Thoughts On: The House That Jack Built - Can Art Be Destructive?


The House That Jack Built - Can Art Be Destructive?

Thoughts On: The House That Jack Built (2018)

Episodes from a sociopath's murderous past are juxtaposed with a conversation about art and darkness.

Can art be destructive? This is the question that Lars Von Trier's cinema is entirely subsumed by, and finally, with The House That Jack Built, he directly confronts it. I cannot say I have much of an affinity for Von Trier and his cinema. If I were to be frank, I can only think of Von Trier as the slimiest urchin ever placed upon this earth; a slug ascended from some deep dark place: the intestinal maze of some inky, sludge of hell; as grime imbibed with consciousness and pretence; as the bile of some ego too repulsive to describe. Yellow, black, wheezing and pusing, the auteuristic presence of Von Trier over his films puts a sickness deep in my stomach. What a nasty soul he bears. Yet, the creature makes films, and they are interesting.

Can art be destructive? In my estimation: no. Art is essentially moral. It is nature given form. In being given form, nature is given humanity (what is, in effect, conscious nature). Because nature is transformed, is moulded by human hands, art is inherently creative. However, deeper than this, art communicates meaning; meaning comes not from destruction. There is a complication. Human hands can shape much like they can destroy. If art emerges from human action, why can it not come from destructive action? Again, the answer concerns morality and meaning. Meaning can emerge from the negative. In the same way numbers can be added and subtracted but never abandoned if maths is to function, art can be constructive and deconstructive, not destructive. The issue here is not pedantically semantic. Deconstructive art is rife and deeply pertinent in all artistic forms. The philosophy of deconstruction is seemingly as follows: in pulling a construct apart, new meaning may emerge, a new construct, an underlying construct, may be witnessed. Meaning emerges from this negative creative process, this subtraction of sorts. We see this in comedy all the time. Conventions of all sorts are challenged as to not only create sensation, affect and a reaction (e.g. laughs) in comedy, but often to create meaning. We see this when Charlie Chaplin deconstructs a dictator; he reduces him to something comedic, and then a moral agent. Tragedy, too, is deconstructive. We will see, for example, romance fail so often to speak of that which is meaningful, that which is lost, but also possibly gained. Requiem For A Dream is a pounding tragedy whose deconstruction of three lives highlights their very value. The purpose of these narratives is never to destroy, but to collapse structures as to see something new created. Art is conscious nature, therefore it is always creative.

There is an interesting interrogative that may be injected at this point. Is nature art? My thinking suggests not. Nature, it seems, is autonomic and unthinking. Nature simultaneously bears reason. This reason is distributed without moral inflection, without thought (it seems). The transformative process that is art manages to parse out meaning from, tries to perceive reason in, the unthinking breaths and currents of nature. Nature itself, however, is too much to be so purposeful: it is more than pure reason. A flower is then not a work of art; it can only be witnessed as such: there is nothing inherent to the flower that makes it art beyond the fact that it was created. Because the flower's creation cannot be validated as consciously performed, it simply cannot be art. To suggest this destroys any integrity of a substantial definition of art. Art cannot simple be; art does something productive: it communicates. If a flower is art and simultaneously just is, then art must be entirely autonomic and unthinking. We may make art out of a flower, we may witness a flower artistically; a belief in God may lead you to suggest that a flower is art, but such does no damage to the integrity of art's definition; if the flower is created consciously (i.e. by a god or divine force), then it may just be art. Alas, ignoring theological complication, it can only be sustained that nature's vibrations far exceed that which we can hear and may call music.

Destructive 'art' is amoral; in fact, it does not exist. Dostoevsky's The Possessed is a book entirely about amorality, but, like all functional art, it inherently frames amorality under moral judgement. Art cannot free itself from moral judgement. Exploitation cinemas attempt this, but viewed as more than mere spectacle (something that can be looked at; far from a definition of art), they become reflective and so reveal themselves to be deconstructive of convention and audience expectation. Engaged as reflective, exploitation films, present to us our shadow for examination. Without this, without consciousness, exploitation cinema is reduced to a spectacle of destruction; we see death, we see torture, we see brutality and depravity and we feel, yet we do not think, we cannot think, we will not think. This is not art, this is an act of nihilism. Just like it cannot be destructive, art cannot be nihilistic; it can concern itself with nihilism, can reflect and think about nihilism, but cannot be nihilistic (nihilistic action does not exist; it unfortunately cannot in any true form). We return then to the formulation that art is nature thinking, is nature processed by consciousness. Art thinks, destruction is an action that annihilates thought; destructive thinking is merely deconstruction: the two are very different.

True and real destruction and nihilism may be nothing but a crime and a sin. If an innocent child is beaten to a pulp before oneself, you have witnessed a crime. There is nothing about your consciousness that may transform that initial reality in the present moment. Art allows someone to contrive a separate reality in which memories of a crime are represented as art, as action that may be contemplated, that may be conscious and not a crime. But the reality of the initial event cannot be transformed; it is a product of an unthinking nature; of time, space and amorality. Not all crime, not all sins, are truly destructive, but all true destruction is a crime, is a sin. Moral 'crimes' or 'sins' may exist - what does it mean to kill someone holding 10 at gun point; has destruction be overcome by the created opportunity for life - but art without morality may not.

If I were to stretch my thinking, I may hazard to suggest that art may only ever become destructive given two circumstances that, for all intents and purposes, are practically impossible to conceive of. 1) Art emerges from destructive action and, 2) is witnessed by registered by true nihilism. What would this look like? The House That Jack Built shows us; a self-conscious sociopath destroys and witnesses without moral capacity; he believes icons such as Hitler, Mao, Stalin and Amin are divine when in truth they are demonic. Alas, in witnessing such a figure, his story and his thoughts, we provide a moral framework, and so does Von Trier provide thought. Therefore, though this contains a character, a rare and inhuman specimen, who can witness destructive art, this is merely art that questions the existence of such a phenomena.

What makes Von Trier so pretentious, such an ugly spirit, is often the apparency of his wanting to create destructive art. We see this in the likes of Melancholia. Von Trier aims here, you may argue, to not only destroy, but to have us witness destruction with a nihilistic gaze. The pretence here is two-fold; firstly Melancholia is a work of creation - its images and their aesthetic capacities secure this; secondly, an audience cannot be goaded into nihilism so easily (if at all). I am not entirely convinced that Von Trier aims to only destroy in Melancholia, but there is a smell about the film that insinuates such pretentious intentions.

Alas, what makes The House That Jack Built, much like Anti-Christ and Nymphomaniac, interesting is its fascination with the divide between deconstruction and destruction. Where is the line? When does art become destructive spectacle? Can destructive spectacle think, and in turn emerge as art?

I leave these questions, and one more, with you: What are your thoughts on The House That Jack Built?

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