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Gregory Sholette reviews Santiago Zabala’s Heidegger-inspired investigation of contemporary art and aesthetics.

Santiago Zabala, Why Only Art Can Save Us: Aesthetics and the Absence of Emergency, (Columbia University Press, 2017), 197pp.

“The only emergency has become the lack of a sense of emergency”
– Martin Heiddeger

When thinking about philosophers who have sought to interpret the oftentimes unaesthetic, frequently dissonant and sometimes just plain ugly products of modern and contemporary art, names such as Theodor W. Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Jacques Rancière and Arthur Danto spring to mind immediately. Less likely to appear on such a list is Martin Heidegger, who did write discerningly about poetry and literature while railing against aesthetics (more on that in a moment), but who is far better known for his influential meditations on ontology and hermeneutics. Santiago Zabala wants to change this perception.

A professor of continental philosophy at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona Zabala’s recent book Why Only Art Can Save Us does not so much invoke the early existential Heidegger contemplating our mutual state of “being-towards-death,” and certainly not the German philosopher who penned anti-Semitic assertions in his notorious “Black Notebooks” (Schwarze Hefte), or who lectured at the University of Freiburg wearing a Nazi era military uniform. Indeed, Zabala also spends just a few pages discussing Heidegger’s best-known essay on culture The Origin of the Work of Art. Instead, what Why Only Art proposes is a new Heidegger, for a new century, applying the influential Teutonic thinker’s cryptic remark that the crisis of our age is “the emergency of the lack of emergency,” to the interpretation of contemporary works of art.

Early on Zabala introduces us to the Heidegger who diagnosed our age as crippled by its inability to recognize humanity’s tragic loss of Being. This deprivation, or rather our obliviousness to this inner impoverishment, is the “lack of emergency.” And given that God, metaphysics and liberalism are either dead or discredited, the remaining hope for deliverance from this crisis is found in the practices of contemporary artists. Though not just any work of art by any artist. For Zabala, it is only those artistic projects that thrust us into this very “lack of emergency,” that singularly invoke the remains of Being. This is not, however, a matter of sophisticated aesthetic connoisseurship.

Rather, Zabala points to an “emergency of aesthetics” in which a liberatory art practice is concealed “behind measurements of objective beauty.” Here the author would have aided his readers by providing examples of this reification, which could then be weighed against the affirmation of several installation art projects in the following chapter. Still, what emerges in Why Only Art is a cultural crisis that consists of society’s own technological and objective organization of reality. Only where such lucidity is lacking, Zabala pacing Heiddeger argues, do the “remains of being emerge as an alteration, an even, or an emergency of the world picture.” And yet, aren’t we deluged virtually every day by a constant shattering of political, social and environmental norms?

Blistering world temperatures brought on by fossil fuel combustion, millions of displaced refugees searching for social and economic security, a global spike in ultra-nationalist, even fascist sentiments and the rapid growth of fact-denying irrational politics would seem to demonstrate that, at least on the face of things, all that we have today is one emergency followed by another.  Counter-intuitively, Zabala insists that this “breaking news” zeitgeist is itself the very critical blind spot that must be confronted, and it is up to art, and art alone, to save us because it uniquely “exposes Being’s ontological condition (weak, discarded, and forgotten) for those who are politically prepared to interpret it.”

The goal of his book therefore is to inflict this lack of emergency upon us through the disturbing agency of contemporary art. But isn’t aesthetic shock and awe precisely what has become a central feature of high culture (as opposed to soothing kitsch pop culture) since the late 19th century? At times, Zabala’s take on art suggests that he has just discovered a previously unexplored universe seemingly untainted by the contradictions of modern capitalist society. Meanwhile, for those of us operating within that cosmos, the complicity of contemporary art with the most extreme excesses of markets and finance is sadly all too apparent.

In the sheikdom of Abu Dhabi the Louvre opens a new museum seemingly oblivious to the well-documented abuse of migrant laborers throughout the Emirates. In London, artists participating in an exhibition of politically charged graphics march on the museum and remove their work after discovering the institution rented its atrium to one of the world’s biggest defense companies, a corporation that ironically calls itself “Leonardo” (or perhaps not given that Da Vinci supported himself by designing weapons of mass destruction). And all across cities including London, Berlin, Barcelona, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and countless others around the globe artists, art galleries and the woes of urban gentrification appear to go hand-in-hand, or brush and palette. Only art can save us? Come again please?

While Zabala does not dwell on these paradoxes, or what they might mean for his Heideggerian inspired interpretation of culture, the philosopher is cognizant of the incongruity. He cites the writings of Mark C. Taylor who is one of many critics who have reported on the “financialization of Art.” Then Zabala moves quickly past this hurdle, choosing to focus the bulk of his book on works of art that address issues such as climate change, pollution, genocide, the 2008 financial meltdown and the networking technology of social media. And this is where Zapala’s project knits together, engaging us with case after case in which a work of contemporary art seeks to rupture the conceptual and existential ossification that he sees is at the heart of the “lack of emergency.” More than that, with impressive research the philosopher details the extensive range of world crisis addressed by each installation project.

Brazilian artist Néle Azevedo distributes small seated figures made of ice in public spaces in Berlin, Belfast, Havana and other cities, as they melt these Minimum Monuments debate notions of grand historical shrines and memorials as well as referencing rising global temperatures.

British photographer Mandy Barker tackles the agglomeration of plastic waste floating about in the Pacific Ocean with dramatically lit portraits of butane lighters, polystyrene toy fragments, and some 769 footballs all found washed up on various shores around the world.

Chilean born artist Alfredo Jaar confronts us with 100,000 35 mm slides piled onto a large light table equipped with multiple magnifiers that viewers can use to see the only image contained on every slide: a close-up of a pair of eyes belonging to Gutete Emerita, who witnessed the brutal murder of her Tutsi family during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

Italian artist Filippo Minelli’s installation “Contradictions,” consists of a large enclosed pen full of live turkeys milling about in front of one enormous bold word plastered to the wall that reads TWITTER.

While I would have turned Zabala’s attention quite a bit further towards the margins of artistic practice, or what I call the dark matter of the art world – the political art collectives and social art activists, as well as the vast, aggregate of structurally necessary creative labor that while systematically underdeveloped and unrecognized by the art world, secretly stabilizes its symbolic and financial economy– Why Only Art Can Save Us makes a valuable contribution by arguing positively for the practice of high culture in a time of crisis, whether that disaster is or is not recognized as the absence of Being, or as the catastrophe of post-Neoliberal nationalist capitalism. Either way, the lack of the lack of emergency is an excellent conceptual crowbar for further debate and critique.


Gregory Sholette is an artist, writer and activist as well as a founding member of the collectives Political Art Documentation/Distribution (1989-1988); REPOhistory (1989-2000); and Gulf Labor Coalition (2010-ongoing). He is author of Delirium and Resistance (2017: Pluto Press); Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture (2010: Pluto); and co-editor of Art as Social Action (2018: Skyhorse Press). A graduate of the Whitney Program in critical theory (1996), he holds an MFA (UC San Diego 1995); BFA (The Cooper Union 1979), and a PhD in cultural theory (University of Amsterdam, 2017). Professor Sholette teaches sculpture, critical theory and co-directs the Social Practice Queens program at Queens College, CUNY.

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