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Ruben Östlund’s <i>The Square</i>: The Art of Being Human

Cannes Film Festival 2017

Ruben Östlund’s The Square: The Art of Being Human


Christine Jakobson

What is the relationship between art and religion? Film critic Christine Jakobson examines Ruben Östlund's Palme d'Or winning film The Square questioning whether art can bring about change and transformation on an individual and collective level. 

How much inhumanity does it take before we access your humanity?
Ruben Östlund,  The Square , 2017

Ruben Östlund, The Square, 2017

There are moments in history which change the course of humanity and there are works of art after which the course of art has profoundly changed for all times to come, demarcating a point of no return. One such example is the Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915), a work of art oscillating between life and death, god and nothingness. Malevich displayed the painting of a black square in a sacred spot, the corner under the ceiling, calling it “an icon of our times”, attempting nothing other than the end of art, its impossibility or its lack of necessity, thereby pointing to the end of us, our impossibility or the lack of our necessity.

Drawing a parallel line between art and our humanity, showing how intertwined, yet also distanced they are from one another, forms the backdrop of a canvas upon which Swedish director and scriptwriter Ruben Östlund draws his latest film The Square, which won him the prestigious Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Östlund returned after his previous feature film Force Majeur, winner of the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize in 2014, which was received with much critical acclaim for its restrained and microscopic view on the relationship between men and women in the 21st century. The Square, in contrast and to the criticism of some, is a tour de force more layered and complex than his previous films, yet still composed of tableaux which revolve around ethical thought experiments zooming in on human social behavior, a loss of moral values and middle glass guilt – all set within an international contemporary art landscape of self-indulgence and self-importance.

The Square follows Christian (Claes Bang), a respected curator of the contemporary Swedish art museum X-Royal and a divorced father of two, who is thrown into an existential crisis at the height of his success and in the lead up to his new exhibition “The Square”, which invites the public to perform or engage in a confined and temporary space of altruism. But before the opening of the installation, Christian has to deal first with the consequences of his response to his phone and wallet’s theft, as well as with the museum’s PR campaign and his life unfolding in the space in between.

In an interview with the American journalist Anne (Elizabeth Moss), which forms one of the first scenes of the film, she has, much to Christian’s surprise, only two questions: the first inquiring into the biggest challenges the museum faces and the second (the answer to which is, you guessed it, money), citing a text from the museum’s catalogue, questions the artworld’s use of language to express ideas and happenings. The use of opposing concepts such as exhibition / non-exhibition or site / non-site within that context is one of obfuscation, a snobbish concealment of important ideas hidden underneath a layer of pretentiousness, thereby alienating an audience it arguably should speak to. Asked to ‘translate’ the text, Christian, after a moment’s tinge of embarrassment, explains that in essence it is about the question of what makes art art. He continuous with an example of asking Anne that if he were to display her handbag in the museum, would it thereby become art?

The groundwork for such an institutional theory of art was laid by the analytic aesthetician Arthur Danto, who coined the term “artworld”, which encompassed ‘an atmosphere of art theory.’ Yet the most influential institutionalism has emerged from the American philosopher George Dickie, who advocated that to be a work of art is to be an artifact created by an artist and to be presented to the artworld in an institution. Östlund in fact incorporates further references to specific sets of art theory, such as relational aesthetics, a term coined by curator Nicholas Bourriaud in the 1990s to describe the tendency to make art or have an artistic practice, which is based on or takes into account human relations and their social context, rather than being based on independent private spaces.

The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations

The film’s titular installation “The Square” is supposed to be a quintessential relational piece of art, in as much that it is supposed to create a social environment in which people are meant to participate in a shared activity, thereby taking action in the real world, rather than being part of an artists’ private imagination. Christian explains at some point that "The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations". No longer only witnessing injustice, which might go unnoticed, such as in the case of homeless people who recur time and again throughout the film, the installation is meant to activate the public into direct participation - individuals thereby becoming part of a collective community, breaking down the barrier between subject and object, viewer and artwork, calling into being inter-subjective encounters as a matter of urgency and importance. Yet the hypocrisy of the installation couldn’t be more overt, as Christian’s own behavior, when confronted with various homeless people, shows his utter lack of attention, care, compassion, empathy or sympathy – illustrating that he himself is unable to act according to “The Square”’s gospel outside of its borders. Against Kantian ethics Christian uses one homeless man at the shopping mall as a means to an end and his personal needs or demonstrating his perceived superiority when, in an act of humiliation, he gives a woman money, though one note at a time while literally looming above her, or showing the power of the proverb ‘Beggars can’t be choosers’ when being frustrated that his offer of buying the homeless woman a sandwich, she would request hers without onions – as though the absence of her financial status would and should prohibit her from any choice. Just like Anne's handbag isn't a piece of art to Christian until it is presented within the pristine white walls of an art institution, people below his own socio-economic belonging aren’t worth anything to him outside the confines of a fine art installation.

Danto used the concept of transfiguration as a key element in his philosophy of art, which requires the artist’s interpretation to make an ordinary object an art work, thereby transforming it into a new object with a different ontological status. Hence, if Anne were an artist, rather than a journalist, and if Christian decided to present her handbag to his artworld followers, her bag would, according to this notion, transform into a more sacred object in a higher metaphysical realm, just as bread and wine transform during mass into flesh and blood. As we are confronted with a new context, our perception changes and with it the meaning and significance of the object under consideration, a shift of perception “The Square” applies to people via art.

I hope to have already introduced the notion that it wouldn’t do justice to Östlund’s work to offhandedly define The Square as a simple satire or critique of the contemporary art world. In contrast, Östlund goes a step further and questions the larger framework in which art is embedded, as well as our relationship to it. What is art’s role in society? What are the responsibilities of curators, artists and audiences? "Do you want to save a human life?" is in fact one of the first lines in the film, throwing us right into an ethical realm and a moral conundrum. Later on, the exhibition’s PR-film-gone-wrong, asks: “How much inhumanity does it take before we access your humanity?” But it appears as though both questions fall on deaf ears, be that for the characters within the film or by extensions for us as a viewer. Östlund confronts us with the question of what the purpose of art is, challenging whether conceptual art has failed in the face of our humanity and whether we are no longer to engage with it.

Only since the last few hundred years has art been displayed in museums and other public institutions. Previously, at least by and large, art’s primary function was to serve as the aesthetic dimension of religion, visually communicating religious meaning beyond language. Over time, art has distanced itself from religion and transformed itself - just like Eva from Adam’s rib - into an image of being and ever more becoming progressive, rational and radical. Yet, the meaning that art has produced, as well as the meaning that has been attributed to art, can be seen as a system or form of belief – not entirely unlike that of religion.

Danto furthermore understood art as having taken over both philosophy’s task of theorizing art and its inquiry into life’s fundamental questions, as he insists that “Philosophy is simply hopeless in dealing with the large human issues” (AB 137), later postulating that art has also superseded religion in conveying the highest spiritual truth. The Square does in fact confront the credo of ‘art as the new religion’, which is wonderfully exemplified by a seemingly insignificant scene, in which three older tourists enter the museum and the invigilator immediately informs them that they are in the wrong building, as this is a contemporary art museum, whereas the church - they are supposedly looking for - is just across the street. Apart from this older generation, for a younger generation galleries have arguably become cathedrals of the 21st century, which are visited in flocks or individually, on those few days off, looking to be overwhelmed, inspired, looking to find answers to life’s questions, to be put in a state of trance or awe. This modern form of pilgrimage takes us to museums, biennales, fairs and festivals, often under pressure, while hopefully or ideally allowing for a moment of meditation and contemplation, a space to examine existence and experience art as a heightened form of the real. But can contemporary art and/or film provide us with revelations and instill devotion in a secular society outside the realm of class, money, PR and the cult of the rich and beautiful? In an age characterized by exclusion, who is art for?

While the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel saw religion as superseding art in the evolution of Spirit toward ever higher forms of philosophical knowledge, artists and theorists of the subsequent centuries understood art as superseding both religion and philosophy in man’s eternal spiritual quest for meaning and truth. Despite art’s commercial aspect, it is possible to argue that art is an essentially sanctified domain of higher values, beyond the realm of our worldly and quotidian existence, which seeks to express depth and breadth of meaning that religion or philosophy no longer seem to convey, either due to the rise of secularism or the institutionalization of academic research.

The philosopher Richard Rorty has gone on to argue that art provides in fact a better alternative to religion. While Rorty focuses on the role of art on an individual and private level, the philosopher John Dewey understood art as essentially public in nature, postulating it in terms of community, harmony and balance, which returns us to the idea of relational aesthetics introduced by Christian as an essential key to the film. Hence, art can be understood as the continuation, rather than substitution, of religion through other means and norms. The purpose of art can then be understood as a reflection of our transcultural world, against divisiveness, inducing greater understanding of our sameness to bring about salvation from our perceived difference.

Östlund shows not only how entangled art and money are - and that the museum is housed in a former palace should not be seen as a random coincidence - but that the contemporary cultural landscape is dominated by the forces of PR. Even though PR can be classified to fall within the economic realm, further strengthening the tie between money and art, the shift the film so clearly foregrounds is that appealing to an audience, seeping into the public’s consciousness should ideally come in the form of a confrontation, as consensus doesn’t sell tickets or gets the necessary reviews. We’ve moved away from manufacturing consent and rapidly move towards a form of confrontation which doesn’t shy away from exploiting real-world struggle, performing public humiliation and manipulation for PR’s own benefit, while blissfully ignoring its responsibility. The exhibition’s 'promotional' video, which despite going viral (the actual measure of success in the eyes of the creators), has in the film’s diegetic world devastating consequences for the curator and points in this world towards our own nauseating acceptance and tolerance of literally buying into the unethical.

“The Square“ intends to position itself as a place of humanitarian values, invoking the ethics of reciprocity that can be found in virtually all religions, offering a sense of unity and equality across time and space outside the realm of religious doctrine. But might it be the case that we tell ourselves that art has nothing to do with faith or religion just a lie or pretext to hide the fact we crave something to believe in, a meaning transcending our quotidian existence, the randomness and horror of modern life?

Östlund’s The Square not only establishes a close connection between art and religion, but in additional and by extension the proximity between film and philosophy. Cinema in general, and Östlund’s film in particular, can be seen as cinematic thought experiments, at once speculative and self-reflective, drawing on previous experiments while also exploring new situations testing the limits of our behavior. In fact, already Östlund’s first feature Involuntary (2008) referenced Stanley Milgram’s experiment, which reflected on the pressure of group behavior and how it can cause people to cross the line, thereby exemplifying Hannah Arendt’s view of the banality of evil and humans’ obedience to authority. As an extension, The Square echoes the 1973 Good Samaritan experiment, in which theology students at Princeton took part in what they thought to be a study on religious education. The film reflects on this “bystander effect” exemplifying how personal responsibility defuses proportionate to the size of the group, thereby evoking Søren Kierkegaard’s The Crowd is Untruth, which argues that the eternal truth of the single individual is overlooked in the belief that all meaning and all power resides with the crowd. The question this raises is one about responsibility and in Christian’s ‘confessional video’ to the young boy he got into trouble for indirectly, though wrongfully, accusing him of having stolen his phone and wallet and who now haunts him, Christian initially admits his responsibility, only to subsequently explain it away by means of shifting the burden of responsibility to society, as he as an individual couldn't possibly stand up the machinery of an absence of ethics forced upon him, which he implicitly argues leaves the individual without agency.

Besides the child, two further archetypes confronting Christian: the animal and the woman. On the one hand, while Christian’s encounters with Anne provide some comic relief and insight into modern relationships between genders, the gala dinner performance of Oleg (brilliantly enacted by stunt coordinator and choreographer Terry Notary) on the other hand is particularly powerful and dark, acting to some degree as the film’s centerpiece. Performing as an ape, or in this instance ‘terrorizing’ might be a more truthful way of describing it, for the high society diners, Oleg’s performance asks of his audience to become participants facing the decision of whether, in a state of fear, they will hide in the crowd or run. The two figures of the ape, one real in Anne’s apartment and the other performed, provide another aspect to Östlund’s exploration of the human condition, as the figure of the ape embodies society minus culture, thereby exposing crude and instinctual facts about ourselves.

The Square carefully reveals the various manifestation of weakness in human nature, illustrating just how large the divide between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, ‘theory’ and ‘action’ is. Moreover, Christian embodies two sources of justice: the social contract and the individual ethics, continuously caught in the tension between his own happiness and the action he knows to be right. Is he to maintain his own privilege or contribute to the betterment of others, even if only in small measures? Or should he altogether radically change his lifestyle, in order to bring about a greater balance? Not only Christian, but we as the viewer, are daily confronted with this dilemma, which is epitomized by the rise of poverty, unemployment and homelessness in the countries this film will be seen.

Östlund’s cinematic universe is governed by Nietzschean laws - salvation, if any such thing exists, can only be found in this life and any form of religion pointing to the beyond is entirely absent or pushed back to a corner too far away to be seen or to matter. Östlund’s relentless and at times frantic search for truth penetrates every scene, an unstoppable force battling with ideas and questions present since the dawn of humanity. The Square attempts to reach deeper than politics, religion or art – right down to the core of what it means to be human, instilling the urgency for altruism and a desire to move beyond Malvich’s Black Square, stepping outside of it to find out what lies at the edges of our being, postulating art and cinema as one important starting point. 

Christian is certainly a modern hypocrite, idealistic in his words and cynical in his deeds, both powerful and weak, caring and utterly ignorant in his self-importance. But in a moment of silent and honest self-contemplation, would we not find all these contradictions within ourselves?  When asking whether Christian has learned anything by the end of the film or whether he finds the forgiveness he so desperately needs, we should be pointing this very question towards ourselves: has art this time around shown us something about ourselves that requires us to change? Has it been a means to bring about transformation? Can it mark for us a glimpse of the truth after which everything will be different?

Christine Jakobson is Editor-in-Chief and contributor to four by three magazine