Some part of me wishes I was profoundly moved by Richard Mosse’s video installation, Incoming (2014–17), at the National Gallery of Victoria’s 2017 Triennale. Although most viewers were captivated by it, I felt uncomfortably cynical, not indifferent to the suffering it purported to show but to its overt use of theatrics. While I can appreciate Mosse’s ghost-like imagery of refugees who appear at once distant and intimate, I think the emotional core of the work owes more to collaborator Ben Frost’s lively electronic soundtrack, which is ultimately manipulative in its effect. This is the dilemma of politically-motivated, pathos-laden work: how do we negatively judge something that has such a good heart? Confronted with Mosse’s images of a child’s autopsy whose body has decomposed, it is hard not to feel callous when judging such things based on formal superficialities.
This was essentially Claire Bishop’s concern in the pages of Artforum more than a decade ago, which called attention to an influx of community-specific projects in the 2000s claiming to strengthen the social bond. Citing an ethics of “authorial renunciation,” Bishop noted how, in the genre of socially engaged art, overtly collaborative works are often deemed inherently superior to those that are more conventionally authorial.Her objections were directed not at the artists themselves but at the responses they provoke, arguing that critics of such works are reluctant to scrutinise aesthetic value in favour of recounting the artists’ good intentions as well as the virtues of community harmony and collaboration.
Twelve years on and the question of ethics versus aesthetics is much more contentious than at the time of Bishop’s essay. But, although there is new intensity surrounding such debates, rather than being a grave marker of our divisive left and right politics, it might also against all intuition be indicative of healthy public discourse. Issues of cultural responsibility are arguably at their most confusing wherever uninhibited discussion is allowed to occur. Of course, questions about the limitations of aesthetic innovation and socio‑political intervention are not new. Rather, they have been fundamental to Western art at least since the early twentieth century, when matters of cultural taste were more freely challenged. In the argument about whether art reflects reality or produces it, we might think of Pablo Picasso’s statement, made after Guernica (1937), that “painting is not done to decorate apartments, it is an instrument of war”only to juxtapose it with Jean-Paul Sartre’s caveat that Picasso’s famous painting never “won a single supporter for the Spanish cause.”
In other words, many of us have different conceptions of what political works are supposed to do, including whether they need to produce tangible results to be considered successful or powerful. Like Sartre, Theodor Adorno thought that art’s political weight could be measured by its distance from “prescribed realism,” arguing that artists who explicitly set out to fulfil some sort of socio-critical role ultimately betray art’s polemical stance towards society. But, as Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1934) makes clear, the reverse is also true: art created as an instrument of political ideology can escape its social context on aesthetic grounds, if only to reveal how beauty and moral repugnance can be awkwardly entwined.
Few issues in recent years have provoked as much political debate and heartfelt discussion as the global refugee crisis. This is particularly resonant in Australia, not just because of the present government’s hardline immigration policies, where mandatory off-shore detention and slow bureaucratic processing are used punitively, at odds with United Nations rights advocating for the fair assessment of refugee status. Beyond this, Australia’s blanket policy for asylum seekers and economic refugees suggests a cultural problem; an invasion complex predicated on an ingrained fantasy of terra nullius and an irrational fear of colonial retribution. One only has to be reminded of the fact that one of the first pieces of legislation to be passed by the Australian government was the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, which helped to inculcate a fearful “us versus them” mentality that would morph decades later into the pre-“Stop the Boats” slogan: “Populate or Perish.”
In this context, buoyed by surrounding “Wilson Must Go” protests targeting the NGV security service’s links to detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, Mosse’s Incoming was widely cited as the centrepoint of the Triennale, described by Giles Fielke as the work that best exemplifies the exhibition’s aims, and by Patricia Hoffie as “overwhelmingly engaging.” Hoffie continues: “Just when you think you’ve seen all you need to see – heard all you need to hear – about the interminably ongoing plight of refugees and global warfare, along comes a work that delivers a response with such unpretentious immediacy that you’re set back on your heels wondering why the universe around you looks suddenly altered.”
For Hoffie, Incoming at once conformed to the Triennale’s demand for entertainment while remaining “out of range from easy moral and ethical high-grounds.” Yet for Fielke, this distance—echoed by the artist’s use of a military- grade thermographic camera with an extreme telephoto lens – epitomised the “spectacularisation of human suffering” the exhibition was peddling, where “any sense of reflection on this vision of the Other is abandoned for its sensuousness.” Fielke thinks that merely showing political content is not enough to make it an effective (critical/political) work, while Hoffie claims, although “engulfed” by the installation, you leave it “feeling as if you’ve borne witness for the first time to a war that we were beginning to think we could forget.”
Both reviewers, while at odds with each other, nonetheless hint at the sublime character of Incoming, where a mix of terror and beauty amplifies ethical feeling. Whereas Hoffie takes the dialectic of proximity and distance as exemplary of the aesthetic encounter – invoking deep meaning without resorting to the articulation of “issues” – Fielke finds it exploitative, entailing “the abstraction of images of suffering … [at] a distance.” As Jeffrey Kastner has written of Incoming, “questions around the pitfalls of aestheticization obviously shadow images such as these.” Claiming Mosse neither shows the world exactly as it looks nor anaesthetises socio-political realities, Kastner thinks Mosse humanises his subjects through depersonalisation techniques.
Evoking Sartre’s take on Guernica’s commemorative beauty, Kastner locates the value of Mosse’s work in its fabrication of universality through the tropes of reportage. The artist shows us all to be mere “pools of heat, huddling together, wherever we find ourselves.” It is through this construction of universal feeling that Mosse’s work helps us “better ‘understand’” the socio-political realities depicted.But, compared with his earlier projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo (such as The Enclave, 2012–13), Incoming is particularly tenuous in this respect as its depicted political context is purposefully non-specific, comprising refugees and migrants making very different journeys across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe for very different reasons.
There’s a fine line between obscuring something and universalising it. As Kant’s account of the role of sensus communis in aesthetic judgement makes clear, whether or not any of these appraisals coincide is beside the point; all claim a public sense is at stake in their “private” encounters with the work. When Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, Open Casket (2016), attracted protests at the 2017 Whitney Biennale for its exploitation of black suffering, it was exemplary of art’s capacity to shake the ground of public consensus. Hannah Black, in an open letter, called for the painting – of an iconic civil rights image – to be censored, stating it “should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about Black people because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time.” This was passionately debated by artworlders on both sides, with Coco Fusco stating in response to Black that her “essentialist position on black and white racial identities, and her use of offense as a rationalisation for censorship, reinforce elitist and formalist views that ethical considerations don’t belong in the aesthetic interpretation of art.”
For Fusco, we should reject any implication that ethical judgement is a synonym for the compassionate comprehension of a social truth. She sees Black’s attempt to construct an ethics of “aesthetic abstraction” along racial lines as falsely implying that the only “responsible” response to racial trauma is mimetic realism, and that all abstractions of contentious socio-political imagery are intrinsic acts of erasure (something the German artist Gerhard Richter has made a career out of). This back and forth debate – triggering numerous social media posts, essays and museum panel discussions – has become symbolic of early Trump-era disputes on the left, where moralistic pieties act like cultural landmines, cautioning against easy victories in cross‑cultural and inter‑racial cooperation.
If the mother of the dead baby in Mosse’s work took offense at his use of the footage, would we demand the scene be edited out? Should we? Are we looking at Mosse’s subjects with these sorts of rights in mind? If Schutz’s painting stages a “black death spectacle,” does Mosse not partake in “refugee porn”? Clearly sensitive to such criticisms, Mosse’s support for the Wilson Security protests led to him altering one of his exhibited works. For the video Grid (Moria) (2017) – comprising a grid of sixteen monitors showing surveillance footage of Moria, a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos – Mosse incorporated in the lower right-hand corner written responses from the Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani, who claims he has witnessed first‑hand Wilson’s misconduct on Manus Island, where he is still being detained after five years.
Here, it is telling that in order to clarify the moral integrity of his ambitious project, funded by the NGV, Mosse felt it necessary to break with the nameless quality of his work, with Boochani’s participation reading like an intrusion of individuality. The Kurdish journalist’s contribution made no real sense juxtaposed with images of a detention centre located 13,000 kilometres away, but it did reveal how Mosse’s anonymising tricks are key to the aesthetic resonance of his oeuvre. The perceived anonymity and statelessness of refugees make them the perfect tropes for sublime aestheticisation, conveying, like the shipwrecked characters on Théodore Géricault’s raft, the extremes of human suffering, abstracted from identity and cause. While Mosse’s Incoming was the key work of the 2017 NGV Triennale, the focal point of the 2018 Sydney Biennale was another sublime piece about refugees – Ai Weiwei’s Law of the Journey (2016), a monumental sixty-metre black rubber raft with faceless figures, installed in an industrial shipyard on Cockatoo Island.
As with Mosse’s inclusion of Boochani as a witness to refugee injustices, Ai’s histrionic work was situated adjacent to a wall of printed iPhone photos taken when the artist was filming his refugee documentary Human Flow (2017), which played on monitors in the same space. The documentary footage, along with the wall of refugee photos, appeased the ethical spectacle of Law of the Journey, providing it with human faces, and, more importantly, signalling the artist’s proximity to the global crisis. Such exegetical appendages in the contemporary ethical sublime seem designed to anticipate misinterpretation, protecting against doubts about the moral validity of spectacle‑aesthetics.
In the heady cultural theory of the 1980s and early 1990s, the prevalence of new spectacles lent the concept of the sublime a renewed sense of urgency. Philosophers such as Frederic Jameson and Jean‑François Lyotard defined a postmodern sublime based not on an insufficiency in nature but in culture, arguing that, in late capitalism, the “depthlessness” and intensities of advanced technologies made it possible, “beyond all thematics or content,” to “think the impossible totality of the contemporary world system.” If there was a bad postmodern sublime, which took the form of nostalgia and paranoia, there was also a good sublime which entered into the realm of the “presentation of the unpresentable” through artistic experimentation.
In Lyotard’s account of the postmodern avant-garde, the sublime is an event that un‑forms us before our very eyes. To experience sublime incommensurability – between sense and concept – was to be challenged by the unfamiliar. This feeling of “shocking finitude” and momentary out‑of‑time‑ness was characterised by Lyotard in terms of an archetypal postmodern viewer who, when confronted by something unassimilable to their discursive orders, asks themselves with a confused and suspenseful mix of fear and pleasure: “is it happening?” Years later, Jacques Rancière made a convincing critique of Lyotard’s position, arguing that he assumes in advance a natural correspondence between senses and concepts to which some things escape. Rancière thinks this was a reversal of Kantian aesthetics that served to isolate new sensibilities from socio-cultural demands, “blocking the originary a path from aesthetics to politics” and founding a dividing-line between the avant-garde and commodity culture.
In contrast with the technological formlessness of the postmodern sublime, sublime art after the “social turn” is best embodied by the likes of Incoming and Law of the Journey, which invoke the unimaginable suffering of the refugee-as-Other alongside exegetical markers of ethical proximity. It is in this sense that the sublime today is fundamentally split, invoking shock without ethical ambivalence; awe without ambiguity; powerlessness with empowerment; loss of identity along with its re-inscription. Mosse and Ai aspire to the sublime but they also apologise for its pitfalls, as if all too aware that, as far back as Alexander Pope in the early eighteenth century, the sublime has always been under threat from bathos – from a failure to transcend. Today, the sublime art of deep human feeling is shown to precede a more important, perhaps unanswerable, question: “what are we going to do?”
- ^ 1 Claire Bishop, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents,” Artforum, 44:6, February 2006, p. 181
- ^ 2 Gijs Van Hensbergen, Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth Century Icon, New York: Bloomsbury, 2004, p. 64
- ^ 3 Jean-Paul Sartre, “What is Writing?” in “What is Literature?” and Other Essays, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988, p. 28
- ^ 4 Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, London: Continuum, 1997 , p. 237
- ^ 5 Patricia Hoffie, “Art world deploys weapons of war to entertain the masses,” ABC News, 7 February 2018: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-02-06/australian-art-tennis-open-sport-movies-films-cinema-ngv/9369928
- ^ 6 Ibid.
- ^ 7 Ibid.
- ^ 8 Giles Fielke, “‘Triennial’, at NGV International,” Memo Review, 30 December 2017: https://memoreview.net/blog/triennial-at-ngv-international-by-giles-fielke
- ^ 9 Hoffie, 2018
- ^ 10 Fielke, 2017
- ^ 11 Jeffrey Kastner, “Richard Mosse: Jack Shainman Gallery,” Artforum 55:8, April 2017, p. 209
- ^ 12 Ibid.
- ^ 13 Ibid.
- ^ 14 Hannah Black, “‘The Painting Must Go’: Hannah Black Pens Open Letter to the Whitney About Controversial Biennial Work,” Art News, 21 March 2017: http://www.artnews.com/2017/03/21/the-painting-must-go-hannah-black-pens-open-letter-to-the-whitney-about-controversial-biennial-work/
- ^ 15 Coco Fusco, “Censorship, Not the Painting, Must Go: On Dana Schutz’s Image of Emmett Till,” Hyperallergic, 27 March 2017: https://hyperallergic.com/368290/censorship-not-the-painting-must-go-on-dana-schutzs-image-of-emmett-till/
- ^ 16 Ibid.
- ^ 17 We could add the likes of Artur Żmijewski to this dubious contemporary genre
- ^ 18 Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham: Duke University Press, 1991, p. 38
- ^ 19 Jean-François Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991, p. 92
- ^ 20 Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (London: Continuum, 2010), 131.
Card (detail): Richard Mosse, Incoming, 2014-17, still frame from three-screen video installation by Richard Mosse in collaboration with Trevor Tweeten and Ben Frost. Co-commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, and Barbican Art Gallery, London. Courtesy the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Richard Mosse
Wes Hill is a lecturer in art theory at Southern Cross University, Lismore, and the author of Art After the Hipster: Identity Politics, Ethics and Aesthetics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).