February 24, 2023
Thanks to Eden Tesfaslassie, a 2022 Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.
Quintilian said, “the height of art is to conceal art.” In this quote, conceal does not mean to hide away but to be fully immersed. There should be no separation between the art and the experience of the art itself– as a viewer or an artist. This idea can be seen in the film Black Swan when the dance instructor, Thomas Leroy, played by Vincent Cassel, teaches the main character, Nina, played by Natalie Portman, about transcendence. Dance is not only about discipline and technique but also about the ability to let go. There is perfection in losing control, that is where true artistry lives.
Nina, the film’s lead dancer, has difficulty achieving this height of dancing. Even though she is perfect for the role of the innocent White Swan, Nina has a harder time performing as the Black Swan. Her view of perfection stems from having flawless technique, but she must unravel herself emotionally to perform the sensuality and dominance of the Black Swan. This conflict in the film demonstrates there is a delicate balance when it comes to artistry. Goethe states that artists have “ a twofold relation to nature. He is at once her master and her slave. He is her slave inasmuch as he must work with earthly things, in order to be understood, but he is her master inasmuch as he subjects these earthly means to his higher intentions, and renders them subservient.” Art requires the artists’ subordination for them to be properly trained, but it also needs them to assert themselves beyond their formal training to truly master the skill. It is a complicated, but necessary, duality. Art, of any kind, is supposed to be evocative, and the artist is expected to elicit that reaction from the audience. Nina is too technical and rigid to evoke that emotional response. She is a servant to her craft but does not know how to master it. The film explores Nina’s transformation from a good dancer to a great one.
When asked to introduce herself, Nina says that she is a dancer. The person that she was talking to has to clarify to Nina that they were asking for her name. This interaction is very telling about Nina’s personality. Along with being a perfectionist, Nina places her art as the most integral part of her identity. It is ironic that what is standing in the way of her achieving greatness is herself. Initially, Nina blocks herself from being truly “brilliant,” but as the film progresses, we see Nina try to master her craft. The language used to describe the process of becoming the Black Swan seems liberating. Nina is constantly being told to let go, be brave, and become more instinctual. All of these things sound positive. The instructor is merely asking Nina to trust herself more and bring out the emotive side of the dance, but this comes with consequences. This process bleeds into her personal life and negatively impacts her mental health. She is self-harming and has vivid hallucinations. Even as she becomes aware of what is happening, Nina still continues down the Black Swan path. She wants to be a perfect dancer, no matter the cost.
The viewers see Nina’s efforts come to fruition on the opening night of the performance. Although her visions have become erratic and violent, Nina finally embodies the Black Swan. As she gracefully pirouettes, the movie audience is able to see feathers prickle out of her skin. On her final turn, she elongates her arms and we see that they have transformed into black wings. Nina has achieved true artistry. The imagery of the wings, and the freedom that they represent, are juxtaposed with the fact that Nina was bleeding to death the entire time. Nina has paid the ultimate price for art and has no regrets. She finally understands what Thomas has been saying to her throughout the film. She is the Black Swan. But as she lies on the ground with a smile on her face in a puddle of her own blood, Nina does not look like a masterful dancer.
According to Goethe, Nina uses her skills for “higher intentions” in a captivating performance, but they are not “subservient” to her. In fact, Nina is the subservient one. She gives herself completely in this role– mentally, physically, and emotionally– and destroys her life by the end of it. This is why balance is so important. It is easy for artists to get carried away for the sake of art, to be so fully immersed in their craft that they cannot discern when to stop. Unfortunately for Nina, it is too late.
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