“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls,” according to Picasso. Assuming one of the most influential artists of all time knew something about the trade that kept his kids in shoes, we should accept that good art involves the individual, facilitates clarity of understanding, and, in general, gives people a bloody good, thought-provoking time. Art should cleanse, art should inspire, and art should invigorate.
How is this best achieved? To that, there is no single answer. Picasso and his avant-garde contemporaries may have argued that provoking the viewer into re-evaluating their preconceptions was key. One imagines that politically motivated artists like Banksy or Ai Weiwei would attempt to engage with the viewer on an ethical, rational level. But in the global, commercially-driven spheres of popular music and film, I would suggest that emotional involvement is paramount.
The latest Taylor Swift song or Hollywood blockbuster seeks to find success with as large an audience as possible, and to do that, it utilises recognisable (if not always relatable) emotions in an evidently manipulative way. In short, it attempts to involve the viewer or listener by making them feel.
And this, for the most part, is a tremendously effective approach. Its artistic merit placed to one side, I think you would be hardpressed to find anyone who wasn’t just the tiniest bit affected by Frozen, or by Katy Perry’s Fireworks. Yeah, Katy, I will make them go oh-oh-oh as I shoot across the sky-sky-sky.
But what happens when complex, real-life stories are approached through these, for want of a better word, populist mediums? Are awkward, un-fairytale-like themes butchered into cute, kitsch banalities? Are difficult issues ignored in favour of happier conclusions? Is high-level academic theory reduced to the most layman of layman’s terms? Is fact entirely reduced to disrespectful fiction?
The stories of Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking are particularly relevant examples because two films depicting their lives, The Imitation Game and The Theory Of Everything respectively, have been released in the past few months, both to widespread critical acclaim.
No-one could argue that the stories of their lives are straightforward. Alan Turing suffered childhood tragedy when his best friend died of tuberculosis, he endured the traumas of both world wars and played a major role in ending the second by cracking the Enigma code, only subsequently to be prosecuted for homosexuality and to commit suicide in June 1954.
Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease whilst studying for his doctorate in Cambridge. His continued devotion to pushing the
boundaries of cosmology is undoubtedly inspiring, but his personal life, particularly his strained relationship with his first wife Jane, is far from formulaic.
How are their stories and achievements treated in their respective biopics? The Imitation Game, which starred Bendict Cumberbatch as Turing, was damningly labelled “multiplex-friendly” by Christian Caryl and “soft-focus cinematic capital” by Catherine Shoard. It is difficult to disagree.
Although undoubtedly an emotionally engaging and artistically sound film, it deserves the heavy criticism it received, both for its exceedingly tentative attitude towards Turing’s homosexuality, which is rarely more than hinted at throughout, and for the frustratingly brief description of the science that led Turing and his team to break the Nazis’ “unbreakable” code.
As a result, The Imitation Game is little more than the cinematic equivalent of a chart-topping Katy Perry song: predictably moving but ultimately unrecognisable to the point of disrespect. Its is a shallow success, one built on hackneyed themes, limited pretensions to scientific complexity, and above all, cheap sentimentality.
The Theory Of Everything addresses the difficult issues at its heart with considerably more courage, with Eddie Redmayne’s powerfully physical portrayal of Hawking providing a major contribution. We are left under no illusions as to the viscerally debilitating nature of his condition, nor are we fobbed off with a cosy, wide-eyed love story; the strain the Hawkings’ marriage is placed under is foregrounded, and the thought-provoking implications are never side-stepped. Even his scientific theories, which are so far evolved from my own intellectual capacity as to be virtually nonsense, are, if not detailed fully, at least sketched in. And as a result, it is infinitely more powerful.
Art should wash the dust of daily life off our souls, as Picasso said, and in the world of film, it is emotional engagement that truly registers as a good soul-cleansing sesh. Both The Imitation Game and The Theory Of Everything involve the audience, but only the latter does so in a commendable fashion.
Neither Turing nor Hawking are paradigmatic Prince Charmings, and they should in no way be treated as such. They are both exceptionally intelligent individuals who have achieved remarkable scientific leaps and who have had to face the stigmatisations society has placed in front of them. Their stories, and those like them, should be treated with the respect and complexity they deserve.