Films about artist's lives and work as an enchanted form of psychoanalysis? What about transference situated, not on an analyst's couch, but within the imitative gestations of sculpture and painting, laid out and exposed on the cutting table of cinema? What about the dreamy flow of art images conjured up by the electricity of moving pictures?
At the Centre Georges Pompidou, January 30th, there was a screening of a series of films about artists of which I saw 2 and one half. The first film I saw was "Jannis Kounellis" by Heinz-Peter Schwerfel. This 35 minute color film was well produced and artistically photographed and contained a very interesting and subtle sound track. We are introduced to Kounellis and his art by way of the fiery Mediterranean culture in which he lives and apparently finds stimulus. The film starts with the sea. Then Greek ruins drift into splendid moving photographs of his home port city of Piraeus near Athens. Streets and markets and cafes bustle with working people, all emitting a highly tactile and sensuous Latin coating to reality from which the art, the materials and feel, of Kounellis work is indirectly linked. We then get to meet him at his studio in Rome.
What I appreciate most from this film is its almost romantic reference to a deep time, a shadow life of nonverbal existence which moves us internally beyond our own place and situation and allows us the possibilities of fresh insight into the work. Here in the artist's involvement with his own place, where one can imagine art as a place of geographical sanctuary. Not cyberspace, but also not a physical place - not gallery or museum - but a metaphysical Mediterranean solidarity. Depth in such a place survives and becomes condensed and enfolded within Kounellis' works of art, which by their presence can grant us an aesthetic experience vertical in nature.
Familiarity may not always breed contempt, exactly; but it does tend to inspire a certain complacency. We are tempted to overlook, to take for granted, what has become blatantly familiar, no matter how odd it is in itself. We may look and register the presence of something without really seeing or understanding it. Isn't that a basic working premise of Pop art? The film "Roy Lichtenstein" by Andre S. Labarthe, 60 minutes (!) does not risk such a fault. Instead it belabors the point to death. We are treated in this film to an hour long studio visit with the master and only occasionally is the conversation riveting, as when questions of mechanical simulation arise - only to be superseded by color theory considerations, for example.
It is clear that, for many, Pop art has been synonymous with some imperative promise of liberation: not only aesthetic liberation, but social, political, and even, it seems, what we might call metaphysical liberation. Mr. Lichtenstein almost articulated this assumption that, to one degree or another, informs much contemporary thinking about Pop art and culture. It is a quintessential Sixties assumption- where there was a lot of starry-eyed talk about "unleashing creativity" - but it has not remained merely a Sixties assumption. It continues to resonate in the art marketplace today. The irony is that it is now an assumption that conspires to rob artists of the thing that should matter most to them: their freedom to risk.
Lichtenstein and Pop are mainstream and yet is there not also a widespread sense of staleness, futility, disenchantment today? And does this not have a lot to do with the character of today's celebrity art-world art? Lichtenstein epitomizes this.
This stale canned film only reminded me that when we look around at the contemporary art scene today, we are struck by the lack of Pop's happy promiscuous nature.
The last film I watched half way through was Teri Wehn-Damisch's film" Robert Morris : The Mind/Body Problem". I'll say it was. The body said 'go' and the mind said 'just 5 minutes more...its got to get interesting'. The body never lies. This film was torturously bad. It played at being self critical and light but merely reeked of pretense, bad acting and smugness. But one mustn't overlook the element of posturing that often accompanies such existential divination. In this respect, anyway, the Morris film appears as a kind of forerunner of Pop art.
It's badness reminded me that the architect Philip Johnson once said that Postmodernism insinuated "the giggle" into architecture. This film insinuated the giggle into movies on famous artists. And I was out of there.
In one sense, Ms. Wehn-Damisch's film was simply a catalog of current cliches about art. It was and is a prerogative of art to probe regions deemed off-limits; the attempt to breach the borders of the acceptable. But considered as a cautionary tale, it has some salutary lessons to teach. Stepping back and considering the image of art it assumes, we can perhaps begin to outline a response to the calamities of art with which we are living. For one thing, it is time that we recognized that art need not be "understandable" or "meaningful" in order to be good or important. In this context, it is worth noting that great damage has been done- above all to artists but also to public taste- by trying to explain everything artistic.
The art world today retains little of the idealism that permeated Romanticism, but it remains Romantic in its moralism and hubris about the salvific properties of art. This is an ambition that many artists continue, in more mundane ways, to harbor.
I think it is worth quoting here John Cage from his book "Silence" on this matter concerning his work with Merce Cunningham: "Though some of the dances and music are easily enjoyed others are perplexing to certain people, for they do not unfold along conventional lines. For one thing, there is an independence of the music and dance which, if one closely observes, is present also in the seemingly usual works....
We are not, in these dances and music, saying something. We are simple-minded enough to think that if we were saying something we would use words. We are rather doing something. The meaning of what we do is determined by each one who sees and hears it."
Please film folk. Take that to heart.
Hi Joseph I chanced upon your Jan 30th 1996 review of 'Films about Artists' while search-engineering for a film I saw some years ago called Cage/Cunningham, made by Elliot Caplan. Do you know the work? Have you seen it? I suspect you might enjoy it. It has remained with me all these years, although I only saw it the once, because of the beautiful fit between the odd music and the sinewy, eclectic dance, but more because of John Cage's words about paying attention to the present moment. At one point he talks about listening to the sounds of a NY street and being continually stimulated by its newness, its lack of repetition. He also relates a very amusing story about D. T. Suzuki coming to ?Harvard and Cage attending his talks. Dr Suzuki would wait for the insight to come before he spoke. Sometimes he waited a long time! sometimes he would untie his bundle of buddhist texts and just read a sentence or two. Sometimes he would just laugh! I was conducting a search for this film - our local quality video store doesn't have it and perhaps it never made it onto video - because a young friend of mine has begun a contemporary dance class.... I enjoyed your review, especially the insight of the lingering romanticism in us all - our longing and fantasy to make meaning out of it all, rather than just experience it fully. Kind regards, Graham