Should art aspire to be “absolutely cutting-edge”? What exactly does that phrase mean?
In The Square, a new movie written and directed by Ruben Östlund, the aspiration is voiced by Christian, the director of X-Royal, a museum of contemporary art in an unnamed Swedish city. Christian is a master of the clichés of his profession. “We mustn’t be afraid to push boundaries,” he intones. The difficulty, of course, is that boundaries of any sort are hard to find. To those devoted to the cult of the “cutting-edge,” anything can be art. Thus the X-Royal has a gallery devoted to conical piles of dirt, and another where a video shows a shirtless artist impersonating an ape.
The movie satirizes these pretensions and is to some extent presented as a dark comedy. It has received critical accolades and the 2017 Palme d’Or. One reviewer found it “consistently smart and laugh-out-loud funny in all its liberal-creative absurdity.” Satire, however, need not induce laughter, and I heard none in the theater at Lincoln Center during the 142 minutes it takes for Christian to upend his career by discovering some boundaries that he ought not to have crossed.
The Square itself participates in the contemporary aesthetic that it half-satirizes. It mocks spectacle but offers its own set pieces of spectacle-for-spectacle’s-sake, such as the man-ape rampaging through a black-tie dinner party. And it combines such spectacle with a high-minded moralism, exemplified by “The Square,” which is a piece of square pavement demarcated by florescent lights that is meant to provide “a sanctuary of trust and caring.”
Trust and caring, however, are in question. Early on in the movie, Christian, played by the handsome Danish actor Claes Bang, is robbed by a talented trio of pickpockets who use his altruistic impulses to fleece him of his wallet and cellphone. Initially too trusting, poor Christian soon wanders into the shadows of distrust and heedlessness. He turns on a staff member who has tracked his stolen cellphone to a dark apartment building inhabited by Middle Eastern immigrants. He argues with Anne (Elizabeth Moss), an American journalist with whom he has had sex, when he refuses to let her dispose of his condom. (He fears she will impregnate herself.) His troubles mount when an Arab boy from the projects complains that Christian has gotten him into trouble by falsely accusing him of stealing the wallet and cellphone. Christian at this point has discarded his high-minded “caring” in favor of telling the gamin to get lost, and eventually pushing him down a flight of stairs.
In his distraction, Christian gives perfunctory approval to a video campaign to promote “The Square,” which turns out to portray a little blonde homeless girl being blown to bits while she stands inside the sanctuary of “The Square.” As a bid for public attention, the video succeeds, but it is not exactly the kind of attention Christian had hoped for.
Some of the individual scenes in The Square are powerful; others are intriguing. The man-ape at the dinner party is unforgettable cinema. Christian’s rising panic, exemplified by his rooting though an immense pile of trash in a downpour as he searches for the phone number of the Arab boy, is richly suggestive. But this is a movie that is far less than the sum of its parts. Scenes stretch on interminably for no purpose. Characters are developed and then abruptly dropped. Plot lines once begun are left to wither. The viewer has plenty of time to wonder why no one ever thinks to call the police. Would that be an uncaring way to handle thieves? Some scenes are amusing as stand-alone vignettes, but they have tissue-thin connections to the rest of the movie. A man with Tourette Syndrome repeatedly shouts obscenities while a curator attempts to interview a visiting artist. One of Christian’s daughters participates in a cheerleaders’ competition. These are long, elaborately staged digressions that go nowhere.
The movie also spends generous attention on homeless people, some of whom are neatly sketched, and includes lines about the urgent need to help the homeless. But this theme, like so much else in the movie, simply trails off. The homeless offer a strong visual contrast to the sumptuous banquets and high life of the art swells, but they are discarded as the movie wanders on to irresolution. What passes for moral seriousness in this world passes away pretty quickly.
The Square, in other words, is thoroughly “cutting-edge.” It invokes moral imperatives and stakes intellectual claims, and dissolves them both in postmodern irony. Christian is not a bad man, in the sense that he upholds the pieties of the age. But he is all surface and entirely ineffectual in a crisis. When push comes to shove, he shoves—a little boy down a flight of stairs. But he feels bad about it afterwards, and sends the boy a video message in which he blames “society” for his bad behavior.
It would be bracing if writer/director Östlund had drawn the connection between Christian’s idolization of the “cutting-edge” and the character’s moral vacuity. The movie leaves that possibility open, but only because it leaves everything open. When a janitor negligently vacuums up some of the dirt from the gallery full of dirt piles, a frantic staff member tells Christian of the catastrophe. With aplomb, he orders her to pull out photographs of the original dirt piles, empty the vacuum cleaner, and put the dirt back into place.
Östlund does much the same thing. Having gently poked fun at the excesses of nihilistic “installations” and “performance art,” he offers his own version of both. He puts the dust back in place with his fragmentary and inconsequential narrative. “Cutting-edge” has come to entail an anti-aesthetic that embraces not ugliness but emptiness. “The Square,” those several square yards of pavement enclosed by a well-lit perimeter, remains vacant for the whole movie. There is a reason for that.
Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars.