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On Star Wars Day, The Question of Art in the Universe
Why are there no paintings?
Why are there no paintings in Star Wars movies?
The question occurred to me recently, rewatching The Rise of Skywalker. I’m old enough to recall seeing A New Hope in a drive-in in summer 1977, as well as the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special on television in 1978. Over time, my interest in Star Wars has shifted into something akin to nostalgia, so it may not be surprising that this question never struck me before. What is surprising, however, given their glaring omission from the films, is that the man who created the Star Wars universe happens to be a major collector of art — including paintings — and is due to open the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles by 2025.
Certainly, sculptures appear in the Star Wars films. For example, massive statues on plinths appear to guard the entrance to Theed Palace on Naboo in The Phantom Menace. Theed’s interiors, which were shot at the grand, Baroque-era Caserta Royal Palace outside of Naples, occasionally give glimpses of the real building’s sculptural decoration, such as marble statuary or carved bas-reliefs. In the origin film Solo (2018), statuettes and other objets are displayed scattered about on illuminated stands in gangster Dryden Vos’s space yacht, the First Light. These demonstrate the character’s greedy acquisitiveness, showy taste and tendency to violence, but they also serve as “Easter eggs” for hardcore fans, who know the origins of these objects from sources outside the films themselves.
Arguably the most important piece of sculpture in all of Star Wars, and the subject of possibly the only scripted reference to visual art in any of the films, isn’t really sculpture at all. In Return of the Jedi, Jabba the Hutt refuses to release Han Solo, who has been frozen in carbonite and is displayed hanging on the wall in Jabba’s palace. “I will not give up my favorite decoration,” Jabba comments, in response to a hologram message sent by Luke Skywalker. “I like Captain Solo where he is.” Of course, Jabba’s decoration is not really a statue, but something more akin to displaying the head of one’s defeated enemy on a pike.
In many of the Star Wars films, drawings and illustrations serve as MacGuffins to advance the story. The most famous example of this is the set of plans for the original Death Star. The schematic drawings for the moon-sized weapon appear on screen and fuel the plots of both Rogue One and A New Hope. Meanwhile, maps of secret locations are used to similar effect in Attack of the Clones, The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker.
While these images are utilitarian rather than purely artistic, they demonstrate the ability of the residents of this galaxy to conceive, execute and understand abstracted, two-dimensional representations of real-world, three-dimensional objects.
While I freely admit the possibility that a more eagle-eyed reader will be able to point to a painting that slipped my attention and appeared briefly in one or more of the big-screen Star Wars films, there’s no question that paintings have never been important to the stories. They are not talked about, reflected upon or even alluded to, at least not in the ways that we usually engage with this form of art. Given the presence of many other types of art in Star Wars movies, how can we explain this?
Stephen Kent is the author of How the Force Can Fix the World: Lessons on Life, Liberty, and Happiness from a Galaxy Far, Far Away, and hosted the Beltway Banthas podcast from 2016-22. As a political commentator and PR strategist who has witnessed the breakdown in basic civility in recent years, Kent suggests that a way for society to begin again is to use the Force. The book views such matters as empathy, hope and balance in contemporary politics through the lens of the Star Wars universe.
Speaking with Kent, I noted that many of the settings for the Star Wars films were either bellicose (battlefields, military bases, warships), or inhospitable (deserts, swamps, tundra.) Therefore, it might be reasonable not to expect paintings in such environments. At the same time, there are also plenty of relatively stable, even luxurious, places shown on screen, where paintings would look perfectly at home.
“It’s correct to think of the original Star Wars trilogy as a future that is slightly dystopic and blended with the Stone Age,” Kent points out. “The aesthetic of those films is meant to feel hollowed out, rusted and worn down. The age of the Empire was not good for self-expression or prosperity, and I suppose we’re meant to conclude that with the collapse of the decadent Republic, so too came a collapse in the beauty of the galaxy.”
The small-screen portrayal of the Star Wars universe isn’t much different. “Even in the new live-action TV installments such as Andor and The Mandalorian, nothing,” Kent notes. “Senator Mon Mothma gets a lot of screen time in her elaborate apartment on Coruscant, the cultural capital of the galaxy, and it is completely devoid of wall art that is recognizable to audiences. Her rebel collaborator, Luthen, runs an antique shop but even that is confined to armor, weapons, jewelry and tools; there are a few broken-up old hieroglyphs.”
“The most art you’ll see in Star Wars during the Empire,” Kent continues, “is in the animated series Star Wars Rebels, which follows a band of rebels causing trouble for Grand Admiral Thrawn. The show digs in on how dissidents use art to communicate and preserve their cultures, which the Empire is actively trying to demolish. One character does graffiti and street art to recruit for the cause. Then Thrawn uses his personal love of art to study the cultures he is conquering, because he views art as the purest expression of who a people are. But Thrawn is from another part of the galaxy, far away from the star system that Star Wars is happening in. He’s sort of a visitor to this corner of the universe, and so it makes you wonder why he is the only person who seems to appreciate artwork.”
House Oversight Subpoenas FBI Over Biden Whistleblower Document
House Oversight and Accountability Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., signed on to a letter with Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, to both Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher Wray.
Comer and Grassley asked for an unclassified record, referred to as an FBI FD-1023 form, which the lawmakers say alleges a scheme involving then-Vice President Joe Biden and a foreign national.
Comer issued the subpoena Wednesday after a whistleblower made a legally protected disclosure to Grassley’s office. The subpoena gives the FBI a week to produce the information.
“The information provided by a whistleblower raises concerns that then-Vice President Biden allegedly engaged in a bribery scheme with a foreign national,” Comer said in a public statement. “The American people need to know if President Biden sold out the United States of America to make money for himself. Senator Grassley and I will seek the truth to ensure accountability for the American people.”
Neither the letter nor the subpoena go into detail about what the alleged bribery involved.
“We believe the FBI possesses an unclassified internal document that includes very serious and detailed allegations implicating the current President of the United States,” Grassley said in his own written statement.
“What we don’t know is what, if anything, the FBI has done to verify these claims or investigate further,” the Iowa Republican said. “The FBI’s recent history of botching politically charged investigations demands close congressional oversight.”
What Brought Vice Down
Historians of the craft of newsgathering will record that Vice News changed the visual grammar of the medium. By marrying a cinematic visual style with the tempo and immediacy of breaking stories, and pioneering the use of handheld DSLR cameras, Vice News re-aestheticised TV news. And by having its young reporters talk casually to the audience, like friends, in the middle of the world’s worst chaos, the old world of buttoned-up correspondents stiffly lecturing the camera suddenly looked like a relic from the age of black and white. But while the big networks quickly learned to copy Vice’s style to the point it has become the norm, the fundamental challenge of all news broadcasting — how to make the most difficult and expensive content on earth pay for itself — had still not been solved. In the end, it was all a mirage.
As is the nature of the trade, it was always a source of pride, and of glittering awards, to obtain better combat footage than anyone else: always getting closer to the action, dancing at the edge of death like a gladiator in the amphitheatre for the audience’s thrill and delectation. The highest word of praise from an exec was “gnarly”. But what neither fans nor critics of what they saw as our recklessness understood was that the “bang-bang” was merely a vehicle with which to smuggle in serious analytical reportage of poorly-understood conflicts and revolutions. Vice’s central insight was that if you framed the story right, and shot it well enough, you could persuade teens and early twentysomethings to watch in-depth explorations of Syrian rebel justice systems, or the intricacies of South Sudan’s civil war. Middle-aged execs from traditional networks had always claimed young people didn’t care about granular detail, or distant wars in Africa: but this (apart from stories about drugs) was always by far the most popular content, judging from YouTube views and comments. The audience never demands dumbing-down: viewers want nuance, shades of grey, and moral ambiguity. They want to see the world as it is, not as it ought to be.
While the rewards in the early days were mismatched to the risk, the degree of experience offered to young journalists was unrivalled, a huge draw to those with an adventurous streak. Journalists at the beginning of their careers were given access to stories the networks reserved for their hardened veterans, and repaid that trust with a fervid dedication to their craft. I was a green 31-year-old reporter when I started, with only the Libyan war, Tunisian revolution and a strange months-long sojourn with tribal rebels in Sudan under my belt. Vice gave me the freedom to follow the Malian army into bloody battle against jihadist rebels, experience the Egyptian coup from the Islamist side, return to Syria over and over again during the course of the war and follow the Isis story from their initially underplayed rise to their final desert gotterdammerung.
And like Isis, Vice was a 2010s phenomenon that wrongly thought it could take on the giants and win. Perhaps that strange kinship between the decade’s two great disruptors is why Vice News was the only western network Isis let embed with them in Syria and Iraq. This isn’t as wild as it sounds – Isis watched us and we watched them. As the Syria reporter for years, focusing on Isis, I watched the terrorist group copy Vice’s style in their videos as Very Online western millennials took over their output, syncing cinematic DSLR footage with hypnotic music and thrilling action sequences.
Young Western Isis fighters and social media influencers were constantly messaging me on Twitter, critiquing my films, and either asking me to join them or threatening to kidnap and behead me next time I deployed. I have the unusual distinction, as a legacy of my time at Vice News, of having featured in three Isis videos, twice using extracts from my films, and once combat footage of them shooting (unbeknown to them at the time) at my Landcruiser. Isis won the video battle: they had the resources of a state behind them, a demonic desire to shock and horrify, and could orchestrate combat for the cameras. But ultimately neither could maintain their exponential growth beyond the 2010s: both had dramatically overestimated their chance of taking over the world.
Welcome to the Meghanaissance
It looks like Markle’s time out will soon be over as she gears up for a big return to public life. Last week it was revealed that the duchess had signed up with powerhouse agency WME that “will focus on building Meghan’s global enterprise.” Her team at the agency will include power agent turned Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel, Brad Slater, the rep and brand architect within the agency for Dwayne Johnson, and Serena Williams’s agent Jill Smoller. Welcome to the Meghanissance. As the bestselling royal author Robert Jobson told me, “It can only be a good thing that Meghan is looking to revamp her public image — but it’ll mean actually listening to what her PR team tell her for once.”
In recent weeks the duchess has made two public appearances back to back; one in a video message introducing photographer and friend Misan Harriman ahead of his Ted Talk speech. In it, the duchess debuted a new look; darker, slickly straightened hair and minimal make-up. Meghan’s makeover held symbolic importance — straying away from her usual overdone look, she instead offered a more grown-up appearance. The second sighting was at a LA Lakers game, Harry in tow. It was the first time they had been seen in public together in more than a month and it didn’t do much to dispel rumors of a rift. The duchess awkwardly declined a kiss from Harry as they were captured on the jumbotron at the Crypto.com Arena in front of 20,000 people, including Kim Kardashian and Adam Sandler.
But if Meghan’s transition to an ex-royal influencer is to be successful, social media will prove vital. There are whispers in California that the duchess will soon return to Instagram, which she left in 2020 after it was agreed that the couple could no longer keep their Sussex Royal monogram. These rumors were alluded to last year when Meghan told a reporter at the Cut: “Do you want to know a secret? I’m getting back on Instagram” — but so far there is no sign of her on the app.
Meghan’s return would be sure to cause tension. As a report in the latest issue of Vanity Fair puts it, when the royal family modernized “the social media push put the royals at the hands of those watchers and the types of parasocial competition-pitting it seems to seize on and promote. Like Team Jen versus Team Angelina, or Liverpool versus Man United, aggressive and profane fights broke out between groups of self described Meghan and Kate fans. By late 2018, Cambridge versus Sussex had gone from digital match bait to reality.”
So how do the rest of the royals feel about this potential comeback? Apprehensive to say the least. One source close to the family tells me that Meghan’s vision is “luminous and quite frankly scary.” After Meghan and Harry’s relative silence last year the palace could finally breathe a sigh of relief, but then, in quick succession, came the Netflix documentary, that Jeremy Clarkson column and Harry’s memoir Spare. The Clarkson column blew up after he referenced an infamous Game of Thrones scene and casted Meghan Markle as Cersei. He wrote: “At night, I’m unable to sleep as I lie there, grinding my teeth and dreaming of the day when she is made to parade naked through the streets of every town in Britain while the crowds chant, ‘Shame!’ and throw lumps of excrement at her.” The ill-considered broadside against Meghan, for which he later apologized, hurt the royals the hardest, with soon-to-be Queen Camilla confiding in a friend that Clarkson was “so unhelpful, just as we were really getting on the front foot of all of this.”
While Markle may be able to scramble back into some Hollywood circles, it is unlikely to be quite as rarefied a crowd as she once hoped. Meanwhile, her relationship with the royal family is pretty near irreparable.
At this stage, there is little doubt about the palace’s feelings about her. As harmful as Meghan’s actions in the last year have been, a source close to the royals tells me that much of the damage was already done — and that the personal feelings of the late Queen loom large. According to my source, the Queen “saw through Meghan Markle” and remarked that she was “evil” during a drinks reception at a dinner the late monarch hosted at Balmoral in August last year.
“Everybody’s eyebrows hit the ceiling,” the source claimed. “It was out of character for the Queen to use such a word as “evil” to describe Meghan, but she saw straight through her. It was a startling sentence to hear from the most forgiving woman on earth.”
“At the drinks before the dinner, a small group were talking to the monarch and she explained that Harry meeting Meghan had become a complete catastrophe and described her as evil. By this point we all knew the Queen’s health was in decline and she had months left, she seemed regretful about how things had panned out.”
Items of Interest
“These include the beliefs that the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency; that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment; that in fact human judgment cannot be trusted, because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity; that subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking; that what cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value; and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts.”
— Neil Postman