“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” ~ Aristotle
Apart from the customary witch, dinosaur, and Spiderman outfits, one of the top five Halloween costumes of 2021 was based on Squid Game, a survival television thriller on Netflix. The series has received worldwide attention for its crude portrayal of the inequality, poverty, and debt crisis in South Korea. The show additionally addresses the issues of immigration and organ trafficking.
According to Netflix, Americans watched 3 billion minutes of the Squid Game program in one week. Its producers are currently exploring the possibility of a second season after the initial series broke records by attracting more than 111 million viewers in its first 28-days. According to the show’s creator, Hwang Dong-hyuk, “There’s been so much pressure, so much demand and so much love for a second season, I almost feel like you leave us no choice.” Due to the its global success, investors can buy Squid Game cryptocurrency (called Squid) to participate in an online version of the game. Speculation has already driven its value from 1 cent to $4.39 before the website has even launched.
In short, Squid Game is a high-concept thriller in which 456 deeply indebted individuals, desperate for money, are recruited to participate in deadly versions of childhood games. Although a prize jackpot of $45.6 billion goes to the lone winner, elimination means actual death. The participants were willing to gamble with their lives for a chance to be freed from the weight of their financial burdens. The competitions take place on an undisclosed remote island. Contestants wear numbered green tracksuits, live in a communal room, and are overseen by silent, yet well-armed, jailers.
Unfortunately, while Squid Game is popular among mature audiences, many elementary schools throughout the country were forced to ban the wearing of Squid Game masks and costumes at their locations. This was due to the number of younger students who were discussing and mimicking many violent aspects of the show during recess.
Among other less esoteric reasons, Squid Game’s apparent resonance with all age groups was due, in part, to its affirmation of some of the most recognizable works of art. Beyond the socio-political criticism of Korean society that many activists claim is the central focus of the series, Squid Game is a visual banquet. With its special effects and extraordinary cinematography, the series manages to stand out by creating spaces and scenes based on famous works of art whose rearrangements are inspirational and difficult to forget.
For example, a recurrent theme of the series is a staircase that appears to have no logical purpose. Squid Game Players use it to climb up and down to reach new challenges and then return to the common room. The staircase is reminiscent of “Relativity,” a 1953 lithographic work by Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher, in which anonymous, identically dressed figures are depicted wandering through an illogical world that defies gravity. The first version of this work was a woodcut made earlier that same year.
Escher’s compositions challenge the mind. He has created a curious picture of a hand drawing another hand, which is drawing the first hand. He has drawn buildings which seem normal at first glance, but in closer examination, reveal architectural impossibilities. Escher’s message is clear. Things are not as they seem. While the world may appear normal . . . it is not. Something is just not right. It is not the way it was intended. Everything is upside-down and backwards. We think life is normal, but, according to Escher, “we are living in a bent world.”
Squid Game used Escher’s imagery to create an elaborate staircase that herds its contestants between games. Like the Dutch artist, Squid Games uses the stairs to present a cynical message, a secret known only by viewers. Although its contestants believe they are being led to a higher place – a doorway to freedom from debt and worry – they are not going anywhere. If anything, they are being led to their demise.
Another obvious artistic reference found in Squid Game is revealed in the first episode when the bloody games officially begin. Echoing a well-known composition called “The Scream” created in 1893 by the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, the series presents the image of an androgynous figure’s anguish and thereby sets the tone for the horror that is to come.
“The Scream” is Munch’s most famous work, and one of the most recognizable paintings in all of art. It has been widely interpreted as representing the universal anxiety of modern man. Painted with broad bands of garish color and highly simplified forms, it portrays the skull of an agonized figure in the throes of an emotional crisis. While The Scream exists in four versions, the 1895 pastel sold at auction in 2012 for just under $120 M.
Munch’s childhood was overshadowed by illness, bereavement, and the dread of inheriting a mental condition that ran in the family. In addition, the artist was greatly influenced by the nihilist Hans Jæger who urged him to express his own emotional and psychological state in his compositions. From this, emerged Munch’s distinctive soul-painting style.
According to Much, “The Scream” met his stated goal “of the study of my own self.” He reveals the origin of the painting to a sunset walk with two friends. “When suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.” He later confessed, “that for several years I was almost mad, stretched to the limit, nature was screaming in my blood … After that I gave up hope of ever being able to love again!”
Should society, like Munch, give up hope of the ability to love? Is this the message that Squid Game wants to convey through the use of famous art compositions to its audiences?
Art first appeared in caves 40,000 years ago. Art has the ability to define humanity and to help humanity understand and overcome difficult life experiences. Yes, our world is bent, distorted, and not the way it was intended. However, as art has the power to affect individuals, culture, and society in a variety of positive as well as negative ways, it is vital that it is used with wisdom and discretion. By employing art in an honest yet positive way, media outlets such as Netflix can help humanity overcome the difficulties of inequality, poverty, and debt by changing opinions, instilling values, and re-imagining societal experiences across space and time.
According to the Old Testament, “God created man in his own image” (Genesis 1:27). In his most famous fresco of this scriptural narrative painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the Italian artist Michelangelo depicts the life-giving right arm of God reaching towards Adam who, in turn, is stretched towards his Creator in a mirror pose. The message of the artist is clear. God’s imminent contact with Adam will breathe life into him.
In contrast, the ninth and final episode of Squid Game portrays a more tragic scenario. In this particular scene, contestant #456 reaches out his hand towards contestant #218. Gesturing in a strikingly similar fashion as that found in Michelangelo’s fresco, the hand of #456 symbolizes the potential for life. Unfortunately, player #218 chooses to kill himself, refusing the option proposed by his opponent.
In a recent interview, Hwang Dong-hyuk, said that “his hope was that the themes and philosophy behind the referenced art works would be in harmony with the art of Squid Game to help deliver the message he wanted to convey. All I sincerely hoped was that the spaces, structures, and colors in the game would reflect all of us who must survive endless competition, the realities of the world of inequality that everyone is born into.”
While the creator of Squid Games is correct in saying that art, life, and societal inequality are inextricably linked, art should remain humanity’s ultimate expression of hope, freedom, and love, and not bondage, endless futility, and death. As such, I would strongly urge artists working in all genres to collaborate in creating works that celebrate and heal rather than deface and disfigure.
Unless we learn how to work together to nourish the body, inspire the soul, and stimulate the intellect, I am afraid that we are destined to join the likes of Escher and Munch . . . screaming while aimlessly climbing illogical staircases.