12 Years a Slave – Jonathan Jones says video art is culturally irrelevant – I disagree

Back in December I read a blog post in the Guardian by Jonathan Jones that made the following statement:

“For it turns out that video art is just a training ground that can prepare you to make proper films.”

He was talking about Steve McQueens film, amongst others, and I recall thinking to myself that the statement was absolute nonsense. What about Bruce Nauman, Gillian Wearing, Gary Hill, Bill Viola, Nam June Paik?

McQueens films are evidence that he is loyal to his contemporary visual art practice and his subject matter. The knowledge and understanding he has of classical painting shines through in his direction. In 12 Years a Slave Chiaroscuro is used to a powerful effect – the indoor shots were groaning with art historical references. His landscape shots challenged the viewer with the absolute beauty of bayou and cotton fields, images we know from other early cinematic films that romanticises the slave trade. But when the slaves in this film sing in the fields there is no doubt that it is to pass the time – not to joyously celebrate their christian slave masters generosity, or the beauty of the fields.

I saw it two nights ago and it keeps coming back into my mind – when McQueen was focussing on video art it was very much about time, anticipation and delayed responses. And always about being in the world. Whilst it is tempting to see 12 Years a Slave as only about the atrocity of the slave trade, it also speaks of now, of how any human treats another human. Throughout, the disgust felt for the slave managers was tempered by the way that McQueen also showed their emotional weaknesses too. It didn’t make them forgivable, nothing ever can, but it did reinforce the fact that everyone, the aggressor and the victim, is always, first and foremost, human. If the aggressor is depicted as 150% monster it is easy to pass him/her off as evil – which would be resorting to religious language.I’m really glad he did that – kept everyone human. I’m glad he showed the slave masters reading from the Bible to the slaves, reminding us of our responsibility in this horror – colonial behaviour that so many of us hold heavily on our shoulders. Religion was also guilty of causing that pain, and continues to do so in so many cultures.

The hardest part for me (other than actually watching the violence – which I didn’t, I shut my eyes, I know my limits) was how the slave masters wife behaved. She was a victim herself and being cuckolded by her husband, who was regularly raping Patsy, one of the young women slaves. Yet she used her power to revenge Patsy, not him. By doing so she hurt her husband more deeply than she could in any other way. And the way that scene was played out implicated the viewer very powerfully. When Plait/Solomon  was wielding the whip, lashing Patsy on command, we saw his pain more than we saw hers. And he was confronting us, the viewers, drawing into his condition, taking her place in the torture, we felt every lash as if it were hitting us.

I find it hard to breathe as I write this. That’s how the film engages the viewer – deep into the heart of the living organism of the body – their bodies, our bodies. It’s how empathy is activated.

Art elicits emotion. So can film. And video.

And back to the Jonathan Jones article:

Plainly, the art world has merely been a kind of postgraduate film college for McQueen – and as such it is the best place a serious film-maker can experiment in the 21st century. But that is all video art is: a bit of messing about. The important films are the ones with scripts, actors, and stories.

Why is Jones so irked by McQueens work?

12 Years a Slave is both the greatest triumph of video art – and proof of its cultural irrelevance. Who’d trade an Oscar for the Turner prize?

How can he state that video art is culturally irrelevant? The argument he uses sounds like a grumbly rant – it lacks logic. Does it matter where the work ends up – what prizes it wins. It’s about making good art, not gaining glory or quibbling about labels.

12 Years a Slave will remain in my thoughts forever, just as visiting Dachau did when I was 13 years old, with my father who was Dutch and had been held in a concentration camp himself. To say this film is culturally irrelevant is almost akin to holocaust denial.

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