Guy Ben-Ner’s Video Stealing Beauty
by Mark W. Scala
“Stealing Beauty evokes political spectacles in which narratives put forth by every candidate toggle freely between reality, fiction, and propaganda, and it is up to the viewer to determine which is which.”
In this most unusual of political seasons, in which a self-defined socialist is in the running for the Democratic nomination and a big-time capitalist is seeking the Republican nod, it seems appropriate to revisit discussions of class, money, and power that have been, to say the least, dormant in recent decades of American politics. Turn now to Guy Ben-Ner’s 2007 video, Stealing Beauty (www.ubu.com/film/ben-ner_beauty.html), for today’s lesson in socialist economics. Don’t worry, it’ll be fun!
Parodying a sitcom, the video shows a family—mom, dad, son, and daughter—occupying an IKEA showroom as if it were their own home (anticipating the Occupy Wall Street movement by four years). Early in the video, we learn that the son has been caught stealing at school. The dad is tasked by the mom with explaining why stealing is wrong. While mom goes shopping, dad instructs the children about concepts such as theft in relation to property rights, labor, and compensation, the family as an economic unit, and even the price of love. The matter of exchange extends to time and the ownership of knowledge; dad charges the kids money before reading them a bedtime story or helping out with their homework. The only thing that has no price, he says, is love. But then, the daughter points out, if love holds the home together, and the home is property, even love has economic value. The film is a spin on the “father knows best” trope of television history, in which precocious children do not simply accept pat answers from condescending adults, but through “innocent” questioning end up teaching the older generation a thing or two.
The film echoes the Marxist argument that capitalism is built on economic, moral, and political foundations that impact all behaviors and beliefs, but are so deeply embedded that we hardly recognize them as artifice—as spectacles meant to keep people from realizing that they are not in control of their own lives. Ben-Ner’s illustration of economic theory as an ambiguous relationship between fiction and reality is compelling. In the IKEA showroom, cabinets, kitchens, and bathrooms serve as models for real homes, so we have the spectacle of a real family pretending be a TV family, which pretends to live within a spectacle of home furnishings pretending to be a home. With price tags still on all the cabinetry, commerce commingles with television to create a nether region in which life and its imitation are blurred, and real needs and implanted desires are indistinguishable. The theme of theft in relation to property is not simply a theoretical matter; it is central to the structure of the film. Ben-Ner did not seek permission for the family to occupy the floor models, so he is in effect stealing their use. When discovered by management, the family would simply go to the next IKEA store to continue the charade, to the bemusement of shoppers looking on.
Even if you are not a staunch advocate of the free market, you might consider the film to be propaganda. This should not keep you from appreciating its aesthetic qualities; as the Frist Center’s exhibition The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography and Film shows, propaganda can be artistically compelling. This underscores the problematic nature of Stealing Beauty. Early on, its comic dialogue and the device of the “theft” of the IKEA showroom make Ben-Ner’s points with a tongue-in-cheek quality worthy of Andy Warhol. As it progresses, the guerrilla intervention becomes simply a manifesto that tells us what to think—political poetry given over to pedantic prose. Still, the video is worth watching: you will never again walk past an IKEA showroom—or, for that matter, any other such aesthetically appealing commercial simulation—without seeing it as a reminder that happiness derived from ownership is an illusion, albeit one that is central to the functioning of our economic system. And in keeping with the silly season, Stealing Beauty evokes political spectacles in which narratives put forth by every candidate toggle freely between reality, fiction, and propaganda, and it is up to the viewer to determine which is which.