White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

"White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art" is an essay on film by Manny Farber, which originally appeared in Film Culture in 1962, collected in the anthology Negative Space. In it he writes on the virtues of "termite art" and the excesses of "white elephant art," and eloquently champions the B film and under-appreciated auteurs, which he felt were able, termite-like, to burrow into a topic. Bloated, pretentious, white elephant art lacks the economy of expression found in the greatest works of termite art.


"Most of the feckless, listless quality of today's art can be blamed on its drive to break out of a tradition while, irrationally, hewing to the square, boxed-in shape and gem-like inertia of an old-densely-wrought European masterpiece."

"Termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art," Farber contends, "goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, like as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity."

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