MOVIE REVIEW: "The Square" Satirizes and Condemns the Art World, and Us

At the museum where I work is a poster that I appreciate every time I see it. Headed by the title “A Guide to Art Criticism Emojis,” it pairs six rows of six emoji faces, each labeled with a descriptive phrase that is so jargon-laden as to achieve self-parody: “de-anthropomorphizing excess,” “imperatively Wittgensteinian,” and (my personal favorite), “quasiformlessnessly labyrinthine.”
The joke is that each of these phrases is taken verbatim from real-life essays about art, as the poster text says at the bottom of the sheet. Who is this kind of language for, really, other than for the author to try and sound smart? What reader benefits from a text telling them that a work of art is “fetishistically un-dialectical?” Who is going to, upon reading this highfalutin alphabet soup of description, make the trip into an art institution or gallery space to see the work for themselves? What reader won’t feel unwelcome and intimidated and therefore excluded from the world of art based on this kind of needlessly complicated language?
Photo by the author.
I bring up this poster because there’s a scene in the recent film The Square that mirrors this dilemma perfectly. A reporter, played by Elisabeth Moss, is conducting an interview with Christian (Claes Bang), the curator of a thriving contemporary art museum in Stockholm. Christian explains the most difficult part of being in charge of this kind of institution—namely, getting the good new stuff before the wealthy private collectors do so that the museum can make sure the public has access to it. Moss then challenges him by reading back to him a description of a museum program taken from its website. I don’t have the exact quotation committed to memory, but needless to say it’s as useful as “quasiformlessnessly labyrinthine.” 

Even Christian himself—the very man who wrote the text—struggles to explain it to her, ultimately revealing that the overly verbose wording disguised the lack of any significant idea or thought. It’s clear, then, that the curator of this museum has failed in his own stated goal of creating an art space that is truly for the public, because, again, who is this kind of inscrutable vocabulary for? Who is the museum for, and why does the functioning of this museum not reflect its goal of serving the public interest?

Directed by Ruben Östlund and winner of the 2017 Palme d’Or at Cannes, The Square is half riotous art world satire, half disturbing drama about the ways in which people egregiously fail one another. Using the museum as a particularly apt example, The Square explores the idea of “the square” as a space that depends on the unspoken societal social contract in order to function properly. 

There are three squares in the film, so to speak, each superimposed over the others to hammer home this point. The first square is a buzzy work of art recently installed at the museum that uses a light-filled tube to inscribe a literal square in the ground. Accompanying this delineated space is a sign that reads: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” The idea behind The Square, then, is that once you step inside its bounds, you become subject to the shared social contract that goes ignored elsewhere—both in the museum in the film, and in the world at large. 

The second square is the museum itself, which, as Christian says, is meant to serve the public, but in practice merely elevates the elites, whether academic, moneyed, or both. The text Christian used to dress up  an extremely simple idea is merely one example of the way that this museum—and many art institutions in general—have abdicated their role as the “public square.” The museum, as we see here, is for the privileged few. It’s for the donors who walk the red carpet at openings in stunning, opulent gowns, who during one wild museum party sneak into the Royal Palace attached to the museum and drunkenly frolic in a Rococo paradise, cigarettes dangling from their fingertips. Indeed, there’s a darkly comic aspect to the partygoers, flush with cash and liquor, running wild in what used to be home, and an art gallery, to royalty. The elite institution merely replicates its original purpose, serving its original audience, centuries after the monarchy has become a relic. 

When the museum launches its public relations campaign to promote The Square, again we see how it fails to live up to its role as the square—where everyone, regardless of background, can come and enjoy art. I’m not going to spoil exactly what happens in this horrifically-conceived promotion, but it essentially uses the homeless population of Stockholm as a violently-abused prop to sell the idea of an art installation about empathy and social responsibility to (largely wealthy) museum patrons.
The video assumes a sympathy for the homeless that does not exist in practice, allowing the film to point out the hypocrisy of society at large. There are many, many shots in The Square of homeless people begging, whether leaning on crutches or merely holding out a cup, and many, many shots of commuters ignoring them as they go on their way. But once the museum’s video for The Square goes viral, suddenly the media and public are aghast at the abuse the video implies, creating a well-deserved image fiasco. The question remains: can a museum be truly for the public, and fulfill its role in the public square, if it serves only the privileged and disregards those who are not?

There, then, we see the third and final square, the largest square—the literal “public square” of society at large, where failures in empathy and communication, and the breakdown of “equal rights and obligations,” have to disturbing consequences. Christian’s many awkward, unpleasant, and even disturbing encounters with the people around him merely reinforce his inability to fulfill the basic role of a human being with a stake in the world. At first, Christian’s terrible interactions are played for laughs. There’s a scene around the midpoint of The Square where Christian (after sleeping with Moss’ character in a truly uncomfortable sex scene), attempts to both let her down gently and hide the fact that he’s a womanizing cad. 

The conversation stretches on painfully, hilariously, relying on Moss’ increasingly insulted and incredulous reactions towards Christian juxtaposed with the repetitive loud creaking of an art installation in the background to build tension. When that tension breaks, Christian may have managed to redeem himself in the moment by remembering Moss’ character’s name (it’s Anne), but his defensiveness towards her has polluted our view of him, turning him from hapless to downright malicious. A plot thread about Christian’s phone and wallet getting stolen, and the extreme lengths he goes to get them back, follows a similar trajectory. At first it’s funny, and then it’s simply not anymore. We stop being amused by Christian and become infuriated with his myopia and selfishness.

The true turning point of The Square takes place a little later in the film at a black-tie dinner for the wealthiest museum donors, and it’s the harshest scene in the movie. During the dinner, a scheduled performance art piece goes horribly awry; the artist, a large, muscular man, walks around the ballroom imitating a wild creature, eventually becoming more and more violent and unsettling. He beats his chest, he jumps on the tables, and eventually hijacks the event, ignoring Christian’s attempts to get him to stop. 

He doesn’t truly cross the line, though, until he begins touching one of the young women at the tables. He ignores her trembling cries for help, as does everyone else in the room, including Christian, until he drags her out of her seat by her hair and nearly proceeds to assault her, where she’s only saved at the very last moment by her previously-inactive boyfriend. It’s a truly mesmerizing and awful sequence of events, clearly meant to reference the murder of Kitty Genovese and the cruelty of the bystander effect—one of the many ways in which we as humans and social actors neglect and harm one another in the public arena, the public square.

As someone who has loved art museums all her life (and now works in one), continues to visit museums and galleries, and follows art-related news, too many elements of the art world in The Square rang true for me—the vernacular of artspeak used as a gatekeeper, or a museum program causing offense. 

The Square uses both comedic and dramatic elements to illustrate the ways we, and our various creations and institutions, fail one another. From a square lined in fluorescent tubes, to the halls of the museum, to the city itself (and beyond), the film draws incisive parallels among all these different discrepancies in how we should act, and how we do act. Whether it’s making public spaces hostile to the public with exclusionary and meaningless language, or promoting a work of art about “trust and caring” with the simulation of violence towards vulnerable people, or, for an example drawn from the real world, installing so-called “anti-homeless spikes” designed to make resting or sitting in public spaces impossible, we too often hurt one another through neglect or outright actions in all “squares” of life.