That Troublesome Knot between Ethics and Aesthetics: ‘Resistant Art’

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That Troublesome Knot between Ethics and Aesthetics: ‘Resistant Art’
Art has always experienced a tremendous anxiety regarding its ethical dimension. To start with, does art really exert any influence on our thinking and our behaviour, and if it does, how and why does this happen? Next, if art does have such an impact, does it reside in every single work of art, or only in those that satisfy certain criteria, and what would those criteria be? Finally, supposing that there is such an impact, what does one do with it? The answers are far from obvious. How can or should a play, a poem, a painting, if they are merely gestures enacted, words said or written, coloured marks, change their spectators, i.e. ‘educate’ or ‘deprave’ them, arouse admiration or rebellion?

For about a century, this extremely knotty question has been dealt with — and I would say simplified through — the idea that art is a locus of ‘commitment’ [engagement], for artists and for their audience. Art supposedly involve a moral choice in what it depicts, or indeed in the meaning it gives its subjects. But here’s the rub: that meaning will always be the right one. Why would one commit oneself if it were not for the good cause? Doesn’t making a film about World War II — and we know there have been a considerable number of them, still being produced every year, all over the Western world — imply that you are yet again celebrating the cause of the Allies and inveighing against the Germans? ‘Commitment’ is a duty towards the Good, a duty which is to be quite honest more comforting than excruciating. In standing up for a film which I shall consider later, Susan Sontag homes in on the problem in the most pellucid manner: “The subject of Hitler makes moralists of us all — moralists with a facility that is perhaps the last of the corruptions which is Hitler’s legacy”.

Isn’t ‘commitment’ always a commitment to our good cause, the celebration somehow of our heroes, the gathering under our flags and ideals, our cheerful song of victory? It seems to me that a whole tradition of militancy has familiarised us with this, on the right but maybe even more so, alas, on the left. I should like to go even further: as soon as we touch on the question of the ethical dimension of art, or indeed that of the appeal to ‘commitment’, a whole tradition has turned us into good little soldiers (that is what ‘militant’ means literally): duties await us.

A handy alternative has been plotted for us between commitment and entertainment, or disengagement. But the difference has not been clarified between commitment and subjection to an ideology. Are we sure that in an art ‘committed’ to the right cause we are exerting our ethical freedom, our resistance to an established ideology, our revolt against the social conditioning and the conformism of our world? Let us carry the paradox to its logical end: how can ‘committed’ art rid itself of paternalism, avoid being an art doomed to deliver propaganda messages or even lessons in morality? And how can we fail to welcome such ‘commitment’ with the heartening pleasure of being on the right side: doesn’t ‘committed’ art preach to the saved, as Adorno noted perceptively in his critique of Brecht?

I think we would gain from learning to take on an art that is basically resistant, disobedient, singular. In other words: an art that is irreducible to ready-made ideas. Or, if one must go through them (since pure singularity is bound to be a utopia), it should at least go far beyond them, avoid being their mere resultant. An art that resists as much as possible being reduced to a programme, a recipe, a creed. That is why to Brecht, Adorno opposed Beckett as a free inventor, and therefore a truly ethical one — for the freedom which art gives us is precisely the refusal of all ideologies, ‘capitalist’ as well as ‘communist’, ‘entertaining’ as well as ‘committed’: an ethical commitment can only exist when we have thrown off all duty to commitment.

I cannot see any other way but that which consists in not looking in a work for the Good to which we should commit ourselves, the given solution to which we should yield and wish to make others yield. Resisting any ready-made ideal that would be dished out, any solution, any flag, any anthem that would be served up when the time comes, in order to cheerfully spread obedience...

There is a very troublesome knot between ethics and æsthetics which seems to tie up in an active resistance to a given mental and perceptual form, to an already established and accepted artistic conception and production. Disobeying and resisting this, shaping a singularity: isn’t that the only emancipatory vocation we can think of? Seeking a form of life and art, rather than reproducing one; experimenting; defining ourselves in an ever changing, relative, complex difference: is any greater freedom possible?
There are many works that are not really ‘committed’ and yet highly ‘resistant’. I have chosen to call forth three of them: three rare and intense films that are as many possible responses, intensely different ones — necessarily different, as they are free —, to the question of how to exercise resistance in art (and in life expressing itself through art). One film about the Great War, one about Nazism, and one about Europe united.
The first film is Prigioneri della Guerra, by Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi (1996), and is a masterwork of found footage, i.e. a film mad up exclusively of bits of film lit upon, practically salvaged from dustbins. Prigioneri della Guerra is the product of ten years of research all over Europe for reels showing life in prisoners’ camps on both sides of the Great War. These are extremely rare images, and they had to be stuck back together, recoloured, even reframed and provided with a new rhythm. This so that the spectator can reread them, with a twofold questioning: what was filmed, and why?

Indeed to work on found footage is by definition to work on memory and its possibilities — or on the present and its impossibilities. When you ask yourself why something was filmed at a given time and condemned to oblivion at a later point, you are also trying to understand what can (or cannot) be done with it today. When you work on found footage, you also have to tackle cataloguing: not only the cataloguing of things filmed and stitched together through their recovery and ‘posthumous’ editing, but also the cataloguing of the images themselves when they are ‘exhumed’ in another era, where the question arises of how to put them together and how to look at them. To put it briefly, a successful and intense found footage film, such as the film by Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi, is a simultaneously æsthetic and ethical apparatus, involving vision and questioning, of images that are both a reflection on the images and on the people who produced them. This is an artistic and historical experimentation, on the 20th century’s paramount medium (the cinema) and on the politics of a continent (Europe).

Prigionieri della Guerra accordingly brings to the surface a colossal anonymity of war: a show without winners or losers, without heroes of the right cause or disengaged people or people committed to the wrong cause. The massacres, the prisoners, the dominations keep recurring on both sides of the front, a palpably fluctuating and invisible line. A kind of abstract domination is thus involved. It is an absurd apparatus, since it can be seen and questioned in all directions.
The second film I should like to adduce is also a film with no obvious pre-established, reassuring boundaries or distributions. This is Hitler, ein Film aus Deutschland, a huge film, both in its length and in its impact, by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg (1978). Seven hours which literally exceed the spectator’s normal capacity for vision and cognition, seven hours which instantly prevent the film from being any type of entertainment, instead consigning it to a sublime affray with the spectator.

This is nevertheless an entertaining, quite brilliant and provocative, or even diabolical film (the ‘devil’ is literally the one who splits and tears apart points of view). Hitler is the impossibility of making a film whose aim has been assigned in advance: to condemn Hitler. It is a epic film, overflowing with different points of view and an infinite number of voices: the voices and points of view that are necessary to institute a genuine trial against Hitler, to question him again, asking oneself painfully: what can have happened for things to come to this point?

The film opens the question on two fronts: on the one hand, what happened in German, or indeed in European history, to end up with Hitler (the film here produces a veritable culturo-historical encyclopaedia); on the other hand, are we still a part of that history, is there no present-day relevance to what Hitler embodied and sustained, in other words, have we got rid of ideals of national grandeur, just wars and heroes, the cult of traditions, the appeal to the values of the ‘people’, including the idea that art should be useful to it (the film then becomes a true reflexive philosophical machine). A hypertext film on the dissemination of Nazism, a mirror film on the complexity of the ‘microfascisms’ that we carry in ourselves (the expression comes from anarchistic thinkers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari). As the film says: “It is defeat by force of arms, not by reason, that rid us of Hitler…”.

Hitler consists in an apparatus that simply piles up audiovisual and spectacular documents which are notably projected and lectured with gusto. Hitler therefore projects Hitler; but the latter is in turn conceived as a veritable projection of all that people wanted him to embody (“What would Hitler be without us?”). Hitler revives Hitler, in a kind of docufiction in fragments, surreal and baroque; at the same time, Hitler is analysed as the embodied will to animate and fashion the world (Hitler as a frightening form of ‘biopower’ to use a concept popularised by Michel Foucault, a great admirer of the film). In a dizzying telescoping between form and content, Hitler somehow becomes Hitler, and vice versa.
Finally, from Hitler’s unbridled baroque we can move on to the haunting minimalism of Béla Tarr’s Prologue: four minutes to produce a Vision of Europe (this is the title of the collective film by 24 filmmakers from the 24 countries of the European community in 2004). Only one long picture following a queue of destitute men, their diversity and their community, their expectant waiting…all the way to a window where a woman gives them some hot soup. And then come the credits, naming all those persons one by one. This is a document-picture and it is also a micro-fiction which takes in a moment of history, Europe today. It is called Prologue. But ‘prologue’ to what?

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