Movie Posters and the Philosophy of Art

      I'm going to be honest here, I don't read a whole lot of books. As a college graduate, I don't feel particularly compelled to read anymore. Without an instructor holding a metaphorical gun to my head and telling to read Book X or fail, I see no reason to bother with books anymore. There are several reasons for this. First of all, there is a wealth of worthwhile reading material available online for free. Why the fuck should I pay $14.95 for The Da Vinci Code when I'm already familiar with the rather unoriginal alternate history on which it's based? When I want to be entertained, I tend to seek out mediums that offer a more complete sensory experience, primarily movies and video games. It's not so much that I don't find books entertaining, it's that I don't generally find them to be reusable. I read Stephen King's It in all its 1100 page glory and I loved it. But why would I ever want to read it again? It was quite a lengthy time investment and I already know what happened. But for a time investment of just over 2 hours, I can watch Tombstone starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer. Not only does it provide a more complete experience, but it's also more quotable.

      In the second chapter of his book Move Closer, John Armstrong discusses a conflict between affection and information when viewing a work of art: “Psychologically, the opposition is often real enough: the pursuit of information can forestall personal response.“ Understanding the background of a work of art can be helpful to appreciating and grasping the artwork itself. But it is easy to become entrenched in a sea of excessive facts that aren’t necessarily helpful in learning anything “about” the art. He also discerns that this not always case; the two do not have to be in opposition of each other. There is a third possibility that Armstrong does not specifically discuss. If information can hinder affection or run parallel to affection, it would follow that affection for an artwork could be dependent on information. This is a difficult assertion to support, but not impossible. For while it may be true that a person could know everything about Vincent Van Gogh, the techniques he used, and why he used them, and still not have a genuine personal response to The Starry Night, this is not necessarily true with all art. There is a modern art form that falls into this category. It is present in dorm rooms throughout the country, absent in only the most elitist environments. This form is the movie poster.

      There is an issue that must be resolved before this matter can be fully explored, namely, can a movie poster really be considered art? The impulsive answer is no. There is a certain amount of snobbery associated with the idea of art and it seems vulgar to consider something as base as a movie poster to fall under the scope of art. But such standards are antiquated. Music, photography, dance, film and many other types of performance and creation are all considered art in the modern world. Andy Warhol became famous by creating silkscreens of images such as Campbell’s Soup, Marilyn Monroe, and Mao Tse-Tung and he is considered to be the penultimate genius in some circles. If his brand of Pop Art is generally accepted as legitimate, it is not unreasonable to consider movie posters as an art form.


      Movie posters are a strange case. A poster provides a visual experience, but the meaning embedded in the poster extends past the poster itself. When a college student tapes a Terminator 2: Judgment Day poster onto the wall of a dorm room, the poster is only a part of the intended affective response. The poster serves as a placeholder of sorts. It is meant to evoke memories and images of the blockbuster film. For someone who has not seen the movie, the affective experience becomes extremely limited. The poster itself is rather stark. It features a muscular leather-clad man brandishing a shotgun and straddling a motorcycle. It is printed primarily in black, blue and white. Across the top of the poster in big red letters, it reads SCHWARZENEGGER. The poster is simple, but this simplicity requires complicity from the viewer in order to be effective. Several assumptions are made. The poster presumes that the viewer knows who Arnold Schwarzenegger is. It also presumes that the viewer is familiar with the character of The Terminator, a time-traveling cybernetic killing machine. Without that knowledge, it is easy for the viewer to misinterpret or fail to notice the red electronic eye that shines through the left lens of The Terminator’s sunglasses. Familiarity with the character is still not enough to get the full affective experience. One must also be familiar with the predominant themes of the movie: the dangers of rapid technological advances and the doctrine of free will. Even that is not enough. The poster has every idea, every character, every shot of the movie pulsating through it. The more information that one has about the movie Terminator 2, the deeper the affective response to the poster will be. In order to get the full effect, it is necessary to actually view the movie.


      The idea that outside experience effects affection is not foreign to Armstrong. In fact, he devotes Chapter Four, entitled Reverie, to it. This chapter talks about how individuals cannot help but reflect their personal experiences into an artwork. Someone might enjoy The Starry Night because it brings forth childhood memories of sleeping under the stars. In this case, reverie caused the observer to reference something outside the artwork. So do movie posters. However, this reverie is different from the representational quality of movie posters. Reverie produces affective responses that are not intentional on the part of either the viewer or the artist whereas the movie posters seek to call to mind a very specific set of responses.


      All of this postulating has so far overlooked an important fact: the broader nature of movie posters. It is true that movie posters can be bought at many retail stores and subsequently displayed by those who wish to be constantly engaged by their affective qualities. But this isn’t really the primary function of such objects. Posters are a marketing tool. As such, a poster for a new movie serves the viewer as a visual reminder to the affective responses of the television commercials and the theatrical trailer. In order to be effective advertisement, a poster must do more than simply reference a commercial; it must be able to stand on its own merits. Does the Terminator 2 poster do this? Well, perhaps it does. While there is not much there, the poster is dark, imposing, and ominous. Those qualities by themselves have the potential to pique an observer’s interest. This provides an interesting counterbalance. Vague details of a movie poster can produce an affective response that coerces someone who was never seen the movie it represents into watching that movie. But once that person has had an affective response to the movie, the poster will consequently produce a similar affective response from then on. This is because movie posters almost always share a direct relationship with the movies they represent. The poster recreates a tone, image, or concept from the movie. This is not always the case. This is better illustrated by the cover art on music albums, which often also finds its way onto posters. Album cover art does not necessarily reflect the music of a recording artist. For instance, Mark Kostabi’s painting Use Your Illusion was used as the cover art for a Guns N’ Roses album of the same name. Interestingly enough, the band did not commission the work. Rather, singer Axl Rose saw the work and had a deep affective response to it. He got permission from Mark Kostabi to use the piece as an album cover and subsequently named the album after it. Also, the piece is simply a reinterpretation of part of Raphael’s School of Athens. This creates a bizarre situation. Use Your Illusion is a visual work that was created independently of the band’s musical work. Someone unfamiliar with Guns N’ Roses could easily have a full affective experience solely based on the work. But another person, one who only recognizes the image as Guns N’ Roses album cover, could have a totally different affective response based solely on the use of the image as a surrogate for the band’s music. And it’s possible to recognize the work as a piece of School of Athens and have an affective response based on that relationship, which is strikingly similar to the movie-poster relationship. Or it’s possible to have separate and composite affective responses based on any combination of the work as a stand-alone piece, as School of Athens, and as the Guns N’ Roses album cover.


      Movie posters are just one example of the deep ties between information and affection. Whether we want it to or not, information shapes our affective response to art. Knowing that the Basilica di San Marco was constructed with materials plundered from Constantinople certainly affects our ability to appreciate it. It is supposed to be a religious building, rooted in things that are holy and noble. But its origins, which are rooted in the ugliest of human emotions, contradict this message. In order to move closer to an artwork, it is important to have the correct knowledge base. There are vast amounts of religious and anti-religious art that cannot be properly regarded outside of certain contexts. It is possible to enjoy such a work based solely on its shading, lighting, colors, shapes, or other singular qualities but to do so creates an incomplete or misdirected affective response. It is no different than reviewing a movie after watching only the first 20 minutes. Of course, information is not the dominant trait on which affectation should be based. But it should not be pushed aside; it deserves equal consideration to all other factors. It is inconsequential that this takes some emphasis off of the art itself. After all, art is subjective. What we, the viewers, project into it is just as much a part of the piece as what its creator projected into it.


Posted by: Syd Lexia