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Artists have concerned themselves with conventionalized pictorial genres since the early sixteenth century, when our conventional categories of landscape, still life, daily scenes (“genre” in the narrower sense), and even portraits developed their separate identities. In a training environment increasingly occupied by academies, genres were placed lower on the scale of value, within a hierarchy dominated by “history painting,” serious narratives from the Bible or myth.
The task of theorizing genres, however, has largely been the prerogative of literary scholars, again beginning with the critics of the later sixteenth century and their separation of “kinds” as well as their rediscovery of Aristotle and the Latin division of modes of expression. Beyond literature, the most active analysis of pictorial modes has been picked up by historians and theorists of film, who have tackled the issues of conventionalized images, in terms of narrative formulas as well as favorite themes, characters, visual settings, and even relations, “syntax.” In film history, genres are most frequently associated with the market conditions of production and consumption of Hollywood cinema, which has given us genres such as the western, the musical, the horror film, and even “subgenres” such as “screwball comedy.”
No author has spent more time considering the character and the changes of film genre, as well as the differing outlook of producers and consumers, than Rick Altman, Professor at the University of Iowa. Over the past two decades Altman has produced historical studies of particular categories (notably his 1987 American Film Musical) as well as definitive, often-anthologized theoretical studies, particularly his 1984 essay on “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre” (reprinted in this volume). In this densely written, rigorously argued, but also wide-ranging book, Altman distills his cumulative insights into what can only be described as the first modern theory of film genres—a work pertinent for all art historians involved in visual genres. His conclusions are both diverse and surprising, and their implications for art historians are profound.
Altman begins by laying out what might be assumed is received wisdom about film genres, as formulas, formal structures, labels, and suggestions to competent audiences. Most analysts assume that the film industry begins with genre notions, akin to the sections of film rental stores. In essence, Altman deconstructs all of these genre notions in sequence. He observes from Hollywood advertising that when films debut, they are more often constructed with multiple, overlapping genres in mind, so that they can reach multiple audiences, with something for everyone. Many genres have been given their coherence only well after the fact, grouped together not by producers, but rather by critics and historians. (We can find much the same phenomenon in the visual genres of easel painting, where we note that “still life” is a term that took more than half a century to emerge in discourse, whereas diverse images of market scenes, “breakfast pieces,” flower or fruit pieces, and the like had their own ongoing continuities without apparent overlap.)
Even the most cohesive of genres in retrospect, such as the “western” or the “musical,” often bore only superficial resemblances and descriptions in their initial public presentations. Their themes or forms often embellished a wide variety of structures and plot resolutions. Even where there is a prior literary genre, as in the case of the western, the cinematic version of such a genre had to be reconstituted, and Altman traces the need for reconstruction in his case study of the “biopic.”
Altman discovered, based on serious historical research into original advertising, that most films originally tried to build upon established successes from the same studio, again with diverse and hybrid generic claims, only evoking a particular genre or core work as a model when the success stemmed from a rival studio. He distinguished between a “Producer’s Game” of this kind and the establishment of genres retrospectively through common traits by historians, the “Critic’s Game.” We art historians who write about landscapes or still lifes surely act out the terms of the latter process, but we now are on alert to attend more closely to the former in its original context. Of course, cycles or sequels in films and repeated successes in painting begin—through a feedback system—to turn producers into “applied critics,” as Altman readily acknowledges, but the broad acceptance of generic categories as a structuring system by producers takes place only over time.
Indeed, Altman argues that such systems are intrinsically dynamic, even unstable, proceeding from “adjectives” to “nouns,” where characteristics of “westerns” or “musicals” cease to be qualities of a film type, such as melodrama or romance, and instead become defining features of genre labels. Debates in film history about whether “film noir” should be understood as a set of stylistic or thematic traits or as a subgenre on its own can now be seen in terms of historical process as much as in some essential visual product (see also James Naremore, More than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts, Berkeley, 1998). We can actually begin to see similar elements in the history of pictures, where Cubist collage still lifes become “collages” or even “Cubism.” Moreover, it is in the interest of a particular studio to be inventive and stay ahead of the critical curve, inventing new cycles or hybrids of original combinations in order to distinguish their output from mere formulas of generic repetitions.
Though Altman does not broach this question, one can also begin to wonder whether the signature style and themes of an individual artist might be subsumed under his kind of analysis, as an individual passes from juvenilia, derived from existing models and pictorial types, to a replicable, readily recognizable pictorial type, like a brand name, which in turn comes to influence contemporaries and younger followers. In my own period, we see such developments among the numerous imitators and epigones but also the influenced successors of Bosch or Bruegel.
Altman also sees criticism as a dynamic process, whereby genres can be reconstituted as new historical or theoretical approaches dictate. His key example is “women’s pictures,” which were canonized and defined in the wake of feminism and a cluster of leading film scholars. Using approaches as diverse as Wittgenstein “family resemblances” and supermarket aisle clusters, he demonstrates the importance of use value in genre definitions.
Ultimately for Altman, genres are fields of discourse, employed within and between communities, ranging from studios to spectators, and including flexible as well as diverse constructions of groupings, valuations, and norms. We should also see flexible boundaries between genre categories as well as inevitable hybrid genre descriptions of individual works. This hybrid condition, especially at what often is the formative stage of what eventually condenses into an established genre often turns up in art as well, as in the landscapes by Patinir or market scenes by Aertsen with religious scenes alongside the nascent yet visually dominant generic imagery.
What remains about Altman’s book is its combination of history with theory, of filmic particulars (including studio advertising and the individual producer Joel Silver [no relation]) with general observations on “genrification” as a process, both for producers and critics/consumers. Thus the author of the tool of semantic/syntactic analysis has now added a dimension (also derived from the model of linguistics) of pragmatics, seeing genre in its communicative uses, and in so doing he has discerned complexity, even messiness or hybrid impurity. Altman has both clarified and challenged standard assumptions, adding an interpretive frisson by identifying functions of “generic economy,” including what transgressive genres, such as horror films or naughty villains, can provide in their challenges to dominant cultural norms (while also constituting their own shared cultural—or countercultural—communities among fans). Here, too, such assessments hold ramifications for viewer responses to unconventional artists; particularly extreme innovators, such as Bosch or Goya, as they also point to powerful topics for inherited as well as emerging genres.
A final mark of Altman’s ambitions in this book is his willingness to end on broadly speculative notes, ranging from a broad “new communication model” (Chapter 10, taking on Saussure’s notion of parole) to considerations of contemporary preferences (Chapter 11) for romance, melodrama, and adventure. He even adds (Chapter 12) a coda concerning the shifting semiotics of nationhood (taking up issues posed by both Habermas and Benedict Anderson) and creolization, analogous to his previous considerations of genre as tied to interpretive communities. Such topics and dialogues with major social and cultural theorists show how seminal this film-based book aspires to be. Art historians should be just one of the many humanistic disciplines to be stimulated by Rick Altman’s distilled contributions, reaching beyond cinema studies to the interpretive communities of artistic genre, creation and reception.
Farquhar Professor of History of Art, Department of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania