The aesthetic discontent Jennifer Homans expresses in her New Republic review resonates with the aesthetic conundrum Stanley Cavell discusses in his essay “Music Discomposed.” (“Must We Mean What We Say?” 1995 180-212) Succinctly stated, Cavell observers that the dissolution of a common musical language compels a change of attitude on how one engages with music, and by extension all of art. In the absence a common language, whether musical, critical et al, it is no longer possible to tell the difference between fraudulent and genuine works of art. This situation prompts the recommendation that one should stand toward art as one stands toward persons. In short, for a work or art to be genuine it must earn a viewer’s trust; and trust here means the sort of trust one has in persons rather than in documentaries. Clearly, this approach to art is complex and takes reflective effort; moreover, and in spite of someone’s knowledge of the language of the art form that art form can, as persons can, become “a complete enigma to another.” (Wittgenstein, Pt II, xi, “Philosophical Investigations” 1958 223) In “The Masters Are Dead and Gone” chapter form “Apollo’s Angels”, it is clear that for Homans’ ballet has become an enigma to her. More troubling, however, is that while she speaks about ballets as she might about persons in “Apollo’s Angels”, in her rather strident review of “Black Swan” she fails to tell the difference between persons and things- between fiction and documentary.
In her review, Homans’ writes, “Black Swan” does not portray what it is like to be a dancer; it portrays what it is like to be Darren Aronosfsky.” Great. Try this: “Lady Macbeth does not portray what it is like to be an actress; it portrays what it is like to be Shakespeare.” Nothing, however, can bless either of these grammatically correct statements with propositional sense. Moreover, one observes that “Black Swan” is Nina Sayer showing audiences how it is with Nina Sayer; it is not a documentary on being a dancer or on ballet. Nevertheless, if one takes Homans’ sentence rhetorically, as an expression of her discontent, then it works. More telling here, however, is her use of the word ‘portray.’ And its use tells the reader that she stands toward the movie as she would stand toward a documentary or a portrait, a form whose content demands verifiability, rather than as a fiction, which does not. Now, if she understands the ballet “Swan Lake” as a fiction, then why does she not want to understand the movie “Black Swan” as a fiction- specifically, as a piece of Gothic fiction?
And speaking of walking skeletons, persecuted maidens, doubles, subterranean passages, madness, demons, and a quest to preserve innocence or find perfection and other features of the Gothic genre…. Cavell, in the essay previously referred to, talks about how the critical question of, “why does the artist use this feature here and now rather than another” as a way of opening up access and passage to discovering the art in the art-work (it also presupposes the notion of an artist’s intentions). In this spirit, one asks, “Why did Aronofsky show Sayer morphing into a black swan rather than using the ‘black swan pas’ from “Swan Lake”? First, one opines that the movie magic of her transfiguration serves to depict unequivocally to all viewers Sayer’s success in her quest for perfection; and second, that that move intends thereby to obviate the distracting and dehumanizing meanness of the judgments certain to flow from the ballet world if the pas was included. Homans’ review alas exemplifies such a judgment. “Portman”, she writes, “Cannot dance. Even in the glimpses we get, her arms are weak and unconvincing, and her skeletal image evokes revulsion rather than aesthetic transfiguration.” What a helpful comment for it highlights a feature of Gothic horror the movie lacks: the walking skeleton; here, however, in Homans’ words one sees the yet moving remains of the Portman-thing freshly denuded, de-fleshed, and crow picked. In light of this unbridled excoriation of Portman, the question is not, ‘after watching “Black Swan” who would want to dance’; but rather after reading Homans’ comment, which one takes as being all too common in the world of ballet, ‘who would want to do ballet?’ Perhaps, then, Aronofsky’s description in “Black Swan” of a fictional Ballet Company’s stained and staining ethos refers to the kind of unreflective and mean mindedness Homans displays in the document of her review.
One expected better from the writer of “Apollo’s Angels.” Rather than a thoughtful discussion on how “Black Swan”, for example, might weave aspects of film, literature, philosophy, and its primary reference, “Swan Lake,” into a meaningful (or not) tapestry her review instead takes the reader into the heart of non sequitorial darkness.