by Paul Virilio
This pitiless century, the twentieth.
This evening we are not going to talk about piety or impiety but about pity, the pitiful or pitiless nature of 'contemporary art' . So we will not be talking about profane art versus sacred art but we may well tackle the profanation of forms and bodies over the course of the twentieth century. For these days when people get down to debate the relevance or awfulness of contemporary art, they generally forget to ask one vital question: Contemporary art, sure, but contemporary with what?
In an unpublished interview with Francois Rouan, Jacqueline Lichtenstein recently recounted her experience:
When I visited the Museum at AUSCHWITZ, I stood in front of the display cases. What I saw there were images from contemporary art and I found that absolutely terrifying. Looking at the exhibits of suitcases, prosthetics, children's toys, I didn't feel frightened. I didn't collapse. I wasn't completely overcome the way I had been walking around the camp. No. In the Museum, I suddenly had the impression I was in a museum if contemporary art. I took the train back, telling myself that they had won! They had won since they'd produced forms of perception that are all of a piece with the mode of destruction they made their own.
What we will be asking this evening will thus take up where Jacqueline Lichtenstein left off: did the Nazi terror lose the war but, in the end, win the peace? This peace based on ' the balance of terror' not only between East and West but also between the forms and figures of an aesthetics of disappearance that would come to characterize the whole fin de siecle.
'To humanize oneself is to universalize oneself from within', they say. Hasn't the universality of the extermination of bodies as well as of the environment, from AUSCHWITZ to CHERNOBYL, succeeded in dehumanizing us from without by shattering our ethic and aesthetic bearings, our very perception of our surroundings?
At the dawn of industrial modernity, Baudelaire declared, 'I am the wound and the knife.' How can we fail to see that, in the wake of the hecatomb of the Great War, when Braque and Otto Dix found themselves on opposite sides of the trenches in the mud of the Somme, modern art for its part forgot about the wound and concentrated on the knife the bayonet with the likes of Oskar Kokoschka, 'the scalpel-wielding artist' , before moving on through the German Expressionism of Der Sturm to the Viennese Actionism of Rudolf Schwarzkogler and his cohorts in the 1960s ...
ART MAUDIT or Artist Maudit? What can you say, meanwhile, about the likes of Richard Hiilsenbeck, one of the founding fathers of Dada, who told a Berlin audience in 1918, at a conference on the new trends in art, 'We were for the war. Dada today is still for war. Life should hurt. There is not enough cruelly! The rest is history. Twenty years later the 'Theatre of Cruelty' would not be the one defined by Antonin Artaud but by Kafka, that prophet of doom of the metamorphosis engineered by the camps, the smashing to smithereens of humanism.
The slogan of the First Futurist Manifesto of 1909 'War is the world's only hygiene' led directly, though thirty years later this time, to the shower block of Auschwitz-Birkenau. And Breton's 'Surrealism' , following hot on the heels of Dada, emerged fully armed from the fireworks of the Great War where common reality was suddenly transfigured by the magic of explosives and poison gases at Ypres and Verdun.
After that, what is left of Adorno's pompous pronouncement about the impossibiliry if writing a poem after AUSCHWITZ? Not much at the end of the day, for everything, or almost everything, kicked off at the turn of a pitiless and endlessly catastrophic century from the TITANIC in 1912 to CHERNOBYL in 1986, via the crimes against humanity of HIROSHIMA and NAGASAKI, where one of the paintings in van Gogh's 'Starry Night' series went up in the nuclear blast.
Perhaps at this juncture it is worth remembering Paul Celan, the German poet who committed suicide in Paris in 1970, the same year that painter Mark Rothko did in New York . .. But why stop there in art's death roll, featuring as it does a constant suicide rate from the self-destruction of Vincent van Gogh, ' the man with the missing ear'?
You would think the drive to extinguish the suffocating culture of the bourgeoisie consisted specifically in exterminating oneself into the bargain the dubious bargain of the art market thus giving ideas, for want of cultural ideals, to the great exterminators of the twentieth century!
Remember what Friedrich Nietzsche advised: 'Simplify your life: die!' This extremist simplification in which 'ornament is a crime', has stayed with us throughout the history of the twentieth century, from the pointlessly repeated assault on the peaks of the Chemin des Dames in 191 7 to the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s.
Avant-garde artists, like many political agitators, propagandists and demagogues, have long understood what TERRORISM would soon popularize: if you want a place in 'revolutionary history' there is nothing easier than provoking a riot, an assault on propriety, in the guise of art.
Short of committing a real crime by killing innocent passers-by with a bomb, the pitiless contemporary author of the twentieth century attacks symbols, the very meaning of a 'pitiful' art he assimilates to 'academicism'. Take Guy Debord, the French Situationist, as an example. In 1 952, speaking about his Film Without Images, which mounted a defence of the Marquis de Sade, Debord claimed he wanted to kill the cinema 'because it was easier than killing a passer-by'.
A year later, in 1953, the SITUATIONISTS would not hesitate to extend this attack by trashing Charlie Chaplin, pitiful actor par excellence, vilifying him as a sentimental fraud, mastermind of misery, even a proto-fascist!
All this verbal delirium seems so oblivious of its own century and yet condescends to preach to the rest of the world in the name of freedom of artistic expression, even during a historical period that oversaw the setting up of the balance of terror along with the opening of the laboratories of a science that was gearing up to programme the end of the world notably with the invention, in 1951, of thermonuclear weapons. It corresponds equally to the autodissolution of the avant-gardes, the end of the grand illusion of a modernite savante. You would think it was not so much impressionism that laid the foundations for the latter as the nihilism of the calamitous intelligentsia of nineteenth-century Russia, with men like Netcha'iev decreeing that one had to 'forge full steam ahead into the mire' ... And he was not talking about Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed (The Great Western Railway), the painting that paved the way for Monet's Impressionism.
I nseparable from the suicidal state of representative democracies, the art of the twentieth century has never ceased dangerously anticipating or at least saluting from afar the abomination of the desolation of modern times with their cardboard cut-out dictator that keeps popping up, whether it be Hitler or the 'Futurist', Mussolini, Stalin or Mao Zedong.
And so the emblematic figure emerges not so much of Marcel Duchamp as Charlie Chaplin or Bonnard, pitiful painter par excellence, as was Claude Monet, that miracle-worker of a Rising Sun, which is not quite the same as the one rising over the laboratories of LOS ALAMOS.
The new German painting, naturally, represents current sensibility in Germany and it really frightens me. The Ancients invented and represented the world of witches, but the world of Hate is a modern invention, the invention of Germany, spread out over the canvas. The demons of gothic pictures are child's play when it comes to the human, or, rather, inhuman, heads of a humanity bent on destruction. Furious, murderous, demoniacal heads not in the style of the old masters but in completely modern manner: scientific, choking with poison gas. They would like to carve the Germans of tomorrow out of fresh meat ...
So wrote the great art dealer, Rene Gimpel, in his diary of 1925. Gimpel was to disappear in the NEUENGAMME camp twenty years later on New Year's Day, 1945 ... Thoroughly convinced of the lethal character of the works of Oskar Kokoschka, Emil Nolde or the sculptor, Lehmbruck, Gimpel goes on to tell us that there never has been any such thing as old-master art or modern or contemporary art, but that the 'old master' shaped us, whereas the 'contemporary' artist shapes the perception of the next generation, to the point where no one is 'ahead of their time for they are their time, each and every day'.
How can we not subscribe to this statement of the bleeding obvious if we compare the fifteenth-century PIETA OF AVIGNON with the sixteenth-century lssenheim Altarpiece of Matthis Grunewald both pitiful works the 'expressionism' of the German master of the polyptych illustrating the atrocity of the battles and epidetnics of his time in the manner of Jerome Bosch?
Today we could apply this observation about lack of anticipation to 'issues' such as the 'contaminated blood affair' in France and the (alleged ) nonculpability of the politicians in charge at the time ...
Without harking back to Jacques Callot or even Francisco de Goya and ' the miseries of war' of the Napoleonic era, we might remember what Picasso said when a German interrogated him in 1937 about his masterwork, GUERNICA: "That's your doing, not mine!"
If so-called old-master art remained demonstrative right up until the nineteenth century with Impressionism, the art of the twentieth century became 'monstrative' in the sense that it is contemporary with the shattering effect of mass societies, subj ect as they are to the conditioning of opinion and MASS MEDIA propaganda and this, with the same mounting extremism evident in terrorism or total war.
At the end of the millennium, what abstraction once tried to pull off is in fact being accomplished before our very eyes: the end of REPRESENTATIVE art and the substitution of a counter-culture, of a PRESENTATIVE art. A situation that reinforces the dreadful decline of representative democracy in favour of a democracy based on the rule of opinion, in anticipation of the imminent arrival of virtual democracy, some kind of 'direct democracy' or, more precisely, a presentative multimedia democracy based on automatic polling.
In the end, 'modern art' was able to glean what communications and telecommunications tools now accomplish on a daily basis: the mise en abyme of the body, of the figure, with the major attendant risk of systematic hyperviolence and a boom in pornographic high-frequency that has nothing to do with sexuality: We must put out the excess rather than the fire, as Heraclitus warned.
Today, with excess heaped on excess, desensitization to the shock of images and the meaninglessness of words has shattered the world stage . PITILESS, contemporary art is no longer improper. But it shows all the impropriety of profaners and torturers, all the arrogance of the executioner.
The intelligence of REPRESENTATION then gives way to the stunned mullet effect of a 'presence' that is not only weird, as in the days of Surrealism, but insulting to the mind. The whole process, moreover, implies that the 'image' suffices to give art its meaning and significance. At one extreme the artist, like the journalist, is redundant in the face-off between performer and viewer.
'Such a conception of information leads to a disturbing fascination with images filmed live, with scenes of violence and gruesome human interest stories', Ignacio Ramonet writes on the impact of television on the print media. 'This demand encourages the supply of fake documents, sundry reconstructions and conjuring tricks.
But surely we could say the same today of art when it comes down to it. Take the example of the NEW NEUROTIC REALISM of adman and collector, Charles Saatchi, as revealed in the London (and New York) exhibition, 'Sensation' , with i ts fusion/confusion of the TABLOID and some sort of would-be avant-garde art. Yet the conformism of abjection is never more than a habit the twentieth century has enjoyed spreading round the globe.
Here, the brutality is no longer so much aimed at warning as at destroying, paving the way for the actual torturing of the viewer, the listener, which will not be long coming thanks to that cybernetic artefact: the interactive feed-back if virtual reality.
If the contemporary author is redundant see Picasso on Guernica and if the suicide rate has only kept accelerating in cultural circles to the point where it will soon be necessary to set up a WALL OF THE FEDERATED COMMUNE OF SUICIDES in museums (to match the wall of the federated communards of the Paris Commune in Pere Lachaise cemetery), then make no mistake: the art lover's days are numbered!
This is how Rothko put it: 'I studied the figure. Only reluctantly did I realize it didn't correspond to my needs. Using human representation, for me, meant mutilating it'. Shot of all moral or emotional compromise, the painter seeks to move 'towards the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, between the idea and the onlooker'.
This is the radiographic triumph of transparence, the way radiation of the real in architecture today goes hand in glove with the extermination of all intermediaries, of all that still resists revelation, pure and simple.
But this sudden OVEREXPOSURE of the work, as of those who look upon it, is accompanied by a violence that is not only 'symbolic', as before, but practical, since it affects the very intentionality of the painter: 'To those who find my paintings serene, I'd like to say that I have trapped the most absolute violence in every square centimetre of their surface', Mark Rothko confesses before proving the point by turning this repressed fury against himself on a certain day in February, 1970.
Thirty years on, how can we fail to feel the concentration of accumulated hate in every square metre of the 'uncivil cities' of this fin de siecle? Go one night and check out the basements or underground parking lots of suburban council estates, all that the clandestine RAVE PAR TIES and BACKROOM brothels are only ever the tourist trappings of, so to speak!
After having 'only reluctantly' abandoned the figure on the pretext of not mutilating it, the American painter then chose to end this life himself as well by exercising the most nihilistic of freedoms of expression: that of SELF-DESTRUCTION.
If God died in the nineteenth century, according to Nietzsche, what is the bet that the victim of the twentieth century will not turn out to be the creator, the author, this heresy of the historical materialism of the cen tury of machines?
But before we bid the Artist farewell, we should not forget for a moment that the words PITY and PIETY are consubstantial something the members of the Holy Inquisition obviously overlooked ... Let's not repeat their crimes, let's not become negationists of art.
excerpt from the book: Art and Fear by PAUL VIRILIO