David Cronenberg is a writer and director whose films include The Fly, A History of Violence, Crash and Videodrome. The following is adapted from a speech by Mr. Cronenberg on receiving an honorary degree from OCAD University on June 12.
I would like to make the case for the crime of art. For the criminality of the artist. For the artist as criminal. Let us turn to Sigmund Freud for clarity.
In the Freudian formulation, civilization is repression. That is to say that without the repression of subterranean destructive human impulses, such as violent tribalism, sexual triumphalism and so on, human society as a coherent, functioning community could not exist. But the appeal of art is exactly to those repressed desires and instincts, to what Freud called the subconscious, and so in that sense, all art is subversive of civilization. If art by its nature is subversion, then artists are by their nature subversives. Because we think now in terms of civil society rather than grandiose concepts of civilization, I believe we can characterize art as essentially criminal. And yet at the same time, the case has been made that art provides a contained, safe outlet for these destructive, anti-social impulses, and in that way is, paradoxically, supportive of society and its demands for conformity and repression. A conundrum.
But is it contained? Is art ever truly contained? Is it ever safe? Art is not a toy, a fashion statement, a decoration. Art is inherently disruptive. Art is dangerous. It can explode in your face. Not that art can be a crime; art must be a crime. In my formulation, there is a need for art to be under the radar, criminal, subliminal. Constant as the society above it changes. Art is Notes from Underground. That is the strategy of criminal art.
Is the artist a complete anarchist, having no respect for society and the law? No, not at all. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, commenting on the thief and playwright Jean Genet, via Marx, said: “Our future burglar starts by learning absolute respect for property.” Must artists understand that they are criminals? To do that, they must understand the law, the conventions of social discourse. They must understand what is criminal.
Can one be arrested for committing the crime of art? Oh yes. Maybe not right here, today. But tomorrow morning. Very early. Oh, yes. Revolutionary art has always been criminal art in the eyes of the ruling class.
The pressure to rise to all expectations offered by your art form, whatever it is, can sometimes transform/mutate into pressure to conform to already established norms. That is civilization. But then where is the subversion? In the isolation, the pain, the loneliness, the hopelessness, the tears, the anguish. And the truth. The telling of truth. These will be there, and they must be acknowledged and expected.
In particular, technology-heavy art forms such as architecture are deeply embedded in their social, political and economic contexts. But when we collaborate, is there truly an ecstatic dissolution of the self into a perfect fluid composed of many selves? You are not writing poetry in your garret in Paris, alone, destitute and starving. Or are you? I suggest that you are, somewhere in there, that poet in that garret, alone, destitute and, yes, despite the commissions, starving, philosophically and emotionally, if not viscerally.
Sometimes, art is bad for the environment, despite progressive desire, despite visionary passion. Very often, perhaps inevitably, architecture is bad for the environment. What can we do about this? And should we do anything about this? Criminal art. Criminal architecture. The crime of art. The novelist Philip Roth warned against “the unforeseen consequences of art.” That’s the key. You cannot know what you’re really doing, not in the context of the universe, and so all notions of socially progressive work are basically delusions, and are to be realized accidentally, if at all.
Can such a thoroughly socially embedded art form as architecture be criminal? Even if it’s bad architecture, environmentally irresponsible architecture, socially hostile architecture, Stalinist, brutalist, Nazi architecture? Can a building be criminal in its essence? I say it must be, it is. We must be honest here. All human architecture is a crime against nature, even that of Frank Lloyd Wright. Maybe even especially, because he understood what he was doing.
Crimes against nature. What can they be? Ironically, the list is always socially determined, not naturally. Because nature itself is criminal in its essence. Laws of nature are necessarily broken – through mutation – in order that nature, in the form of evolution, can subsist through time. I mentioned human architecture. There is insect architecture. Insects create architecture. Mud dauber wasps create beautiful multilevel nurseries, larval high-rise apartments, which they fill with paralyzed spiders to feed their children. Are they artists? Do they break the laws of nature? Perhaps we are, in fact, mud daubers. Perhaps our buildings are not crimes against nature, but constitute nature itself. Perhaps we come full circle.
The painter Willem de Kooning said: “Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented.” I say, the human body is the reason the cinema was invented. The face, the body, is its true subject, the most photographed object in cinema. Cinema is the body.
I’m here today because I’ve made some movies. But because of the internet, Netflix, streaming, cinema is dissolving, the big screen is shattering into many little screens, and this is causing much stress amongst movie-nostalgia hardliners. It doesn’t matter to me. In fact, it pleases me. Because the human body is evolving, changing, and since the cinema is body, it makes sense that the cinema is changing, evolving as well. If movies disappeared overnight, I wouldn’t care. The cinema is not my life. Your art form cannot be your life. To say that it is, to make it be that, is to evade life itself. But you won’t do that, will you? No, I’m sure you won’t.