He just can’t understand that a book is a deed, not a paycheck. A poet must stir the soul, not nurture idolators.
- Andrei Tarkovsky, The Mirror
STALKER: Calling themselves intellectuals, those writers and scientists! They’ve let the organ with which one believes atrophy for lack of use. The only thing they can think about is how to sell themselves not too cheap! How to get as much as possible for their every emotional movement! They know that they are “born for some purpose!” That they “have a calling!” For they live “only once!” How can such people believe in anything?
WIFE: Calm down, stop... Try to fall asleep, ah?.. Sleep…
STALKER: And nobody believes. Not only those two. Nobody! Whom should I lead in there? Oh God… and the most terrifying thing is… that nobody needs it anymore. And nobody needs that Room. And all my efforts are worthless!
Stalker, or the Non-Believers
By Daniel Kingery
Watching Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker for the first time last summer, it immediately struck me as a parable for the role of the artist. It tells the story of the Stalker, a selfless and pathos-ridden guide leading the Writer and the Professor and thus the viewer through the Zone, a world where the conventional laws of reality do not apply. Their goal is to make it to a House in the center of the Zone. In this House there is a Room, and, if you are able to make it into the Room through the mysterious and seemingly immaterial and ever-shifting dangers of the Zone, you will be granted your innermost wish, a wish that may be unconscious to you and will reveal your true and innermost nature. Indeed, the Zone itself stands for the experience of a work of art.
Stalker is a claim for the artist as a selfless guide who acts out of an inner need to follow something greater than him or herself, even if it causes them and those closest to them great suffering. In the film, a Stalker is not a profession but a calling, and one in which the person called has little choice. The Stalker is not a leader, but a servant, in fact a slave. He is only free when he’s in the Zone, and he would risk imprisonment and persecution (as Tarkovsky did) for those brief moments of living his true purpose. The world outside is a prison for him. Leading people through the Zone is the closest he can come to freedom, which is just postponing the inevitable return to the imprisonment of daily life.
Not just anyone who the Stalker leads through the Zone will make it to the Room, but only someone who is like him: pathetic, desperate and without all hope. Only someone in the midst of a spiritual crisis is able to attain self-knowledge.
The Stalker himself is pathetic, ignoble and unworthy of any respect. He is an anti-hero. Yet the Stalker, and not the ego-driven and cynical Writer, whom, together with the Professor, he leads through the Zone, is Tarkovsky’s true model for the artist.
The Writer is driven by a narcissistic need for affirmation: critical, sexual and monetary. He gets all the affirmation he desires, yet it leaves him empty. He has “talent,” but he doesn’t truly believe in himself and he finds that all of his endeavors are ultimately pointless. The Stalker, on the other hand, is driven by a single-minded purpose and sense of his role. He cannot enter the Room himself. His job is only to lead people there and then return. When the Stalker’s mentor, Porcupine, enters the Room for a selfish purpose, for money, his brother is sacrificed. He then enters the room in the hopes of bringing his dead brother back to life. Instead, he is rewarded with more money. Realizing that in his true inner soul, wealth was more important than the life of his brother, he hangs himself. This is a warning to the artists driven by a need for fame or money. The Writer is ostensibly looking for confirmation of his own genius, yet he knows that it is the fear that he is a hack that drives him to keep writing. To get what he desires would be the end of his career because he writes not for others, but to assuage his own ego.
When we first meet the Writer, he is drunk and cynically expounding to impress a woman that life is ultimately boring and mundane, subject to the iron-clad laws of physics and math and devoid of any mystery. The Writer probably does not believe this himself but perhaps uses it as an excuse for not going deeper into the fabric of reality. He expresses with this a widespread superstition that physics has unraveled the keys to the universe and that we can now explain everything in existence, which is far from the truth, as any physicist will readily confirm. It is a determinist view of causality, that given all the preconditions, the outcome is set. It is a misplacement within philosophy of mathematical principles to the subjective realities of each unique and irrational human existence. Every moment of every existence is unique and will never be repeated and no laws in the universe will ever be able to account for the true experience of lived reality. Only art can attempt to do this.
The discoveries in astrophysics and particle physics have been remarkable and fascinating over the past few years. Yet the more we discover about the universe, the more mysterious it becomes. The particle physicist studying neutrinos in Werner Herzog’s documentary Encounters at the Edge of the World describes neutrinos as a kind of spirit world or parallel reality that we can barely measure and know almost nothing about. Although millions of neutrinos pass through our bodies every second, we still have no idea what they really are. In fact, most of the material or particles in the universe exist only theoretically and can only be observed indirectly, if at all. Dark matter, for instance, is a theory to explain phenomena that we don’t understand, much like ether before it. Theoretically, it must exist, yet its existence is based on an act of faith. Perhaps there will be a scientific discovery in a few years that will make us reconsider, yet again, everything we thought we knew. As Stephen Hawking points out, there are possibly an infinite number of universes outside of our own, each with alternate laws of physics that may have nothing to do with our own. Even phenomena that everyone now takes for granted, such as gravity, can’t be explained in terms of why they exist. Maybe there is no reason!
If we consider the amount of potential knowledge in the universe as infinite, then no matter how much we know, there will be an infinite beyond which will remain a mystery always. For me this is not a reason for despair but for fascination and optimism.
The Professor, not coincidentally a physics professor, is the other character the Stalker leads through the zone. Ironically, the Professor is less cynical and more inclined to believe in the Zone than the Writer. The Professor, however, takes an absolutist and pragmatic position that the Room is too dangerous, that it is like an atomic bomb and, if it fell into the wrong hands, any tyrant or megalomaniac could wreak havoc on humanity. This, of course, is contrary to the nature of the Room, which reveals truth and cannot be instrumentalized to serve conscious wishes, as the Soviet authorities often attempted to do with Tarkovsky himself.
The Professor blindly believes in evidence. But his reasons for wanting to destroy the room are not altruistic but a misguided attempt at revenge based on sexual jealousy. As he calls a colleague and informs him of what he is about to do, destroy the room with a bomb, it comes to light that the colleague once slept with the Professor’s wife and that he has harbored long pent up animosity against him for this. At once the Professor seems not rational but pathetic. He loses all hope and wallows in despair. When he comes to understand that the Room cannot be used willfully or controlled, he can see no utilitarian reason why it should even exist at all. Yet the very role of art lies in its utter uselessness and lack of any pragmatic purpose. The more useless, the more obsolete it becomes, the more potential it has to tap into the many layers of reality that lie beyond the pragmatic and utilitarian, layers of reality that we are confronted with everyday but refuse to see or acknowledge, preferring blindness and ignorance. These other layers of reality are often called the spiritual, the realm where we realize that coincidences do not exist.
At this moment, confronted with the futility and hopelessness of all things pragmatic, utilitarian and material, the Professor has earned the right to enter the Room, yet he and the Writer stand there on the precipice, afraid to believe, afraid to have faith in anything other than themselves or the material world. The Professor cannot think beyond the utilitarian. The Writer understands the power of the room but would prefer to waste away in alcoholism and self-deception rather than confront the truth of his innermost self.
The Stalker’s lament at the end, as he lies sweating in bed, his wife dabbing his brow, is that no one believes anymore, and that all of his efforts are in vain. The thing that he lives for (The Zone/art/God) has become irrelevant; nobody needs it.
The Stalker laments this spiritual atrophy. In both capitalism and under Soviet communism, all of reality is understood through the lens of the material. For the Professor, this takes the form of a pragmatic and practical deflating of the mysterious culminating in a destructive hostility towards it. For the Writer, it is a cynical and solipsistic view of reality focusing on the self, the ego and meaningless pleasure.
The only redemption in Stalker is the confirmation of faith through love, as represented by the Stalker’s wife. At the beginning of the film she berates him for setting off again on his obsessive quest, the only thing that affords him freedom and happiness, however brief – a respite from the world that is his true prison. She chides him that he had promised to get a “real human job,” but he can’t. His single-minded obsession drives him forward. The film’s penultimate scene is the wife explaining her irrational love for him, a love that exists despite all risks that go hand in hand with loving a Stalker and offers little reward. These uncertainties and troubles, sacrifices and grief will be familiar to anyone who has loved an artist obsessed with a single vision to the detriment to themselves and those around them, sacrificing all with little chance of reward. “Even if our life were without grief it wouldn’t be any better for it. It would be worse. Because it would also be without happiness and without hope.”
The product of the Stalker and his wife’s love is their mutant daughter Monkey who is endowed with supernatural powers. Perhaps she is a stand-in for Tarkovsky, himself the product of a frustrated, slaving mother and a poet father who was largely absent from his life.
Tarkovsky, an Orthodox Christian who encountered censorship and hostility from the Soviet film authorities for his beliefs, dealt almost exclusively in his films with characters who, despite the most hopeless circumstances are able to maintain a kind of naiveté and spiritual purity.  The difference between the spiritual and the material understanding of the world is to see God in the things around you rather than reducing everything to their use or exchange value. In every shift of color, burst of wind, or trickle of water, Tarkovsky is giving testament to the infinite unknown.
Tarkovsky’s film Andrej Rublev makes his concern with the role of the spiritual for the artist even clearer. Rublev, the painter-monk, has learned the biblical teachings in the sanctuary of the monastery, but has no idea what they mean since he knows nothing of life. Only after being confronted with the sack of the Tartars, with rape, pillaging and the worst of mankind does he understand Christ’s teachings. First, though, he goes through a period of despair and takes a vow of silence. Then he sees the miracle of the bell-maker, the young boy who risks his life before the king and only through faith and enormous personal sacrifice is able to accomplish the seemingly impossible. Rublev sees this demonstration of the miracle of the creative act, breaks his vow of silence and again follows his true calling as a painter, now with a deepened sense of purpose and understanding of content.
The illusion of lived reality is one of the features that has come to define the genre of the narrative film as we know it and because of this, even an obscure or “independent” director is still more accessible than any contemporary visual artist. The “reality” of film is a projection screen for the viewer, like in any art form, and its ostensible similarity to the world around us gives the viewer an entry point broader than fields in contemporary art that are more difficult to access and require specialized knowledge.  Film in its cinematic form is a mass media that has usurped the novel and taken on many features assigned to painting in previous centuries when painting was full of drama, overwhelming color, action and catharsis. A Rubens was then much like a Hollywood blockbuster is today.
There is something, however, to be learned from artists who, like filmmakers, draw more broadly on life than on art-specific narratives. An artist invariably draws on his or her own life, but if that life is lived primarily in the narrow confines of the current art system, the focus and content of that art will be equally narrow.
In his writings, Tarkovsky laments directors who pander to a mass audience in order to reap the rewards of fame and wealth while disrespecting both their art and their audience in the process. It is just as easy, however, to pander to an elite audience. Art has become a convention played out within the established institutions of the art system (gallery, collector, museum, etc.), and playing with aesthetic conventions within the narrow scope of this specific milieu has for many become the purpose of art in and of itself. Saying something about life or the world outside has for many become almost completely irrelevant.
Many artistic clichés, such as the tortured artist half mad in his studio, are alive and well long after we have stopped believing in the higher purpose which drove them, the responsibility for which was at the root of the agony for the originators of this cliché such as van Gogh or Dostoevsky. We are left with the farcical re-enactments of the symptoms, which then form the selling points for decorations for the wall.
Art that is more on the other end of the spectrum (conceptual and externalized rather than affective and internalized) also often engages in navel-gazing acrobatics that may tell us something about a contemporary art-historical tradition or an “aesthetic of the conceptual” but may tell us nothing about life or what it means to be alive. Often, on an institutional level, the message is: we have the resources to create this spectacle, which by its very existence should be a source of awe. Both modes, if too narrowly focused, become a kind of ritual without meaning.
Artists have often mistaken the idea, the root of modern art, that art is a goal in and of itself – which it is – with the idea that art has no obligation to say anything about life or the world – which it does. The best modern and contemporary artists all did and do this. That art is obligated only to itself means that it has to answer to its integrity on its own terms, to be true to its purpose and vision, established within the work itself. This does not mean that it is not bound to any kind of content outside of the narrowest scope of the established art system, art market or creative processes.
Far too few artists seem to give serious consideration to what art actually is. The prevailing attitude seems to be: I’m an artist, because I say so, therefore everything I do is automatically art. In the same way, art that relies too much on commodities as “found objects” often doesn’t say much beyond “I live in a decadent, consumerist culture.” There seems to still be a taboo in art discourse about openly acknowledging the spiritual or emotional in art, although this is the primary way we engage with art and also one of the main ways artists from ancient times up to the present have understood their own work. Art’s role is to reflect the world within the world and to lead the viewer to reflect on themselves and their own existence as if from the outside. Several other cultural modes are capable of this as well, but for art, this is its sole purpose.
In Ways of Seeing John Berger talks about works of art at the National Gallery in London and the language that art historians use to describe them, getting bogged down in minutiae and overly-academic jargon that often misses the point or the actual experience of the artwork itself. This language, he argues, is imposed to keep your average viewer from feeling they can understand or engage directly with an artwork. It keeps the artwork the realm of a privileged elite who are the gate keepers of culture. The exact same thing happens now within contemporary art, although the jargon is often used not just to keep art a privileged area of specialized knowledge but often also to veil the fact that the artwork itself might not be very good.
Berger demonstrates that children engage directly with artworks and understand many things about them that adults tend to ignore. The same is true of contemporary art. Children often intuitively understand and engage with works of art that to adults seem “highly conceptual.” Anyone who is open-minded can experience a work of art.
Art always points toward another reality, and this reality is a form of truth, but truth is something that is always experienced subjectively and can change the movement of our inner selves. For Tarkovsky, art is always preparing the viewer to face death.
Berlin, September 2012 - New York, September 2013
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