Number 1 (January 2006)
Review: The Pity of Art
Art and Fear. Translated by Julie Rose. London: Continuum, 2004.
Reviewed by Dr.
(Department of English, University of Hyderabad, India; 2005-2006: Department
of English, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA).
Paul Virilio’s vision
of war, art and technology has informed contemporary debates about
techno-capitalist modernity for some time. Often perceived as a
prophet of doom and pessimism, Virilio has consistently interrogated
the effects of modern technology on the human condition. Exploring
the aesthetics of disappearance and the seductive powers of the
virtual, Virilio offers a critique that grounds itself in what may
appear, at first, to be a new humanism: centering the human (body,
“soul”, the senses).
In the present essays
he explores the “disappearance” of pity in an art that is
excessively “sense-less” through its very emphasis on a continuous
sensuality. The first essay is titled “pitiless art”, and is cast in
terms both apocalyptic and prophetic. Virilio is absolutely
horrified – and his tone captures the sense of revulsion and horror
effectively – at the excessive images of carnage, death and
destruction made available on television. Disfigurement and
destruction, argues Virilio, end up negating any sympathy. Dead and
dying human bodies, in such a presentation, appear to matter in so
far as they have been brutalized. The human is only iconic of
suffering and torture. It is Virilio’s staunch belief that such
scientific reportage or art ironically erases the true extent and
depth (and, we may add, “pitilessness”) of human cruelty. In an
argument that is reminiscent of the earlier Virilio, he pleads for
an art that offers an ethical perspective on such moments of
The dominance of
“presentative”, as opposed to “representative”, art is directly
linked, for Virilio, to the substitution of representative democracy
with the virtual democracy of automatic voting and opinion polls.
Such “pitiless” art, with its “new neurotic realism”,1
carries in it the profanity of the executioner. Transgenic art
[symbolized in the work of Eduardo Kac and Alexis Rockman], which
borrows from a science “deliberately deprived of a conscience”,2
might end up reproducing the monsters it sets out to draw”, warns
Virilio. Virilio is willing to make a compromise with aesthetics if
a sense of ethics is retained in such art.
In the second essay,
“Silence on Art” Virilio retains his essential quest for an ethical
cultural criticism, this time of silences in art in an age where
(perhaps) silence may not be possible. Should a work of art be seen
or heard? More importantly, is the work of art saying
anything rather than just producing noise? These are the two
interrelated questions in Virilio who is distressed at the excessive
reliance on sound and its speedy dissemination. We become, he
argues, deaf to the sounds of art precisely because of the
hyper-violence of artists like Stelarc or the ritual self-mutilation
of much contemporary performance art. The listener/viewer is
rendered helpless, a passive recipient of what masquerades as art:
the “subject” of pitiless art’s terrorization of the human body
Virilio’s concern for
the increasing disappearance of ethics in contemporary art’s
excessive “presentative” formats is well taken. The exploration of
silence, hyper-violence and the development of contemporary
“aesthetics” – though it is difficult to see Virilio using that
term, keeping his general tenor in mind – through a short history of
modern art is, as we have come to expect, bristling with both
erudition and anger. Virilio’s rejection of any aesthetic that
glorifies disfigurement and violently destroyed bodies is timely
when television and internet media de-sensitize audiences with the
astonishing regularity, scale and graphic coverage of such images.
Such “art” runs the risk of causing one human to lose any sense of
empathy with another suffering human body. Pain, the threshold of
human life, as Elaine Scarry has shown,3
is itself a commodity in contemporary art, as responses to the work
of Orlan have frequently demonstrated.4
Commodified pain and mutilation in such art – where, it must be
noted, the artist consciously invites pain – often ignores
the corrosive effects of pain forcibly and undesirably inflicted by
the Other. Pain here is not “virtual”.
introduction offers a concise overture to both Art and Fear
and to Virilio’s general trajectory of thought. Art and Fear
itself, relying almost exclusively on the historical development of
genres as transgenic art, does a commendable job of providing a
stereoscopic view of the political contexts of such art – Auschwitz,
genocide, war. Genocide, rape, ethnic cleansing and even industrial
disaster are organized forms of such pain. Virilio’s critique warns
us that the “pitiless” forms of art run the risk of translating such
“events” into another set of images. And here homelessness,
slow death by starvation, torture and exilic anguish are not merely
symbolic. Hagiographies such as Anker and Nelkin ignore such
contexts of contemporary art.5
Usually perceptive thinkers like Jonathan Crary (writing about
Alexis Rockman), prefer to argue that such art “needs to be
positioned within a larger historical and intellectual frame”,6
while maintaining a complete silence on the ethical frames
(though Crary does frequently allude to the contexts of global flows
of information and capital). Virilio, however, makes no attempt to
draw out a “Situationist” critique of the epistemology, cultural
forms and global geopolitics of information technology,
biocolonialism and war that informs, and perhaps drives, such art.
An alarmist critique has its uses, but is surely inadequate to
provide a reified commentary on very complex issues as diverse as
cloning, capitalist postmodernity and aesthetics. Other critiques of
bio-art and transgenic art,7
I think, provide a better-nuanced interpretation, situating
bio-media works, transgenic art, and molecular sculpture, within
contexts of capitalist technologies.
Paul Virilio. Art and Fear. Translated by Julie Rose.
London: Continuum, 2004:36
Elaine Scarry. The Body in Pain: The Making and
Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University
Suzanne Anker and Dorothy Nelkin. The Molecular Gaze: Art
in the Genetic Age. New York: Cold Spring Harbor
Laboratory Press, 2004.
Crary, Jonathan. “Between Carnival and Catastrophe”. In
Alexis Rockman. New York: Monacelli Press, 2003:13.
Thacker, Eugene. The Global Genome: Biotechnology,
Politics, and Culture. Cambridge: MIT, 2005.