In The Square, winner of 2017’s Palme D’or at Cannes, director Ruben Östlund skewers the contemporary art world in a sprawling satire that assaults the conscience (or lack thereof) of the cultural elite. This elite naturally includes much of the film’s audience, from those who cheered the film on at the Cannes Film Festival where it first made its mark, to US audiences who watch the Swedish-language film as a result of its notoriety and, more recently, its nomination for best foreign film in the 2018 Academy Awards.
The film itself centers around Christian, the curator of an art museum in Stockholm. In the first scene, a journalist played by Elizabeth Moss interviews Christian, asking him to explain the meaning of a description of one of the museum’s art pieces. Clearly not understanding the meaning of the description (which to be fair does border on incomprehensible), Christian fumbles through an answer that hints at what the movie represents: a merciless attack on the excesses, overindulgences, and ideological mish-mash that characterizes the contemporary art world.
The film’s central narrative concerns the museum’s launch of a new exhibition, also titled “the square.” According to the artist, “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” For the advertising agency tasked with promoting the new artwork, this description is far too bland to generate coverage in a press environment dominated by terrorism, right wing politics, and natural disasters. What the exhibit requires, instead, is a bit of controversy.
In an effort to draw some attention to the exhibit, the advertising agency develops a promotional video where a child beggar enters the square and — to the viewer’s surprise and horror — is killed in an explosion. Christian, preoccupied with other matters, does not object to or even view the clip before approving its release. The video succeeds in going viral, but generates damaging press for the museum, which is accused of stirring up cheap controversy at the expense of Sweden’s beggar population, children who may come across the video, and public morality itself. Christian is forced to resign, and in doing so, is subsequently attacked for creating a self-imposed limit on freedom of expression.
Logan Paul recently generated significant controversy for a similar move; he filmed the body of a man who had apparently hung himself from a tree in Japan’s suicide forest. Though this video generated a tremendous amount of views (and ad revenue for Paul), the media and the public were almost unanimous in finding the video extremely distasteful. Paul was forced to take down the video, apologize publically, and take a hiatus from his popular YouTube channel. In the introduction to the video, Paul exclaims: “buckle the f— up, because you’re never going to see a video like this again!”
Both videos call into question the regulation of videos posted to YouTube and other personalized video channels, and to what extent regulation of such videos could infringe upon user’s free speech rights. Interestingly, the law has little to say about the content of videos posted to YouTube. Like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, YouTube for the most part operates on under the rule of its own laws and a combined policing effort between YouTube’s users and YouTube administrators. It is unclear whether Logan Paul’s video actually violated YouTube’s community guidelines; Paul removed the video on his own in act of self-censorship that mirrored that of Christian’s forced resignation.
So far, the primary limit on offensive videos posted to such sites seems to be the chilling effect of the free market. For Christian, his boss implied that the central issue with the video was that the museum’s sponsors may not want to be associated with a museum that detonates beggars to make headlines. Similarly, Paul’s video resulted in YouTube (and its advertisers) curtailing its financial relationship with Paul.
According to its community guidelines, YouTube restricts content that is violent, sexual, hateful, threatening, harassing, or dangerous in that it encourages risky activity. Paul’s video most likely did not violate YouTube’s policy. The museum’s video of the beggar’s violent death might have been deemed too violent, but the question is indeterminate, as YouTube looks at the primary purpose of the inclusion of violence in a video when determining whether the community guidelines are violent. What is clear is that the violation, the reporting, and the sanction itself are most often self-contained without YouTube based upon YouTube’s policies. The law only becomes involved if YouTube reports an issue to authorities (which is rare, as YouTube prefers not to involve the government) or an individual reports harassment, a threat or hateful content to the government.
The situation depicted in The Square, where the museum posts a sensationalist movie intended to generate headlines, is eminently realistic. The movie anticipated the Logan Paul saga, which resulted in analogous negative press and a corresponding act of self-censorship. The videos demonstrate that troubling incentives for generating controversy at any cost are present in today’s extremely saturated media environment. Logan Paul spawned many more followers through his controversy, and his return to YouTube itself was highly anticipated, rare even for the brightest of YouTube’s stars. If that return is handled correctly from a PR perspective over the next few months, Paul will recover from the controversy and experience net gains in clout, name recognition and amount of followers.
Similarly, the museum’s video generated much needed headlines. At the huge press conference where Christian resigned, thereby taking the fall for the video, the museum itself succeeded. At the press conference, the museum’s director was able to quickly pivot from the resignation and direct the media to extensive press materials about the new exhibition. Stories that cover the controversy about the video and now the resignation itself (i.e. does it represents a troubling self-imposed limit on freedom of expression) must, at least for context, discuss the art piece behind the fated promotional video. More importantly, the museum becomes a known commodity. The maxim that all coverage is good coverage may be more true than ever today.