In July I wrote about the fantastic streaming options to bring arthouse classics and new film masterpieces to your living room. Only a few weeks later the New York Times published a piece detailing the failure of the Criterion Collection to represent African American filmmakers. A micro study on the failures of canon itself. I was a bit embarrassed that I hadn’t asked such a question myself. In researching my original piece, I only barely used their app to get an understanding of the user experience. Everything else I based off their reputation.
That mistake I’ll try never to make again. To note, the Times investigation does not claim any intention by the Criterion selectors. Peter Becker, the President of Criterion, placed the blame on “his personal ‘blind spots.” While that’s quite the “Whoopsie Daisy” from Becker, it is not at all surprising. Attempting to create a canon of an entire artistic medium is going to leave many a creator on the outskirts. And it should be absolutely obvious that those getting left out would have a different look, social understanding, and cultural experience than those making the decisions.
Becker and his team at Criterion were focused on a value system that was “quite canonical and traditional.” That codeword, “traditional” is helpful in parsing out the language of colorblind racism that many still use to justify the lack of minority representation. Traditional to who? Is it the fault of early African American filmmakers that their films were not given budgets, advertising, or recognition during the era of “traditional film?”
What’s less obvious, but still central to Criterion’s failure, is the classism that goes into creating such a canon. I’d like to call on Pierre Bourdieu, who pretty much put an end to “taste” as anything other than a classist claim. His work Distinction, claimed that taste was the central identifier in determining “cultural capital.” Cultural capital combined with economic and social capital make up the measuring of one’s class rank. Bourdieu would go on to claim that embracing and furthering the ruling class’ taste is a form of symbolic violence. An attack on lower class aesthetics and culture.
In America, more so than mid-twentieth century France, class is very much tied to race. I hope that Criterion can learn now that their weaknesses have been brought to light. I hope they grow and begin to focus on films to provide new perspectives, or at least sought to in their own time. Leaving out African American filmmakers was an attack on their very existence and the communities they represent. It’s why Rolling Stone’s 100 greatest artists of all time will always be a shitty list of dad rock best sales. If sports leagues have a hard time arguing over Hall of Fame inductees using official statistics, why should the art world try to attempt such canon?