Thursday, January 10, 2008

Battle of the Pictures

“There are no documents of civilization that are not equally documents of barbarism,” Walter Benjamin once said. In The Abu Ghraib Effect, Steven F. Eisenman not only quotes Benjamin’s appraisal of how “civilized” Western civilization truly is, but also demonstrates how visual cultural artifacts beginning with the ancient Greeks reflect a tolerance for torture that stretches through history all the way up to the photographs of the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib. How could George W. Bush have won reelection after such revelations?, Eisenman asks. “Given this history, it is reasonable to assume that a majority of U.S. citizens are not much bothered by the fact of U.S. torture,” he concludes. Analyzing this embedded indifference, Eisenman discovers several figures in art history swimming against the prevailing currents. In his The Battle of the Pictures (above, from 1744-1745), William Hogarth pits older paintings of martyrs, saints, and other suffering souls against his contemporary eighteenth-century images of healthy middle-class life. Hogarth saw most religious, political, and even cultural imagery, especially "benign" renderings of cruelty to animals, as desensitizing individuals to larger acts of violence. (Lynndie England, infamous “star” of many of the Abu Ghraib photos, before joining the service, worked in a chicken-processing plant singled out by PETA for its excessive cruelty.) Eisenman pits the works of Hogarth and others against the larger corpus of torture-tolerant art to get at the real answer why Abu Ghraib happened and why it has not become an agent for change.

Eisenman makes it clear that he doesn’t consider the Abu Ghraib photos to be art. However, “the materials and tools of art history are essential,” he contents, “to understand them and counter their effect.” Eisenman sees the “Abu Ghraib effect” as a modern manifestation of the ancient “pathos formula” that depicts “the body as something willingly alienated by the victim (even to the point of death) for the sake of the pleasure and aggrandizement of the oppressor.” The Greeks believed women, children, slaves, and non-Greeks to be incapable of telling the truth without some physical coercion. At the same time, they felt that the tortured individual even welcomed the abuse, with all the obvious sadomasochistic sexual overtones. Michelangelo’s The Dying Slave (above, from 1513-1516) copied the classical idea of the oppressed figure accepting and perhaps even enjoying pain and death at the hands of a master. The Dying Slave, Eisenman writes, “manifests the pathos formula in the highest degree, eliding in a single marble body imperial conquest, physical constraint, ravishment and death.” From Michelangelo’s The Dying Slave to Bernini’s The Ecstacy of St. Theresa is a short cognitive leap, as the imperialism of the state merged with Christianity to create a whole new rationale for torture. “Now the victim is shown welcoming his torment because it is in emulation of Christ’s own suffering,” Eisenman shows. “Pain is a testament of the sufferer’s devotion to God. The torturer becomes a divine instrument in the miracle of salvation.” Truth in the service of the state gives way to truth in the pursuit of salvation, yet always in support of those in power at the expense of the weak.

By the eighteenth century, however, artists such as Hogarth begin to question the dynamic of a visual culture supporting such torture. In addition to The Battle of the Pictures, Hogarth’s series The Four Stages of Cruelty (1751) demonstrates the continuous cycle of violence that begets more violence, often beginning in animal cruelty then leading to cruelty to human beings. Later, Goya’s Disasters of War, The Third of May, 1808, and images of the Spanish Inquisition revealed the madness of torture with clear-eyed, cold precision. During the French Revolution, Jaques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat serves as a “transformation of the Hellenistic pathos formula from a sign of subservience to autocratic power to a token of emancipation.” By the time Daumier, Courbet, and Manet rise to prominence, “the art and rhetoric of the classical past could not be seen without irony or even open mockery.” Manet’s The Mocking of Christ (1865) clearly shows how torture “degrade[s] both torturer and victim and hold[s] no promise of revelation.” But, just as the long history of visual buttressing of the establishment seems to be nearing the end as the twentieth century approached, the tables turned again.

The imperialism on the rise in the late nineteenth century bloomed into the sick rose of authoritarianism in the twentieth century, marked by what Eisenman sees as “the complete subordination of the body to doctrine, and the willing surrender of the autonomous, critical subject to the dictates of state authority and power.” Picasso’s Guernica stands as a lonely, futile blow against the wall of fascism built in Europe and the “patriotic” authoritarianism fostered in America. Modern mass culture soon exclusively serves its establishment masters, “project[ing] and monumentaliz[ing] the willing subordination of the weak to the strong, and sanction[ing] the enactment of torture for the expression of power and domination. The December 26, 2005 issue of The Nation examining America’s torture “problem” featured a cover copying Ben Shahn’s This Is Nazi Brutality (above, from 1943), directly linking America’s crime with that of the Third Reich. In a country in which the television show 24 is discussed more like fact than fiction and in which radio personality Rush Limbaugh can dismiss the Abu Ghraib atrocities as fraternity pranks or soft-core pornography, the realization that those acts were not about truth or security but rather about control and superiority forces us to consider, if not accept, such comparisons.

Eisenman ties together many ideas across centuries in a very small book, yet does so with troubling success. Looking at the Abu Ghraib photographs again disturbed me, as it will anyone reading the book. Seeing them in the context of fine art, however, disturbed me on a different level. History, of course, is written by the winners, so its art will be commissioned by the winners as well. As problematic as the concept of a monolithic “Western art” can be (and Eisenman acknowledges this problem in an afterword), the fact that we operate under the concept of a Western civilization is undeniable. Eisenman concentrates on the Abu Ghraib photographs, but they serve as just one piece of the larger mosaic of the Bush Administration’s actions over the last seven years. Comparisons between the current administration and Hitler’s regime always rankle, as they should, but that doesn’t make them any less apt. Leon Golub painted Interrogation II (above, from 1981) during the Reagan years, when torture in the name of anti-Communism earned you the label of “Freedom Fighter.” In Golub’s painting, Eisenman writes, we see “the emotional insensibility of the torturers, and the complete physical vulnerability of the victim.” It is this “emotional insensibility” that bothers me the most. If fascism and authoritarianism drenched the twentieth century in blood, will even more extreme versions flood the twenty-first? Only emotional sensibility—the Goya-esque courage or Hogarthian honesty of the past—can save our future. As another election looms over America, chock full of many of the same choices faced in 2004, The Abu Ghraib Effect provides a valuable perspective on selecting leaders with your eyes wide open, rather than based on who cries or who doesn't. Even in the most depressing sections of Eisenman’s recounting of the crimes of the past, he seeks out the rays of hope such as Picasso that existed in the past, making us believe that such individuals will exist once again. The blinders of Western civilization’s past will only continue to benefit the oppressors of the present if we continue to accept wearing them.

[Many thanks to the University of Chicago Press for providing me with a review copy of this book.]

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