Home > Art, Culure, Philosophy > Contemporary art as a victim of war

Contemporary art as a victim of war

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920 German expressionist film

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920 German expressionist film

“Contemporary art has been a war victim through Surrealism, Expressionism, Viennese Actionism, and terrorism today.” (1)

I recently read a chapter from The Accident of Art, Paul Virilio’s book critiquing contemporary art as facing a catastrophe born by technology and society. The chapter, A Pitiless Art?, claims that art is a casualty of war but doesn’t know it. Virilio argues that the two World Wars and the post 9/11 wars have been key factors driving aesthetics, style, the very philosophy of art, often without realization from the the artist.

Here’s a quote from Virilio, arguing that abstract art is an example of a style born from the trauma of war:

Take another war victim: Bazaine, the abstract painter I knew and who also used to make stained-glass—I didn’t make any with him. They said to him, “Hey, you’ve become abstract.” And he would answer, “Yes, you could call it that.” But he preferred the term “non-figurative.” He insisted that “abstract doesn’t fit me.” So they asked him when did this happen. “After the war,” he replied, “my painting diverged all by itself.” I wrote it down.

…In the first instance, technology made the divergence unavoidable: heliography, or light figured by itself through the stenotype, and later figured on photosensitive substances. In the second, a social trauma caused figuration to diverge. Disfiguration —when Bazaine says “non figurative,” that’s what he means. The war is disfiguring art, the way it destroyed and smashed the 7 Rheims cathedral and later on destroyed Oradour-sur-Glane. War does not simply destroy bodies with shells and bombs, it destroys outdoor spaces as well.

…Abstract art is not abstract, it is an art of retreat.

Jean Rene Bazaine, glass at the church of Saint-Severin in Paris

Jean Rene Bazaine, glass at the church of Saint-Severin in Paris

You can read the chapter online, as a PDF. I suggest also reading Walter Benjamin‘s, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, another essay on art stumbling in the face of our technological society. Alain Badiou‘s essay, Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art, can serve as a great response, outlining some of the ways in which art can be emancipatory.

From Badiou:

My position is that artistic creation today should suggest a new universality, not to express only the self or the community, but that it’s a necessity for the artistic creation to propose to us, to humanity in general, a new sort of universality, and my name for that is truth.

…So, we have to create a new possibility. But to create a new possibility is not the same thing as to realize a new possibility.

…I think the creation of new possibility is today the great function of art.

(1) Virilio, Paul & Lotringer, Sylvere, ‘The Accident of Art.’ MIT Press, September 2005, pp. 16-17.

  1. Alex Cachinero-Gorman
    June 22, 2009 at 4:07 am

    “Truth” is a little loaded for a good riposte, I think. So, although I agree with Virilio’s overall thesis, I’m puzzled by the conclusion: yes, perhaps in one sense contemporary art is an art of retreat–and certainly it is something an artist should come to terms with; that is, their historically conditioned positionality in a sequence of events. basic but profound stuff, it seems.

    at the same time, why can’t there be an eckhartian, even adorno-ian(?) approach to the question (indeed, “education after auschwitz” seems to me to be the absolute most appropriate response to virilio)? that is to say, a sensibility cognizant of limitations; a sensibility without illusions, but not in the sense that it is closer to “the truth” or some such ideal, but that it has no illusions of its own incompleteness; a thoroughly modern sensibility that can no longer transparently revel in the cruelty and absolute hypocrisy of warfare, but which recoils in horror and disgust; a sensibility which, indeed, finds that they only way to describe such a thing is to first and foremost realise that it is indescribable, “unsayable;” a sensibility which is nonetheless not a mere nihilistic postmodernism that revels in moral equivalence but which uses its timid, uncertain foundations as a point of strength, towards honesty and humility in a world where it is all to easy to succumb to “the banality of pseudo-self awareness,” as christopher lasch puts it…

    “If barbarism itself is inscribed within the principle of civilization,” writes Adorno, “then there is something desperate in the attempt to rise up against it.” Art that exists in any accessible form is stuck in this paradigm, and it is an absolute dishonesty to the detriment of the art to imagine that it is not. But like I said, this does not conversely mean that art must be written all over with apocalypse–simply that it understands apocalypse as its progenitor and means for being. this yields, in all its abstraction and ambiguity, much more honest, much more telling, and indeed much more politically viable and impactful art than any realist could ever hope to achieve.

    “In other words,” writes Adorno, “education must take seriously an idea in no wise unfamiliar to philosophy: that anxiety must not be repressed. When anxiety is not repressed, when one permits oneself to have, in fact, all the anxiety that this reality warrants, then precisely by doing that, much of the destructive effect of unconscious and displaced anxiety will probably disappear.”

  2. July 30, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    I discovered this blog accidentally while trying to find an example of German Expressionism for a friend. After reading just a bit I immediately subscribed.

    Coming from an unexpected source, I remember a quote that made me rethink Benjamin. Mediocre comedian Dana Carvey once said “If you showed just a plate of oranges on television often enough, you could then put them out on the street, and a crowd would gather, saying ‘Look! There’s that plate of oranges that was on tv!'” Benjamin’s authenticity of “aura”, physical context, ritual, cultural tradition, national/local identity, etc. seems to have been replaced by an authenticity that privileges breadth of dissemination. For something to retain the old idea of “aura” means invisibility. That old idea of “aura” is hard to really appreciate today, since by the time we came along the Mona Lisa was already “information”, before we understood it as “art”.

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