Realized I forgot to link to my Manakamana essay at The Artifice:
For further reading, check out my essay on Leviathan, the previous film from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab.
Last week, I had an essay published at The Artifice:
Please visit the site and let me know what you think in the comments.
Much has already been written about 2013 being a great year for movies, and most critics have already released their “top 10” lists for the year. I am always late, as it usually takes me a while to catch up with some films I may have missed earlier in the year. And there are still always many that I will probably never see. That being said, I’d like to present what I consider my twenty favorite films of 2013:
Part I: Documentaries
I saw a lot of great documentaries this past year. These four left the most searing impact on me. I have already written on Tim’s Vermeer and Leviathan, but let me take a moment to discuss briefly the other two.
Stories We Tell is an examination of the psychological role that narrative plays in shaping one’s life to make it meaningful and, by extension, bearable. Director Sarah Polley sets out to uncover individual accounts of a family secret. She interviews her family and family friends, and her father serves as narrator. By making the film about something personal in her own life, Polley actually manages to express better the universality of her theme. Perhaps more gracefully than any film prior to it, Polley captures the essence of remembering as a creative act, memory as a construct. (For a more detailed analysis, please read “Memory’s Chorus: Stories We Tell and Sarah Polley’s Theory of Autobiography” by Leah Anderst.)
Stories We Tell could also have been a good title for Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. The film looks at members of an Indonesian death squad who participated in the country’s genocidal efforts in the 1960s. But these apparent crimes against humanity were never punished. No, rather, they were celebrated and woven into the fabric of the country’s history, which in this case, was certainly written by the winners. Is this proof of moral relativity? Yes and no. When the filmmakers ask the celebrity killers to reenact their past deeds in the style of American genre films, they are forced to reexamine the act of killing in a new light. And some of them no longer have the stomach for it.
Part II: Visions of Excess
The Wolf of Wall Street and The Great Beauty both present lives of excess, but they do so in radically different ways and toward radically different ends.
In The Wolf of Wall Street, we see Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) rise to power as a leading stockbroker, a position he attains through dishonest and illegal means. Martin Scorsese establishes a tone of comic mayhem, and the film becomes a high-energy, drug-fueled orgy. Conversely, in The Great Beauty, we see Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) in his twilight years, still living the high life after publishing a successful novel decades earlier, but now also looking back and reflecting on the might-have-beens. Paolo Sorrentino builds a more melancholic and meditative tone within his film.
Both films highlight the allure of a hedonistic lifestyle, but neither outright condemns it, and each, in its own way, celebrates it. However, only in The Wolf of Wall Street are you likely to find the protagonist morally repugnant. Belfort is dishonest and driven by his appetites; his actions ultimately lead to a scenario where he endangers the life of his child. Gambardella, on the other hand, is very honest, very much in control. It’s impossible not to like him; it’s an absolute pleasure to be in his company. He may feel unfulfilled with aspects of his life, but this garners our sympathy for him, not our contempt for his mode of living.
In contrasting these two films, it’s easy to see that there can be great enjoyment, great beauty, in hedonism. It’s for the moral character of the one practicing it that we must reserve our judgment.
Part III: The Rest
I really love all of the films on this list, these fourteen not necessarily more or less than the six that preceded them. Some I fully expected to be brilliant (e.g., Inside Llewyn Davis); others surprised me with how much I enjoyed them (e.g., Rush). The final spot was very difficult for me to fill. There are plenty of other great films I would have liked to include (I won’t name them, but there are good examples from multiple genres). I ultimately went with Sightseers because I very much enjoyed its nutty and offbeat nature; it was fun to watch it in a packed theater.
Anyway, as always, I’m curious how my list differs from yours. Feel free to discuss your own favorites in the comments.
Pornography has just one purpose, which is to arouse you. To make you wank, basically. But if you look at this film, it’s actually a really bad porn movie, even if you fast forward. And after a while you find you don’t even react to the explicit scenes. They become as natural as seeing someone eating a bowl of cereal.
Critics mounted similar defenses against charges of pornography when Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color was released earlier last year. For example, Julie Maroh, the author of the work on which the film was based, stated that the sex scenes amounted to “a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn.” But according to Andrew O’Hehir at Salon:
Those scenes were intended to be challenging and destined to be controversial, but they are woven into the film’s design, not the reasons for its existence.It’s not 1953, people – if your goal is to see French girls get naked, it’s not like you need to sit through a three-hour art film to achieve that.
Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian gets right to the heart of the matter:
For what it’s worth I entirely disagree that Blue Is the Warmest Colour is porn. Of course that charge can be levelled against any explicit material, and “porn” is a charge routinely made against anything that looks good: “food porn”, “property porn”, etc. But the film’s sheer uncompromising explicitness took it beyond the level of exploitation or titillation, and what also took it away from porn was its treatment of the unsexy aftermath: the agony, the tears, the arguments, the gloom and the despair. This is the long goodbye – a very unporn goodbye. I didn’t giggle at the sex scenes: I found them sexy, passionate and moving, in that narrative order.
In sum, according to all of these defenses, art differs from porn because its portrayals of sex are not necessarily titillating. They’re not “to make you wank,” as Skarsgård puts it. However, the history of art tells a different story. In the past, sexual art was common and created by the great artists for the very purpose of titillation; it was indistinguishable from today’s pornography in its expressed intentions to arouse its viewers. For this reason, and for the fact that by their very definitions porn and art cannot easily be separated, I would like to argue that charges of pornography levied against sexual content in art is a subtle way of avoiding any real confrontation with what the sexual content might signify. Also, I do not think that titillating and erotic content need necessarily disqualify a work from being considered art.
Part I: The History of Sex in Art (or, How Sex Became a Vice)
Blue Is the Warmest Color and Nymphomaniac are certainly not the first art house films to display graphic sex. A feature titled “A History of Real Sex in Movies” cites nine examples. One of these is 9 Songs, directed by Michael Winterbottom. Of the strong criticism levied against his film by British Parliament, Winterbottom remarked:
You can show people eating and doing normal things, but you can’t show two people making love, the most natural of all things.
This is a valid point. Why can’t we simply depict sex in art as a natural act? Why does it automatically become controversial, or worse, “obscene,” and threaten a work’s art status? As I have already mentioned, this was not always the case.
Jonathan Jones, the art critic at The Guardian, has written a lot on this subject (and even penned a book about it):
Europe’s great artists were making pornography long before the invention of the camera, let alone the internet. In my new book The Loves of the Artists, I argue that sexual gratification – of both the viewers of art, and artists themselves – was a fundamental drive of high European culture in the age of the old masters. Paintings were used as sexual stimuli, as visual lovers’ guides, as aids to fantasy. This was considered one of the most serious uses of art by no less a thinker than Leonardo da Vinci, who claimed images are better than words because pictures can directly arouse the senses. He was proud that he once painted a Madonna so sexy the owner asked for all its religious trappings to be removed, out of shame for the inappropriate lust it inspired. His painting of St John the Baptist is similarly ambiguous.
The sexual content of these classic paintings—not to mention the fact that some were clearly used as one would use pornography today (i.e., to arouse and stimulate sexual appetites)—does not negate their worth as art objects. They still hang in museums; they are still studied and appreciated.
We can go back even further in time, to Ancient Rome. In a blog about the ancient art of Pompeii, Jones writes:
The villas and brothels of Pompeii were full of erotic paintings, sculptures and kinky artefacts.
It is a huge contrast with the Christian society that grew out of the ruins of Rome and still in many ways – whatever our personal beliefs – shapes the culture of the west. That contrast is sharply shown by what happened to the erotic art of Pompeii when it started to be rediscovered by excavators in the 18th century. It was admired, but also considered deeply provocative.
The point that Jones is making is that sex today is marred by sin, whereas “the art of Pompeii reveals that uninhibited sex and unrepressed art were universal in this ancient culture.” As Jones points out, Christianity is largely responsible for this differing perception of sex. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about how this shift occurred in an aphorism titled “To think a thing evil means to make it evil” (Daybreak 76, trans. R. J. Hollingdale):
The passions become evil and malicious if they are regarded as evil and malicious. Thus Christianity has succeeded in transforming Eros and Aphrodite – great powers capable of idealization – into diabolical kobolds and phantoms by means of the torments it introduces into the consciences of believers whenever they are excited sexually. Is it not dreadful to make necessary and regularly recurring sensations into a source of inner misery, and in this way to want to make inner misery a necessary and regularly recurring phenomenon in every human being! In addition to which it remains a misery kept secret and thus more deeply rooted: for not everyone possesses the courage of Shakespeare to confess his Christian gloominess on this point in the way he did in his Sonnets. – Must everything that one has to combat, that one has to keep within bounds or on occasion banish totally from one’s mind, always have to be called evil! Is it not the way of common souls always to think an enemy must be evil! And ought one to call Eros an enemy?
To see this transformation in action (of Eros into an enemy, of love into sin), one need only look at the shunga art of ancient Japan. In an article for The Guardian, Charlotte Gibbons writes about a recent exhibit of shunga art at the British Museum:
Although shunga, meaning “spring picture” or “pillow picture”, was a mainstream artistic genre for several centuries, enjoyed by ordinary townspeople as well as aristocrats, it was suppressed in the 20th century when Japan opened up to the west and the country went through an accelerated “modernisation”.
At that point, instead of being regarded as a part of the texture of everyday life, presented to brides upon their marriages for instruction, arousal or amusement, shunga “was treated like pornography”, said [Tim] Clark [the show’s head curator].Above all, said Clark, shunga is important because of its value as art. The greatest Japanese artists, such as Hokusai and Utamaro, made erotic images. Shunga invites us to question, he said, a western tradition that divided “great art” from “the obscene”. “That distinction simply does not exist in Japanese art of the period,” he said.
Thus, it was the western (Christian?) tradition of dividing “great art” from “the obscene” that turned Eros into an enemy, not only in the West, but across the entire globe. Still, the history of art and painting is full of works that embrace their erotic and sexual content. To return to Winterbottom’s complaint that he “can’t show two people making love, the most natural of all things,” I think we can now see why. It wouldn’t have been a problem in the pre-Christian world (e.g., Ancient Rome or Japan), where sexuality was celebrated and not seen as sinful. However, in our post-Christian world, we generally view sexuality in a negative light, as something shameful (or at least provocative). So, when today’s artists (e.g., Lars von Trier and Abdellatif Kechiche) attempt to depict graphic sexual content in their work, controversy inevitably follows, accompanied by charges of pornography. But what does this even mean?
Let us now look at definitions of pornography to see if it is in fact different from art.
Part II: The “Definitional Crossword” of Art and Pornography
In his article “Pornographic Art—A Case from Definitions” (British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 52, Number 3, July 2012, pp. 287-300), philosopher Simon Fokt attempts to determine, based on definitions of both art and pornography, whether there is enough to differentiate the two from each other. Fokt employs what he calls a “definitional crossword.” First, he lays out the most common definitions of pornography. Then, he sees how each one would fit within a particular theory or definition of art. (Since I have adopted an institutional theory of art on this blog, I will use that as an example.)
Fokt looks at five definitions of pornography. Aside from one definition that states that pornography features sexual content in which the participants are objectified, the other definitions focus on what they call pornography’s intention to sexually arouse its audience, or the fact that it at least comes with the expectation that its target audience will use it for sexual arousal. One definition claims that it is for this very reason (the focus on sexual arousal) that pornography cannot be appreciated aesthetically. If you are interested in the details that differentiate each definition, I urge you to seek out Fokt’s article; for the sake of simplicity, I will only work from my summary of the definitions described here.
The institutional definition of art employed by Fokt is the one formulated by George Dickie in Art and the Aesthetic:
A work of art in the classificatory sense is (1) an artifact (2) a set of the aspects of which has had conferred upon it the status of candidate for appreciation by some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld).
The first thing you will notice about this definition is that it contains no caveats about a work’s content. As Fokt writes, “[…] the work’s content is utterly irrelevant to its status.” Thus, the definition of pornography mentioned above that claims pornography features sexual content involving objectified participants (or any content-based definition of pornography) would not prevent pornography from being accepted as art.
Next, as Fokt writes, “[…] works can become art in the institutional sense irrespective of what they were intended to be in the first place.” Thus, it does not matter whether or not a work was intended to arouse its audience sexually, or even if the work is used for this purpose regardless of its creator’s intentions.
Of the idea that sexual arousal would prevent someone from appreciating a work aesthetically, Fokt concludes:
[…] it is unimportant for an institutionalist whether an object is appreciated aesthetically or artistically; in fact, Dickie argues that there is no such thing as aesthetic appreciation at all. In this light, [the abovementioned definition’s] claim that being aroused by pornography prevents one from appreciating it aesthetically or artistically is again irrelevant, as such appreciation is not required for the conferral of the status.
In sum, none of the claims made by exclusivists are even remotely relevant to what makes objects art in the institutional sense. On the contrary, it seems that some pornography can be, and some of it actually is, art. It is artefactual in the same way as art; it can have the art status conferred upon it; and it is not at all impossible that other institutions should overlap with the artworld. Clearly, such social institutions as the state or church can, so why not the porn-world? Thus such works as The Story of O can be treated as examples of works which are pornographic and yet also art, in virtue of the art status having been conferred upon them by members of the artworld.
For those interested, Fokt also examines historical and functional definitions of art, as well as cluster accounts, and he briefly touches on other definitions. Needless to say, he comes to a very similar conclusion in each case, namely that “some pornography can be and is art.”
Like Fokt, my purpose in taking on this subject is not to suggest that all pornography should be considered art (nor do I wish to diminish the valid ethical and feminist concerns about the depiction of women in typical pornographic media). In fact, I think that works of pornography, as produced and consumed today, are experienced quite differently and in completely different contexts from works more commonly understood as art. Moreover, I think that (unlike the video game industry or even the food and fashion industries), the pornography industry has no interest in making claims that its product is art. (As we saw in the last section, Christianity helped separate art and sex by making Eros into a villain. In doing so, it likely drove sex underground, which gave birth to the porn industry we know today, one that cares little for the art side of its product.) However, as Fokt helps illustrate, I think that all attempts to draw a clear line between art and pornography are doomed from the start. In cases where misguided moralizers attempt to diminish an artwork for its sexual content or because it may sexually arouse some viewers, it can and should be demonstrated that the “pornographic” content does not necessarily disqualify the work as art.
Part III: Of Dance and Lap Dance
In the last section, I state my belief that the porn industry has no interest in claiming that its product is art. However, if they are pushed, they will definitely make that claim, and I believe that they have every right to do so.
In October of 2012, the Huffington Post reported on a strip club in suburban Albany (Nite Moves) that had filed a lawsuit arguing that “fees for admission to strip club and for private dances are exempt from sales tax.” The article begins this way:
Lap dances are taxable because they don’t promote culture in a community the way ballet or other artistic endeavors do, New York’s highest court concluded Tuesday in a sharply divided ruling.
The court split 4-3, with the dissenting judges saying there’s no distinction in state law between “highbrow dance and lowbrow dance,” so the case raises “significant constitutional problems.”
The article later explains in more detail the viewpoint of the dissenting judges:
In the dissent, Judge Robert Smith wrote that it was a question of what the law and regulations actually say. The law defines a “dramatic or musical arts admission charge” for “a live dramatic, choreographic or musical performance,” he noted. Choreography means dance, and clearly the women at Nite Moves dance, he wrote.
Smith assesses, quite correctly, that the court decision amounts to judges defining, willy-nilly, what counts as “highbrow” art and what counts merely as “lowbrow” entertainment:
Smith added that while he finds this sort of dancing “unedifying – indeed, I am stuffy enough to find it distasteful,” discriminating on the basis of content such as imposing a tax on Hustler magazine and giving the New Yorker an exemption “would surely be unconstitutional. It is not clear to me why the discrimination that the majority approves in this case stands on any firmer constitutional footing.”
Thus, even if an act (such as a lap dance) meets the above-referenced law’s definition of art, which allows for “choreographic or musical performance,” the judges can apparently make a value judgment on the act for the purpose of excluding it from tax exempt status. Even though we have now seen how sexual content, historically, did not threaten a work’s art status, and that even by definition pornography should not be disqualified from being art, lawmakers are still fighting their hardest to keep art and sex separate.
Years earlier, a strip club in Idaho (Erotic City Strip Club) was faced with a city law passed in 2001 forbidding “complete nudity in public unless the display has ‘serious artistic merit.’” Just as with the Nite Moves case, the issue revolved around legislators’ attempts to define (arbitrarily) the moral and aesthetic values of their constituents. Luckily, Chris Teague, the owner of Erotic City Strip Club, saw the absurdity in the situation and used it to his advantage. According to a BBC report, he started charging patrons for a pad, a pencil, and dance performance. He called it “Art Club Night,” and as long as his patrons sketched the dancers, he met the law’s “serious artistic merit” exemption; his dancers were able to perform nude.
The absurdity of these cases illustrates perfectly how the line separating art and pornography is arbitrarily set by those whose values paint sexuality in a negative light. When this line is examined in both a historical and academic context, it blurs and fades away.
What I would like to suggest is that, in discussions of art, charges of pornography offer no useful commentary on a work’s artistic merits. Instead, the word “pornographic” serves only an outdated Christian function; it is meant to make sex shameful. However, I think that we should approach sex in art in a more value-neutral way. For example, a sex scene should not be seen as morally or aesthetically objectionable in itself. But what are the details and the circumstances of the scene in the context of the story and its characters? These should be the targets of our criticism (moral, aesthetic, or otherwise).
In sum, though I think that Stellan Skarsgård, Andrew O’Hehir, and Peter Bradshaw are right to defend the sexual content of Nymphomaniac and Blue Is the Warmest Color, I do not think they should have to trouble themselves with arguing why the sexual content is artistic and not pornographic. For even if the films were to meet any or all definitions of pornography, I do not think that this should disqualify them from being considered art.
Sex, as Michael Winterbottom suggests, is simply as natural a human faculty as eating. We do not see moral outrage over “foodie” films like Babette’s Feast, no matter how explicit the food or how hungry it makes the viewers. The same should be true for artworks featuring sex – graphic, unsimulated, or otherwise.
Last week I attended a screening of Penn & Teller’s new documentary Tim’s Vermeer at the Coolidge Corner Theatre as part of their Talk Cinema series. This screening (and the discussion that followed) was hosted by Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr.
As Burr warned us before the movie began, there would be a lot to talk about. He was right. But let’s take a look at the film first.
The film follows the inventor and engineer Tim Jenison as he attempts to recreate The Music Lesson by Johannes Vermeer using optical devices and mirrors that he believes (along with artist David Hockney and art historian Philip Steadman) Vermeer must have used to obtain the photorealism present in his paintings. There has always been a mystery surrounding Vermeer’s work, especially the fact that there are no signs below his paint that he was working from sketches. Was he simply able to paint photorealistic paintings from memory? Could he have had superior eyesight that would allow him to capture visual anomalies in his work that are normally hidden to the naked eye?
There has been a tendency throughout art history to romanticize Vermeer as a genius but never attempt to understand why he was a genius. This is exactly what Tim sets out to understand in his experiment (which the film traces from conception to conclusion). Though Tim is enthusiastic about proving his theory, there has been hesitation in academic circles to accept the theory popularized by Hockney and Steadman that Vermeer was aided by optics. The reason for this is the increasingly outdated belief that the worth of an artwork is dependent on the amount of traditional skill and effort used to produce the piece. Even though abstract and conceptual art have been dominant in the artworld for well over a century, this belief persists. It still accounts for negative reactions that some people have toward art they do not understand, exemplified by the common reaction, “My kid could paint that.” So why is it that people seem so unwilling to see technology as a useful aid to artists and not a dirty trick or a cheat?
Teller addresses this issue in an interview with The Village Voice, which Ty Burr also quoted from during our discussion:
I blame it on academia. Academics very often don’t have to do the art that they write about. They also don’t have to make a living from the art that they write or teach about. So I believe they’ve never gotten their feet wet, their hands dirty, and said, “OK, how would I go about making a painting that I would sell to support my family?” If you talk to real artists who actually produce things, they’re not woofty. They don’t view artists as supernatural beings who just walk up to a canvas and paint with light. They use whatever tools they can to achieve the effect, because the important idea is to get the idea that’s in your heart to the heart of someone else.
What I noticed at the screening of the film at the Coolidge was that the audience was overwhelmingly open to accepting Vermeer in these terms. When Ty Burr asked whether the use of technology should change our view of Vermeer as an artist, or if the technology is a “cheat” and makes Vermeer “lazy,” the audience responded “of course not.” They reiterated a point made in the film that even Renaissance artists were aided by technology (e.g., the algorithm behind perspective) in their effort to increase the level of realism in their works. It is a point I have often made in defending electronic music against accusations that the artists are not using “real” instruments: if that is your belief, you do not understand the meaning of the word “instrument.” What Tim Jenison proves in the film is that there is still a lot of skill and effort involved in creating and manipulating the technology that one may use to create art.
That said, I am still not entirely comfortable judging an artwork based solely on the quantification of skill and effort supposedly put into it. I would hope that the finished artwork ultimately matters more than the methods used in its creation. Duchamp’s Fountain is still an important work, regardless of how “easy” it was for him to throw together. Leaving Vermeer’s painting skills and use of technology aside for a moment, his paintings are still miracles of composition that can be appreciated aesthetically as masterpieces of 17th century Dutch art. In other words, I think we can look at Vermeer as a proto-camera and judge his paintings by the same standards by which we now judge photographic art. However, if your appreciation of these works is dependent on a romantic conception of Vermeer as a man struggling with just his brush and without the aid of any other tools to achieve his artistic goals, I would suggest that you are only appreciating a mere expenditure of energy and not necessarily the actual paintings.
With Vermeer’s legacy safe, at least among my fellow audience members, Ty Burr asked: “Is Tim an artist?” One woman answered “no,” because Tim produced a copy of an already existent work. I find it hard to argue with that point. But I would like to add that, based on what we see of Tim’s methods in the film, he certainly can be an artist if he were to apply himself toward the creation of original works and submit them to the artworld for evaluation. (Actually, the film asks what I find to be a more provocative question: “Is Tim an inventor or an artist, or is that distinction important?”)
Finally, “Is the film an artwork?” In the same interview referenced above, Teller talks about the process of finding the film’s story from the 2,400 hours of footage that was shot:
I like that term, “narativizing.” It’s exactly right because, in real life, you don’t know the story of your day. If you get to the end of the day, and you get to your diary entry, you know what the story of your day was. We had four years of undifferentiated human experience that included a lot of technical stuff, a lot of funny stuff, a lot of dull stuff, and we had to go into that and say, “What is the core of the story?”
In finding the narrative, the form of a story within the chaos of footage, Teller, narrator Penn Jillette, and editor Patrick Sheffield clearly create a work of art. The story is smart, moving, and funny, and it is scored elegantly by composer Conrad Pope. The filmmakers even utilize Lightwave, a technology created by Tim’s company, to craft illustrative animations, proving that artists today are still using whatever means necessary to make the best art they possibly can. Not only is Tim’s Vermeer such an artwork, it is also one of the standout documentaries of the year.
In closing, despite recent attempts by people like Leon Wieseltier to keep science and the humanities separate, as if the humanities were somehow threatened by science and technology, the relationship between science and art remains a fruitful one. This film, and the work of Vermeer at its heart, are a testament to that.
Sadly, we lost one of our greatest philosophers of art this past Friday. I cannot overstate how important Arthur Danto has been to the development of my own understanding of art and our relationship to it. In particular, his idea of the “Artworld” has greatly influenced many of my own writings and works of criticism (most of them published here on this blog). And I still have much to learn. For instance, I have a tendency to conflate the terms “aesthetics” and “philosophy of art,” something that Danto warned us not to do. This past August, in a review of Danto’s final book, What Art Is, Joseph Tanke wrote:
While many take aesthetics and the philosophy of art to be synonymous, Danto argues for a hard distinction between the two. For him, aesthetics is largely a matter of delectation, a consideration of the way in which things appear to the senses, along with an argument for the superiority of one arrangement over another. The philosophy of art, on the other hand, is an inquiry into what distinguishes art objects from other things in the world; it is an attempt to answer the question, what makes art art?
Moving forward, I will try to make an effort to speak of “philosophy of art” in my approach to the subject, and not “aesthetics,” for I certainly have no desire to argue for the superiority of one arrangement of sensory data over another.
You can read the New York Times obituary of Danto here:
And here is a reprint of a brief article that Danto published in 2002: