Adam Smith and the Red Carpet

theatre celebrity vanity

Shal Marriott and Daniel Lukac for AdamSmithWorks
Should a good Smithian abstain from watching the Oscars for fear we might encourage a corrupting disposition to admire the rich and powerful? Pass the popcorn says Marriott and Lukac.
What event could be more glamourous than the Oscars? Celebrities walk the red carpet, dressed in variations of decadence, to applaud one another in front of millions of people. Although he had a particular fondness for the theatre, it does not sound like an event at which Adam Smith would make an appearance; an awards night focused on excessive wealth was certainly not his style. After all, he notes in the Theory of Moral Sentiments that “to be pleased with . . . groundless applause is a proof of the most superficial levity and weakness. It is what is properly called vanity.”

Should a good Smithian abstain from watching? Would we inadvertently encourage that “disposition to admire . . . the rich and powerful” which is the “most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments”?

Perhaps there is something that, while not virtuous, might at least not be corrupting about watching the Oscars. Not simply out of a curiosity to see who wins Best Picture (Past Lives or Anatomy of a Fall, depending which of us you ask), but because there is something more important to find when one looks beyond the sea of glitzy dresses. 

Consider the films involved. The movies which the Oscars celebrate provide insight into what is seen as culturally significant at a given point in time – they both reflect on and create the common culture. They offer a space to consider what so many of us have been watching and discussing throughout the year - providing a snapshot into the questions and ideas, expressed through cinema, which are interesting and compelling to us here and now. Their value is in ritualizing these broadly shared cultural touchstones, and their stakes are the definition, commemoration, and canonization of precisely what it was that was shared. This year alone saw the feminist plight of Barbie, the destructive role of science in Oppenheimer, fate and individuality in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and the blurred lines of justice in Anatomy of a Fall – with the veritable crowds of theatregoers attesting to the widely shared nature of these conversations. 

Although we were watching these films at different times during the year, in different cities around the world, we are still able to reflect on those questions together, and this shows the universality of these works. We are, through sympathizing with the films, creating the opportunity to sympathize with friends and strangers alike. One can remember how often Barbie came up in discussion immediately after its release. The Oscars therefore provide an occasion for a focused conversation on the stories many of us have been captivated by. Viewed in this light, the particular joy which comes from disagreeing about the winners and losers illustrates not only the personal and shared value these works hold, but also the deep interest we have in recollecting and appropriately honouring the way in which those works spoke to us at a particular place and time. 

And although the Oscars may lend themselves to vanity, it also matters that most of us watch at home. Perhaps in our pyjamas, eating ice cream, and certainly not fit for McDonalds - much less a formal event. The celebrities in The Hollywood and Highland Centre receive applause from the attendees, but they will never see or give a second thought to our reactions. We are not the “object(s) of attention or approbation” in any way, and therefore watching the Oscars does not need to encourage our own sense of vanity. Nor do we need to hold these actors and actresses (or even, for that matter, the entire crew inclusive of director, cinematographer, costume designers, etc.) in a state of admiration beyond an appreciation for what they have created. 

The greater source of our admiration is for the works themselves – both for their intrinsic artistic excellence and for what they suggest about us and our shared experiences of the world over the preceding year. In watching, we participate in a shared endeavour of valuing and praising what is excellent (as art and as collective memory). Although the Oscars reflect the views of the Academy, our heated debates about the merits and deservingness of each work allow us an (admittedly) limited but public space to hold the Academy accountable. While cultural elites may purport to provide us with a definition of what “good” taste in films might be, it is one which is open to, and indeed requires, contestation. The real value of the Academy, then, is in providing the forum and topic for this discussion, culminating in two hours of focused conversation every year. 

There is also a value to watching the Oscars in the privacy of our own home, either on our own, or with those we love. Smith notes that “we can scarce express too much satisfaction in all the little occurrences of common life, in the company with which we spent the evening last night, in the entertainment that was set before us.” We are always looking for ways to spend our time, even during the days when it feels as if we have none of it. What Smith reminds us of here is that one way we become better people is by spending that limited time together. The Oscars, notwithstanding their extravagance, therefore end up being an ordinary night with friends and family. 

For all their genuine significance, then, the Oscars simply provide for most of us a few hours where we can engage together “in all those frivolous nothings which fill up the void of human life.” This sentiment also resonates with one of the Oscar nominees this year, Past Lives - a film which, above all else, serves as a reminder that to love others deeply is nothing more than being who you are, at a given moment, with them. 

Part of being a good Smithian is to live your life well with others. To care for them, converse with them, and laugh at how ridiculous it all is. The Oscars can provide us another occasion to do just that. Although we probably wouldn’t find Smith on the red carpet, I think he’d be willing to pass the popcorn.

Related content:  
Jon Murphy's Why do we Admire Celebrities?
Joy Buchanan's Would Adam Smith Tell Taylor Swift to Attend the Super Bowl?
Graham McAleer's Art's Important Moral Work
Sarah E. Skwire and Aeon J. Skoble's Adam Smith Goes to the Movies: The Avengers
More by Shal Marriott: Beyond Being Lovely, Nobody's Perfect, Not Even Adam Smith, The Unexpected Joy in Sharing Sadness, Adam Smith Visits Downton Abbey, How Professor Smith Helped Me Survive my Undergraduate Degree