In speaking through the character of Ippolit in The Idiot, Dostoevsky put forward what he himself saw as the foolish hypothesis that beauty could somehow save the world. In the text Ippolit already knew that such a proposal was a paradox. For it was neither a true nor a possible solution to overcoming the ills of the world. Ippolit wondered what becomes of beauty when a single off note appears in the world and disrupts its symphony. That is, it is only inevitable that sooner or later a gnat creeps into the world’s so-called perfect mechanism, jamming it in the process.
Yet, in facing this problem of beauty head on, and whilst paying the utmost respect to it, it should be said that the idea that beauty itself is a saving power today is one that does not do it justice, and in fact, such an idea humiliates it. In the end, beauty is used as a branding product for the “cultural heritage” market and is passed off as a universal cure (without, that is, detracting from beauty’s importance for our country’s tourism). This is all, however, regardless of the fact that an agreement should be reached about which beauty we are talking about. Are we talking about beauty as the Venus de Milo, or as the Sistine Chapel, or of the cherry blossom? There are innumerable sorts of beauty that arise between the East and West, and deciding upon one of these as the standard of beauty to the detriment of all the others would undoubtedly be arbitrary – and perhaps even an act of imperialism.
This initial setting can help us reflect on another hypothesis, namely that it is art and not beauty that saves the world. We are thus naturally beyond the confines of aesthetics, of the philosophical idea of an art jealous of its own autonomy. Instead, this is an art that forces us to throw ourselves onto the rough and bumpy pathways of a kind of responsibility of what has been defined as the “no longer beautiful arts”. This is the path that Santiago Zabala, who teaches philosophy at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, proposes in an important book titled Why Only Art Can Save Us: Aesthetics and the Absence of Emergency, recently translated in Italian by Politi Seganfreddo Publishers. In Zabala’s view, art performs a preliminary salvaging operation: it warns against danger, for it is itself a warning. Art, for Zabala, can play a fundamental role in facing the crises of a world which has been brought to its knees, accompanying crises such as those of scarce resources and environmental breakdown. Yet, this role has nothing to do with a kind of enchantment of beauty nor with beauty’s possible redemptive significance. Art can no longer have (almost) anything to do with religion, as Hegel himself believed.
Indeed, it is precisely because art has become totally secularized that it can carry out its secular-saving-task. Art does not fulfill its duties thanks to the enchantment and miraging of appearances. Putting into play the very rich phenomenology of the contemporary figurative arts, Zabala has in mind an art that has abandoned its boundaries. These are boundaries that had previously been solemnly entrusted by philosophy to the region of aesthetics, which in the past had designated a boundary around art that had made it second only to religion in relieving the destiny of a suffering humanity oppressed by tragedy. The task of art today, according to Zabala, is to point to and signal political emergencies. These, however, are the points or localities of suffering that it itself will not be able to resolve alone.
As mentioned, art is for this philosopher a sort of warning, and therefore, above all, it performs a public and ethico-political role, one which obliges it to leave its own magical enclosure in order to bridge public responsibility to the circles of diverse knowledge. This is testified by the works by the likes of Tom Waits, Steven Soderbergh, Dmitry Lipkin, Colette Burson, Alfredo Jaar, Filippo Minelli and many others on which this book focuses, elucidating for us both the art of yesterday and the art of today. On this path we are dealing with the phenomena of injustice, illegality and suffering that the arts, especially the figurative ones, denounce. The path then winds through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, drug trafficking between Mexico and the United States, or the discomfort of the middle class of an industrial city like Detroit. In all these cases the question about art becomes a question through art.
Thus art, thanks to its capacity for intervention, can today potentially create the necessary space around itself for a new type of community. And, importantly, this is a possibility which is neither accidental nor arbitrary. For this is not only because the presence of public art is increasingly intensifying in its importance, insofar as we are all well aware of it, but also because it has an inevitable political significance: it warns us of impending catastrophes and situates us in order to avoid them.
In the example of Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Venus of Rags, the problem is one of adequate waste disposal in a consumerist society which (in Naples in particular, where such work has suffered from vandalism) becomes a real constant threat for civil coexistence. All this synthetically means that art confronts us with particularly significant dimensions of crises, specifically relating to both our individual and collective life situations. Therefore, art establishes a positive dynamic to the development of society. This establishment subtly questions the theme of a new consumer market for artworks – artworks that are always in progress insofar as they change depending upon the specific problems that arise. In short, then, art is that which modifies the possible way of being as a series of human communities, allowing them to attain recognition through the developing passages of each of their most critical moments. Such recognizability thus sets the groundwork for the responsibility of the artwork, and so also the responsibility of those who want to engage with such work together.
–Translated by Thomas Winn
*Note on image:
technique: enamel and acrylic on canvas