in art history 101 classes. In his case, the 20% posterity's view trumps intention, as the cavemen aren't around to argue the point.
I've been thinking recently about art films. The performing arts lend themselves more easily to earning cash and public acclaim (or disdain) and just plain awareness than what's happening in the art world. Many more people go to see a movie than go to an art gallery or a play or a concert. But while there is undoubtedly a level of artistry in a movie like Transfomers: Revenge of the Fallen, no one is likely to call it art. That wasn't the intention. The filmmakers' aim was to make beaucoup bucks and blow things up — a lot. But a surrealist film like Luis Buñuel's and Salvador Dalí's graphic-for-its-time Un Chien Andalou (The Andalusian Dog, 1929) or Jean Cocteau's avant-garde Le Sang d'un Poete (The Blood of A Poet, 1930) or Matthew Barney's Cremaster 2 were intended as art from the start. While they may have made some money at the theater (Un Chien Andalou, originally intended for a limited showing in Paris, was so popular with the public that it ended up playing for 8 months), the films were created with artistic, non-Hollywood intentions.
The auteur theory, in which "a director can use the commercial apparatus of film-making in the same way that a writer uses a pen or a painter uses paint and a paintbrush" hinges on talking about movies made with artistic intent. Some of the directors that fit the bill include François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman, Roman Polanski, Orson Welles, Woody Allen, Alfred Hitchcock. Is every one of these filmmaker's movies art? Not by a long shot. But the intent is there in many of their movies, and most would agree that Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), Det Sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957), Knife in the Water (1962), Citizen Kane (1941), Manhattan (1979) and Vertigo (1958) qualify. Well, I may have to re-think Allen. He's definitely an auteur, but his attempts to make art don't usually hit the mark for me.
When photography first started to be shown as art in galleries there were many that protested that such a mechanical process could be considered art. Some even maybe a wee bit threatened. Pablo Picasso has been quoted as saying, "I have discovered photography. Now I can kill myself. I have nothing else to learn." But Picasso survived, and photography became another artistic medium, and cameras another tool, like paintbrushes. What is high art and what isn't has been one of the main debates of the 20th century and has dribbled into the 21st in regard to film.
By writing that "the medium is not the message" I am having a bit of punning fun with the famous quote nugget from Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). McLuhan talked about many aspects of media and culture, art among them, "Art at its most significant is a Distant Early Warning System that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it." McLuhan believed that the medium (television, advertising etc.) was the thing, not the content it transmitted. One of his famous examples was that the medium of television was powerful, regardless of whether it was showing children's cartoons or violent programs. I'm turning that idea on its head in relation to art and art-making by positing that the medium employed by the artist — whether film, or words, or painting, etc., is irrelevant. What is important is the end product, the art experience. The ideas and feelings taken away by the viewer. If a piece has something to say, and talks in the language of art, no matter what medium was employed, it's art.
Of course if I go on too much longer, I'm at risk of sounding like the "Man in Theatre Line" from Annie Hall. McLuhan also said, "Art is anything you can get away with." Sounds like a Woody Allen line. Allen brought the man, McLuhan, into this wonderful scene in Annie Hall, and just for the sheer brilliance of that bold stroke, gets put back on my art/auteur list.