Bertolucci’s autonomy of art revisited

by Marcel van den Haak

A few weeks ago, the acclaimed film director Bernardo Bertolucci died. He not only wrote and directed such grand epic films as Novecento (1976) and The Last Emperor (1987) and the stylistically innovative Il conformista (1970), but also the highly erotic Last Tango in Paris. In this 1972 film, a 45-year-old recently turned widower played by Marlon Brando and a 19-year-old engaged woman, Maria Schneider, have a series of sexual encounters in an empty apartment that they both wish to rent, without exchanging personal information. It was very controversial at the time – and it still is, yet for different reasons. This shift in moral concerns marks a broader turn in discussions on art that I will explore.

The film’s graphic sex scenes, the anonymity of the encounters and even the overt bisexuality of the young lead actress led to much moral condemnation at the time. Wikipedia gives an astonishing overview. Some critics called it “pornography disguised as art”; British censors gave it an X rating, which was still too light for some conservatives; New York moviegoers were threatened by bystanders calling them ‘perverts’ and ‘homos’; several countries such as Spain banned the film completely; and in Italy the main actors involved (including Bertolucci and Brando) were even given suspended prison sentences.[1]


At the same time, the movie was hailed by critics and audiences as a ground-breaking masterpiece. One of the most famous film critics ever, Pauline Kael, wrote one of her most famous reviews on precisely this film. She gave an in-depth interpretation of the story, particularly of the innovative look at sex in film – not portraying it as merely a mechanical act but as the expression of the characters’ drives – as well as the powerful debunking of American masculinity. She discussed the gliding camera style and the “sequences that are like arias,” and she reasonably compared Bertolucci to many great filmmakers of the past: Renoir, Vigo, Carné, Von Sternberg, Ophüls.[2] Other reviewers, such as Roger Ebert, later added the realness of the acting, including coughs and disconnected sentences.[3] In
other words, the reviewers touched upon all those elements of a piece of art that make it just that, art.

Last Tango in Paris is a fine example of an artwork in which aesthetics and ethics collide. In the art world, it is common practice that art is judged solely with aesthetic criteria, such as the innovativeness in form and style, the complexity or depth of the content, and perhaps the authenticity of what is portrayed. Moral judgements, that others in society might have, should be put aside. This idea originated in the nineteenth century. It stems from a misconception of Kant’s and Schiller’s ideas on the distinction between the Beautiful (aesthetics) and the Good (ethics). These great, eighteenth-century German thinkers analytically separated these two concepts, yet without disconnecting them entirely: the Beautiful should be at the benefit of the Good, art is meant to improve human beings. Thinkers in post-revolutionary France adopted this distinction between domains, but interpreted it as a full autonomy of the arts, regardless of possible moral benefits or objections. Art should be for art’s sake, not for morality’s (or money’s) sake.[4] This idea lies at the core of modernism, which reached its height in the early twentieth century, such as in literature (Woolf), visual arts (Kandinsky) and music (Stravinsky). It is still strong today, although societal benefits of the arts are often deemed important, too. Strikingly, Pauline Kael compared both the shocked and the astonished reactions at the first US screening of Last Tango in Paris in 1972 with the riot at the premiere of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps in 1913, often exemplified
as the ultimate artistic revolution against the bourgeois establishment.

This maxim – art for art’s sake, form over content, aesthetics over ethics – serves as an ideal defence mechanism against any moral objections towards art. Art is a free place in which the rules of society ‘out there’ do not matter. Within the walls of a museum or a theatre you can do whatever you like; the audience will perceive it as something sacred in itself: Art. Moreover, art is the place to push the boundaries, to break taboos, to act like an iconoclast. Conservative, reactionary, religious and prudish critics can object all they want, but in the art world we don’t care.

This ‘system’ works as long as the artists see themselves as progressive – as is often the case – and their moral critics whom they can ignore as conservative. Bertolucci was a Marxist and an iconoclast, whereas his critics propagated family values and resisted licentious sex. What we see lately, however, is a steep rise of moral objections against artworks from a progressive standpoint. Art that is deemed sexist, racist, homophobic or culturally appropriative has increasingly come under fire. Art can be aesthetically beautiful, a comedian’s joke can have an original punchline, but when it in one way or the other denounces women, people of colour or LGBT persons, it is put under a magnifying glass. Often it is not the art itself that has an issue, but the artist who produced it. Can we, for instance, still watch a Kevin Spacey movie without second thoughts? Art works are also criticised in retrospect. Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute is stripped of its most misogynist and racist scenes, an 1896 painting by J.W. Waterhouse was recently removed from Manchester Art Gallery because of similarities with #MeToo situations (though this soon turned out to be a publicity stunt); and even Friends fans are re-evaluating their favourite yet homophobic episodes from the 1990s. Of course, such debates are not entirely new – e.g., already in 1972 a feminist group criticised Last Tango for “male domination”, as the same Wikipedia page shows – but the strength, scope and impact of the current discussions are expanding.

Another point of this type of criticism is the way an artwork came into being. Here we return to Last Tango in Paris. Decades after the film’s release, in 2006, actress Maria Schneider revealed how Bernardo Bertolucci and Marlon Brando had sexually humiliated her, particularly in an anal rape scene.[5] Without her prior knowledge (or only just before) and certainly without her consent, Brando had used butter as a lubricant. Schneider felt raped and held Bertolucci accountable. Hence, Last Tango became controversial again. This story has come back in the limelight several
times: after Schneider’s death in 2011, and particularly when a semi-remorseful interview with Bertolucci on Dutch TV (College Tour, 2013) had found its international way in 2016.[6] He stated that he felt guilty towards her, but that he did not regret his decision. He wanted to capture her pure
reaction rather than let her act humiliation and rage. Hence, he expressed his guilt as a person, not as an artist. And he explained further: “To make movies, sometimes, to obtain something, I think that we have to be completely free.”

In other words, in order to make something aesthetically beautiful, in this case something authentic, one can put ethical issues aside. It is the modernist defence mechanism against moral objections to art that we got to know so well in the past century. However, when the critics are from the same – progressive – side of the spectrum as most artists are, this standpoint gets more uncomfortable. Moreover, if participants within the art world itself are protesting, such as actors Jessica Chastain and Chris Evans after seeing the Bertolucci interview, it seems to get untenable.[7] Many artists still emphasize the autonomy of their art (“we have to be completely free”) when encountered with moral criticisms on sexism and the like, and they refuse to ‘censor’ themselves. Some even regretfully say that prudishness is back, only a few decades after the ‘liberating’ 1970s, without realising that the current critique is of an entirely different type.


However, more and more artists are taking these increasing critiques into account, be it out of fear for Twitter storms and consumer boycotts – yes, social media can greatly escalate the impact of such critiques – or due to true awareness. This might differ per occasion, but in general, I sense that a shift is taking place. Can we still defend art as a purely autonomous place that does not have to abide to the norms of the rest of society? Are the current debates putting an end to this modernist paradigm that has endured for so long? Or is it just a strong but temporary storm? For now, these are open questions.

So, can we still watch Last Tango in Paris? In her obituary, Dutch cultural columnist Joyce Roodnat – herself a #MeToo accuser of another recently deceased acclaimed filmmaker, Claude Lanzmann – thinks we can: “Thank you Bernardo Bertolucci. Your films changed my life. I forgive you everything.”[8] Well, that might go a bit far, but I’d say we can enjoy the film, but with reservation. Nevertheless, present-day directors will no longer get away with it.




[4] Gene H. Bell-Villada (1996), Art for art’s sake and literary life. How
politics and markets helped shape the ideology & culture of aestheticism
. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press.



[7] and


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