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Word version: The Tragic Artist on Screen 
as an Aesthetic Theodicy: 
A Dionysian reading of Mishima, 
The Doors and Black Swan from Socrates and Dionysus, edited by Ann Ward (Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2013)

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Word version: The Tragic Artist on Screen 
as an Aesthetic Theodicy: 
A Dionysian reading of Mishima, 
The Doors and Black Swan from Socrates and Dionysus, edited by Ann Ward (Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2013)
Transcript
    C HAPTER F OURTEEN  T HE T RAGIC A RTIST ON S CREEN AS AN A ESTHETIC T HEODICY :   A   D IONYSIAN READING OF  M   ISHIMA ,   T   HE  D OORS   AND  B  LACK S  WAN   A.   A  NDREAS W ANSBROUGH   There are numerous films that portray artists who commit heinous acts, or behave in an impulsive, libidinous and violent manner. One may think of Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah  (1972), Paul Schrader’s  Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991), Philip Kaufman’s Quills (2000), Tom Tykwer’s  Perfume: The Story of a  Murderer (2006) and Darren Aronofsky’s  Black Swan (2010). Cultural theorist Bruce Barber argues that the dangerous artist is a recurrent myth in cinema that reflects social concerns regarding the artist in society (Barber 2009, 11). This essay examines three of these films,  Mishima , The  Doors  and  Black Swan from a Nietzschean optic, to argue that these films do not merely convey a social ambivalence, but express a desire to come to terms with what Nietzsche calls the ‘ugly, hard, and questionable’ in life  (Nietzsche 1976a, 529). Nina, as played by Natalie Portman in her Academy Award winning performance in  Black Swan , enters a psychotic state in which she believes that she has murdered Lily, her ballet rival. Her  brutality is released by her desire to artistically transform her world. In Oliver Stone’s movie The Doors ,   Jim Morrison, played by Val Kilmer, takes drugs, abuses his girlfriend and acts in a thoroughly disreputable manner. Mishima,  played by Ken Ogata in Paul Schrader’s  Mishima: A  Life in Four Chapters , commits seppuku in the presence of a restrained military commander. Nietzsche helps us to understand these artists and the affirmation of life that they bring to the audience. Through a Nietzschean  prism, Dionysus signifies the continuance of life. These films have a Dionysian message where the tragic artist lives on through his creation. By  Chapter Fourteen 242 identifying with the protagonists of these films, the audience is delivered a message of hope amidst the terror of life’s tumult. With the term ‘ tragic artist ’ , I am collapsing two concepts; the artist who goes against social norms and perishes, and the Nietzschean conception of the tragedian as an image of how we can affirm life. In so doing, I hope to establish a dialogue between Nietzsche and cinema. Nina and Morrison are not tragedians, like Aeschylus and Sophocles, but they nevertheless fulfil some of the functions of the Nietzschean tragedian. (I do not mention Mishima because Mishima actually was a playwright and therefore has a greater likeness to the tragedians of Greece.) According to  Nietzsche, a tragic artist is capable of aff  irming and transfiguring ‘evil’  through his art. By affirming evil, Nietzsche meant that by elevating man to God, suffering and destruction can be viewed as a precondition for life. Such an optic, a Nietzschean god’s -eye view of the world, is achieved through life becoming art and spectacle. Nietzsche observes in  Nietzsche Contra Wagner    that that which is Dionysian ‘can turn every desert into a farmland ’ (  Nietzsche 1976b, 670). This involves the fating of life and all that happens in life through perspective and experience. By transfiguring life, we see life as essential and experience i t affirmatively. Nietzsche’s work post- The Birth of Tragedy maintains that people must become poets in their perspectives and experiences, regardless of whether separate artforms are still viable. But art only emerges from excess, an excessive desire to transfigure and embrace the world. Life itself, from a certain  perspective, is also an excess, for there is no divine necessity. The only necessity is an aesthetic one. Art thereby lets us view life as an excess and in so doing, ties art, the greatest possible excess, to the very notion of life itself, but in this respect, paradoxically renders art a necessity for life. Bruce Barber’s book, Trans/Actions: art, film and death ,   alleges a link  between the supposed excesses, and resistance to intelligibility of modern and postmodern art, with the emergence of a perceived dangerous artist who places himself above and against society. Barber observes that ‘certain antagonisms exist over the value of art and culture’ (Barber 2009, 11). Barber’s thesis may be correct , but there does seem to be some degree of admiration within audiences for the figure of the destructive, subversive and transgressive artist. This is not only evident in cinema, but also in the mythic image of the rock star, haunted by inner conflict, rejected by social mores, dying young only to become revered after death. Cinema allows for this rock star-like persona to be transferred and transmitted to the screen. I do not here claim that rock stars are actually Dionysian, but rather that, in a Nietzschean sense, the myth is a Dionysian myth. Barber focuses on a different type of transgressive and dangerous artist to the Dionysian artist  The Tragic Artist on Screen as an Aesthetic Theodicy 243  –   the quasi-artistic protagonists of Hitchcock’s  Rope  (1948) and Michael Powell’s  Peeping Tom  (1960). However, the interest in the dark, tormented artist precedes the problematized role of the artist in society where demarcations for what is and what is not art become blurred with  postmodern and modernist art practices. Instead, the image of the destructive creator that this essay examines, has a history that precedes even Nietzsche. Nietzsche becomes useful because he provides the most  philosophical conception of the artist-destroyer. In this respect, the tragic, rampant artist is presumably different to Barber’s criminal , rampant artist. As more than one reviewer has observed with regard to  Black Swan , the movie’s  engagement with the audience relates to the hyperbolic experience of ballet that the film offers. In a way, the image of the tragic artist that Nietzsche mythically evokes is one that is almost supernatural. The tragic artist is one image, amongst other mythical characters, figures and concepts, such as the Übermensch, that serves as a stand-in for God.  Nietzsche’s tragic artist seems capable of seeing the whole of life, and life’s misery, for he says   ‘Yes to everything questionable’  (Nietzsche 1976a, 533). By creating an artistic spectacle around suffering, the tragic artist creates suffering in the audience. As Nietzsche states with some exaggeration in a note in his  Nachlass ,   ‘ he [the tragic artist] affirms the large-scale economy which justifies the terrifying  , the evil  , the questionable  –  and more than merely justifies them ’  (Nietzsche 1967, 451). This ‘more than merely justifies’ suggests an inducement of suffering in the respondent. But the tragic artist also delivers us into a state beyond suffering. As Gilles Deleuze observes in  Nietzsche and Philosophy ,  Nietzsche ’s   conception of tragedy is ‘tra gedy a s an aesthetic form of joy’  (Deleuze 2006, 17). What makes cinema a powerful and popular vehicle for an artist myth is its power to unite the audience in spectacle, and to offer the artist’s perception and conception of the world. The very structure of the film  Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters creates a narrative structured around Mishima’s life as art. Further, The Doors engages us in spectacle as if we were at once up on stage with Morrison, and at the same time, energised amidst his audience. It is little wonder then that an early theorist of cinema, Ricciotto Canudo (1879-1923), drew heavily on  Nietzsche when he formulated cinema as an artform that joyously united the audience. In his essay, ‘The Birth of t he Sixth Art ’ , Canudo states that cinema has the power to achieve a ‘new  joyous unanimity ’  within the audience (Canudo 1988a, 65). (The title of his essay is a reference to Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy .) The medium’s capacity to achieve this unanimity comes through its ‘rapidity of presentation’, in which distances in time and  Chapter Fourteen 244  place can be traversed (Canudo 1988a, 60). Canudo states that cinema, with its rapidity of images, ‘represents the whole of li fe in action ’  (Canudo 1988a, 61). Referencing Greek tragedy and Nietzsc he’s Dionysian prophet Zarathustra (Canudo 1988a, 64), Canudo intimates that cinema may be a Dionysian medium for a new constitution of ‘Dionysian theatre’  (Canudo 1988a, 65). Nietzsche does not advocate anything resembling Canudo’s modernist velocity as part of the tragic experience. Nietzsche does, however, talk of rapid becoming and representation. Canudo in this respect, conceives of cinema as a Nietzschean dissolution of the self through aesthetic experience, becoming and representation. Even is his later essay, ‘Reflections on the Seventh Art’  (changing the term for cinema from the sixth art to the seventh art), Canudo states that cinema’s ‘true  charm  –  in its magical sense  –  is to possess the secret philtre of oblivion, of spiritual elevation, of deepest joy’  (Canudo 1988b, 293). However, there are certain limitations with the thesis that the sixth/seventh art is a return to Nietzsche’s vision of Greek tragedy. As Antonin Artaud argues in his  book The Theatre and its Double , cinema lacks the magic of the stage  because it is pre-recorded through a medium (Artaud 1976, 250). In this respect, no matter how visceral cinema may be, it cannot establish a direct relationship with the audience. One does not see the god Dionysus on stage possessing the tragic hero and becoming torn between the individuality of the protagonist and the universality of the world, as  Nietzsche postulates in The Birth of Tragedy (Nietzsche 1968a, 73).  Nevertheless, Nietzsche supplements and modifies his characterisation of the Dionysian in Twilight of the Idols . The Dionysian tends to blur artforms, as does cinema, and is characterised   as involving the muscles (Nietzsche 1976a, 520). Despite being chair-bound, films do provoke  physical reactions in the audience who may flinch or jump in their seats when scared or excited. It would be fair to suggest that there is something of a Dionysian work-out involved in watching a movie.  Black Swan  is the most prominent example of a film in recent years about a destructive artist who leads the audience into a confusion of emotions and physical reactions. Nina, frequently tearing her own flesh and abusing her body, is likely to make audience members squirm in their seats. But, when Nina comes onto the stage and gives a bravura performance, audience members would experience some of the thrill. It is this essay’s intention to suggest that the power that cinema lends to the subject of the tragic artist is its ability to unite the audience in the tragic artist’s te rrifying transformations of self, life, and art. In a way, the tragic artist, like other destructive figures in the cinematic, televisual and literary collective imagination, becomes a hyperbolic site to dramatically  play out concerns that occur within life:  The Tragic Artist on Screen as an Aesthetic Theodicy 245 namely pain, suffering, cruelty and death. This Dionysian promise of life involves continuance and rebirth, which according to Nietzsche, constitutes some sort of theodicy.  Nietzsche observes in On the Genealogy of Morals that both Christian monotheism and Greek paganism establish suffering as divinely ordained, and therefore sanction and justify suffering through imbuing it with meaning: What really arouses indignation against suffering is not suffering as such,  but the senselessness of suffering: but neither for the Christian, who has interpreted a whole, mysterious machinery of salvation in suffering, nor for naïve man of more ancient times, who understood all suffering in relation to the spectator of it or the causer of it, was there any such  senseless suffering (Nietzsche 1968b, 504).  Nietzsche longs for such a spectacle, with divine ordinance, ‘The gods conceived of as the friends of cruel spectacles’  (Nietzsche 19968b, 505). Suffering as part of art is perfectly acceptable as a way for our bestial longings to find expression. He is aware that the notion of God itself may not necessarily be up to the job. Instead, we may have to use our artistic faculties to ascend to a god-like spectator, the tragedian. As one might guess, Nie tzsche’s supposed theodicy is unlike that of Leibniz who coined the phrase to refer to his argument that establishes God’s compatibility and  justice with the seeming injustices of life. Theodicies are often attacked as involving an implicit justification of suffering through God. This is  because God allows suffering for some greater good, whether the greater good is free will, or the assured rational constancies of nature, or as a test of our faith that if we pass we will receive remuneration in an afterlife.  Nietzsche has no problem with the idea that some sort of higher  perspective might affirm suffering, but he does take issue with the notion of an objective, non-experiential ‘ good ’ or god  by which life can be evaluated. The very notion of an objective vantage to the world irks  Nietzsche. He states in Twilight of the Idols that “‘ objectivity ’ is bad taste”  (Nietzsche 1976, 512). This raises a question as to whether Nietzsche is a  philosophical optimist or pessimist. The sane Nietzsche does not literally  believe in the existence of a supernatural deity (as opposed to the  Nietzsche who lost his wits). Nietzsche does not attempt to justify God or to show God’s justice , but rather to justify suffering and life without the Christian God, or a theoretically sound metaphysical system. Ironically, this involves a resurrection of a god, but not one as limited and limiting as the Christian deity of monotheism. Man no longer requires a God who is an objective arbiter, rather he needs to assume the role of a pagan deity in
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