Outspoken political novelist Gore Vidal makes a filmed appearance at the current Whitney Biennial art show in New York City. If you’re looking for a good museum experience in New York City this spring, the Whitney Biennial is the right choice; the show is designed to showcase new artists, outsider artists, digital folk artists and conceptualists with a wide range of backgrounds. The roster of artists is highly eclectic and includes poets (Ira Cohen,
Taylor Mead), musicians (a Miles Davis painting hangs on a wall, along with a page of cartoons by oddball songwriter Daniel Johnston), computer programmers and video auteurs.
One of the more interesting exhibits is a video trailer for a film that doesn’t exist, Gore Vidal’s Caligula, complete with real movie stars like Karen Black and Helen Mirren in decadent Roman costumes eating grapes and other things. At first I thought the title was meant to be ironic, but then I learned that the famous 1979 film Caligula starring Malcolm “Clockwork Orange” McDowell as the ultraviolent emperor was in fact based on Gore Vidal’s Caligula. The “new version” exists only as a preview for a remake of the 1979 film, running in continuous loop in a small room inside the museum.
The historical Caligula is compelling to modern artists and writers because of the extremity of his egotism and careless greed. The first 20th Century writer to find a fascinating metaphor in this tyrant was Albert Camus, whose play about Caligula must have inspired Gore Vidal. In this popular diagramatic work, the emperor is a walking existential disaster, miserably trapped in his unstoppable thirst for pleasure and power. A lonely soul with the morals of a child and the powers of a god, he does terrible things just to explore the boundaries of his endless boredom. He forces a nobleman to stand by while he rapes his wife at a public political gathering, amused only by the utter humiliation and not even satisfied by that.
I’m not sure exactly what video artist Francesco Vezzoli had in mind when he created this hypothetical movie, but when Gore Vidal shows up to speak a few lines he’s got a broad smile on his face. Somehow I imagine there’s a political statement in here somewhere.