International Texts
January 11, 2016
symploke, Volumne 23, Numbers 1-2, 2015
Published by the University of Nebraska Press
Brad Evans, Henry A. Giroux
Intolerable Violence
Gottfried Helnwein is one of the most important artists alive today. As Kenneth Baker has noted, the artist’s works not only “mirrors of dark times but counterthrusts to the aggressive reach of so much contemporary culture” (Baker, n.d.). The artist himself is fully aware of the political function of art and its importance in the age of the spectacle.
excerpt from page 216 - 220

... Further resourcing the poetic, we are also drawn here to the works of
Alfredo Jaar and Gottfried Helnwein, both of whom allow us to reengage the
intolerable in the contemporary moment. The importance of Jaar’s work is
widely recognized by political and cultural theorists. Rancière, for instance,
comments that his unique interplay between words, sounds and aesthetics
overturns “the dominant logic that makes the visual the lot of multitudes and
the verbal the privilege of the few” (Rancière 2009, 97). Focusing in particular
on his installation, The Eyes of Gutete Emerita, which demands that the spectator
fi rst reads about Emerita’s experience of the Rwandan genocide before
being confronted with the woman’s concentrated and framed stare, Rancière
acknowledges how the inversion of the gaze, the forced witnessing of the
eyes which were forced witness to the most horrendous acts, demands an
appreciation of the way in which the intolerable can be turned into a recognition
of humanity. As he writes, instead of showing the mutilated bodies,
Jaar’s work “restores the powers of attention itself.”3 This quality is duly
noted by Griselda Pollock, who adds that Jaar’s installations asks the question
“will you too remember her eyes—eyes that look at you forever but forever
see murder?” (Pollock 2013a, 2). Jolting us “from the kind of consumption
of the image that makes images out of atrocity without inducing a political
response,” The Eyes of Gutete Emerita thus “register the experience that others
had been obliged to witness. It is this element that marks the singularity of
his work in creating encounters for the viewers far away from the event that
force them to recognize a gap that has been cut into a living persons life by
proximity to atrocity, by the wound that is trauma: an event too shocking to
be assimilated.”

Gottfried Helnwein is one of the most important artists alive today. As
Kenneth Baker has noted, the artist’s works not only “mirrors of dark times
but counterthrusts to the aggressive reach of so much contemporary culture”
(Baker, n.d.). The artist himself is fully aware of the political function of art
and its importance in the age of the spectacle.
“We are living,” he writes, “in the age where materialism has finally triumphed.
The world has been purged of fairies, elves, witches, angels, enchanted castles
and hidden treasures.
Dreaming and fantasizing is nowadays considered a chemical imbalance in
the brain of the child. For reasons of national security there are no realms of
imagination anymore in which to escape—children are held in the merciless
headlight of the adults level-headed, common-sense-madhouse: a world of
stock-markets, war, rape, pollution, television-moronism, prozak, prisoncamps,
miss universe-competitions, genetic engineering, child pornography,
Ronald McDonalds, Paris Hilton and torture” (Helnwein, n.d.).
Importantly, for Helnwein, art responds to the violence of the world by
raising the right type of questions and not colonizing the imaginary with
fixed interpretations. Helnwein’s Disasters of War 13  is a compelling example
of this. This unsettling and provocative image depicts a blood-soaked, innocent,
white young girl. Given the artist’s definition of the function of the
work, we might ask what questions this image raises? Consciously disrupting
familiar representations of casualties of war, the questions we might hear
arising from the work echoes: What if it was your child? What if this was
your daughter? What if this was your neighbor? What if this was you, or
what if it were I? This is not about shocking the spectator into submission.
Nor is it simply the mirroring of experience to bring about certain empathy
 or produce a shallow and sensationalist response. It is to bring about a forced
assimilation with the unassimilated, to face the intolerable, so that it viscerally
registers as such. As Helnwein further explains:

When I look at a work of Art I ask myself: does it inspire me, does it
touch and move me, do I learn something from it, does it startle or
amaze me—do I get excited, upset? And this is the test any artwork
has to pass: can it create an emotional impact on a human being even
when he has no education or any theoretical information about art?
… Real art is self-evident. Real art is intense, enchanting, exciting
and unsettling; it has a quality and magic that you cannot explain.
Art is not logic, and if you want to experience it, your mind and
rational thinking will be of little help. Art is something spiritual
that you can only experience with your senses, your heart, your

(Maher 2004)
The Disasters of War 13
mixed media (oil and acrylic on canvas), 2007, 180 x 125 cm / 70 x 49''
Each of these artists shows how facing the intolerable is not simply about
revealing the raw reality of injustice in the present. It’s about transgressing
the limits of mediated suffering in order to transform the world for the better.
By confronting the spectacle of violence with a more poetic and imaginative
response, the intolerable reactivates the pedagogical force of agency as
aesthetics now serve to offer a damning indictment of the contemporary
moment, and in doing so, reveal the hidden order of (in)tolerance which is
less about the violence itself, but what the very act of its revealing means for
established relations of power and privilege. If intolerability allows us to
provide a purposeful intervention into highly mediated regimes of suffering,
it also constitutes part of a broader political strategy which, looking through
the darkness, holds onto the possibility that we might be able to liberate
ourselves from its brutalizing simulacrum. This is not to privilege aesthetics
over other forms of political resistance. It is however to emphasize the
importance of rethinking the art of the political in the 21st Century.
The Affirmative Witness
Jacques Rancière has challenged us to conceive of a more emancipated
conception of the spectator. What might it mean to break down the distinction
between spectacles of violence and political passivity so the world might
be transformed for the better? Many theorists, including Rancière, have been
critical of the presumption that horrifying images alone are suffi cient enough
to mobilise us into political action. We have added to this by showing how
many of the images witnessed today are policed by a highly mediated regime
of suffering which overtly politicise the captured moment, leading to the
suffocation of alternative political meanings. However, just as we recognize
no separation between political action and poetic intervention, maintaining
that aesthetics are integral to the art of political transformation, we also
refuse to condemn artistic interventions on account of the fact that they don’t
evidence some quantifi able measurement for “impact assessment.” Not only
are such measures integral to the logic of the spectacle as reason is translated
into certain modes of proofing to already confirm preconceived ideas
of the world. None of us can anticipate or indeed measure the true quantity
and scale of a creative political moment whether it is witnessing Rosa Parks
sitting on a forbidden seat or Helnwein’s work that might disrupt, unsettle
and transform our image of the world. Both are important “events” in the
memory of our imagination as they seize hold of the best of our desires, holding
the possibility that passivity might be turned into affi rmative witnessing
of a history that is now being steered in a different and more liberating
direction. As Deleuze would write: “In every modernity and every novelty,
you find conformity and creativity; an insipid conformity, but also ‘a little
new music’; something in conformity with the time, but also something
untimely—separating the one from the other is the task of those who know
how to love, the real destroyers and creators of our day.”
Politically engaged academics are required to speak a kind of truth, but
as Stuart Hall points out, “maybe not truth with a capital T, but...some kind
of truth, the best truth they know or can discover [and] to speak that truth
to power” (Hall 2007, 289-290). Implicit in Hall’s statement is the awareness
that to speak truth to power is not a temporary and unfortunate lapse into
politics on the part of academics: it is central to opposing all those modes of
ignorance, whether they are market-based or rooted in other fundamentalist
ideologies that make judgments difficult and democracy dysfunctional. Our
view is that aesthetics serves the same function, for not only does it possess
an ethical and pedagogical responsibility to unsettle and oppose all orthodoxies,
to make problematic the common-sense assumptions that often shape
people’s lives and their understanding of the world, but also to energize
those of are witness to the works to come to terms with their own power as
individual and social agents. Recognising then the transformative potential
of aesthetics, we are now in a position highlight a few criteria we believe to
be important in rethinking the idea of the affi rmative witness in the age of
the spectacle.
If the first order of politics in the age of the spectacle is to colonise the
imaginary, it is our task to expose more fully how the merging of the spectacle,
extreme violence, and politics represents a form of violence to thought.
A theatrical politics of the visceral has replaced the more measured and
thoughtful commentary on human suffering bequeathed by a post-World
War II generation of intellectuals, artists, and others. Representations of fear,
panic, vulnerability, and pain increasingly override narratives of justice such
that the spectacle shapes and legitimates social relations. In these circumstances,
violence is no longer viewed or experienced merely as a side effect of
warfare, and criminal exclusion; it has become a deliberate mediating strategy
of representation, marked by the careful policing of violence, in which
the spectacle is central to a species of political rebirth that puts life back into
a social order where only an economy of violent relations reigns supreme.
The contemporary dystopian imaginary takes this to it logical conclusion
as militaristic values colonise visions of the world, thereby authenticating
subjects willing to serve the political and economic power represented by
the spectacle and increasingly in the production of political and economic
power willing to serve the spectacle itself, bypassing even the minimalist
democratic gesture of gaining consent from the subjects whose interests are
supposed to be served by state power. ...

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