Humiliation and Hope: Alfredo Jaar and Simon Critchley in Conversation


In a recent feature for Mute, David Morris puts artist Alfredo Jaar, with whom Verso collaborated for his Marx Lounge at the Liverpool Biennial and the cover of The Emancipated Spectator, and author of Infinitely Demanding, Simon Critchley in dialogue. They discuss art, philosophy, and their responses to the recent spectacles of violence, destruction and hope, in particular the revolts of the Arab world and the naturo-nuclear disaster in Japan. The conversation will be on-going.

The dialogue began on 14 March 2011 with Jaar listing recent headlines from the Guardian and the New York Times covering Libya, Afghanistan, and Japan. He quotes:

In the face of such chaos, I am reminded of Mao Tse-Tung's words: 'The situation is excellent; there is great chaos under heaven'.

What can we do when the world is in such a state? What can we do out of this information that most of us would rather ignore? Can art make a difference? Even a small one? It can, of course, but the complexity of it all seems overwhelming and the challenge enormous ...

I strongly hope that the autocratic regimes in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen will fall soon, and all the other ones in the region too. There is an observable, undeniable, unstoppable drive for freedom in the Arab world and we should be filled with joy. I can't help myself thinking about how it all started ...

The world can still hear that slap on the face of Mohamed, and I hope that sound will continue to reverberate in every region of our planet. One day we will erect a monument to this young man. 'Life is more important than art', wrote James Baldwin, 'that is why art is so important.'

Critchley, in response, takes up Jaar's question of violence and art, in order to question ideas of shame and tyranny:

And Alfredo, you are right, the world is a deafening, violent place dominated by an ever-enlarging incoherence of information and the constant presence of war. Today, 14 March—my mother's 80th birthday—Libya slips from the headlines and the vast, stupid, peanut crunching voyeurism that we call the news rightly lurches to the North-East coast of Japan. They have better images, I guess. Will this complex spectacle of resistance and transformation all slip from the headlines in a few weeks as we slide into the oblivion of the next crisis? I hope not, though I am fearful, deeply fearful.

What can art do in such circumstances? I completely agree with what you say, Alfredo, but let me add something ... I was reading Anne Carson's introduction to her translation of Aeschylus' Agamemnon this evening, and she finds this quote from Francis Bacon when he reflects on the purported violence of his painting. Bacon says, 'When talking about the violence of paint, it's nothing to do with the violence of war. It's to do with an attempt to remake the violence of reality.' He goes on, 'We nearly always live through screens—a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that I have been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens.'

Existence seems to me ever-more screened and distanced, a shallow shadow world whose ideological patina is an empty empathy. None of us is free of this. Maybe art, in its essential violence, can tear away one or two of these screens. Maybe then we'd begin to see. Because the whole problem turns around what is seen and not seen. We think we see what happens ‘there' and make pronouncements about ‘them'. But we do not see as we are seen because we are wrapped in a screen. There are tyrants here too. Art might unwrap us a little through its violence.

Visit Mute to read the conversation, which will be updated regularly as it continues.