An Art Historian’s Guide to 'The Square'

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There’s more to ‘The Square’ than mere scathing entertainment. It’s also educational.

Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, is a biting satire of the contemporary art world. The film tackles many art historical debates that weave through its narrative surrounding its antihero, Christian (played by Claes Bang). Here, we give a bit of background to the film’s artistic influences and themes.

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“If you place an object in a museum, does that make this object a piece of art?”

In the film’s opening scene, Christian is interviewed by the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss). She reads Christian’s unintelligible artspeak to him and asks him to explain it in layman’s terms. Christian is himself confused by his own overly complex wording, and vaguely remarks, “If you place an object in a museum, does that make this object a piece of art? For instance, if we took your bag and placed it here, would that make it art?” This explanation still makes no sense, but a bewildered Anne agrees and doesn’t push the topic any further.

Marcel Duchamp most famously explored questions of what objects can be considered art. Duchamp took found objects—things that had no artistic function—slightly altered their composition or position, and presented them as “readymades.” Duchamp’s works were radical because they asked how meaning and function could be derived by simply relabeling unremarkable objects as art. “Fountain” (1917), Duchamp’s most iconic work, is simply a porcelain urinal marked with his signature. These readymades were so radical because they asked how meaning and function could be derived by relabeling normal objects as art. The “Fountain” is the epitome of the uninteresting—literally so mundane that it could be pissed on.

The significance of a readymade stems from the object’s history or cultural context. So if Anne’s bag were to be placed in Christian’s X-Royal Museum, one would consider it an art object that says something about Anne: as a journalist, as an American, or as a woman in her mid-thirties.

Criticising the Museum

In one of the scenes, visiting artist Julian (Dominic West) discusses his artistic influences in a public talk—only to be interrupted multiple times by a man with Tourette’s. Julian mentions that his work has a strong focus on “human responses to art: questioning how the painting relates to the viewers and the gallery space itself,” hinting at institutional critique. At its core, the concept refers to artists raising questions about the institutions in which their works are presented.

Hans Haacke’s exhibition “Information” (1970) contained a prominent example of work that assessed the intersections between the institution, its third-party interests, and of course its visitors. In it, Haacke asked patrons of the Museum of Modern Art to vote using ballot boxes to answer the question, “Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina Policy be a reason for you not voting for him in November?” Roughly double the number of patrons voted “yes” over “no.” By calling upon visitors to consider the actions of Rockefeller, a major donor to MoMA, Haacke exposed the conflict of being in an institution supported by someone with disagreeable politics.

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Relational Aesthetics and The Square

The film’s titular artwork by the fictional Lola Arias (who shares a name with a real artist) proclaims: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations.” Theoretically, anyone should be able to stand in the square and ask for any assistance they may need from passersby.

This points to the most prominent artistic theme in The Square: relational aesthetics. As Christian himself explains, the concept coined by Nicolas Bourriaud “explores how we relate to each other in a social context.” Specifically, this refers to art which allows for people to abide by the constraints and hierarchies created in public spaces. Rather than produce physical pieces capable of commodification, relational aesthetics serves to create relationships between people.

In the film, Christian takes his daughters through a similar piece, where they are given a choice to walk through the exhibition through entrances marked as “I trust people” or “I mistrust people.” When they enter through the entrance marked “trust,” they see a sign telling them to leave their phones and wallets on the floor unattended, forcing them to commit to their purported trust in others. The work makes its visitors enter a relationship of trust with strangers–a social contract forged between them and the other museum visitors.

However, theorists criticize relational art as a practice that falsely attempts to foster widening social interactions within museum spaces. Because museums and galleries are only accessible to those with the means to visit, relational aesthetics only benefits a small group of people–and is therefore incapable of transcending the museum. In The Square, Christian attempts to curate radical art that will appeal to people from all strata of society. But the film’s genius is in showing that this is impossible, given Christian’s ignorance of the strife of real people. Because the art has been obscured by its own pretentiousness, it’s unable to create any radical social connections.

Radical feminist and writer.