When Art Reflects Culture

Whether art is a reflection of culture or culture is a reflection of art is a question that remains largely unanswered to this date. However, Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein’s documentary The Celluloid Closet inadvertently takes a stance on how art reflects culture, at least from an LGBTQ+ perspective. The films primary focus is the shifting depiction of homosexual imagery and same-sex affection over the course of cinematic history. What’s fascinating, is the fact that since the dawn of cinema the representation of homosexuality has been on somewhat of an up-and-down wave.

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From the start of cinema to the end of the second world war, tenderness between two males or two women was tolerated and part of the norm. It was only through the general public’s growing realization of the “real-life” LGBTQ+ community, that films started receiving censorship, largely due to the involvement of the Catholic church. With the 1950’s came a period in cinematic history where scripts about gay, lesbian or otherwise queer characters were radically altered in order to fit into these ridiculous standards.

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Male “sissy” humor and lesbian affection slowly became less common as time the years passed, which was no surprise when taking the general public’s opinion of the LGBTQ+ community into consideration. Gay men were not perceived as individual people, but much rather as a bizarre anomaly that couldn’t fit into the hetero-normative spectrum that culture had set out for them. The prude nature of 1950’s America created a sexual repression even among straight on-screen couples, but with time the sexual revolution of the 1960’s helped lift the strict censorship on straight sexual intercourse on screen.

Still from Spartacus

With the AIDS pandemic of the 1980’s, negative perception of gay men skyrocketed, until filmmakers realized the potential of their craft and created films like Philadelphia, that began to give a human face to a minority that had been the butt-end of a joke for countless years. The casting of Tom Hanks was an integral part of this swaying of public opinion, and as homosexual intimacy slowly began to reappear in filmmaking, same-sex tenderness was getting somewhat closer to what it used to be at the dawn of cinema.Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 5.37.46 PMHowever, these signs of affection never became as overt as they used to be. Today, if two men or two women are affectionate on screen, its probably because the film is building up to a sex scene. So although the depiction of LGBTQ+ relations existed, then disappeared, and subsequently reappeared, it never really made its way back in the same, innocent way.Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 5.41.27 PMThe reason for this could be attributed to the fact that silent cinema necessitated a lot of gestures and body contact to emote a characters feelings for one another, even if they wouldn’t be lovers. However, I believe that this has a lot more to do with how art reflects culture. As cultures stance on the LGBTQ+ community shifted, art began removing them from the picture entirely, much like how culture at the time refused to acknowledge their existence. Then as the sexual revolution broke out in the 60’s  and the AIDS pandemic terrified the layman in the 80’s, the LGBTQ+ community received more exposure in cinema, albeit often negative. Today, gay and lesbian relationships exist in film almost primarily from the perspective of sexual affection, frustration, denial and repression. Once again, art is reflecting something relevant in today’s culture, which is sexual and gender identity and the fight for tolerance. Blue is the Warmest ColorThe reason contemporary films about the LGBTQ+ community rarely involve innocent tenderness between two characters of the same sex, is because this feels irrelevant to today’s culture. Even the most progressive films that tackle this subject, like the Palme D’or winning film Blue is the Warmest Color, tackle subjects of sexual orientation with the primary focus being uncertainty and the feeling of being singled out in a community that doesn’t understand you. Maybe one day, when the LGBTQ+ community no longer needs to fight for their rights as much, art will begin to reflect a culture in which protagonists just happen to be members of the LGBTQ+ community, rather than having their sex or gender play an integral part in the films narrative.

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2 thoughts on “When Art Reflects Culture

  1. Your argument that art is a reflection of culture rather than the other way around is pretty convincing to me. From your sissy analogy to where we are now with Blue is the Warmest Color, I see movies as direct viewpoints of where society is at that time. I am hopeful that the film industry will progress so that characters will be able to exist and also hope that their sexuality is not just tolerated, but celebrated, and that it becomes just as normal to see relationships of people in the LGBTQIA* as it is to see heterosexual couples.

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  2. Just to briefly comment on your opening statement about the relationship between art and culture: If we view the process of culturization as a way of establishing the boundaries of what we distinguish as ‘art’ then, when attempting to judge from an original position, art may pre-exist culture but only through culture do we distinguish what we define as ‘art’. However it seems safe to say that the relationship between art and culture today has changed and become fully dialogical. This relationship predates the cinema but as soon as films started being screened for audiences, they entered into this perpetual cycle and became an agent for ideologies that we’ve internalized in contemporary society.

    I agree with your point that the representation of LGBT+ people in popular cinema over the past several decades has been largely dictated by major social issues, such as the eruption of the AIDS epidemic and the controversy over gay rights. There is no doubt that a film like Blue is the Warmest Color reflects a certain attitude about the presence of homophobia in society today. I’m curious whether these attitudes (or differing ones) can be found in other examples of contemporary queer cinema that don’t receive attention from the film festival circuit or come from directors with international acclaim like Kechiche.

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