The Square: Compassion for show

The Swedish movie The Square (2017) is a satirical and confronting perspective on modern, western culture. The director’s intention is not to offer moral critique, but rather to highlight the existence of compassion in daily practises.

Director Ruben Östlund’s story follows the daily life of his chief protagonist, Christian, who is the head art curator of a prominent museum in Stockholm. As the story unravels, through the vehicle of his character, Östlund exposes the current state of the human condition, in particular the role of compassion in a caring democracy. Östlund’s intention is not to offer moral critique, but rather to highlight the potential of free expression of Art to expose the existence of this phenomenon in daily practices. This article examines some of the more relevant scenes.

Compassion as a theme in the Arts

In the opening scene of The Square, Christian whilst being interviewed about the museum’s new exposition, is posed with two simple questions: “What is the biggest challenge for this museum?” And “What was the purpose of a previous exposition Exhibition/Non-Exhibition?” Christian explains that the cultural domain is under pressure. He continues to quantify his concerns, firstly by regarding the impact of diminishing financial resources, and subsequently the question of whether art belongs to the public or the private sector. Furthermore, he concludes with what is at stake and who decides what makes art Art? This later theme is illustrated in the film in a repeating scene (see the still shot below), where we see a construction of multiple piles of gravels presented in a spacious plain white room. Above these objects on the wall, written in Neon light are the words ‘you have nothing’. The visitors only take a quick look at the work presented; why does there appear to be a physical obstacle to the object? They seem unwilling to engage the art work at a more intimate proximity, instead they content themselves with poking their heads just around the corner. What is the value of the story told, when it is only to be viewed in a certain designated space?

The purpose of this scene is to illustrate the importance of context in identifying the value of what is presented. Just as in daily life, outside of the museum context, when passing similar repeated piles of sand on the street, one would almost certainly fail to identify this as a work of art. This phenomenon of non-identification is paralleled in the film with that of human compassion where given an abstract context, such as an Online platform or social media, an individual may actively participate in obvious compassionate behaviour, but given a less conspicuous context, such as a personal encounter on the street, the need of the vulnerable may be easily ignored. In multiple shots you see for example groups of people passing a vagabond on the street, without paying any attention.

The juxtaposition of compassion and expression in the Arts

It is this confronting realisation that Östlund shares with the viewer: what we show to others and how we are in daily life are two different things. In modern society, are we still compassionate for the other person in despair? Or is it just a show reserved for the right eyes in the right context? For example, an art performance on the opening night of the new exposition explores primal human responses at meeting a wild animal in the jungle. The performance is unleashed on a group of unwitting guests over a formal dinner. Christian introduces the art work, and an ominous announcement follows “If you show fear, the animal will sense it, if you try to escape the animal will hunt you down, you have to be absolutely still without moving a muscle, the animal might not notice you and you can hide in the herd, safe in the knowledge that someone else will be the prey”.

It is an experiment designed to reveal the difficulties in finding consistent morality in a bottom-up late modern western society. How long can an individual guest tolerate the other guests being threatened by danger? To begin with, the artist focuses attention on the male guests during which time the public manages hold the idea of the fictional situation unfolding, but when the artist, now in a state of high emotional arousement, turns his attention to a young women and begins what appears to be a sexual attack, one by one the guests break from their suspended reality, and begin to violently attack the artist as an angry mob. The line has been crossed. The concept of the freedom of expression in the Arts has found it’s limits and a real life statement about compassion has been made. When the credits are shown in the end of the film, it is left up to the viewer to continue the dialogue.

To see more about the art work The Square in the film, check the trailer here:

About the author: Tessa Smorenburg

Tessa Smorenburg

Tessa Smorenburg (1987) graduated as a master in Ethics of Care and Policy at the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht (NL) in 2015. Her thesis concerned the discourse of transgender people in Dutch society.
She now cooperates with artists, assuming the role of journalist, and makes use of her knowledge and experience in the field of the ethics of care to provide perspective.
In her own artistic endeavours, like the collages that are her trade, she is intrigued by issues of gender and examining her position in society from a female perspective.