“That’s my job,” said an interesting Lars Von Trier, in a recent interview with Mark Kermode, “to manipulate”. Actually his interview, out of Kermode’s sceptical admiration and recent attacks on the Director for calling himself ‘a Nazi’ – since although he’s Jewish from his mother’s side, the only side, his father was German – was unmanipulative and rather frank. He explained the joke, the problem of news headlines, and talked about his own wounded psychology, as if his particular art was a kind of illness. Plato thought artists are an unhealthy bunch, who should be banned from his Republic, but then that would assume a belief in Utopias, where the conflicts of art and self-expression become superfluous. I haven’t seen Antichrist, attacked for being the most evil film of all time, but it seems to pick up that theme in nature I share in my books, that the nasty struggle of life implicates us all in harm, or worse, and sometimes to see the good is a very difficult thing.
But is an artist’s job really to manipulate? Any one good with words knows their power to influence thought and emotion, to ring the heart, to challenge truth or falsehood, to create effect. But in the tradition of Artistotelian drama, within the closed cell of a piece of work, there are higher purposes than entertainment, or certainly manipulation. In Tragedy achieving catharsis, through pity and fear and the shared journey of drama in the crucible of a theatre, is that purpose. As the happy resolution of diverted tragedy is Comedy’s classical resolution. In the very special realm of young adult or Children’s literature there is also an implicit compact or understanding that the good, even responsible artist will lead the characters and the readers through darkness to some kind of safety and confirmation. On the cusp of an ‘adult’ understanding of the world, that is a special calling. It is when art attempts to blatantly manipulate though, that it loses the greatness of that kind of grand Shakespearian Consciousness, which is to test the heights and depths of human identity, in realism or fantasy, and in the well springs and wholeness of the artist themself, but to constantly seek resolution and even enlightenment. Any good artist knows what a precarious thing that can be sometimes, and how its ambitions can fail. But it was Oscar Wilde’s remark that might be applied to films too – there is no such thing as a moral or immoral work, only good or bad art. DCD