September 18, 2003, Episode 45: The Power and Pleasure of the World
Starting tomorrow, September 19th, and going through September 27th, the Open Space Arts Centre on Fort Street will be screening a number of underground short films and videos for Victorians to enjoy. According to their manifesto, Antimatter is an annual event that seeks:
"...to provide a public platform for underground productions of short film and video - imaginative, volatile, entertaining and critical works that exist outside of the mainstream. It is a forum for innovative and radical ideas overlooked or marginalized by contemporary culture."
Anticipating the festival led us to doing some serious thinking about what art is and isn't, the place of art in society and what happens to artists who don't really play along with the status quo.
Our contemplations led us to talk with Thomas Shields, spokesperson for Antimatter and Special Events/Foreign Matter Coordinator for the 9-day event.
Another tenet of the Manifesto states that Antimatter is:
"... a laboratory for audience development and education, exhibiting works in alternative venues, outside the traditional black box of the cinema."
We took this to heart and spent some time thinking about what is art outside the black box. We share some of our thoughts about art, artists and how they interact with society.
Finally, Antimatter also strives to create a:
"... neutral ground designed to support the independent/individual voice regardless of the subversive or dangerous nature of its content, stylistic concerns or commercial viability."
So, with this in mind, we contemplated one of the edgiest artists in history, the Marquis de Sade. Reviewing the film Quills led us to think about the place of sex, power and art in society, including the ways in which social controls are used to contain those among us who would push the envelope a bit in order to think about the world around us.
The plot line is familiar. The story is of mythical proportions in western civilisation. Within a particular man, a passion and unmistakable intelligence lie. This man cannot help himself. He must write; he must create. Despite the misunderstanding and anger of all those around him, he does not acquiesce to their will, to their control. Creativity and subversion flow from him. He is eccentric, driven, almost unstoppable. They take away his freedom, and he becomes perfectly happy to pen his stories within his cell, sneaking them out to be published through a network of fans waiting to hear his next naughty tale. They take away his pen and paper, and he writes on his clothes with his own blood to the point of anaemia. They take away his clothes, and he writes on the walls of his cell with his own excrement. Quills is an historical drama, of sorts, supposedly depicting the last days of the Marquis de Sade after his wife has had him committed to an asylum in Napoleonic France. The Marquis's fate rests on a dichotomy set between church and science. The church is represented by a priest, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who believes that the Marquis's writings are going to lead to his salvation because the writing of words is far better than the practicing of sins. Of course, the writing would have been okay if it had never left the asylum cell. But through a laundress, played by Kate Winslet, the stories are smuggled out and published, catching the notice of the emperor himself. Napoleon sends a physician, played by Michael Caine, to the asylum to cure the Marquis de Sade for the good of France. What results is a struggle between church and science with a man's sanity and well-being hanging in the middle. Of course, a love triangle develops between the Marquis, the laundress and the priest, and what results is a dark farcical comedy that predictably must end tragically, with the death of the innocent laundress, the torture and death of the Marquis and the eventual madness of the priest.
The Marquis de Sade, a philosopher and storyteller, spared no details of gore and torture as he explored the darker side of human existence through both practice and publication. Many believe that he indeed used torture to enhance his sexual pleasure and that he practiced much of what he wrote, including murdering for pleasure. The truth is that it is doubtful that he got to torture others that much because he spent most of his adult life in jail and in asylum. But his writings survived him. The word sadism, of course, originated from his writings and refers to the sexual pleasure one gains from the pain of others. His stories remain controversial even in today's sexually permissive climate, and his observations about human nature remain an important issue in philosophy. During his time and after, many blamed his writings for a number of violent crimes. Like rock music lyrics and gory movies, the Marquis's writings were said to awaken dark impulses in his readers. In Quills, however, Philip Kaufman's directing, Doug Wright's screenplay and Geoffrey Rush's portrayal of the Marquis do not match the expectation of a lecherous old man getting his "ya-ya's" out by watching other people's pain. Instead, the Marquis is an artist who pushes the boundaries but is never as cruel or as outrageous as the men of religion or science who seek to control his art through torture and torturous cures. The Marquis de Sade is portrayed as the quintessential dangerous artist who must be controlled by the powers that be. The audience is led to be sympathetic to the destruction of such a creative soul.
Much of Wright's screenplay depends upon a simple concept that has been a part of western civilisation since the time of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. The Marquis de Sade is a genius. A genius is an individual who exhibits a greater intelligence and/or talent than most everyone else. A genius excels in matters of the mind, the heart or the body. In our culture, we locate this quality solely within an individual who is said either to be a genius or to possess genius. No person could achieve greatness within a certain discipline without possessing this quality, and no person possessing this quality could be prevented from achieving this greatness. The myth is that genius is individual and internal rather than social and contextual. Thus, we know that the Marquis de Sade is a genius in Quills not because we are given a wide sample of his writings to examine nor because he is honoured by his peers but because his creative powers drive him so fervently that he cannot help but create. His will is the best evidence of his genius. This confirms the myth that something inside the man makes him write even when all around him want him to stop. Sociologist Daniel Chambliss takes on this myth in his article "The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers." The myth of the Olympian and the myth of the genius are similar in construction. Both are said to be talented and driven to excellence by an inner quality sometimes called a "talent," "gift" or "natural ability." Their performances are regarded singularly, without regard for those social supports that made their achievements possible. Each owns his record alone. We as an audience are supposed to be aware of this "natural ability" and be inspired by or in awe of it. We are supposed to recognize that no amount of practice on our part will make any of us a great writer or an Olympic swimmer.
In the case of the swimmers, admiration and adulation are expected because Olympians represent their respective countries in contests designed to bring honour to the people back home. In the case of the Marquis, fear and loathing are expected because the Marquis's writings might lead to social chaos and unrest. Both are recognized for their superiority, but they are not equally respected. The Marquis de Sade lives on the margins of society. But there are specific aspects of the story told in Quills that belie this myth. The Marquis is supported by a huge social structure that not only encourages his continued writing but ensures a readership for his works even as they are being suppressed. The Marquis has his fellow asylum inmates, his daily chats with the abbe and his network, beginning with the fair Madelyn. He may write on the walls with his own feces, but it is to ensure that his readers know he is not giving up. He does not write for his own pleasure alone, and he is not able to create outside of his limited social world. Thus, while the film relies upon the myth of the individual genius, it subverts the myth as well.
Experimental films, recordings and written work are subversive to varying degrees. Art occurs, in some ways, on the edge of what has been and what could be. Like the Marquis's network, edgy artists need social networks even while they critique the social world around them. Underground film festivals, such as Antimatter, provide such a network for distribution of art works that would not be acceptable to galleries or theatres in the so-called mainstream. There is no doubt that such venues are needed. So much more is being produced than one can see at cineplexes and on television. So much more is being explored. But one wonders whom the division between the mainstream and the margin serves most. This particular festival (like many others) is not exactly "underground," as it is supported by the Canadian Council for the Arts, the Ministry of Canadian Heritage, the BC Arts Council and several businesses in Victoria. While these funding sources are to be commended for opening a space for experimental film and topics that are on the edge of social norms, one wonders if the relegation of edgy works to the status of marginal does not suggest the creation of ghetto instead of a forum.
The answer might lie in process rather than politics. It is often the intention of politicos to create a black and white world in which sheep and goat are divided into specific flocks with specific characters. The process of art is not so neatly divided. Ravers and culture jammers of the 1990s started saying "it's all good" - an expression that seems to have gone the way of "groovy," "far-out" and "swell." Now often expressed as a way to calm down potential conflicts by suggesting that everything is going well, its original meaning was much deeper. The expression "it's all good" meant to suggest that dichotomies were passť. Dividing the world into for and against was too simple in the emerging postmodern world of technology, high-speed communications and global perspectives. "It's all good" meant that the processes by which communications could be accomplished could be used for a plethora of purposes and to try to decide which methods were intrinsically and inescapably good and which methods were intrinsically and inescapably bad would be absurd.
Would not the Marquis agree? The world of late 18th century France was a world that saw the peasants overthrow the aristocracy with some of the most bloodthirsty methods known in human history. Crowds dragged the rich kicking and screaming from their homes to the Bastille, where the guillotine waited. Crowds cheered as blood spilled. There was no doubt a thrill felt by the crowd, a sense of pleasure at the pain of their former masters. But this was not justice, and perhaps it was not even rightly called revenge. The seams showed as revolution after revolution was fought on French soil. The world of "haves" and "have-nots" was not as neat as it first appeared. It turned out that several rounds of killing all the right people, first the aristocrats and then certain factions of the revolutionaries themselves judged by their comrades as being of less than 100 percent ideological purity, did little to end tyranny or to stop power-hungry people from flexing their will over others. There were new people in control, but they controlled pretty much the same way as the old ones had.
The Marquis wrote during this time, uncovering much about the grotesque side of human nature, suggesting that it was desire and power, not justice, that drove humans to do the things they did. The power was apparently too intoxicating to resist or to restrain. Of course, the question remains open as to whether the Marquis de Sade would have been invited to a festival like Antimatter if he were alive and producing stories in this day and age. Perhaps the Marquis was too edgy even for those willing to experience something new or forbidden. No doubt mental hospitals still act as much as places of social control as they do places of healing. It does the Marquis a disservice to lead us to believe he was a genius, tortured by his own imagination. The Marquis de Sade reflected the context in which he lived. He threw the pleasure of the bloodthirsty masses right back into their faces and exposed the ways in which they enjoyed the pain of those around them. Art, especially experimental art, more than politics, even radical politics, is willing to explore such constructions of power, desire and humanity. Perhaps that makes art subversive. But the term subversion, just like the term genius, sets up an illusion of dichotomies that are much more mucky in everyday life. In some ways, Quills is reminiscent of the film Pleasantville, which depicted the simple joys of colour, the human figure and sex as subversions of the peace and tranquility of the pleasantries of a controlled society. The process of integrating the new characters into the black and white world change that world forever. So underground festivals give hope even if they appear to leave their subjects on the edge. Such art creates ripples in the culture even if it is never viewed directly by most people. Most of us have never been to a rave, but raves are now part of our culture. Such creations spoil the illusion of control the way one drop of iodine can turn a bucket of water to a tint of red. It's like when we were told that Ivory soap was 99 and 44/100% pure soap and you wondered how something could be pure if approximately half of a percent of it were something else. Perhaps that half percent makes it all good.
copyright 2003 by Carl Wilkerson and Pattie Thomas
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