Inventing Is Art, But the Inventor Is Not Always an Artist

Hidden almost at the end of the March 2006 issue of the Smithsonian magazine was a seven-page story, titled “Dancing in the Dark”, about Thomas Edison; his contributions to filmmaking, and his failures as an artist. It’s not every day a story pops up about the early days of filmmaking, let alone one of its pioneers, in a non-movie-related publication.

After reading the story, written by Tim Page, the classical music critic for the Washington Post, and digesting his take on the failures of Edison as an artist, I couldn’t help but feel that he missed the point. A sort-of summation of Page’s general point is found early in the piece, “[Edison] could make amazing leaps of imagination when it came to technical developments, but when it came to exploring their artistic potential, he was largely a failure. Basically, he did not have an aesthetic bone in his body.”

Thomas Edison was a preeminent pioneer when it came to developing the technology to make motion pictures a reality, but he was hardly the only one working on such technology. Edward Muybridge, an American interested in motion, developed the zoopraxiscope, a series of cameras set-up along an axis and triggered by an object moving through space tripping wires, all which captured motion for the first time. With Muybridge, Edison then developed the kinetoscope and debuted it publicly in April, 1894.

Between then and the time when projected motion pictures became a cultural phenomenon, many more people would get in on the act, developing various forms of equipment and techniques. Arguable the most important and influential of these inventions was the cinematograph, developed in France by Auguste and Louis Lumiere. Through the use of their device, the earliest motion pictures, called “actualities” because of their display of relatively mundane aspects of life, were shown publicly for the first time in December 1895.

From here, “cinema of attractions” followed, then small-time narratives, the nickelodeon, longer-form pictures, and so on. The discussion of this earliest moment of film history is rich and textured and would encompass multiple volumes of text to explore it fully. But what’s in question in Page’s piece is only Edison’s role as inventor and filmmaker in those first days of the motion picture.

While you could argue, and rightly so, that Edison can be credited for overwhelming contributions to the technology of moving images, it’s unfair to question his abilities as a filmmaker. Quite frankly, he wasn’t concerned with making art the way, say, early photographers in France were. Those early photographers were artists interested in new modes of conveying images. Edison was similarly determined to create new ways of seeing the world, committed to doing for visuals what his phonograph did for sound. But he ultimately wasn’t concerned with the kinetoscope’s artistic capabilities.

In France, on the other hand, the Lumiere Brothers’ “actualities”, while simple films of trains arriving and departing for example, set-up their cameras in interesting places and at odd angles. Legend has it that the first time their short of a train arriving at a station was shown publicly, the audience feared it would run off the screen and right over them. This was due in part to audiences’ unfamiliarity with the early medium as well as the Lumieres setting up their shot of the train so that it would come in at an extreme angle, from the background to the foreground. So while mundane in their subjects, the early French filmmakers saw the artistic and spatial possibilities of motion pictures the way early French photographers viewed the artistic capabilities of early photographic methods.

Compare that to Edison’s shorts, developed by the Kinetograph Department of the Edison Manufacturing Company, the world’s first movie company. Edison’s “actualities” were shots of people embracing and kissing, dancing girls doing burlesque shows, people sneezing, and other mundane things. They’re boring, yes, but no one in the United States — or anywhere else in the world, for that matter — had seen anything like this recreated. Granted, audiences had probably seen people sneezing, but they never witnessed it looking in a peephole projector or projected on a screen or wall, larger than life. And to Edison’s credit, his numerous shorts of “questionable taste” certainly reveal man keyed into the national consciousness; they reflected our understanding of what Americans were keen on seeing during the heyday of the Industrial Age.

When Edison did put his name on something “artistic”, it was usually a film made by an associate. A prime example is Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 film The Great Train Robbery, the first blockbuster narrative in America. As with the Lumieres’ infamous train short, audience members recoiled in horror as one of the cowboys in the picture took aim at them and fired. Surely Porter knew of the power of such an image and used it to great effect. And in a way, it’s also an example of Porter showing people like Edison that motion pictures can have those static, straight ahead shots, but more can be gleaned out of them than simple reflections of everyday life.

I think Edison knew of his failings as an “artist”, whatever that term means when applied to a fledgling technology like moving pictures were in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. He was an innovator; someone who created where something once there was nothing. But he also knew of his shortcomings. That’s why he employed people like Porter to make films that went far beyond those original “actualities”, taking motion pictures into the realm of spectacle.

That said, Edison’s short films, while crude and mundane, were critical to the early success of the medium. How would The Great Train Robbery been received had Edison not greased the rails with his own form of actualities? Would people have taken to it? Would they have shunned it? These are questions left to be argued over by historians. But it’s impossible to think of an American film presence without Edison’s filmmaking work.

With all due respect to Mr. Page, Edison cannot be judged as an artist. He never created anything for art’s sake. His name might have been on other people’s creations that are artistic busts, but that’s a different type of failure than one he alone was responsible for. Edison can only be judged as an innovator and pioneer. In that arena, Edison is unmatched in American history, film or otherwise.