The art of the violence of sovereignty: The refugee as the face of exception of our time

Francisco Goya, Saturn devouring his son (detail)(1819-1823)

If Theodor Adorno could once state that after Auschwitz, to write poetry is barbaric, how much greater the violence of pictorially and plastically representing the horrors of the same event, and of nazi fascism as a whole.  As the poetry could be domesticated and commodified by an expanding cultural industry, how much more easily could the images be so consumed, and turned against any critical possibility by congealing the regime’s violence in spaces of isolated and therefore harmless, noncontagious madness.

Sovereignty has always sought to have itself represented in art, in an art of glorification and sanctification.  What violence is depicted is often testified to only in martial vestments and the poses of a monarch, he who exercises presumed legitimate violence necessary to political order, or in other words, to sovereignty as such.

(Titian, Charles V – 1548)

Yet when the violence becomes the permanent expression of sovereignty, when the state of exception becomes the norm, when the sovereign no longer represents power, but is power in its very exercise, it escapes pictorial representation except in the banalities of everyday life.  And when this violence is omnipresent, and the extreme becomes normal, then art is defied, except as that which serves to pacify bodies and minds; the art of a generalised spectacle.

(Richard Hamilton, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? – 1956)

And yet as walls are built to “protect” european borders to keep undesirables out, and as internment camps proliferate to hold those who succeed in transgressing them, and as the many anonymous die during the journey, echoes of the horrors of the recent past cannot fail to make their presence felt.

Aside from the official celebratory art of nazi germany, pictorial art endeavouring to somehow capture the horror of the nazis, of Hitler and the holocaust are rare.  How can evil be painted?  And yet the effort was made.  And in these our times of horror, of refugees created by conflicting national and economic self-interests, but then refused, incarcerated and killed, perhaps it is the occasion to recall this past.  Not that in remembering, the past does not repeat itself; but that in remembering, we realise that the past is our present already and that it is only in assuming the disaster of our time that we can find responses equal to the situation.  For are we not in the end all refugees of the violence of State-Capital?

John Heartfield, Adolf, the superman, swallows gold and spouts junk (1932).

Picasso, Still life with skull of ox (1942).

Picasso, Charnier (1945).

Max Beckmann, The Dream of Monte Carlo (1942).

Max Beckmann, Prometheus (1942).

Felix Nussbaum, Self portrait with a jewish passport (1943).

Felix Nussbaum, The triumph of death (1944).

Max Ernst, The bewildered planet (1942).

André Masson, Reitre (1941).

George Grosz, Cain or Hitler (1944).

Joseph Steib, La dernière scène (1943)

Joseph Steib, The Conquerer (1942).

Georg Baselitz, Picture for the fathers (1965).

Anselm Kiefer, (1969).

Maurizio Cattelan, Him (2001).

Robert Morris, Standard Terror (1981/1987/2008).

John Heartfield, (1934).

From Espai en blanc/El pressentiment, a micro-video …

Men and women wanted for a dangerous journey.  Low salaries and extreme cold.  Long months of obscurity.  Few possibilities of returning alive.  Honour and recognition are irrelevant.

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