Michelangelo Antonioni on the film set of Blow-Up, 1966.
‘Dear Antonioni … ’
(Roland Barthes, 1980)
Dear Antonioni …
Nietzsche distinguishes two figures: the priest and the artist. Priests we have aplenty, from every religion or indeed none at all; but artists? I should like, dear Antonioni, to be allowed to borrow some features of your work to enable me to pin down the three forces — or if you like, the three virtues — which to my mind constitute the artist. I shall name them at once: vigilance, wisdom, and, most paradoxical of all, fragility.
Unlike the priest, the artist is capable of astonishment and admiration; his look may be critical, but it is not accusatory; the artist does not know resentment. It is because you are an artist that your work is open to the Modern. Many people take the Modern to be a standard to be raised in battle against the old world and its compromised values; but for you the Modern is not the static term of a facile opposition; the Modern is on the contrary an active difficulty in following the changes of Time, not just at the level of grand History but at that of the little History of which each of us is individually the measure. Beginning in the aftermath of the last war, your work has thus proceeded, from moment to moment, in a movement of double vigilance, towards the contemporary world and towards yourself. Each of your films has been, at your personal level, a historical experience, that is to say the abandonment of an old problem and the formulation of a new question; this means that you have lived through and treated the history of the last thirty years with subtlety, not as the matter of an artistic reflection or an ideological mission, but as a substance whose magnetism it was your task to capture from work to work. For you, contents and forms are equally historical; dramas, you have said, are plastic as much as psychological. The social, the narrative, the neurotic are just levels — pertinences, as they say in linguistics — of the world as a whole, which is the object of every artist’s work; there is a succession of interests, not a hierarchy. Strictly speaking, the artist, unlike the thinker, does not evolve; he scans, like a very sensitive instrument, the successive novelty which his own history presents him with; your work is not a fixed reflection, but an iridescent surface over which there pass, depending on what catches your eye or what the times demand of you, figures of the Social or the Passions and those of formal innovations, from modes of narration to the use of colour. Your concern for the times you live in is not that of a historian, a politician or a moralist, but rather that of a utopian whose perception is seeking to pinpoint the new world, because he is eager for this world and already wants to be part of it. The vigilance of the artist, which is yours, is a lover’s vigilance, the vigilance of desire.
I call the wisdom of the artist, not an antique virtue, still less a discourse of mediocrity, but on the contrary that moral knowing, that discerning sharpness which enables him to distinguish meaning and truth. How many crimes has humanity not committed in the name of Truth! And yet this truth was only ever just a meaning. All those wars, repressions, terrors, genocides, for the sake of the triumph of a meaning! The artist, for his part, knows that the meaning of a thing is not its truth; this knowing is a wisdom — a wisdom of the mad, one might say, because it withdraws him from the community, from the herd of fanatics and the arrogant.
Not all artists, however, possess this wisdom; many make a hypostasis of meaning. This terrorist operation generally goes under the name of realism. So, when you declare (in your interview with Godard), ‘I feel the need to express reality, but in terms which are not completely realist,’ you show a true sense of meaning: you don’t impose it but you don’t abolish it. This dialectic gives your films (and I shall use the same word again) a great subtlety: your art consists in always leaving the road of meaning open and as if undecided — out of scrupulousness. In this respect you accomplish very precisely the task of the artist as our time requires it: neither dogmatic, nor empty of signification. Thus, in your first short films on the Rome street-cleaners or the manufacture of rayon at Torviscosa, the critical description of social alienation vacillates, without giving way, in favour of a more immediate and more pathos-laden sentiment of bodies at work. In Il grido, the strong meaning of the work is, one might say, the very uncertainty of meaning: the wandering of a man who cannot find his identity confirmed anywhere and the ambiguity of the conclusion (suicide, accident?) lead the spectator to doubt the meaning of the message. This leakage of meaning, which is not the same as its abolition, enables you to disturb the psychological certitudes of realism. In Red Desert the crisis is no longer a crisis of feelings, as it is in The Eclipse, since feelings in it are secure (the heroine loves her husband): everything comes together, and hurts, in a second zone where it is affect — the discomfiture of affect — which escapes the grip of meaning at the heart of the identity of events (Blowup) or of people (The Passenger). Throughout your work, basically, there is a constant critique, at once painful and demanding, of that strong imprint of meaning known as destiny.
This vacillation — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, syncope — of meaning follows technical, specifically filmic paths (decor, shots, montage), which I do not regard myself as competent to analyse. As I see it, I am here to say in what way your work, above and beyond its role as cinema, offers a challenge to all contemporary artists. You work at making subtle the meaning of what man says, recounts, sees or feels, and this subtlety of meaning, this conviction that meaning does not stop crudely with the thing being said but always goes further, fascinated by what lies beyond — this subtlety is I believe, that of all artists, whose object is not this or that technique but that strange phenomenon, vibration. The object represented vibrates, to the detriment of dogma. I think of the words of the painter Braque: “The painting is finished when it has effaced the idea.” I think of Matisse, drawing an olive tree from his bed, and beginning after a while to observe the voids between the branches and discovering that this new vision enabled him to escape the habitual image of the object being drawn — the cliche 'olive tree. Matisse thus discovered the principle of oriental art, which always wants to paint the void, or rather which grasps the object to be represented at the precious moment when the fullness of its identity suddenly slips into a new space, that of the interstice. There is a way in which your art is also an art of the interstice (the most striking example of this would be L’avventura) and in a way too, therefore, your art has a relationship with the Orient. It was your film on China which made we want to go there, and if this film was initially rejected by those who should have understood that the force of love in it was more valuable than any propaganda, this is because it was judged according to a power reflex rather than the demands of truth. The artist has no power, but he has some relationship with truth; his work — always allegorical if it is a great work — approaches truth at an angle; his world is truth seized indirectly.
Why is this subtlety of meaning so crucial? Precisely because meaning, from the moment that it is fixed and imposed and ceases to be subtle, becomes an instrument, a counter in the power game. To make meaning subtle is therefore a second-level political activity, as is any attempt to crumble, disturb or undo the fanaticism of meaning. This is not without its dangers. So the third virtue of the artist (using virtue in its Latin sense) is his fragility: the artist is never confident of living and working. This fact is a simple but serious one; his obliteration is always a possibility.
The first fragility of the artist is this: he is part of a changing world, but he changes too. This is banal, but for the artist it is bewildering, for he never knows if the work he is putting forward is the result of changes in the world or in his subjectivity. You have always been conscious of this relativity of Time, for example when you said in an interview: “If the things we talk about today are no longer those that we talked about just after the war, this is because the world around us indeed changed, but we have changed too. Our needs, our concerns, our themes have changed.” This fragility is that of an existential doubt which seizes the artist as and when his life and work move on; this doubt is difficult, painful even, for the artist never knows if what he sets out to say bears truthful witness on the world as it has changed or is just an egotistical reflection of his nostalgia or his desire. An Einsteinian traveller, he never knows if it is the train or space-time which is in motion, if he is a witness or a man of desire.
Another aspect of fragility for the artist, paradoxically, is the firmness and insistence of his look. Power of any kind, because it is violence, never looks; if it looked one minute longer (one minute too much) it would lose its essence as power. The artist, for his part, stops and looks lengthily, and I would imagine you became a film-maker because the camera is an eye, constrained by its technical properties to look. What you, like all film-makers, add to these properties is to look at things radically, until you have exhausted them. On the one side you look lengthily at what you were not expected to look at either by political convention (the Chinese peasants) or by narrative convention (the dead times of an adventure). On the other your preferred hero is someone who looks (a photographer, a reporter). This is dangerous, because to look longer than expected (I insist on this added intensity) disturbs established orders of every kind, to the extent that normally the time of the look is controlled by society; hence the scandalous nature of certain photographs and certain films, not the most indecent or the most combative, but just the most 'posed’.
The artist is therefore threatened, not just by established power (the martyrology of artists throughout history censored by the state is chillingly long) but also by a collective feeling, ever latent, that society can do without art. Artistic activity is suspect because it disturbs the comfort and security of established meanings, because it is expensive and yet free, and because the new society in search of itself, whatever the regime it lives under, has not yet decided what it should think about luxury. Our fate is uncertain, and this uncertainty does not have a simple relationship with the political solutions we can envisage for the discomfiture of the world; it depends on History on a grand scale, which decides, in a way beyond our understanding, not about our needs but about our desires.
Dear Antonioni, I have tried to set forth in my intellectual language the reasons which make you, over and above the cinema, one of the artists of our time. This compliment is not simple, as you know; for the artist today is in a position no longer supported by the good conscience of a great sacred or social function. Being an artist does not give you a cosy spot in the bourgeois Pantheon of Guiding Lights of Humanity. It means in each work confronting in oneself those spectres of modern subjectivity which are (from the moment one is no longer a priest) ideological lassitude, social bad conscience, the attraction and disgust of facile art, the quivering of responsibility, the constant scruple which leaves the artist strung out between solitude and gregariousness. Today, therefore, you must take advantage of this peaceful, harmonious moment of agreement when a whole collectivity joins together to recognise, admire and love your work. For tomorrow the labour begins again.
(Translated by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith.)
Text of a speech given by Roland Barthes on the occasion of the granting of the ‘Archiginnsio d'oro’ to Antonioni by the City of Bologna in February 1980. First published in Roland Barthes ‘Caro Antonioni’: con antologia degli scritti di Antonioni sul cinema, edited by Carlo di Carlo, Bologna, 1980; and subsequently in Cahiers du Cinema no. 311, May 1980. The translation here is from the French text as published in Cahiers.