In his recent book, Why
Only Art Can Save Us,
Santiago Zabala makes an
important contribution to the socially engaged art discourse,
building upon phenomenology and critical theory. It is a text
about demands by art, to use Michael Kelly’s formulation,
i.e. art’s call for action on behalf of the weak, discarded
and forgotten – the remains of Being on the margins of
title of the book is a paraphrase of Heidegger’s famous
statement ‘only a God can still save us’, indicating
a path beyond the world overpowered by technology, where everything
is calculable, nature is treated as a standing reserve, and
we aim to exploit and control the world. As Zabala argues, Heidegger’s
declaration should not be read in a literal sense, but rather
as alluding to a forgotten realm of Being in our technological
reality. Aiming to dominate and categorize the world, we replaced
Being (existence) with enumerable beings (objects), bringing
about ‘the endlessly self-expanding emptiness and devastation,’
related to the primacy of things over human relationships and
which sense the realm of Being offers us a salvation? A return
to Being is a return to a non-reductionist perception of the
world and human existence, a leap beyond instrumental rationality.
Art can assist us in this process, awakening the sense of emergency
– an awareness that our dominating way of framing the
world is not the only option.
AESTHETICS AND THE DOMINANT WORLDVIEW
book is divided into three chapters. The first chapter, ‘The
Emergency of Aesthetic,’ situates the problem of art in
a wider context and discusses how contemporary aesthetics contributes
to the concealment of Being, framing it within the parameters
of the dominating worldview. Here the author aims to confront
and overcome the metaphysical framework of modern aesthetics,
and demonstrate that problem of art extends far beyond this
Heidegger, who is the major reference for this chapter, Zabala
sees the loss of a sense of emergency as the main problem of
our times. There are of course emergencies, like military conflicts,
terrorism, or refugee crisis. However, they are framed in terms
of our globalized system and its dominant paradigms that include
democracy (political), neoliberalism (financial), and NATO (military).
Within this system we are offered readily applicable solutions
preserving the status quo. There is little space for questioning
the established ways of addressing the crises we face, and our
role in them. Furthermore, the dominant impression of citizens
in the developed countries is that reality is stable and fixed.
We believe that everything is functioning correctly, and the
current order will bring about the solution of our problems
and provide conditions for a meaningful life.
major problem of this framework is not only its objectifying
character, but also how it reduces the world to a predictable
‘picture,’ which is constantly being justified politically,
ethically, and also aesthetically. Everything that does not
fit into this picture is ignored and marginalized. Emergency,
on the other hand, suggests openness, undecidedness, and a variety
of options. It is an interruption of the reality we are accustomed
to. We have to suspend our ordinary ways of perceiving the world
– to use Heidegger’s terms, ‘the lucidity
through which we constantly see’ – in order to experience
absence of emergency reflects our epoch’s metaphysical
condition. Social and political crises we face are, according
to Zabala, derivative of this condition. Art can help us to
disclose this absence of emergency by turning our attention
to the remains of Being – people and ideas forced to the
margins of the dominant discourses and striving for change.
As the author argues, we need not only political and ethical
discourses, but also aesthetic forces to shake us out of the
tendency to ignore paradoxes and injustices generated by the
dominant paradigms and their instrumental rationality.
speaks to us more directly than rational discourses –
it has an ability to address us on the existential level, to
transform our way of looking at the world, and to mobilize us
to action. In this perspective, works of art are far more than
objects of contemplation, providing us with sensuous enjoyment
– as viewed by modern aesthetics. Following Heidegger,
Zabala claims that what makes art is not the quality of what
is created, but its ontological appeal. Accordingly, he responds
to Heidegger’s call for the overcoming of aesthetics,
which similarly to technology frames and organizes beings, in
this case to make them conform to the ideal of an indifferent
beauty. In doing so, modern aesthetics preserves the lack of
sense of emergency and becomes a means of preserving status
quo. In order to overcome this condition we need to restore
the critical, discursive potential of art.
AS SUBVERSIVE STRATEGY
marginalized challenges of our times are specifically addressed
in Chapter 2, ‘Emergency through art,’ Here Zabala
discusses four categories of problems staying at the margins
of contemporary democracies: ‘social paradoxes’
generated by the dominating paradigms; ‘urban discharges’
of slums, plastic and electronic waste; ‘environmental
calls’ related to global warming and degradation of nature;
and ‘historical accounts’ of ignored or denied events.
artists are selected for each of these categories. The works
of Kennard Phillipps, Jota Castro and Filippo Minelli thrust
us into the political, financial, and technological paradoxes
that shape our social lives. Hema Upadhyay, Wang Zhiyuan, and
Peter McFarlane deal with the problem of surplus products emerging
on the verge of capitalism and urbanization. Nele Azvedo, Mandy
Barker, and Michael Sailstorfer direct our attention to environmental
calls caused by global warming, ocean pollution and deforestation.
The artworks of Jennifer Kardy, Alfredo Jaar, and Jane Frere
offer alternative readings of history and draw our attention
to overlooked events.
part of the book gives a solid insight into how arts existential
and ontological alterations work in specific contexts, revealing
fundamental problems of our times and mobilizing for action.
Their creators, as Zabala argues, have retreated from culture’s
indifferent beauty in order to disclose the lack of emergencies
in contemporary world, and to draw attention to the remains
of Being. This type of art calls for action on behalf of the
weak and excluded – art appears here as transformative,
AN ONTOLOGICAL THEORY OF ART
final chapter of the book, ‘Emergency Aesthetics,’
delineates a theory of art focused on art’s ontological
appeal. Zabala’s aim is neither to criticize previous
aesthetic theories, nor to propose a new one, but to outline
a philosophical stance capable of interpreting existential disclosures
of contemporary art. Hence, the art theory outlined in the book
is clearly not aesthetic (i.e. focused on a non-cognitive experience
of art, as emerging from the perspective of Baumgarten and Kant),
but ontological – it addresses art against the background
of human existence and the world. Zabala follows here pre-Enlightenment
understanding of art, in which the cognitive dimension was central
– art’s role was to reveal truth about the reality.
This understanding can be dated back at least to the ancient
Greeks, for whom beauty and truth were two sides of the same
coin, and was in the 20th century revived by phenomenological
and hermeneutic thinkers. It stands in a stark contrast to the
mainstream aesthetic discourse, inclined to exclude art’s
claim to truth, and accordingly to dismiss its theoretical and
practical dimensions. As Heidegger points out, modern aesthetics
presupposes a particular conception of beings – as objects
of representation framed within the dominant worldview. Within
this horizon art loses its relation to culture and follows the
path of technology. In this context he speaks about ‘the
absence of art’ (Heidegger in Zabala 2017:6), a state
of being corresponding to the lack of a sense of emergency.
order to overcome this condition, we need not only to put aside
aesthetic representationalism, but also to disclose and interpret
the forgotten, existential appeal of Being. Following Gadamer,
Zabala considers art not an object on which we look and contemplate,
but an event that appropriates us into itself and reveals the
world. It invites us into a conversation that does not aim for
a disengaged exchange of different interpretations, but addresses
us in a direct way and changes our ways of perceiving the world.
Further, building upon Danto, Ranciere, and Vattimo, Zabala
claims that the truth of art no longer rests in representation
of reality, but rather in an existential project of transformation.
Today, artists and their audiences are called to intervene on
behalf of humanity.
can respond to the absence of the sense of emergency in different
ways. For Heidegger artworks disclose truth about the world
by expressing it in its fullness and uniqueness in a non-reductive
manner. As he demonstrates on the famous example of peasant’s
shoes depicted by Van Gogh, art can offer an in-depth glimpse
into human reality. Critical thinkers on the other hand adapt
a more subversive strategy, altering the reality we are accustomed
to rather than representing it. In this perspective art confronts
us with unexpected, strange, surprising, and provokes us to
search reasons for that oddness. This in turn motivates us to
take an ethical stance – to become existentially involved
for the sake of the weak and marginalized. Zabala follows the
latter perspective, arguing that the lack of a sense of emergency
in our contemporary realities demands a new aesthetic shock.
What produces shock in art are not its formal qualities, but
its refusal to situate itself within established perspectives.
we can see in the examples from Chapter 2, alterations of reality
created by artworks disrupt our fixed ways of seeing the world
and require response and intervention instead of contemplation.
To confront the alterations revealed in critical artworks, emergency
aesthetics must depend on hermeneutics – an effort of
interpretation is necessary to retrieve the existential appeal
of art. Zabala follows Gadamer’s view of interpretation
as a fusion of horizons, governed by the existential situation
of the interpreter. However, he sees the keystone of hermeneutics
in the disclosure of the essential emergency – the absence
of emergencies in our contemporary world, while for Gadamer
it was the experience of truth revealed in art. Accordingly,
in Zabala’s emergency aesthetics interpretation has a
militant, anarchic character. As he points out, anarchic interpretations
do not strive for truth or completeness, but rather seek to
preserve the disclosure of emergency and invite us to a resolute
action in favour of the weak.
final chapter is followed by an afterword, engaging in a direct
dialogue with critical theory – such a dialogue is very
much implicit throughout the book. The afterword also situates
Zabala’s effort in a wider context of contemporary, socially
engaged art theory.
emergency aesthetics represents an original attempt to bridge
phenomenology and critical theory, and offers a well-thought
perspective on the challenges of contemporary democracies and
the role and potentials of art in addressing them. Importantly,
the book is more than a valuable contribution to art discourse.
It offers as much aesthetic as ethical theory, providing a critical
glimpse on the current way of framing the world and human life,
and asking for action on behalf of the weak, marginalized, and
said that, it must be noted that Zabala’s Why Only
Art Can Save Us is not an easy lecture. Although Chapter
2, presenting selected artists and their responses to the lack
of the sense of emergency, is generally accessible, philosophical
discussions in Chapter 1 and Chapter 3 may be difficult to follow
for readers completely unfamiliar with Heidegger’s phenomenology.
of the strengths of the text is a breadth of phenomenological
references, also including less commonly quoted works of Heidegger,
such as Mindfulness (2006/1938-1939). The book would however
benefit from a more explicit conversation with critical theory,
to which indebtedness is mentioned mostly in the afterword.
Heidegger appears as the principal reference throughout the
text, but the view that art creates emergencies through alterations
and disruptions of reality goes somehow beyond his perspective,
alluding among others to Adorno.
book can be recommended to philosophically inclined audiences
interested in socially engaged art theory, and art’s response
to contemporary crises. The readers interested specifically
in Heidegger’s view of art will find this book very relevant
Santiago, Why Only Art Can Save Us: Aesthetics and the Absence
of Emergency, Columbia University Press, ISBN 9780231183482)