Artistic creativity has always manifested itself in me as a sort of hunger. I have observed this need in myself with some gratification, but I have never in all my conscious life asked why this hunger should arise and demand to be satisfied. In the last few years, as it has begun to ease off, and been transformed into something else, I have begun to feel it important to try to establish the reason for my ‘artistic activity’.
I remember from very early childhood a need to show what I had achieved; progress in drawing, the ability to bounce a ball against the wall, my first strokes in the water.
I remember feeling a great need to attract the attention of the grown-ups to these manifestations of my presence in the physical world. I never, it seemed to me, excited enough interest in my fellow human beings. And so, when reality no longer sufficed, I began to make things up, regaling my contemporaries with tremendous stories of my secret exploits. These were embarrassing lies, which inevitably foundered on the scepticism of the world around me. In the end I withdrew from fellowship and kept my dreams to myself. A contact-seeking child, beset by fantasies, I was quickly transformed into a hurt, cunning and suspicious daydreamer.
But a daydreamer is not an artist other than in his dreams.
The need to get people to listen, to correspond, to live in the warmth of a fellowship, remained. It became stronger and stronger as the prison walls of loneliness closed around me.
It was fairly obvious that the cinema should be my chosen means of expression. I made myself understood in a language that bypassed words, which I lacked; music, which I have never mastered; and painting, which left me unmoved. Suddenly, I had the possibility of corresponding with the world around me in a language that is literally spoken from soul to soul, in terms that avoid control by the intellect in a manner almost voluptuous.
I threw myself into my medium with all the dammed-up hunger of my childhood and for twenty years, in a sort of rage, I have communicated dreams, sensual experiences, fantasies, outbursts of madness, neuroses, the convulsions of faith, and downright lies. My hunger has been continuously renewed. Money, fame and success have been the astonishing, but basically unimportant, consequences of my advance. By this, I do not wish to discount whatever I may have achieved. I believe it has had, and perhaps still has, its importance. What is so comforting to me is that I can see what has passed in a new and less romantic light. Art as self-satisfaction can have its importance — particularly to the artist himself.
Today the situation is less complicated, less interesting, and above all less glamorous.
Now, to be completely honest, I regard art (and not only the art of the cinema) as lacking importance.
Literature, painting, music, the cinema, the theatre beget and give birth to themselves. New mutations and combinations emerge and are destroyed; seen from the outside, the movement possesses a nervous vitality — the magnificent zeal of artists to project, for themselves and an increasingly distracted public, pictures of a world that no longer asks what they think or believe. On a few preserves artists are punished, art is regarded as dangerous and worth stifling or steering. By and large, however, art is free, shameless, irresponsible and, as I said, the movement is intense, almost feverish; it resembles, it seems to me, a snakeskin full of ants. The snake itself is long since dead, eaten out from within, deprived of its poison; but the skin moves, filled with busy life.
If I now observe that I happen to be one of these ants, then I must ask myself whether there is any reason to pursue the activity further. The answer is yes. Even though I regard the theatre as an old and well-beloved courtesan who has seen better days. Even though I, and many with me, find Westerns more stimulating than Antonioni or Bergman. Even though the new music gives us feelings of suffocation, from the mathematical thinning out of the air; even though painting and sculpture have been sterilized and waste away in paralysing freedom. Even though literature has been transformed into a mere cairn of words, with no message and no danger.
There are poets who never write, because they shape their lives as poems; actors who never perform, but who act out their lives as high drama. There are painters who never paint, because they close their eyes and conjure up the most superb works of art on the back of their eyelids. There are film-makers who live their films and would never abuse their gift by materializing them in reality.
In the same way, I believe that people today can reject the theatre, since they live in the midst of a drama which is constantly exploding in local tragedy. They need no music, since their hearing is bombarded every minute by great hurricanes of sound, in which the pain barrier is both reached and surpassed. They need no poetry, since the new world philosophy has transformed them into creatures of function, bound to interesting — but poetically unusable — problems of metabolism.
Man (as I experience myself and the world around me) has set himself free, fearfully, breathtakingly free. Religion and art are kept alive for sentimental reasons, as a conventional courtesy to the past, or in benevolent concern for the increasingly nervous citizens of leisure.
— Bergman, from an acceptance speech written for the presentation of the Erasmus Prize in Amsterdam, 1965 (tr. Bradfield)