Subjected to the grunts around the Oscars, more importantly the grunting discourse around the Oscars, one thing is clear: we are undergoing a postmodern crisis of subjectivity. Postmodern as in this dismissive discomfort with categories, with certainty, with meaning. Postmodern crisis as in the harried sense that nothing makes sense because nothing is allowed to make sense. Subjectivity as in the capacity for one thing to elicit multiple, often contradictory, responses.
That everyone has different tastes and postures differently towards art is a given. Some bubble with joy at art, while for that very same reason, others might stomp their feet at it. Everyone has sympathy for this argument, even if they are antsy about it. Antsy only because we are comforted by “objective” truths, by statements that can stand, unbent, the test of time and tide. Aesthetic judgments are not that.
But that this subjectivity itself may be subjected to subjectivity is where the issue is: what do we mean when we say “subjective”, and are there limits to it? When I say “subjective” and you say “subjective”, how different are our respective meanings? When does subjectivity become prejudice? Or, more discerningly phrased, when subjectivity in art is allowed to be steered by politics, how should we feel?
Reparation for past injustices
For example, if an artist’s racial identity is burnished in the run-up to the awards—like Michelle Yeoh, who just won Best Actress, the first Asian woman to do so in the 95 years of the Academy Awards—is that okay? Can the racial segregation and xenophobia that artists experienced over the years while the academy turned a blind eye be considered part of the “merit” of their performance? Awards, here, begin to look and feel like reparation for past injustices.
While it is indeed crude to reduce artists to their identity to make sense of their art, such are the allegations thrown around—you might have read Harshvardhan Kapoor’s tweet, now deleted, that provocatively asked how “a PR campaign centred around race” could win against Cate Blanchett’s performance in Tár—so let us think this through in its crudest form.
Thus, when at the 95th Academy Awards, in the documentary feature film category, Navalny, a straightforward, crowd-pleasing, but narrow portrait of the Putin dissident, wins against the sublime Fire of Love and All That Breathes and gutting portraits like All That Beauty and Bloodshed, it is chalked down to political relevance. The anti-Russia mood, with Alexei Navalny still in prison, is part of the “subjectivity” with which the 9,000+ member academy voted for the film. Here, achievement begins to look and feel like a statement against present wars.
The natural question, then, is, is this fair? Artistic merit wrapped up in a complicated fabric of righteousness and politicking. Is it fair to films, to actors, to chalk their performance and their artistry down to the strands of their identity? And is it fair for these strands to have such a chokehold on the narrative of their artistry? And this is where we hit a roadblock. Because there is an implicit assumption here that the Academy Awards are, or at least must be, fair. What if I say that this is as naive a belief as it is false?
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Michael Schulman’s recent book, Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears, provides many possible explanations—some noble, some cynical—for the existence of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which gives out the Oscars. When in 1927, some 275 guests signed up to be its first members, paying $27,500 as initiation fees, the swirl of possibilities bent many ways.
One of which was that the Academy Awards spoke to their time, be it labour relations or communism or new Hollywood. The other is that they spoke to a future, a vision of what Hollywood must be. So in 2016, the year that Donald Trump became the US president, when the seething Moonlight, the coming of age of a poor, black, queer protagonist won over the euphoric La La Land, a celebration of jazz from the perspective of whiteness, Schulman in his book rephrases the win as an answer to a pressing question: “Was Hollywood really La La Land, a place where dreamers went to forget their troubles? Or was it part of the resistance?”
The Oscars spoke to the moment in the only, narrow way they know. It resisted by awarding art that resists.
Is this fair?
At this point, if you are still asking this question, the delusion of merit, of the possibility of there ever being a “fair” judgment, is still clouding you. Puff it off. We lunge towards art, emotionally tether ourselves to its destiny, seeing its win as ours, a validation of our tastes, but that is it. Fairness has no relation to it.
This year’s Oscar sweep, Everything Everywhere All at Once, a phantasmagoric tab of acid where everything swirled everywhere all at once, headlined by Asian actors (Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, both of whom won), was framed as a corrective against the academy’s historic racial blind spot. It was, in the words of the critic Richard Brody, “what Academy members want Hollywood to be”: a kinder, flatter, more inclusive vision of the future.
A strategic hunting sport
The film is not just that, of course, but the film’s activity around the Oscar season campaigning drew on the racial waters insistently, consistently, relentlessly. We tend to forget that Oscar campaigning is a strategic hunting sport, one made worse by Harvey Weinstein’s aggressive playbook. Films end up spending more than their production budget on campaigning, pumping millions into advertisements, parties, screenings, etc. It is reckless, it is glittering, it is glamorous, it is out of depth. And the campaigning trail creates a template of subjectivity.
We have seen the academy try awkwardly to fit into the new world, sometimes to great effect, like bringing in more women and more people of colour to correct the #OscarsSoWhite backlash. It has relegated academy members who have not been active to “emeritus” status. In 2020, there were even new rules of eligibility for “Best Picture” contenders that required a minimum level of representation, in front of or behind the camera. Other initiatives were more wobbly, such as expanding the number of nominations for “Best Picture” from five to 10 after The Dark Knight did not get a nomination in 2009. Or the 2018 decision to add “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film” to lasso in a more massy audience, a decision that was reversed.
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What we are witnessing is the academy’s desperate grappling with time as it slips away from its grasp. Its desire to be relevant, to be watched, to be discussed, to be considered glamorous.
Everyone covets an Oscar
Despite all the cynicism we may fling at the Academy Awards, an explanation Schulman gave, one buried under the many, struck me as both potent and hopeful: the academy and the awards make studios take art seriously. They have made artistry, or the performance of artistry—or if you want to go so far, the righteous performance of artistry—part of studio discussions. Everyone covets an Oscar. Even when the streaming giants Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Apple+ swooped in, they bled money trying to get auteurs to make movies that would snag awards for them. It was a way of cementing respectability. A roundabout way of putting art at the centre. You want art for art’s sake. They want art for commerce’s sake. In the end, we all get art. Who wins, then?
Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online. He also authors a newsletter on culture at prathyush.substack.com.
- There is an implicit assumption that the Academy Awards are, or at least must be, fair. However, that belief may be as naive as it is false.
- The Oscars speak to the moment in the only, narrow way they know. It resists by awarding art that resists.
- What we are witnessing is the academy’s desperate grappling with time as it slips away from its grasp. Its desire to be relevant, to be watched, to be discussed, to be considered glamorous.