I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Is It Art?: The Responsive Eye

by Robert Ham
Feb. 28, 2013

Say whatever you want to about the school of painting and design known as "op art"...you've already been beaten to the punch by the vox populi caught on camera by Brian De Palma in 1966.

In fact, the majority of the director's documentary account of the opening of the titular Museum of Modern Art exhibit dedicated to perceptual art -- art that, as John Lancaster put it, played with "the interaction between illusion and picture plane, between understanding and seeing" -- is given over to commentary from both artists and spectators about the effectiveness of pieces by Bridget Riley, Josef Albers, and Alexander Liberman. In their collective view, the work was deemed everything from stunning to nauseating. Or, as one interviewee says during the film: "I don't think it's art."

Any other director would have stuck with curator William Seitz and psychologist Rudolph Arnheim as they took them on a tour of the exhibit, teasing out their own interpretations of the art. Instead, De Palma turns the whole piece into one of the wittiest films of his oeuvre as well as a sly commentary on the state of the art world in the '60s. It's a neat trick, and one that he pulls off using the strongest part of his visual arsenal at the time: editing.

His use of jump cuts into dialogue from the interviews echoes the itchy movement of his debut feature The Wedding Party. In that film, he hearkens back to the work of directors like D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin, not to mention the French New Wave filmmakers who were using the same artistic tricks: overly-caffeinated pacing and quick edits between two competing scenes.

With The Responsive Eye, many of the same storytelling devices are brought over to the documentary format. De Palma jumps between the discussions of Seitz and Arnhelm, and the reactions of people at the opening night event. They go by so quickly that the effect is as sometimes disorienting as the art on the walls of MoMa. They are short jabs of punch lines and little visual gags (the woman in an evening gown bending repeatedly at the knees to catch the "movement" of a piece she is looking at).

It's also important to look at the people that De Palma and his camera crew choose to interview for the film. They are an absurd bunch: the bespectacled child who declaims that he wouldn't put the art in his home, the woman dolled up for the night in a completely striped outfit ("The tights are from Macy's, and the dress is from Bloomingdales"), the drunken woman being held aloft by her husband saying, "I loved it," and the coup de grace, the caricature of an English nobleman at the very end, complete with a haughty air about him. And a monocle.

The only people you are meant to take seriously, it seems, are the artists behind the work. In that camp, you get Mon Levinson showing off how he creates the illusion of movement with his pieces, and discussing at the end how excited he was to see it. Best, though, is Josef Albers, who kvetches loudly about how long it has taken his work to be appreciated.

Albers may have a point, but it brings up one of the underlying issues of this film and this exhibit. As Marc Campbell on Dangerous Minds points out, Responsive Eye was "the first significant exhibit of optical art synchronous with and in some cases arising out of the early days of psychedelic culture." i It's amazing, really, that no one in the film addresses this fact. I think De Palma knew that going into the project, and although he doesn't press the issue, the point is simple: these folks just don't get it.

That kind of attitude was De Palma's whole mindset at this early stage of his career. The work he was doing before and after this documentary kicked against the ideas of Hollywood filmmaking. Beyond The Wedding Party, he helped create the two Godardian, politically-driven films, Greetings and Hi Mom!, and the slapstick slasher flick Murder a la Mod. Why would anyone expect him to make a dull documentary about an art exhibit?

It's amazing, too, to consider how much De Palma's work has changed since 1966. He's still making movies, but nothing with the theoretical verve that he exhibited early on. He's settled into a long career of visually stunning but fairly conventional Hollywood films. I can't even imagine how much differently The Responsive Eye would be were De Palma to tackle it today.

But of course, that goes without saying. Any director would tackle a film much differently with 40+ years of history and experience behind them. That's simply another reason why we are living in a golden age of technology that allows us to have these snapshots into an era of both art and filmmaking that have evolved considerably in the years since.

Then again, op art might not even be considered art in the world of 2012. Heck, my four-year-old son has books that use similar trompe l'oeil effects as the artists in the Responsie Eye exhibit. Modern art museums might even turn their noses up at an exhibit like this one, or -- more likely -- just slap pieces from it into a larger retrospective about "The Sixties" alongside posters from the Fillmore and mod dresses from Carnaby Street. 

In the end, like many films, The Responsive Eye is a product of its time, and a mirror into our own. It shows, on one level, the state of art in the 1960's: struggling to make itself understood to a divided public. On another level, it shows a filmmaker at an early stage in his career, turning up his nose at that very misunderstanding. And on another level, it shows how far art and technology have come, and how much the public has embraced art that was once controversial. 

i http://www.dangerousminds.net/comments/the_ responsive_eye_brian_de_palmas1965_documentary_on_op_art

Robert Ham is a writer based in Portland, OR where he's a regular contributor to Willamette Week and The Oregonian. You can also read his work in Alternative Press and self-titled magazine. He likes black-capped chickadees and Chinese noodles.