The most common approach by far to film history is aesthetic — the history of film as an art form. It is quite common for works of film history to describe themselves in this way. Terry Ramsaye, for example, begins his book A Million and One Nights with the statement that it ‘endeavours to cover the birth of a new art’.2 Mark Cousins, writing nearly 80 years later, similarly avers that his book The Story of Film ‘tells the story of the art of cinema’.3 To describe film as an art form — or an individual film as a work of art — assumes that a degree of cultural or aesthetic value is being attached to it. We should acknowledge from the outset that not all cultural commentators would necessarily accept Mast’s assertion that film is an art form. Marxist critics, such as those associated with the Frankfurt School in the 1930s and 1940s, have argued that film cannot be considered an art because it is, first and foremost, a commercial product. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, for example, in their influential Dialectic of Enlightenment — a sustained polemic against what they termed the ‘culture industry’ — claimed that ‘all mass culture is identical’. ‘Movies’, they asserted, ‘no longer pretend to be art. The truth that they are just business is made into an ideology in order to justify the rubbish they deliberately produce.’4 A less polemical, and more common, position is to accept that some films might be deemed works of art whereas others are not, while many critics distinguish between an art cinema on the one hand and a commercial or mainstream cinema on the other.
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