Friday, November 29, 2013

Two photographs from the Auschwitz Album, images of people on the way to their death. I'm going to use them to discuss art.


I'm tired of people defending art because of something they want it to be. I'm tired of defenses of art as a means of "truth", and the use of that term without irony. The image on the left is made of pixels, as the original is silver halide on paper. And the child depicted was no more or less deserving of concern than the other figures in these photographs. If it's the most affecting image, the most painful to look at, if the child draws our sympathy more than the others, it's because of the presentation: the isolated figure, lagging behind, the slightly oversized head turned away,  the turn making us need to imagine a face, hands in pockets and small legs, an image of adulthood in childhood. If this is the figure we're drawn to, if this is the child we most want to help, whose loneliness in her fate fills us with rage, it's got everything to do with art and nothing to do with justice, or justice as fairness, but the reflex and the anger are part of being animal, and human. We've chosen her as we would choose our own child, because art has given us the illusion that she's close. And the others may mean less to us, or more than they would without her reflected light. Either way, there's no justice. Justice is impersonal; it's blind.

Humanity is in particularity and partiality; the universal is literally inhuman, and there's no way to resolve the contradiction without sacrificing one or the other. The unreflective unity of the particular and universal in the name of religion, the unity of art and science, is barbarism. The contemporary intellectualized and fantasized unity of art and life is fascism. Nietzsche knew the difference, though he didn't always face it, and when he did it was only with words. But unlike Borges who didn't knew the difference, or learned it very late, he left the library at least often enough to die of syphilis. People now confuse barbarism and fascism as they confuse humanism, which allows for contradictions, with anti-humanism, which doesn't. The Enlightenment as it's come down to us is more associated with the latter than the former.

It's inhuman to deny intimacy, even the illusory intimacy of art.  Yet if we communicate only through forms and gestures, the difference between communication of the dead and living and of the living amongst themselves is a difference only of degree.  Good artists know that art's defined by irony because they know that communication itself is defined by it, and it's hard to con a con. And art may be a lie, but it's less of one than claims of artlessness. Art is commitment limned by irony; camp is irony as art; kitsch is camp without irony.

Another example of art, another image that claims our sympathy, of a child with the burdens of adulthood. And the odds are very strong, though still not strong enough, that this girl is still alive.


Only a tiny minority of Israeli Jews fit the description of Nazis, and the state though founded on the ideology of blut und boden, blood and soil, does not fit the description of a Nazi state. But Israel is founded on the ashes and the memories of the survivors of Auschwitz. The victims of extremist particularity, without irony, have themselves become ideological particularists, arguing that irony regarding their own lives is an insult to their memories and to their dead. Israel is founded on particularity as justice, denying the contradiction between particularity, partiality, and universalism. In the minds of most Israelis Israel is just by definition.

Barbarism needs no defense, it simply is; it's dynamic because it's honest, violent because it can be, not because it needs to be. Israel is founded not only on conquest but on the erasure of that conquest, even in the memories of those who committed it. If they could have shrugged it off the state and the society would be stronger than it is, but it was too late: a colonial enterprise in the era of decolonialization was bound to fail.  Fascism was a pedant's parody of monarchy, after the age of monarchy was over. Culture without the possibility of irony is kitsch. The lie of "liberal" Zionism has done more damage to Israel and Zionism than all the attacks and protests of the Palestinians combined.

art and Reinhard Heydrich

2015,  Alan Kurdi

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