Events signify nothing, they signify only in us. We create the meaning of events. The meaning is and always was artificial. We make it. Because of this we seek in ourselves the meaning of events, so that the way of what is to come becomes apparent and our life can flow again.
Carl Gustav Jung, 1923
Artists are responsive; to their surroundings, to global phenomena, to the local, and to disturbances in the culture at large. Such disturbances, sometimes in the form of violent outbursts, shake our foundation and keep us in a consistent state of imbalance, an eternal existential holding pattern.
Ubiquitous media and 24/7 access makes us nervous and perhaps overly informed about events over which we have no control. A byproduct of such over-saturation is accessibility to extraordinary documentaries like the recent feature length film about Eve Hesse. Hesse died at the age of thirty-four as a result of a brain tumor, but in her short, intense career she found inspiration in materials that spoke to the fragility of life, ultimately her own. Eva Hesse’s life and work are set in the existential moment during and after WWII when she escaped at age two aboard one of the last Kindertransport trains out of Nazi Germany. She went on to radically alter the terrain of minimalist art-making in the 1960’s by creating inscrutable, erotic, and even sensual objects and two dimensional work that, as Jung suggests, requires the viewer to seek meaning within ourselves. Hesse’s work is suffused with tragedy and death, and it is difficult to remove it from the context of her own life and the cultural events of that time period.
Death and decay fascinates artists; as nature goes fallow it leaves behind an optical esthetic of beauty in inverse proportion to its decay. The fall colors are the result of a kind of death; the more diverse the species of trees in decay, the more intense the palette of color, and what should be mournful is thus transformed into a spectacular kind of beauty.
Dance historian Roger Copeland has noted that, “The best dance is the way people die in movies.” He cites as an example the “harrowing bullet-riddled final moments of Bonnie and Clyde in Arthur Penn’s film, [of the same name, 1967] often described as a ‘dance of death.'” Thus violence becomes estheticized in its transformation to art. The director Arthur Penn has commented that the scene was influenced by media reports and images of the Vietnam War, which were broadcast daily during the filming of the movie (Terry Gross Interview, NPR).
“It was a time where, it seemed to me that if we were going to depict violence, then we would be obliged to really to depict it accurately; the kind of terrible, frightening volume that one sees when one genuinely is confronted by violence.”
Small deaths and big ones; the death of the body and the death of hope. Such are the circumstances that occupy artists in this moment in history.
Numerous writers have pointed out how references to violence are woven into the American English language. We rely on metaphors of violence in everything from sports to business; if we are “killing it” we supposedly on the right track, if we achieve a bullseye, or are right on target, all the better.
Artists have responded to war, death, and violence since the earliest days of modernism; WWI era manifestos, Picasso’s Guernica, and the often violent and dangerous performance art of the 1970’s-forward are signposts that express the concerns of artists’ deep engagement in the existential crisis of a world on the edge of self-annihilation.
Frankfort School theorist Theodor Adorno notes, “We should all see the world from the perspective of the victim…”
Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth suggests both a fissure in the surface of the world where danger lurks unseen, just beneath the surface. Depending on one’s point of reference, Shibboleth suggests one path splitting into two, or two converging into one, both signifying a way forward. Salcedo suggested that the fissure represents the immigrant experience in Europe, though it is easy to conclude that this is not the only issue raised in the work.
Artists often make our fears visible. Like The Enigma of Isadore Ducasse by Man Ray or in subsequent works by Christo and Jeanne-Claude (Wrapped Reichstag, etc.) it is that which is kept from us or that which we know is there in the darkness that is terrifying. It is in the work of art that we are asked to think about our relationship to greater questions; questions about mortality and responsibility, and questions about citizenship in general, especially in a global context.
Chair, UW-Madison Art Department