The following movie review may contain spoilers…
Nocturnal Animals (2016) from the director Tom Ford opens with the images of an art installation showing an old nude woman dancing while her large sagging breasts swinging from side to side and bouncing up and down. These characters of the movie clip in the artwork are also present lying face down, just like dead, in the middle of the art crowd for the gallery’s opening that Susan (Amy Adams), our protagonist, showcased. Later, Susan admits to her actual husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer), in their giant stylish but empty house, that she does not care anymore about all kinds of art while Hutton says that “I care, it pisses me off”. The opening was also a success for Carlos (Michael Sheen), the host of the dinner party that our couple become guests for, because the exhibition was incredibly strong in its fitting with “all of the junk culture that we live in”. Carlos contents that art people like them must enjoy the absurdity of their own art world considering the fact that it is better than the real world.
But Susan took a very specific part in art world indeed, for instance she has an administrative role in a contemporary art gallery but she is not an artist, and not even an artist of contemporary art. In the flashbacks, we learnt that in fact she could have become an artist but she did not believe in herself although her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a beginner novelist struggling in his career, believed in her.
Susan tells to Edward while they break-up:
We might be perfect for each other if we didn’t live in the real world… You’re wonderful and romantic, and sweet and sensitive, and all the things I’m not. Life for you is a kind of a dream.
Weak. I’m weak. That’s what you want to say.
The reason behind the claim why “Edward is weak because he is romantic” is that idealistic high art in the contemporary art scene is considered as weak art. High art necessitates talent and mastery both for the artist and the art audience in order to generate abstract ideas through the empirical content that the artist creates and the audience contemplates on. From the beginning on, Edward has ideals, he believes that Susan is the one, one true love, and his only destiny-to-be is to become a novelist. Thus, he works for 20 years after their breakup to finally write and complete a novel to be published. Edward’s insistence on uniqueness and his search for the ideals are his weakness. Originality signals weak art in today’s world of contemporary art. Contemporary art must permanently repeat artistic reduction in order to maintain the distance between the transcendental and the empirical. Edward always thinks that effort and belief would pay off and that he has also a talent inside to realize his dream of being a novelist. In other words, he thinks that human will counts. But contemporary art does not work in that way. That is why Edward is labelled as a romantic and he is eventually weak.
In the logic of contemporary art, because change is considered as permanent in the contemporary world, there is no chance to build a new and stable world for the future. Ideals are impossible. Consequently, in order to resist to this permanent change, art has become self-erasable through producing the weakest images possible since the lifespan of any strong image is necessarily short (Groys 2011, 109–12). Because the truth claim is ephemeral, it produces intentionally weak images of low contemplative potentiality. Hence knowledge and mastery reside in the ability of de-professionalizing art piece (Groys 2011, 107), to diminish the difference between the idea and the figure but not in referring to something higher, a meaning, a truth to reveal, under the surface. The painting on the wall that just says “REVENGE” in three columns, hung at Susan’s art gallery exemplifies this practice in its simplest way. For the art audience, there is nothing contemplative to understand this contemporary art piece “REVENGE”, because the meaning does not exceed the empirical part of the painting. What it says is as simple as it is, and who expects more than that, are weak. Hutton offers Susan the opportunity to get rid of the real world where people like her or Edward would be weak. Therefore, Susan broke up with Edward and got married with Hutton, “dashing and handsome guy” that Susan defines in one scene as “anything but useless…seems always to know exactly what to do”.
Is “REVENGE” really as it is written and printed on the canvas? How does Edward take revenge from Susan for leaving him and not keeping his unborn child?
Once, Susan asks to Edward why he is so driven to write, Edward replies:
I guess it’s a way of keeping things alive. Saving things that will eventually die. If I write it down, then it will last forever.
“Nocturnal Animals”, the manuscript of the book that Edward sent to Susan to read it first after 20 years following their breakup, contains violence, villains and victims. It tells the story of a family man, Tony, who could not prevent his wife and daughter abducted, raped and killed and then tries to find the murderers of his family for years to finally take revenge. Yet, Tony’s pursuit of revenge cost him his life and made him a killer.
As Edward told to Susan, this book is different than things that he wrote when they were together. It’s disturbing as contemporary art tries to be. Types of contemporary art that Hal Foster named, as archival ones, that displays a collection of unfulfilled beginnings or incomplete projects (Foster 2015, 34), mimetic ones, that capture and occasionally mock the totalitarian kitsch pervading the current society (Foster 2015, 75–78)and the abject which catches the obscene real in the act and expose it even to make it repellent in its own right (Foster 2015, 19). I think we can add more, the type “mini-demonstration” of democracy or co-presence to repair the already lost social bonds (Rancière 2009, 60). But, the show of gallery opening, sad old female bodies dancing in vain and then just exposed there in the middle of art audience drinking their cocktails, engages mostly with the abject type. Then the other artworks shown in the movie; animal pierced by arrows and a photograph of a murder scene where the criminal looks to the viewer, are just like trophies of the killer, hanging there in the gallery or on the walls of bourgeois house. Contemporary art displays the real world stripped of camouflage to prove its mastery of it. The contemporary art world is strong, ambitious and driven because it knows from the beginning that falling prey is the ultimate known ending in the real world.
Still, Nocturnal Animals is not a piece of contemporary art at all. Edward wins back Susan’s heart through his novel not because he finally got rid of the real world and entered the art world. Edward’s book of Nocturnal Animals as well as Tom Ford’s movie possess the tragic plots, the adventure of the human will, and do not expose victimhood of everyday life. For Nietzsche, in tragedy, everything that is generated must be prepared to face its painful dissolution, but it forces us to gaze into the horror of individual existence. Tony finally became a killer at the end, lost first his family then himself and Edward’s final rejection of Susan means that Susan’s Edward does not exist anymore as such he already told that he writes to save dying things to make them last forever. Right now, he finishes his book, dedicated it to Susan that means his love for Susan has died:
This is the recognition I find expressed in the terrible triad of Oedipean fates: the same man who solved the riddle of nature (the ambiguous Sphinx) must also, as murderer of his father and husband of his mother, break the consecrated tables of the natural order. It is as though the myth whispered to us that wisdom, and especially Dionysiac wisdom, is unnatural crime, and that whoever, in pride of knowledge, hurls nature into the abyss of destruction, must himself experience nature’s disintegration. ‘The edge of wisdom is turned against the wise man; wisdom is a crime committed on nature’ (Nietzsche 1956, 102)
In both stories, Edward and Tony, these parallel characters’ defeats are associated with a certain sense of grandeur. They are heroes and not victims to display and objectified. Their stories are triumphant affirmation of life despite and in the midst of sufferings. However, contemporary art which Nocturnal Animals refers to, is just a pessimistic world-resignation. Aftermath, Susan would never find refuge in contemporary art world. For sure, revenge does not need to be contemplative but here it is bitter-sweet.
Foster, Hal. 2015. Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency. London ; New York: Verso.
Groys, Boris. 2011. Boris Groys: Going Public. Berlin; New York: Sternberg Press.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1956. The Birth of Tragedy & The Genealogy of Morals. Edited by Francis Golffing. Anchor Books ed edition. New York: Anchor.
Rancière, Jacques. 2009. Aesthetics and Its Discontents. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity.