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The uncertainties of patronage about the origins of documentary cinema in India and in the British Empire

Denis Vidal


From the turn of this century, the best studies about any form of art have been generally based on the similar notion. What is shared in all these works is not very controversial notion that in order to understand better the style and the meaning of any work of art, one may learn a lot by analysing in detail how it expresses the social and cultural background, the economic, political and economic interests or even the more individual expectation of its patrons and audiences. This is certainly the methodological approach used by some of the best art historians such as Aby Warburg, Michael Baxandall, Svetlana Alpers or, Salvatore Settis. But it also characterizes the works of historians such as Carlo Ginzburg or Simon Schamma, and sociologists of art such as Pierre Bourdieu. Now, it may sound a bit embarrassing to mention such references in introduction to a paper, which is dedicated essentially to the study of the first decades of documentary film making in the British Empire and in India. It is not so much that documentary films should not be regarded as art. Lenin or Goebbels were not alone in considering cinema to be the art of the twentieth century; and as far as the documentary tradition is concerned, there were many who considered it one of the most creative aspects of film making in these years. No, the problem lies elsewhere: in the fact that the social dimension of it seems so intrinsic to documentary film that one might wonder whether focusing on it from an anthropological perspective can possibly yield any new perspective. One should certainly not deny the merit of someone like Bourdieu when he feels the necessity of demystifying idealist conceptions of art; but neither is one surprised that his demonstrations are mostly based on the his study of art and literature of very specific circles of the French intelligentsia at the end of the nineteenth century. Personally, I have never been entirely convinced that the notion of 'art for art sake' was ever as dominating an ideology as art historians and sociologists of art are wont to make out of it. I would be even inclined to believe that if there is a pervasive ideology of art in this century, it is not so much the idea that art transcends historical and social constraints; but rather cultural works are too easily assumed to symbolize the time and the milieu in which they are made, which is obviously very different.
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ird-01300204 , version 1 (08-04-2016)


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Denis Vidal. The uncertainties of patronage about the origins of documentary cinema in India and in the British Empire. Amrit, Gangar. Paul Zils and the Indian documentary, Goethe Institute, 2003. ⟨ird-01300204⟩
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