Popularity is Amoral

Many authorities seem to believe that if something is popular, it is therefore low quality. This is particularly true when it comes to works of fiction.

This is nonsense. There are plenty of popular works of fiction which are also good.

Inception. Star Wars. The Lord of the Rings. (Both the books and the films.)

Likewise, there is plenty of tripe out there which is enormously popular.

Twilight. (Both the books and the films.) Fifty Shades of Grey. (Ditto.) Most Adam Sandler movies.

The exact opposite of these two parallels are also true.

There are works of artistic genius mostly ignored by audiences (Twelve Years a SlaveLincolnHugo) and equally obscure works of utter hackwork (Dylan Dog: Dead of NightRepo Men).

In the end, popularity (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter. It’s amoral, like money. (See 1 Timothy 6:10).

The only thing that matters is why something is popular.

The Dark Knight was popular not just because it was good (that’s what made it memorable) but because it had a kick-butt marketing campaign (see here).

Similarly, the Twilight movies were popular not because they were good (they weren’t), but because they had a kick-butt marketing campaign (see here).

The principle of popularity being amoral can be seen everywhere. The films put out by Marvel Studios are generally mediocre aesthetically, but people do go to see them.

The late Roger Ebert said as much in his review of the 2011 Thor movie:

“Thor” is failure as a movie, but a success as marketing, an illustration of the ancient carnival tactic of telling the rubes anything to get them into the tent.

On the other side of the coin, Marvel’s Netflix properties, such as Daredevil and Luke Cage, are both television masterpieces and smash hits with audiences.

As I discussed a few months ago, more genuinely good artistic endeavors would be financially successful if one or both of the following were true:

  • If people had more disposable income.
  • If more artists had an entrepreneurial mindset.

The political economy of the arts and entertainment industry, it is definitely more feasible at this moment for artists to hustle up and market the heck out of their art rather than to wait around for a more forgiving economy.

Until then, rest assured that popularity neither certifies a film as good nor condemns it as bad.

It just is.

Note: I realize that in a past postArt Needs More Entrepreneurs (Part 2/2)“, I stated that popularity “generally” denotes quality, in that there must be a good reason for many people to pay for something. I now realize, in keeping with the subject of this post,  that this reasoning is crude, if not without merit. I intend to expand on this point in a future post.

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