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A Manifesto for Artistic Pessimism

Updated: Dec 31, 2018

By Julian Langer

 
"We don't want no more happy endings"

The Chaotic Self


Romanian nihilist and pessimist philosopher Emil Cioran once wrote “only optimists commit suicide, optimists who no longer succeed at being optimists” and that “it is not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late”.


In these short collection of words, this tragic thinker – who wrote books such as On The Heights of Despair and A Short History of Decay – speaks to something at the very core of life, especially within this culture – the need for sincere, honest and authentic pessimism. He wrote that “Chaos is rejecting all you have learned, chaos is being yourself” and, following from this, it is your-self I wish to appeal to in the words I present here.



“One must have chaos within to give birth to a dancing star” Nietzsche

Happiness Sells


The fact that the vast majority of films present a near totalising fatalistic optimism is abundantly obvious. Most films end with the desired conclusion to the narrative: with the hero surviving by the skin of their teeth; or the two beautiful people find love in a beautifully romantic setting; or the rebels narrowly avoiding Darth Vader’s clutches and obtaining the Death Star plans, whatever other example you care for.


And of course they do! Happy endings sell. When it is all said and done, people want things to “go right” and for things to fit within the desires of this cultures ideological narratives.



Situationist philosopher Guy Debord asked about film:



“Do we simply watch the images rolling past, become happy or sad at the whim of the filmmakers, only to return to our regular lives without any effect on how we view the world and how we could possibly change it?”

In this question Debord raises the issue of the film watcher being a passive observer, absorbing the narratives of filmmakers, in such a way that it maintains everyday normality.


Through the medium of film, in most cases, the viewer passively consumes the notion that things do not need to change, because things will work out happily in the end. Batman, Frodo Baggins or Neo will come and defeat the Big-Bad, or the T-Rex and Raptors will kill the Indominus Rex.


Two questions come to mind though.


First, are things inevitably going to turn out for the best, or is that just an idea that enables individuals to participate in this culture without any thoughts regarding consequences?

Second, what is the purpose of art/film and are they supposed to affect the viewer in any particular way?


What is Art's Role?


Starting with the second question, Oscar Wilde, in response to moral critics of his age, promoted art for arts sakeand criticised the “monstrous worship of facts” within art movements. Perhaps Wilde is right and that art need not serve any moral purpose and should be done for its own sake.


This doesn’t mean art cannot hold egoistic instrumental value. In the philosophy of art, aesthetic cognitivists argue that art, particularly painful art, is valuable as a means of empowering individuals.


Perhaps, amorally, mediums such as film can serve as an instrumental means of empowering individuals around painful matters, like the idea that things will not turn out for the best: pessimism.


Antonin Artaud developed an approach to theatre called theatre of cruelty, through which theatre “wakes us up. Nerves and heart,” and through which we experience, “immediate violent action,” that “inspires us with the fiery magnetism of its images and acts upon us like a spiritual