Blog Post

Why Only Art Can Save Us: An Interview with Santiago Zabala

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

Q: Recently Donald and Melania Trump requested a Vincent van Gogh painting from the Guggenheim, but the museum responded with a counteroffer, Maurizio Cattelan’s America, a gold toilet. I wonder if your book, which also features a work by the Italian artist in the cover, should also be interpreted as a move similar to Nancy Spector’s (the museum’s chief curator), a provocation and intervention in the public sphere. After all, you call for “existential interventions” through art.

SZ: I’m not certain whether Cattelan and Spector wanted to provoke or educate the Trump family. Either way, Cattelan’s America is a serious work of art that, as we can see, has managed to intervene in the public sphere. The sculpture on the cover of my book is called The Ninth Hour (1999) and depicts Pope John Paul II lying on the ground after being struck by a meteorite. Recently, Paolo Sorrentino used it in the opening credits of his TV series The Young Pope. The sculpture’s title alludes to the ninth hour of darkness that fell upon all the land when Christ cried out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—but the book’s title paraphrases Martin Heidegger’s famous response when he was asked whether we could still have any influence now that we are so overpowered by technology: “only a God can still save us.” My intention is to point out, now that God is dead and we are even more overpowered, perhaps it's art’s time to save us. The intervention you refer to has to do with demands of art in the twenty-first century, which are linked to our continued existence, that is, our salvation.

Q: So after the death of God, only art can save us? What is the relation between the absence of emergency and the possibility of art saving us?

SZ: One must distinguish between emergencies and the absence of emergencies. The former has become the axiomatic term through which sovereigns legitimize any imposed order through the framing concept of a “state of exception,” as Carl Schmidt, Walter Benjamin, and Giorgio Agamben have all explained. The absence of emergencies is the result: a world where politics, finance, and privacy have been forced into previously established technological frames. This is why Heidegger (who was the first to point out in the 1940s how the “only emergency is the absence of emergency”) believed emergencies do not arise when something doesn’t function correctly but rather when “everything functions . . . and propels everything more and more toward further functioning.” In a world where we are constantly under surveillance, and even the future is becoming predictable through online data mining, the problem is not those constructed-for-consumption emergencies that we make a loud show of confronting in the blare of the twenty-four-hour news cycle but rather the ones that we ignore. In this condition, the election of Trump, for example, rather than constituting an emergency, seems to be the incarnation of the absence of emergencies—a state of broadcast emergency signals that are meant to drown out the real but absent emergencies, from climate change to civil and human rights. In this condition the goal of art is not rescue us “from emergenciesbut ratherinto emergencies.” Rescuing from necessarily means concealing the essential emergencies that shape the modern world, but rescuing into means thrusting us into these emergencies, that is, saving us by revealing what has been hidden in plain sight. As Hölderlin said: “Where the danger is, also grows the saving power.” The works of art I explore thrust us into these emergencies.

Q: The twelve artists you discuss are all very different from one another. And the absent emergencies you confront through their works also vary widely. Can we consider your book an attempt to create an interdisciplinary conversation?

SZ: Yes, sure, as long as by “interdisciplinary” you refer to the Geisteswissenschaften, the human sciences, as they are represented in Arcade, for example. While I still have faith in the conversation (as Richard Rorty understood the term) among philosophy, literature, and history, I’m concerned that Naturwissenschaften, the natural sciences, are too integrated into Adorno’s “die totale Verwaltung,” the total administrative/organizational system, to contribute freely to the conversation. This does not mean I ignored scientific research. Quite the contrary. I refer to the work of the important marine biologist Judith S. Weis and the glaciologist Eric Rignot to understand the absent emergencies of marine pollution and Antarctica’s glaciers. But I use their research in order to interpret their findings broadly, that is, against the specialization that frames these disciplines. This is why hermeneutics, the philosophy of interpretation, is so important in the book.

Q: Are you referring to hermeneutics “anarchic” vein?

SZ: Yes. Hermeneutics, as I conceive it against Gadamer’s account, is an adversarial, antagonistic, and dangerous affair. After all, Hermes, as Gerard Bruns explains, was the “many-sided, uncontainable, nocturnal transgressor.” In order to understand works of art that thrust or rescue us into absent emergencies it’s necessary to practice interpretation as an existential intervention; our lives are at stake. This is why the danger each interpretation implies is meant to save us.

Q: Recently, both Silvia Mazzini and Martin Woessner said your book “is not aesthetic, but rather, exquisitely political,” that is, “continues the political struggle” you began in Hermeneutic Communism (coauthored with G. Vattimo). Do you agree?

SZ: If by “political struggle” we refer to an existential resistance, I agree. But just as I don’t see Hermeneutic Communism as a political book, neither is Why Only Art Can Save Us a contribution to aesthetics or to art theory. Instead, they are both attempts to disclose what remains of Being, that is, existence. This does not mean that communism and visual art are not central themes in the books, but they are functional to the emergence of Being, which has always been philosophy’s main concern.

Q: Contrary to Mazzini and Woessner, who wrote favorable reviews, Paul A. Kottman in Public Seminar believes there is a “crisis of authenticity” in academic philosophy and in contemporary art that you share with Cattelan’s work. You are both part of the problem.

SZ: I wish! It would be wonderful if my philosophy could do what Cattelan is doing to contemporary art. As far as authenticity is concerned: I would be much more worried if there wasn’t a crisis. This would imply a return to metaphysics, modernity, or, even worse, logocentrism. The truth is that art can rescue us into this crisis, and philosophy can interpret its meaning. Let’s keep doing both.

Santiago Zabala in conversation with Leonardo Franceschini, a Ph.D. Candidate at the Pompeu Fabra University and Visiting Scholar at East China University of Political Science and Law. 

Leonardo Franceschini is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Pompeu Fabra University and Visiting Scholar at East China University of Political Science and Law. He is the author of Decolonizzare la cultura (2013) as well as essays in numerous books.