Without any pretence at front-line criticism, Peter Wix presents a quarterly digest of armchair observation to help in your search for the best of old and new movies.
Artists are a strange lot, or should be. Anarchist art theorist Herbert Read held that the need for artists to have “not skill to make but skill to express” requires an estranged existence, the “tranquility” that for Wordsworth meant, according to Read’s tangy essay To Hell with Culture, “flight from society”.
Like electrons, artists spin, charged with mysterious energy at a distance around a nucleus they can never forsake, and with which they form part of a whole. It’s not a cosy relationship, but it can hardly be broken.
Not comfortable with the metaphor? Consider a less lofty ground than science; a game, perhaps. The tergiversating ‘idiots’ who in Lars Von Trier’s challenging film Idioterne take a position away from the mores of the community by pretending to be mentally handicapped; their politically incorrect behaviour, which one of the group actually describes as a “game”, requires an estrangement that makes them unfriendly and open to hostility. They are, in fact, artists, using surrealist and situationist tools to reveal the true dynamic in the community’s relationship with “retards”. In Read’s words, “the artist is very often […] offering something to the community which the community does not want to accept, which the community at first finds very unpalatable.” Von Trier, of course, knows all too well the price of being “unpalatable”.
The artist is the person invited to leave the room in the kind of parlour game where those remaining must try to divine or deduce what is in the mind of the person who has the left the room; at that moment, the live power in what was the group, is in the person who can benefit from being the lone thinker, the one who is allowed to be solitary. Standing on that threshold, you may feel and welcome the dare to not only leave the room but to go out through the front door, leave the city and take to the hills. Or you can stay, keep playing the game, accept any reason not to abandon the group, but stay in the dark along with it.
Film director Luis Buñuel was one who could not resist the temptation to get out, to take another perspective. It is the directorial ominpresence of Buñuel that provides the true sense of one of his great works, The Exterminating Angel (1962), in which a dinner party of burgueses ends with the fatuous and pretentious diners bizarrely unable to leave the chamber of the room in which their postprandial chit-chat has been revealed to us. The group had recently arrived from the opera, and their number includes a handful of bourgeois ‘artists’ of the kind Herbert Read might have classified as those with “skill to make”, though not to express. Not artisans, exactly but, in this context, phoneys.
These characters are ignorant of the reasons for their confinement. They simply cannot walk from one chamber to another, and they produce absurd gestures and excuses to justify not doing so. They are trapped in their way of thinking, and their situation becomes grave, all their superficial manners quickly broken down to savagery and primitivism by suddenly facing hunger and the stench of their own excrement, which they try to hide in cupboards. This is what society is without an artist, and although Buñuel principally made the film to attack the bourgeoisie (and, as a sideswipe, the situation under Franco’s dictatorship in Spain – Buñuel made this as an exile in Mexico), he was the artist who, just like the servants who leave the house at the beginning, walked from this room and who, just as in Read’s words, was, throughout his career, “compelled to demand, for poetic reasons, that the world shall be changed.”
When artists become not just unacknowledged as “legislators of the world” (Shelley) but persecuted and punished for “unpalatable” observations, the stench in the room where today’s neo-liberal bourgeoisie is turning toxic is going to become unbearable. Buñuel’s 1962 farce is now sinisterly relevant. Artists! Keep an eye on that room.