When I sat down in the sweatbox known as the Winnipeg Cinematheque to watch ‘The Square,’ my only initial thought was ‘hell yeah, a movie shitting on high art.’ And that’s essentially what I got. This is a movie that’s pretty damn funny, has a lot of weird and uncomfortable moments, good acting, good pacing, all that jazz. Basically, it was a solid movie that made me laugh for the entirety of its runtime.
But it also got me thinking about modern art and the world that surrounds it. Everyone has at least heard the jokes about the pretentious young artist, cooped up and hidden away in their studio painting microscopic dots on a white canvas, which when connected form a phallus to “represent” humanity’s ignorance towards the patriarchy or something, I dunno. But what I do know is that, the more avant-garde and “challenging” modern art becomes, the more I simply can’t give a shit about it.
Modern art has gone through quite a few phases, but I feel that, after the high-point of the Warhol/Lichtenstein days, it’s all become this mad dash to make the most allegedly provocative piece of art and sell it for as much as they fucking can. Now, I’m not saying artists who wish to be compensated for their blood, sweat, and tears are greedy ass-hats, no no no. Hell, I’m a writer who dreams of royalty cheques, but I cannot help but laugh when I see rich kids get their MFAs in whatever art medium and then be on their merry way trying to challenge the world with their ‘vision’ and ‘ideas.’ Ideas are everywhere, ask anyone with a major creative bent. But sometimes, it all seems like the world takes too much too seriously when really there’s not a damn thing worth talking about.
‘The Square’ did make me laugh. It made me laugh not just at the unusual and absurd moments, but also at the unironic ridiculousness that modern artists show to the world and expect to be regarded as better than the next guy. In one of the film’s somewhat recurring gags, an exhibit involving a neon sign declaring ‘you have nothing’ lording over neatly placed piles of gravel is shown to have basically turned away any patrons who came looking for some kind of enlightenment. In the opening scene, the curator of the museum in which the film takes place for the most part can’t even describe what the hell the description for one of the installations even means, a scene that made me and the rest of audience laugh out loud.
It was a good crowd.
But long after leaving that sweatbox of a theatre (no a/c, I shit you not), I had to really sit and think about what I’d seen. While the gravel pile exhibit and the ape man performance piece that nearly ends in rape (no, seriously, it’s a whole twenty minute sequence and it ends with NEAR RAPE) had me laughing and going ‘what the fuck?,’ there was only one part of the film that made me think ‘now that actually is an interesting idea.’ The titular ‘square’ is an installation by an Argentinian sociologist/artist. It involves a solitary outline of a square, representing equal truth, equal responsibility. The exhibit within the film involved pressing one of two buttons; one saying that you trust people, the other saying you don’t. Then, patrons are invited to leave their phones and wallets within a projected, smaller square, asking you to act on your previous statement. Now I like that. That actually got me thinking, ‘would I be able to say I trust people and then leave my phone and wallet out like that while I walked off to explore the rest of the exhibition?” I still don’t what my answer to that question is, but I do know that it made me think.
This also got me thinking about that age-old question about what is and isn’t art. I figure I don’t have an answer, but a compromise: art is what you make of it. This isn’t anything revolutionary, hell it’s not even original. But what I figure is that if I can take away a genuine feeling of sadness from some obscure notebook drawings of a schizophrenic outsider artist, while a friend can be moved to near tears by looking at a Picasso painting of lines and random colours, who’s to say either of us are wrong? No one, that’s who.
I also have felt this in my own creative endeavors. While reading the book Fearless Writing by William Kenower during a real bad case of writer’s block, I came across a way of not worrying about whether or not anyone will like my writing, this thing that I feel passionately about and put my heart and soul into. Some people will like my stories, said the book, but others won’t. Not because they think it’s bad, but because different things strike people differently. While I’ve narrowed down my insecurities about my writing to my own anxieties and low self-esteem, I now feel more understanding in why some people like stories about romance and overcoming hardship, while I like stories about underage drinking and cannibalism. Different tastes; really, that’s what it comes down to.
Now back to high art. Actually, fuck that, just art in general. Let me give you a hypothetical of sorts:
Two people are in an art gallery. There are two different exhibits going on; one is an exhibit of a young newcomer to the high art world, fresh outta Columbia U, someone who works in video and performance art and sound sculptures and installations of the most abstract kind; the other is of the recently discovered works of a long dead janitor who, in his spare time, had crafted the most amazing, surreal, and honestly terrifying works of fantastical landscapes and magical girls. These two people have been staring at these exhibitions all day. One is in the new modern gallery, the other is checking out the dead janitor’s works. And neither are impressed. They either find them trashy and boring or pretentious and unremarkable. But once they switch spots, their feelings reverse. One of them has found the janitor’s bizarre watercolour-pencil drawing hybrids a work of outsider genius, while the other thinks that they’ll watch the career of this modern art newcomer with great interest.
If you think one of them is in the wrong and the other is the right, you’re missing the point.
Don’t force yourself to like a kind of art in you think it’ll make you look or feel smarter or more sophisticated. I’m guilty of this, personally. It really comes down to going out to art galleries because I feel, as someone who wants to get into the arts (albeit as a writer, not a visual artist), I have to immerse myself in this highfalutin world and be where the other artsy types are. And while there is slight truth in this –getting involved with people with similar interests will help you develop your own interests- I can’t say that just because I want to seem like I know what I’m doing means I have to force myself to enjoy things I don’t.
Art is fucking weird. But you know what, it’s still kinda cool. Even if for an occasional laugh. And that’s what I got from ‘The Square.’ Sometimes, you think it’s garbage, sometimes I think it isn’t. Certain things will make one of us go ‘oh, this is a truly powerful piece of meta-deconstructuralist modernism’ while it’ll make me go ‘HA! That guy is naked and covered in butter.’ And when we reach the next piece, I’ll be the one using the fancy art terms, while you cover your mouth and giggle into your wine glass. And you know, I’m fine with that. I just wish you were.