David Wojnarowicz - “Silence Equals Death”

A filmmaker reflects on cinema as art

Mahum Jamal
Jul 18 · 5 min read

Today I am in Berlin and meandered into two probing contemporary art exhibits. Actually the first was a wealthy collector’s personal collection which for me did not do much except reflect on a history of powerful, wealthy families defining taste. The second was more my speed, an academic look at two artists at the KN Space for Art in Context.

A labyrinth of open spaces webbed together in highly compelling geometry filled with video installations, each piece separated into open rooms, but still together given the unique exhibit architecture. Both artists, David Wojnarowicz and Reza Abdoh use video to function as powerful statements.

Reza Abdoh used film to capture his theater: Dramatic, and surreal. A man is dressed as a woman with a painted white face, like a mask. A woman is dressed like a man with a painted white face. Both are on stage performing opposite domestic roles. A noise comes from the kitchen. The man-dressed-like-a-woman goes to the kitchen to search for the source. He doesn’t find it and sits back down. The noise comes again. He looks for the source and doesn’t find it. It’s a morbid circus, surrealistic and highly dreamlike.

Wojnarowicz was dying of AIDS. He was the subject of most of his work — first-person talking to the camera, expressing the process of dying, confessing his self-loathing at his own exploitation of death for art. It is uncut — A portrait of a person with nothing more to lose. A sequence of images: his lips neatly sewn up with thread, ants crawling on a cross, blood dripping into a bowl.

In one of his pictures, Wojnarowicz uses a quote from Hitler over the image. “Art is for the people,” Hitler said. Art cannot be granted unlimited freedom. Just as people do not have unlimited freedom to murder, so to people do not have unlimited freedom to create what they want.

This reminded me of a piece I had seen earlier today at the collector’s gallery — An artist bought a live chicken and ran over it. He then generated a 3D model of the fresh roadkill to use for his art. The 3D model was placed inside a washing machine and displayed in a private collector’s gallery. Murder for art?

All this invoked the part of me that arrived at the filmic medium as a tool to express powerful questions through art. And this work led me back to a question that has been on the back of my mind for some time now: Is cinema meant to be art?

The longer I’ve spent time learning the inner-workings of the film industry, the more I’ve begun to see story as the core, living piece of cinema. And good script analysis will tell you, all storytelling, from Greek mythology to Shakespeare to Springbreakers, follows the same 6 story structures. So what people experience when they watch a film (particularly films from the U.S. where premium is placed on familiar pacing, structure, and arcs) is a predictable pattern. I tweet proudly, “it’s a pattern that people use to understand life and see a reflection of society.” But another way of saying that is — Stories are formulaic and safe, an easy entry point for all of the people.

The author Mary Gordon, who I was lucky to take an English course with at Barnard College, said to us in class once, “Art is not entertainment. Art is mean to reveal something.” Where do stories lie on this spectrum? A fun story, like Harry Potter, which I love, is certainly entertainment. But I would argue Harry Potter does reveal something about human character — is it Art? Can we conflate art and entertainment? A film snob friend of mine tells me wryly, “If art is what’s popular, then porn would be considered the highest art.” Context, then, is very important. The context of a garbage drawing in a collector’s gallery is what makes it worth a quarter of a million dollars. The context is: years in art school, the right patron, perhaps a history of exciting, underground exploits. In essence, what elevates work to Art is everything surrounding the work, but not strictly the work itself. Peculiar thing. Perhaps this has to do more with post-modern and contemporary art where work is shown more for process and concept than for a refined, final result.

I’m meandering. I’m not sure if I am really trying to get at a point. Is film art? It’s a type of art maybe. A powerful story can be artistic. Just as business can be done artistically. A surgeon can be artistic. There are things that have a life in them, a vitality, or a surge of energy, a pulse that is palpable or visible or indescribable. Things that are done in a strange, intentional, fluid way that makes you think, “this was touched with art!” Film is art in so far as human life and experiences are art. Film is art in the way novels are art. They can be described as art, but they are not art in a gallery — irrefutably Art. Insofar as a work of art in a gallery is a statement in itself, not entertainment. A work of art in gallery is not trying to entertain you, it is trying to use tools and mediums to reveal something. It is not spoon-feeding an audience a fun little entry to enjoy the show. It is manipulating tools to evidence a fact of life. In this way, film is not Art. Or maybe the question is more of a scale.

(I don’t have photoshop on this computer, apologies for the quality)

As a creator, however, film doesn’t feel like an art. It mostly feels like a business. Writing a good story feels like a question of cleverness, directing more a question of craft. Directing is maybe then what is the most purely artistic part of a film, in experience, but truly all of it is diluted by the question of what will sell. So I’m not sure. As of late, I may argue that the actor is the ultimate artist, physically embodying emotional expression.

Let me know your thought on this.

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