A Few Essays and Book Reviews:
Alex Lefebvre Flaunting rottenness: Plateforme, by Michel Houellebecq
…the so-called art critics, by and large, are entirely lost. They have no means by which to gauge the success or failure of a film. It’s entirely hit or miss. So-and-so is convinced that the New Portuguese Cinema is the coming thing, X and Y are equally certain that the latest 6-hour Hungarian suicide film is positively ground-breaking. It goes on. No one has a clue. People are convinced if they see enough films, or at least enough of the “right” films, it will all work out in the end. But it doesn’t, because they lack the slightest objective means by which to judge what they see. So their heads are crammed with images, very few of which are subjected to a serious critique.
How does one arrive at such an “objective means”? Of course, this notion will be rejected out of hand by the vast majority of contemporary critics or academics. Everyone, as we know, has his or her narrative, equally valid or invalid. One simply plays at art or film or criticism. The dreadful unseriousness of contemporary intellectual life!
Breton suggests that one proceeds with two sets of facts: the history of the particular art form (what Hegel calls the “empirical body of knowledge”) and the history of society. I think these are reasonable starting-points. Does a work take up some of the most advanced work in the field and develop it, and does it take a penetrating look at the world?
To answer these questions, of course, one has to know something about the history of the medium and the history of society. More generally, “You must be something to do something,” as Goethe remarked. I return to the unlined faces and the empty heads of the vast majority of film directors and writers.
The relationship between art and social life is extremely complex. One of the central points I’m attempting to make is that the historical, cultural and intellectual “climate” is of critical importance in the creation of art work. One can berate the individuals involved for a multitude of sins, but the difficulties today are not the result of personal failings, even on a mass scale. What is the artist or critic breathing in? What are his or her conscious and unconscious minds feeding on?
What did the artists of 1925, whether surrealists or constructivists or Bauhaus advocates or social realists, take for granted, more or less? A hatred of king, country, priests, police, flags, war, authority. The art work took off from that point. An oppositional viewpoint was more or less “built in,” as something presupposed, it was present in the conscious and unconscious. Why? Because of the great events and the presence of a mass socialist labor movement.
Of course the artists were not all in agreement with a struggle against capitalism or any such thing. But the “labor question,” the “social question” was a part of late 19th and early 20th century intellectual life, even for the partisans of “art for art’s sake,” and such. Consider Wilde, a remarkable socialist theoretician, after all. Or Mallarmé, who subscribed to an anarchist magazine. The list goes on. Proust commented (unfavorably) on the prospects of the socialist movement. These issues were in the foreground for anyone serious about modern life. They were in the air.