This is the first part of a two part series on the idea of “escapism” and “truth”. The idea for this came when I began to think of a “manifesto” made back in the 1940’s by Emeric Pressburger. Read on!
QT will start looking into the films of two classic British film makers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and if possible place them on the Classic Film List. Why? Well, I was impressed by this editorial by Maureen Dowd that discusses their style. I was especially interested in this quote
In a letter to (Deborah) Kerr in the early ’40s, Pressburger laid out their manifesto, including: “No artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth, for no other reason than her nakedness.”
Hmmm …. I was a bit shocked when I first read this. I could not grasp immediately why artists would have to keep their beliefs about their audiences “secret”. It suggests a tension between artists and audiences that I had not thought about before. According to Pressburger, art then is a type of game played between artists advancing secret agendas about life and their audiences with the audiences themselves (and with history too no doubt). It is elitist. Non? Pressburger claims that he and Powell mastered the game as they “proved” that people will pay to see the truth. They have won the game. Bravo! It will be interesting to see how. BTW, this was a claim made by Joyce as well after he completed Ulysses. As an aside, I wonder also whether winning the game is just about selling tickets to the show. For example, were Van Gogh’s paintings trash until they began to sell? Is their trashiness related to the fluctuations in their valuaction on the market?
Back to the manifesto — I also began to wonder exactly what is wrong with ”escapism”? Putting the “ism” at the end makes it sound ugly, and it must be a terrible thing indeed if “no artist” worthy of the name could believe in it. But what is the difference between “escapism” and “truth” in art? Are they opposites? Is Hitchcock’s work escapist? Are Wilde’s plays? Neither offer any obvious truths about life. So should they be considered trash? On a deeper level, doesn’t any good story help us escape to a higher level of truth?
Perhaps there is a difference between the need to escape and escapism. After some thought, I came up with this formulation. Escape is needed when we are held back. It may be an essential tool for living to cope with the uncertainties that time imposes. But escapism is a fetish. It takes us … nowhere. There is no unveiling of truth. It may offer a temporary sense of excitement, but it does not inspire us to act. It is a waste of time, or worse. Perhaps it is even an affirmation of the prison that we cannot escape.
So we might reformulate Pressburger’s statement this way. The artist’s secret belief is that the audience secretly wants to escape from worn out or contrived aspects of themselves in order to go somewhere new, where they can see the “truth”. One presumes this is where the artist has already happily escpaed to. But the audience is nervous about it. Sceptical. Perhpas even trapped by their own conventional beliefs. The artist must coax them forward using subtle tricks. The more difficult the truth, the more dangerous the game. I am intrigued to see this subtlety in action.
But what type of truth? Pressburger’s last line gives us a hint, but in the end I think it is unsatisfying. He suggests that where there is a veil, there is a truth behind the veil. Art then is a great unmasking process. No doubt Mr. Scorsese would agree (for more on Scorcese on Powell and Pressburger, you might take a look at Dowd’s article. The link is above).
Here I am not totally hostile. But I am a bit lost. Isn’t the act of veiling as potentially interesting as an artistic truth as the act of unveiling? Gide thought so. Wilde thought so. I do too. But these days, unveiling does seem to be the fashion in art, in culture, and elsewhere. We worship at the altar of prohibited nudity (and basic instincts that translate into thrill seeking), rather than of connoisseurship. So, I am intrigued to go back to a time when there were more veils, and the process of peeking was more innocent.
So time to explore! And perhaps escape from escapism?
FOLLOW - Here is a link to a site dedicated to Powell and Pressburger films.
2d FOLLOW - Errol Morris also is concerned about how easily one may be manipulted by images. He just completed a series on photos that might be seen as art, phot-journalism or propoganda depending on the context.