art
 and 
context
‘Over the hedge’
March 2014

‘Over the hedge’ is an expression used by a character in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch to explain why he had to confine his reading of Adam Smith. According to Mr Brooke, an excess of reasoning has counter-productive effects on a person. Mr Brooke’s problem forms the introduction to an essay by Patricia Waugh, Professor of English Literature, and published back in 1991. Waugh is one of four interviewees in Cecily Brennan’s ‘documentary’ (Arts Council’s categorization), The Devil’s Pool: Madness, Melancholia and the Artist, premiered at the JDIFF film festival in February. The film travels in the opposite direction to Mr Brooke: rather than concern with too much reason, here the concern is with too much of its opposite. In her exploration of the common belief in a connection between creativity and madness, Brennan, perhaps diplomatically, turns away from her visual art practice to interview Paul Muldoon and Frank McGuinness, prominent figures in Irish poetry and theatre respectively, for their insight on what processes (might) occur within the artist in the making of art. The fourth interviewee is medical expert, Simon Kyaga, a psychiatric consultant based in Stockholm.

As an Arts Council supported film The Devil’s Pool had the remit to ‘make highly creative, imaginative, and experimental documentaries on an artistic theme.’ The creative aspect to the film is its centrepiece, the staging of a collapse from artistic order to disorder and ‘madness.’ This is enacted by ‘Paul,’ (played by Marty Rea). One presumes that the actor had a fair amount of licence from Brennan to externalize for the camera what he imagines to be happening internally. Paul is cast as a visual artist whose project is a wall-drawing involving the repetition of measured intervals. Paul is seen increasingly struggling in his attempt to sustain the order provided by the system he has devised. (That his system could also be a grid or cage is a further consideration.) He is unsuccessful in his attempts to maintain order as he descends into the Devil’s Pool. The question posed through the film is the lingering Romantic notion of the artist existing in an unworldly space between genius and madness, a distinction which since the birth of many of the modern disciplines during the nineteenth century is underpinned by experts who study their object from the outside. But Brennan’s choice of stage to film the descent is intended to disturb such conventions. Until relatively recently when documentary makers wanted an image of exemplary artistic genius at work they invariably cited Picasso or Matisse in the act of painting. While that image was deconstructed in feminism and postmodernism, in recent decades attention has focused on art performance where an end product or object is not assumed. More accurately, attention has focused on the imaging of the body in performance. The Devil’s Pool exceeds such imaging with the disintegration of the image itself as the finale—the disintegration of representation and of art, and the disintegration of subject and object—the collapse of Reason.

Documentaries on artmaking are surprisingly common, which suggests that there is sufficient value about the creative process to make it worth documenting. However, the art documentary as a field is pitted with problems of definition and purpose. The self-contradiction is that the documentary cannot document the creative process, and therefore must itself partake in creativity to suggest or interpret such process. According to Lind and Steyerl, the art documentary is closely bound to art and is not distinct from it. Further, the lack of definition as to its nature is a major part of what is vital to it and maintains interest in the field.[i] One should also perhaps turn around this rather optimistic proposition and say that the lack of definition is a vital part of what keeps us interested in art. These conflicts are present in Brennan’s film both in the content and in the production. As Lind and Steyerl point out this apparent weakness is also the strength of art documentary.

With the exception of Simon Kyaga who argues that there is a clinical link between creativity and madness, the other interviewees are aware that they are dealing with metaphor rather than an event when alluding to a creative process. In recent decades the artworld has swung around to viewing language as structuring knowledge rather than language describing a pre-structured world. The Romantic view of the artist imaginatively re-structuring that world is now thoroughly critiqued but if the myth is jaded, the problem becomes the attribution of value to art. The statement on the film released for the premiere concludes with the question, ‘Does society need to see its artists as outsiders?’ Again it is pertinent to turn the question around and ask, do artists need society to see artists as outsiders? One suspects that the answer to the latter is yes. ‘Outsider’ may be too extreme particularly in an age that is decreasingly tolerant of difference, but the idea that art can offer something other or more than convention is still embraced by society. Mr Brooke’s pragmatic worldliness is limited and makes for a duller society. What is at stake is how much society is willing to pay for art.

Reference:

[1] Maria Lind and Hito Steyerl, eds. 2008. The Green Room: reconsidering the documentary and contemporary art # 1. Berlin: Sternberg