For all the pomp and circumstance, the posturing and arch connoisseurship that can come with the global contemporary art scene, Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s Oscar-nominated film The Square clarifies how much our actions within this scene tend toward role-playing. (I am using the us/we construction here, since I am part of this scene and imagine that many readers of this are, too.) From the very beginning, the film tells you that it’s not just displaying performance, it’s also looking at what performance in one’s life can mean.
The film opens with a cry for help. An overwrought woman runs through a public plaza screaming. Her cries are incoherent; we understand that she is in trouble, but little else. Two tall, middle-age men try to talk to her, ascertain how they can help. She makes no sense, but then the aggressor appears — a man is chasing her who is similarly out of control — and he clearly poses a threat to her. She is afraid, seemingly bereft of help except for these two men who understand their civic duty to be preventing this woman from being harmed. They fend him off and try to comfort the woman, who almost immediately runs off, and then the two men spend a few minutes bolstering each other, congratulating themselves for stepping up and being decent human beings. However, one of the men — the main character Christian, a curator at the prestigious (and fictional) X-Royal Museum, played by Claes Bang — discovers after that he has been robbed. His wallet, phone, and cufflinks are gone. The movie then follows the chase: attempting to find the lost items, we watch him come into moments of genuine anxiety, fear, confusion, embarrassment, and anger, but none of these seemingly more “real” moments imbue him with any empathic humanity, or improve his life chances.
The film refuses to give its audience the easy exit of extolling “realness” or authenticity (which is often and erroneously taken to the be the opposite of role-playing). The Square shows us that performance is a constant across distinct social classes and among the vocations and industries that meet in the art scene. We witness how street beggars play a role: the victim with indomitable pride, or the poor wretch who seemingly has no other resources beyond the public’s good will, or the pliant servant who will help those in the social echelon above them get what they need. There is the indigent immigrant boy who insists that Christian apologize to him when the curator wrongs him; or the woman who accosts Christian for a sandwich at a local shop; or the man who helps Christian find his children in a mall when they are momentarily lost. Their performances are not different in kind to Christian giving a speech at the opening of a new exhibition, or giving an interview in which he indulges in ridiculous (but typical) artspeak, or the hipster marketing team that comes into the museum to convince the staff to sign onto a new, outré advertising campaign. They are all trying to secure patronage. Even Christian’s young daughters are in training to similarly perform — learning to be cheerleaders, convincing the audience to pay them attention. Even in that first, ostensibly selfless act of helping the screaming woman (for which he seemed to be punished), Christian was only playing a role — the Good Samaritan. But we see that role has clear limits. Moments before he had nonchalantly passed by a woman who implores everyone within the sound of her voice “Would you like to save a life today?” and completely ignored her.
The film makes evident the degree and extent to which the art scene not only expects but insists upon social, public performance. The crass stereotypes the movie portrays are that artists are expected to stage insular strangeness; curators enact patient, piercingly insightful translation of artistic visions; marketers proffer daring and scandalous campaigns; and museum directors are supposed to enact a kind of birds-eye-level rectitude. And there’s no escape (spoiler alert): only when Christian’s performance as a curator fails to elicit more patronage and greater allegiance from the audience is he forced to resign. It’s a melancholy story, but it gets worse.
Many times, moments of authentic emotional divergence from the social script make the characters callous, manipulative, indifferent, mean. For example, when a beggar woman asks Christian for a sandwich, she tells him rudely “no onions,” to which he responds by ordering and paying for the sandwich and then tossing it at her telling her to pick off the onions herself. He is provoked into a kind of realness that produces anger, resentment and dismissiveness. Other moments of authenticity just generate violence. The climatic scene of a black-tie dinner gala at the museum — in which a performer acting as a wild ape (a creature who adheres to very different social mores) harasses the guests until they turn on him to beat him to pieces — especially demonstrates how “realness” is often no better option that the agreed-upon script.
The Square has been called a satire, likely because we haven’t developed a popular term for a film that, though drawn in exaggerated lines, at its foundation is hopeless and doesn’t mean to teach us anything with its hopelessness (except maybe to succumb to humor). The film feels like it wants me to ponder it, to find whether there are any sides of this dark drama that might be considered comedy. Mostly it isn’t funny for me. It points out the pretentiousness, weakness, and arbitrary nature of contemporary art production and display. However, unlike art I often meet in galleries and museums, the scene depicted in the film doesn’t let us even laugh at ourselves.
The Square, which was written and directed by Ruben Östlund, is now in wide release.