“Diving Bell and the Butterfly”

Neo-Expressionism: Reactionary Art, Reactionary Film

For centuries the ruling classes have found and funded their own pet artists.  Charles Le Brun, the first "painter to the king," concentrated unprecedented artistic authority with his ability to unify art and propaganda in service to Louis XIV.  This development of art abetting reactionary politics survived the Revolution, as David successfully bridged a career as "painter of the revolution" to painter for Napoleon.  And today’s bourgeoisie have their own artists, whose ability to convey reactionary ideology through so-called avant-garde aesthetics garners them critical and financial support.   Leaving aside Matthew Barney, a contemporary personification of this tradition is neo-Expressionist Julian Schnabel, whose art, and now films, meld what is supposed to be cutting edge aesthetics with a political meaning that uncritically accepts social reality under the guise of the celebration of individual endurance and triumph.  The result is an attractive and highly functional message for those who most benefit from the status quo and a masochistic one for everyone else. 

Schnabel’s ‘Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ has received "insanely glowing reviews," as Los Angeles Times critic Paul Brownfield notes, and Stephanie Zacharek’s review in Salon, where she proclaims that the film is "what movies, at their best, can be," is emblematic of this fawning media treatment.  The film is Schnabel’s adaptation of French Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby’s 1997 memoir.  Suffering a massive stroke leaving him physically paralyzed but mentally sound, the forty-two year old Bauby lived out his life in a Calais hospital deprived of all movement except for his left eye.  With the help of his devoted and beautiful therapist and a collection of other traditionally beautiful women, Bauby memorizes and dictates his memoir through a painstaking system of blinking, dying days after its completion.  Much of the film is shot from Bauby’s perspective, and we are encouraged to be uplifted by his ability to ostensibly escape self-imprisonment through the freedom of his imagination. 

By any standard, this is all utter cliché.  A successful and worldly if self-absorbed protagonist experiences tragedy, followed by regret and redemption.  His bouts of depression and self-pity – spelling out his desire for "death," for instance – provoke teary-eyed recriminations from his adoring and seemingly inexhaustible supply of beautiful lady helpers.  So not only then is the general motif a cliché, the directorial device of advancing the plot through the fixation on an interchangeable, beautiful and inspiring female presence, that is, a muse, also introduces a second cliché, and an age-old sexist one at that.

And it is more ‘Diving Bell and the Butterfly’s’ retrogressive ideological message than its generic schlockiness that makes this a notably problematic film.  In a recent interview, Schnable announces, "‘People, they always criticize paintings.  Criticism, the call it… but people love to love movies.’" Interviewer Paul Brownfield could have of course noted that much of the same criticism directed against neo-Expressionism is entirely applicable to ‘Diving Bell and the Butterfly.’ On a fundamental level, their message is exactly the same.

The original Expressionist movement, Art historian Rosalyn Deutsche notes, was criticized by Dadaists as a ‘"sentimental resistance to the times,’ ‘a moral safety valve,’ part of Germany’s ‘spirit business,’ and therefore a ‘compensatory phenomenon.’"  Deutsche writes that Manfredo Tafuri notes that Expressionism described life under modern urban conditions while divorcing those conditions from the social-economic relations of capitalism. The result is a naturalization of the traumas of modernity (hijackings, strokes?), encouraging resignation to the inevitable versus protestation of the historically contestable. 

Craig Owens however distinguishes between the radical aspects of Expressionism, specifically its attack on cultural authority, and its nominal reincarnation in neo-, or "pseudo-," Expressionism.  Neo-Expressionists, the typically hyper-masculine painters of the late 1970s and 1980s revisiting the techniques and styles along with the focus on "zeitgeist" and "aura" of their alleged forebears, eschewed "the radical impulse that motivated modernism – its commitment to transgression – …(treating it) as the object of parody and insult;" Expressionism has become its opposite, as neo-Expressionism has shifted from an attack against convention to its purveyor.  This isolationist and official art constitutes an "authoritarianism masquerading as antiauthoritarian… (where) acquiescence to authority is proclaimed as a radical act…." – accordingly, the most emotional and apparently popular scene in the film is a flashback where Bauby tenderly and lovingly shaves his elderly father (Max von Sydow), who, in contrast to Bauby’s wife and children, obviously enjoys the fashion editor’s glowing respect.  

Benjamin Buchloh similarly undertakes a critique of neo-Expressionism, but unlike Owens does not consider the movement’s retrogression to be a deviation from its original form.  Instead, Buchloh identifies the "pathetic farce" of neo-Expressionism as the logical manifestation of Expressionism’s "apolitical radicalism that was doomed to failure, to be appropriated by the very forces that it had set out to oppose."  Buchloh then does not employ Owens’ prefix "pseudo," but instead places both Expressionism and neo-Expressionism within the twentieth-century historical context of capitalism’s violent fluctuations:


The bankruptcy of capitalist economics and politics in the twentieth century has been consistently anticipated and accompanied by a certain rhythm of aesthetic manifestations.  First there is the construction of artistic movements with great potential for the critical dismantling of the dominant ideology.  This is then negated by those movements’ own artists, who act to internalize oppression, at first in haunting visions of incapacitating and infantilizing melancholy and then, at a later stage, in the outright adulation of manifestations of reactionary power.  In the present excitement over ‘postmodernism’ and the ‘end of the avant-garde,’ it should not be forgotten that the collapse of the modernist paradigm is as much a cyclical phenomenon in the history of twentieth-century art as is the crisis of capitalist economics in twentieth-century political history….



This description of "haunting visions of incapacitating and infantilizing melancholy" is a stunningly apt characterization of Schnabel’s Bauby, whose inner voice we hear ironically condemning but simultaneously getting off on his forced infantilism.  This less suggests that Buchloh is freakishly prescient than demonstrates the programmatic predictability of Schnabel’s work.  Buchloh describes the kind of movie Schnabel will make before he makes it, though, to be sure, Schnabel’s transcendental individualism imagines itself separable from the social-historical forces shaping, funding and allowing it to exist.  Similarly, Buchloh quotes Lillian Robinson and Lise Vogel writing, "’Suffering is portrayed as a personal struggle, experienced by the individual in isolation.  Alienation becomes a heroic disease for which there is no social remedy.  Irony masks resignation to a situation one cannot alter or control.’"  It would again be difficult to come up with a more precise description of Schnabel’s hero, who, held captive by his isolating "locked-in syndrome," is compared with terrorist-held hostages and ultimately makes peace with and finds refuge in that great emblem of patriarchal authoritarianism, the Church.

            Owens, Buchloh and theorists such as Victor Burgin note that neo-Expressionism was part and parcel of the backlash against the feminist advances of the 1970s and 1980s and, notably, its positing of a "universal" subject is typically a male white one.  The idea of an insurmountable alienation confronting the "isolated individual" is in turn profoundly self-indulgent.  The white male, sitting atop the social-economic hierarchy that constructs social organization within capitalism, is the one who can most likely benefit from his "isolation" and who is provided an incentive to maintain the alienation that just the same provokes discomfort.  Discomfort of course suggests irritation, not something that is an effect of war, AIDS, imprisonment, famine or genocide.  The neo-Expressionist flees his alienation through pursuing a transcendental "spiritual salvation" via the mastery of a world composed of, or in ‘Diving Bell and the Butterfly’s’ case, through the use of, female bodies.  And there can be no more blatantly objectifying division of labor than "Bauby’s" "mind" expressing itself through what are essentially female word processors.  This is less Bauby’s story here, however, than Schnabel’s, as the depiction of ubiquitous beauties (one Schnabel’s wife) does not come from Bauby’s memoir, but is instead ‘"all about (the nauseatingly narcissistic Schnabel’s) relationship with women.’" 

Fittingly, "Let your imagination set you free" is one of the film’s marketing slogans.  Freedom is not to be fought for through contesting existing social relations, but is instead to be achieved through escapist daydreaming made possible by doting and beautiful women servants.  Though the least of its victims, the neo-Expressionist – and it is no wonder Schnabel found a kindred spirit in Bauby – is best able to exploit the privilege to hide from the world he helps to produce.  This "internalize(d) oppression" fronting as celebration of the human spirit is ‘Diving Bell and the Butterfly’s’ message.  Amply rewarded by the entertainment industry, it should be ripped to shreds by everyone else.


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