In the service of good taste

When Lars von Trier utters the word «Gesamt» it immediately takes on juicy totalitarian overtones that go beyond any cautious democratic expectations about relational aesthetics.

Gesamt. Disaster 501 – What Happened to Man?, 2012. Film still. Concept by Lars von Trier. Edited by Jenle Hallund.

From Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring we are currently seeing a wealth of movements aimed at giving people more power over their civilian, collective destinies. As a result, one of the concepts undergoing the greatest amount of change today is the notion of «authority»: who has the right to decide what others should do? Some believe that this development is mirrored within the world of art. Here, authorial authority is under pressure from a continually expanding phenomenon: crowd sourcing – briefly put, the act of letting an undefined group of people contribute to a communal work of art where everyone works on an equal footing. Of course, the idea of abolishing the boundaries between artist and audience is not a new concept within the realm of art, but a new platform and technology for such endeavours has arisen: the Internet.

Within the context of art, then, the question facing us now is whether crowd surfing should be regarded as a genre or as an «anti-authoritarian» revolution? Does crowd sourcing herald the final «Death of the Author»? Or is it just a user-generated way of creating art that does away with any critical requirements about the quality of the end result because we can all join in anyway? Approximately one month ago the Copenhagen Art Fair offered a chance to see one of the first projects on Danish soil to address this complex issue in an inimitable, polemic way.


Lars von Trier, one of the last notorious auteurs in the world, was the instigator of a concept that revolved around inviting the entire world to contribute to a communal film piece: Everyone was welcome to submit their own footage and audio recordings. The recordings could have a duration of up to five minutes and should be inspired by quotes from six classic «masterpieces» chosen by Trier. This was no ironic gesture, but reflects how Trier often works himself: He will find a particularly noteworthy passage or point in an existing work and base his own work on that. The six works in question were Molly Bloom’s «Yes» monologue from James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922); a scene from August Strindberg’s The Father (1887); Albert Speer’s Zeppelin grandstand for the Nazi party rally (1934-37), Paul Gauguin’s self-proclaimed main work Doù Venons Nous? Que Somme Nous? Où Allons Nous from 1897, César Franck’s violin sonata in A minor (1886), and Sammy Davis Jr.’s satirical-equilibristic step act Choreography (1969).

Gesamt. Disaster 501 – What Happened to Man?, 2012. Film still. Concept by Lars von Trier. Edited by Jenle Hallund.

Trier chose the title «Gesamt» for this «challenge», thereby immediately giving the entire concept juicy totalitarian overtones that went beyond any cautious democratic expectations about communication, audience involvement, and «community»; the very things that the Copenhagen Art Festival aimed for. The mere suspicion that the Chosen One would strike back against the masses also prompted several media to give free rein to the by now rather tired and worn-down cult of genius surrounding Trier. The effect may have been carefully calculated, even though Trier himself states that geniuses mainly belong in Donald Duck comics and that he himself has not regarded himself as a genius since late puberty. All that he did, really, was to whisper «together» in German. No promises were made of a Utopian-revolutionary Gesammtkunstwerk with a Wagnerian double-m and heiling valkyries as the world seemed to expect. Not even though the overall idea was to let works representing all the art forms come together, synthesising them in a single filmic work of art in a manner reminiscent of Wagner’s Hellenist dreams of having song, music, and drama – divided into «genres» by industrial specialisation – be reunited in a hitherto unseen monumental, socially and spiritually cleaning revolutionary form of opera.

But if Gesamt was not a totalitarian project and Trier is not a genius, then what is happening here? If you think about it a little, Trier’s talent is hardly a product of German theories about a Herrenfolk, but of a rather different political-aesthetic ideology known as «Good Taste». Trier grew up in a now-lost period of the history of the welfare state where it was still thought that thinking man should govern working man and where Brahmins of the Danish Cultural Radicalism movement successfully convinced the general population that an artistic intelligentsia – not economists, bankers, and politicians – would create the society of the future. It would appear that Trier still believes that great art generates more great art that can elevate an entire people. This is not about brainwashing, but rather about prompting us to move beyond parliamentary mediocrity and getting us to think for ourselves. We should not overlook the fact that modern marketing with its pandering to the notorious “lowest common denominator” is no less of a totalitarian idea than more overt forms of political propaganda.

Gesamt. Disaster 501 – What Happened to Man?, 2012. Film still. Concept by Lars von Trier. Edited by Jenle Hallund.