Art and the era of ‘existential claims’

Can today’s artists intervene for the sake of global salvation?

Alain de Botton and John Armstrong's latest bestselling book suggests that art could be therapeutic, writes Zabala [EPA]

The problem with Alain de Botton and John Armstrong’s latest bestselling book and show at the Rijksmuseum Museum is not just that many other philosophers have already suggested that art could be therapeutic but rather the absence of emergency that their idea of therapy involves.

The goal of therapy is not to solve problems but to thrust us into them, that is, to disclose repressed issues in order to bring about change. Although the beautiful works of art de Botton and Armstrong chose to fill the Rijksmuseum Museum thrust us into existential emergencies, they are accompanied by giant yellow Post-it notes, which distract us from the meaning they express.

The aim of most of these labels, according to de Botton and Armstrong, is to tell us what’s wrong with us, and also how these works can cure us. But do we really need these therapeutic labels in museums? Isn’t art capable of conveying messages, feelings and ideas without these self-help notes? Perhaps looking into the work of contemporary artists might demonstrate how each of us can interpret works of art on our own, without the help of so-called experts.

As its turn out, this is the goal of a number of young artists today who aim to thrust us into current emergencies in order to involve us existentially, that is, to demand our intervention. The disclosure of social, political and environmental emergencies in the work of Filippo Minelli, Hema Upadhyay and Michael Sailstorfer has already begun to attract art galleries and critics from all over the world. But their work does not consist of representations of the state of emergency in which we live but rather of the absence of such an emergency. But what is the “absence of emergency”?

Current state of exception

There are a number of contemporary philosophers who work on the current state of “exception” and “police”, such as Giorgio Agamben and Jacques Ranciere. However, it is Martin Heidegger who explained, back in the 1930s how “the lack of a sense of emergency is greatest where self-certainty has become unsurpassable, where everything is held to be calculable, and especially where it has been decided, with no previous questioning, who we are and what we are supposed to do”.

This is the age of the therapeutic Post-it note. It is an age in which we are constantly under surveillance – an age in which even the future is becoming predictable through online data mining. The problem is not the emergencies we confront but rather the ones we are missing.

This is the age of the therapeutic Post-it note. It is an age in which we are constantly under surveillance – an age in which even the future is becoming predictable through online data mining. The problem is not the emergencies we confront but rather the ones we are missing.

Unexpected recent emergencies such as 9/11 and Edward Snowden’s revelations have all tended to preserve the status quo: 9/11 was a response, albeit an unjustifiable response, to decades of western military presence in the Middle East.

Snowden’s revelations have served only to show how constrained and framed we are and continue to be. The emergency of these events is the lack of emergency, that is, of the change they pretend to represent. But how does art function in a world where the only emergency has become the absence of emergency?

Era of existential claims

After the eras of “imitation” and “ideology”, when artists were often commissioned for their work, we have now entered the era of “existential claims”, when the artist, together with viewers, is called to intervene for the sake of global salvation.

Just as Impressionism was a response to industrialisation and Dada to World War I, the contemporary art of emergency responds to the “lack of emergency” we are all framed within. Art does not formally represent the “lack of emergency” but rather is what “thrusts us into this emergency” as Heidegger said, that is, demands our existential intervention.

The Italian artist Minelli photographs small colourful artificial smoke bombs in different surroundings such as churches and lakes in order to emphasise our obsession with terrorist attacks since 9/11; Upadhyay, who lives and works in India, reproduces three-dimensional sculptures of slums, which are increasing at alarming rates throughout the world; the German artist Sailstorfer creates installations where trees hang upside-down, extracted from the forest. But these works are not simply meant to thrust us into Barry Glassner’s culture of fear, Mike Davis’ planet of slums, or Michael Williams’ age of deforestation; they also request our intervention. This intervention is not a therapeutic analysis or aesthetic judgement as de Botton and Armstrong believe, but rather a practical response we cannot ignore any more.

As the late American philosopher of art Arthur C Danto once said: “Art is really about those who experience it. It is about who we are and how we live.”

If he is correct, we don’t need any notes to guide us through works of art, but simply to recognise we live in a world where emergencies are often concealed.

Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona. His books include ‘The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy’ (2008), ‘The Remains of Being’ (2009) and, most recently, ‘Hermeneutic Communism’ (2011), all published by Columbia University Press. His forthcoming book is ‘Only Art Can Save Us: The Emergency of Aesthetics’.