Animation is making leaps and bounds as I write this. So far, 2016 is turning out to be a great year for variety in terms of choice and styles. Yet in relative terms, we're still well within the comfort zone. Animation art is entertaining us, and amazing us, but are we being challenged?
In her Washington Post piece last week,makes an extremely powerful case for surrendering to art and allowing it to challenge our existing beliefs and frames of reference. While her post is based on the callous demands of fans when it comes to art, there is another angle to the same viewpoint to consider.
When we consume art, we are not only looking at, listening to, or viewing beautiful things, we are also absorbing messages. Art can have political, psychological, ecclesiastical or even commercial messages. The creative vision of the artist is a fancy term for what essentially amounts to their objective.
Renaissance patrons of the arts invariably commissioned portraits of themselves. Were they really so vain, or were people's memories not as strong in the days before the photograph? No, portraits were incredibly expensive and relatively rare. A portrait of yourself not only advertised your wealth, it also conveyed a degree of power and prestige. Rigaurd's portrait of Louis XIV embodies the artist's objective of portraying a powerful monarch to whom the artist wished to prove their loyalty and respect in the hope of gaining future commissions.
Art may have been historically expensive, but its price has been dropping ever since the invention of the photograph and printing press. Today, we see art everywhere and in just about any form. Every piece conveys a message whether it be to buy this toothbrush or to consider the atrocities of war.
Yet animation (and commercial animation in particular) is no longer at the forefront of art's mission to challenge us. For a time, it certainly was though. Walt Disney challenged many commonly-held beliefs with his cartoons; ultimately proving that 90-minute features were appealing to adults and kids alike. What have we seen since then?
Great independent animation proves otherwise. Ralph Bakshi's films spring to mind seeing as they destroyed the notion that 'legitimate' art had to be squeaky clean. Since the late 1980s and with the Disney renaissance in particular, we've unfortunately seen little else.
Aanimated films and shows instead attempt to challenge the audience's opinion of the artistic range of animation. Serious films like Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke gave credence to animation as a truly capable art form that was rightfully deserving of the stature bestowed upon live-action.
However we do not see many animated films that challenge the audience's core beliefs or viewpoints. Live-action films in general attempt to do so all the time, especially in this latter half of the year as we get closer to awards season.
Many animated features today exist to astonish and awe with their technical prowess and Technicolour images, yet they serve primarily to entertain or sell merchandise and nothing more. They do not challenge the audience to reconsider anything else besides what their favourite animate film is.
Animated TV shows are no better, even if they are more likely to take risks. A show widely noted for being progressive in terms of LGBT themes does not push boundaries. Steven Universe may do so within the confines of children's television, yet the show is not instigating changes. It's simply reflecting the shifts in political and social attitudes in wider American culture. In any case the 90s live-action sitcom Will & Grace is acknowledged as being the artistic prognosticator of the recent shifts in LGBT attitudes in this country. Shifts that make Steven Universe's themes socially acceptable.
Why isn't animation at the forefront such movements?
From a personal perspective, I think back to my initial exposure to the classic anime series Neon Genesis Evengelion. It's cliche to say the show is a favourite, yet it utterly destroyed my existing concept of what animation could and couldn't be. Here was a series that brought about an enlightenment of sorts and proved to me that animated series' could be about much more than wacky comedy. Besides proving that animation had a much greater artistic range than I had previous believed, the show also challenged the many existing concepts I contained of ideas like politics and psychology.
Such a reaction is personal, but there are no reasons why animated content can't create similar changes in a wider, social sense. At present, the technological gains of the last 25 years enraptures the industry, and the overt commercial success that many films have enjoyed as a result. Animated art is not forcing audiences to reconsider their opinions and as such, is failing in its duty.