2017 film “The Square”: Art as the religion of the rich

Early in the film “The Square,” a reporter called Anne asks a museum curator about the  challenges of running a museum. The museum in question is a modern art museum, the butt of much social criticism. Ruben Östlund is the film’s director. and his film asks the question about the function of the modern art museum and its exhibitions and performances. Is the art market, classical or modern, with its exhibitions and organised art-performances, anything other than a safe haven for the extremely rich where they can park their money whilst waiting for other opportunities? Are we all that surprised that a Saudi prince (Mohamed bin Salman or MbS) may not know what to do with his extra cash and invests it in one of those objects (Salvatore Mundi) that can hold so much sheer monetary value in excess of its physical worth?

The curator of this museum (called Christian) is the main protagonist. In answer to all the criticism he faces about art, he responds by mounting an exhibition involving just a square painted on the ground before the museum. This is supposed to represent a “space of safety”, or safe haven. Muslim viewers could draw  parallels with the 3-D cube at the center of their worship and their relationship with the Universe (the Ka’aba). Designating a specific area as a sanctuary goes back a long way in terms of religious practice, and the square Christian places at the center of this film proposes the idea that modern art is the new religious experience for an atheist liberal elite.

Östlund slowly chips away at the protective layers that Christian, a priest of the liberal religion, surrounds himself with. Accidents throw him into the lives of ordinary people who would never normally visit his museum, yet after each event he becomes obsessed with the people he meets. In a desperate attempt to find someone he lost contact with, Christian finds himself in a garbage dump on a rainy night trying to recover a piece of paper with the person’s phone number. Many scenes in the film explore the complacency of the art world in a radical way. In the film’s poster (above), an art-performance event is depicted where an “artist” acts like an ape to entertain the elite who, elegantly dressed, are dining in an ornate hall. The performer is supposed to test the boundaries of what his polite audience will endure in order to protect their investment in this act of modern art. Here, Östlund explores how much artistic license we are prepared to give the artist, on the basis that all art is a dare.

What the religion of the rich clearly indicates is the disdain and fear of lesser mortals felt by rich individuals and their search for safety through a sense of mutual reinforcement which the art market provides. A similar “religion of the nobility” existed in Zoroastrian fire worship in the period of Sassanian Iran, which held that all craftsmen, or people who worked with their hands, were unholy. It would be these craftsmen, who eventually locked in their tens of thousands to become Muslims in 7th century Iraq, which revolutionised Islam, turning it from an Arabic into a world religion.