Fisking “A Manifesto for Artistic Pessimism”.

An article over on “Radical Art Review” extoling the virtue of being bleak and depressing in the arts.  Folk who have followed my work should understand that I take a different approach.  I can be dark sometimes, but I simply loathe the “gray goo” that is so much modern “art” and “literature”.

The article text is in Italics.  My responses are in Bold

Romanian nihilist and pessimist philosopher Emil Cioran once wrote “only optimists commit suicide, optimists who no longer succeed at being optimists” and that “it is not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late”.

So they no longer succeed at being optimists?  That means they are not optimists any more.  That would make them pessimists?  Optimists commit suicide when they aren’t optimists any more?  That means optimists don’t commit suicide.

This kind of doublethink masquerading as profound just sets me all aquiver with anticipation for the rest.

In these short collection of words, this tragic thinker – who wrote books such as On The Heights of Despair and A Short History of Decay – speaks to something at the very core of life, especially within this culture – the need for sincere, honest and authentic pessimism. He wrote that “Chaos is rejecting all you have learned, chaos is being yourself” and, following from this, it is your-self I wish to appeal to in the words I present here.

So he’s a “tragic” thinker huh?  A little bit of self-important tripe and you’re just fawning all over him?  That bit of doublethink doesn’t speak to the need for anything except the “need” for attention by the self-important little whiner.

“One must have chaos within to give birth to a dancing star” Nietzsche

Well now, chaos, change, disorder, that’s another ballgame.  It has nothing to do with pessimism, mind you.  Hope is found in change.  Success is found in change.  Growth and progress and, indeed, all good things, come from change, from chaos.

Indeed, I’ve had opportunity to speak to a number of people who have been suicidal, who even made very sincere attempts to end their own lives.  And the one thing they all had in common was the belief that they were locked into their situation, where nothing would ever get better.  In other words, it was the very opposite of change.  Their miserable (as they saw it) situation was the order of things for them.

But, hey, you got to quote a philosopher in order to sound profound, even though the quote really doesn’t speak to the thesis you’re trying to sell, so there is that.

The fact that the vast majority of films present a near totalising fatalistic optimism is abundantly obvious. Most films end with the desired conclusion to the narrative: with the hero surviving by the skin of their teeth; or the two beautiful people find love in a beautifully romantic setting; or the rebels narrowly avoiding Darth Vader’s clutches and obtaining the Death Star plans, whatever other example you care for.

Totalising?  Is that a word?

And of course they do! Happy endings sell. When it is all said and done, people want things to “go right” and for things to fit within the desires of this cultures ideological narratives.

And there you go.  People prefer those kinds of stories.  What you’re missing is that people like those stories for one very primal reason:  The story where one decides ones own fate through ones actions, where people receive the just deserts of their efforts, where they rise to and above their challenges, speaks to how people desire to believe in those things.  They may not see them in the world around them but they want to.

But like with other non-existent things you have to believe in them, you have to want them, before you can make them happen.  People want hope.  They want an ideal to strive for.  They want to believe.

But whatever the reason, that is what they want.  If you know that this is what people want and decide to do something else, why then you have no one but yourself to blame if people stay away from your art in droves.  Oh, you might convince a handful of politicians to provide you a grant to pay for it, often using money extorted from others by threat of force (we call that “taxes”) but your art still won’t appeal no matter how big the circle-jerk of “sit around telling each other how great they are” folk you have.

And any message you have in it?  That will be lost too.  Perhaps you’ll get some press via outrage, but in the end that will fade and you’ll be forgotten and nobody outside your inbred circle of naval gazers will care except to laugh at the ridiculous stuff people call “art”.

Situationist philosopher Guy Debord asked about film:
“Do we simply watch the images rolling past, become happy or sad at the whim of the filmmakers, only to return to our regular lives without any effect on how we view the world and how we could possibly change it?”

In this question Debord raises the issue of the film watcher being a passive observer, absorbing the narratives of filmmakers, in such a way that it maintains everyday normality.

Oh, another self-important philosopher.  Excuse me while I roll my eyes.  The answer, of course, is “no”.  Films and other art affect life.  But to do so it first has to be experienced and absorbed.  The painting that nobody looks at.  The film that has only a half dozen viewers.  The book that goes to the remainder table as a last ditch effort to sell it before the cover is stripped and sent back to the publisher and the interior pulped, none of them will effect change because they don’t reach people to affect them.

If you want your art to inspire change you have to reach people.  You’ve got to find the way to make it popular and then slipping your message in painlessly so that people absorb it along with their entertainment.  Unrelieved gloom and doom doesn’t generally do that.

Through the medium of film, in most cases, the viewer passively consumes the notion that things do not need to change, because things will work out happily in the end. Batman, Frodo Baggins or Neo will come and defeat the Big-Bad, or the T-Rex and Raptors will kill the Indominus Rex.

What planet did you see those movies on?  In each of those movies, not only did things need to change but the characters had to work their asses off to make them change.

Frankly, you’re coming off as more than a little deluded here.

Two questions come to mind though.

First, are things inevitably going to turn out for the best, or is that just an idea that enables individuals to participate in this culture without any thoughts regarding consequences?

That “idea” is a pure fantasy that has no connection to any of the “art” you’re criticizing.  From the perspective of the characters there was nothing “inevitable” about the success for the quest for Lonely Mountain.  There was nothing “inevitable” about Sauron’s defeat.  There was nothing “inevitable” about Neo defeating Agent Smith.  There was nothing “inevitable” about Batman coming through and saving the day.  In all cases, they had to overcome great challenges and make great effort to make those results happen.

Your man isn’t just straw, it’s as ephemeral as smoke.

Second, what is the purpose of art/film and are they supposed to affect the viewer in any particular way?

Before it can do that, it must first have viewers.  See above.

Starting with the second question, Oscar Wilde, in response to moral critics of his age, promoted “art for arts sake” and criticised the “monstrous worship of facts” within art movements. Perhaps Wilde is right and that art need not serve any moral purpose and should be done for its own sake.

And I’ll respond with a quote by Samuel Johnson: “Nobody but a blockhead wrote except for money.”

Perhaps you might consider that there can be more than one answer to the question.  In fact, I’ll add another quote, this one by Kipling from his poem “In the Neolithic Age”:

There are nine and sixty ways
Of constructing tribal lays
And every single one of them is right.

This doesn’t mean art cannot hold egoistic instrumental value. In the philosophy of art, aesthetic cognitivists argue that art, particularly painful art, is valuable as a means of empowering individuals.

You have a strange definition of “empowering”.

Perhaps, amorally, mediums such as film can serve as an instrumental means of empowering individuals around painful matters, like the idea that things will not turn out for the best: pessimism.

Selling people on the idea that no matter what they do, things will go to hell (pessimism) is the exact opposite of “empowering”.  Accept your miserable lot.  Don’t expect better.  Don’t strive for better because you’re not going to get it and you’d just be wasting your effort. Yeah, that’s “empowering.”

If you’re on some pretty serious drugs.

For the rest of us that’s almost the exact opposite of empowering.

Antonin Artaud developed an approach to theatre called theatre of cruelty, through which theatre “wakes us up. Nerves and heart,” and through which we experience, “immediate violent action,” that “inspires us with the fiery magnetism of its images and acts upon us like a spiritual therapeutics whose touch can never be forgotten”. Perhaps film can serve as an immediate violent action which inspires a fiery magnetism, effecting the viewer spiritually and therapeutically.

And Die Hard does all that plus blows the shit out of the bad guys too.  As C. S. Lewis said, “Since it is so likely that (children) will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.”

Regarding the question of whether or not things are inevitably going to turn out for the best – whether optimism holds true – we should consider this in multiple senses. Existentialist, nihilist and absurdist philosophers, like Nietzsche or Camus, argue that ultimately everything ends in death and that all action is ultimately futile: a pessimist’s conclusion, though they all generally argue that there is personal/subjective/egoistic value in actions and the pursuit of meaning.

There you are with that word “inevitably”.  And those philosophers who argued that?  How did they respond?  If they truly believed that codswallop, then they would have sat on their asses doing nothing (because doing anything would be futile) until they starved to death.  Personally, I like the one that is generally (falsely) attributed to Marcus Aurelius:

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

If you can’t find meaning in that, well, that says a lot more about you than about any philosophy.

We could also look at the question from a non-philosophical gaze, looking at the environmental and socio-political situation where all paths seemingly lead to ruin: when the sixth mass extinction event and climate chaos pose significant existential threats to humanity and this culture, as well as the biosphere; where nuclear war and World War 3 become ever more possible situations. All of which paints a particularly bleak future, whether you value this culture or the biosphere.

This is what happens when you drink your own ink.  Even if any of these truly apocalyptic scenarios were to come to pass there would still be room for survival, hope, and rebuilding.  Do you want a list of post-apocalyptic books that illustrate that?  I can get one for you.

People have been predicting imminent doom for centuries.  Again and again they’ve been wrong.  Not just a little bit wrong but wildly insanely wrong.  Yet every time their dire predictions fail they come back around with the revised version. “This Time For Sure.”

“I don’t know about you reading this, but pessimism feels like the more honest, sincere and authentic outlook.”

That’s because you look at the world through your own dark glasses.  I’m tempted to turn Plato’s allegory of the cave around on you but you know what, people who have ears to hear will grok it without my having to spell that out.

Perhaps, in an egoistic aesthetic cognitivist sense, a pessimist cinema of cruelty would be valuable, as a means of empowering individuals to respond to, what postmodernist philosopher Baudrillard called the desert of the real – a real that is becoming increasingly bleak with every passing day.

Your dark version of reality notwithstanding, as Ouida, pseudonym of Maria Loise Rame. From “Romance and Realism” in “Frescoes and other stories” (1883 so you’re not saying anything new) wrote: “But the Vatican Hermes is as ‘real’ as the Japanese netzke, and the dome of St. Peter’s is as real as the gasometer of East London; and I presume the fact can hardly be disputed if I even assert that the passion flower is as real as the potato!”

Disaster and apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic films (such as The Matrix, Book of Eli, Elysium, 2012, Day After Tomorrow, Children of Men, War of the Worlds, I Am Legend, Armageddon, the Terminator series and other similar popular titles) all end on a hopeful optimistic note, where ruin is averted.

And they work their assess off to make that happen*.  Seems like a pretty good lesson to teach. (*Okay, “War of the Worlds” was a gimme, but that was more a religious allegory.)

Films like V for Vendetta and the Hunger Games series, which take a generally leftist-revolutionary narrative, generally conclude with mass people’s movements being able to overpower the Big-Bad and winning out – perpetuating the idea that hopeful optimistic endings are really viable at this point in time.

And again they work their assess off to make that happen.

Even films like Avatar and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, which take somewhat of an anti-humanist, anti-civ, radical-environmentalist narrative, end with things “working out”.

Well, sort of.  Most folk I know laugh at Avatar because of how ridiculous both the setup and the denoument was–but not for purposes of “pessimism”.  But even there, the film “good guys” had to work their asses off to bring about the ending they wanted–however ridiculous that ending might be.  Are you seeing a theme here?

Perhaps radical film projects should draw from films like Apocalypto, The Road, Escape From L.A., 12 Monkeys, Knowing, The Time Machine, Survivalist, Into The Forest and TV series like Black Mirror, and adopt a pessimist cinema of cruelty approach. Maybe this can serve as a means of empowerment through discomfort, as the desert of the real becomes bleaker and bleaker.

Because teaching people that there is nothing they can do, that things will only get worse, that there is no hope, that there are no passionflowers but only potatoes (and early 19th century Irish potatoes at that), is so very empowering.  I suppose if you convince yourself that the future is unalterably dark then you don’t have to make excuses for not trying.  That’s a kind of “empowerment” I suppose–for weak, pathetic losers.

I missed the opportunity to see the latest edition to the new Planet of the Apes saga, but look forward to being able to watch it on DVD or stream it online, as it is an interesting series. I am also personally looking forward to seeing the new Bladerunner film (and hoping it isn’t going to be another nostalgia porn let down). Both of these films hold the potential to be honest reflections of this culture and our current situation.

We’ll wait and see.

There’s a reason that Planet of the Apes saga was a flop at the box office.  It will only “influence” people like you, people who are already choking on their own nihilism.  So you go right ahead and wallow in your pessimism.  The rest of us will continue to find inspiration in success to actually strive to make the world a better place.

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4 thoughts on “Fisking “A Manifesto for Artistic Pessimism”.”

  1. He really does seem to miss the concept of agency. That people can strive and fight to achieve their desires. Things don’t “just happen” to turn out right. Not in art, not in real life. But art, in all forms can point the way, demonstrate one method of working to get out of a bad situation, to fight people who would harm you and yours, to build, to try, to try again and again and never just quit.

    But I’m afraid Mr. Cioran has quit.

  2. Holy crap, this person seems to not just be satisfied with no joy in their life but seems to actively want to destroy the only joy some people get in theirs.

    That sounds like such a horrible existence to me.

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