Do We Still Need Art as a Form of Escape?
In an age that prizes ‘engagement’, is there usefulness in choosing not to?
In an age that prizes ‘engagement’, is there usefulness in choosing not to?
Across the corridor from my old desk at the BBC was a small room in which people watched videos of beheadings. My job at the time was to monitor the global media for patterns that might presage broader geopolitical shifts. I spent nights watching North Korean propaganda broadcasts and following North African dissidents on social media. I wrote roundups for the World Service and, if I turned up anything that might interest the Foreign Office, I filed a report. The specialists across the corridor were looking for clues that might reveal the hostages’ location: the executioner’s accent, the angle of light through a window, the weave of an embroidered backdrop.
I was frightened by that room and relieved never to have to enter it. You might argue that a journalist should be willing to confront the real consequences of Western warmongering. Perhaps, but I left the job because I was already exhausted by camera-phone footage of the uprising in Libya and eyewitness accounts of Boko Haram death squads. I know of three people in that department who have since taken their own lives. Now anyone can pull a screen from their pocket and watch videos of unspeakable brutality. A degree of exposure to the world that even a decade ago seemed exceptional – and obviously unhealthy – has become normal.
The experience of lockdown has, counterintuitively, intensified the feeling that the boundaries protecting us from the world are collapsing. The penetration of the internet into every corner of our lives means that we are bound into global information networks; the pandemic has reinforced the sense that we are all entangled in planetary catastrophe even if its effects are unevenly distributed; the triumph of surveillance capitalism means that every aspect of our behaviour is being monitored and manipulated to serve hidden commercial interests. To process this is stupefying.
Yet to despair in the face of this reality is to submit to it. Maggie Nelson writes in The Art of Cruelty (2011) that to formulate ‘novel responses’ to the world we must reserve the right ‘to flee, to escape, to demur, to shift or refuse terms, to disengage, to turn away’ from it. Today’s audience is not starved of information about the world’s brutality; we are rendered helpless by its excess. Maybe, in this moment, one function for art might be to construct an imaginative space in which we can process the text and images that bombard us.
To endorse this kind of ‘escapism’ is not, I should make clear, to deny reality or appropriate an alternative version of it. It is not an extension of the esoteric-chic that has made me reluctant to have dinner with artists for fear of having my tarot read. Nor is it a surrender to the kind of magical rhetoric so often found in curatorial statements about what art is or does. To practise escape is not, I don’t think, a grave failure of human moral obligation but an assertion of the imaginative independence that is the precondition of meaningful change.
‘dear white america’, writes Danez Smith, ‘i’ve left Earth in search of darker planets.’ First performed in 2014, ‘dear white america’ describes the poet’s search for a ‘new God’ to replace ‘the God you have given us’. The first instrument of white supremacy in America, they propose, was the totalizing system that its colonizers called ‘revealed truth’. Smith is not alone among artists in seeking refuge from unjust realities on other planets. Writers from Ursula K. Le Guin to Samuel Delaney have imagined intergalactic coalitions across boundaries of class, ethnicity, sexuality and species; artists as varied as Cao Fei, Chris Marker and Jacolby Satterwhite have used the worldbuilding media of video games and 3D animation to create utopian spaces structured by different and less discriminatory rules.
These forms and media have historically been dismissed as artistically unserious because they operate outside the existing social structure. Which is kind of the point. The failure to recognize the radical potential of escape is apparent in W.H. Auden’s famous essay ‘Psychology and Art To-Day’ (1935), in which he advocates for ‘two kinds of art: escape-art, for man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep, and parable-art, that art which shall teach man to unlearn hatred and learn love’. He is right to suggest that ‘escape’ is important in sustaining an interior life, but wrong to insist that only a hectoring kind of social art can change the way that individuals relate to each other. History provides ample evidence that societies should not be narrated from above by heroic poet-legislators. (Hello, Stalin!)
The danger of unreflexively ‘realist’ art is that it enforces established categories, irrespective of the political end to which it is put. This can be suffocating for those who might wish to move beyond the reality that has been, as Smith puts it, ‘given’ to them. Anyone familiar with the publishing industry or art market will know that the ‘realism’ of a young female author is expected to conform to the tropes of ‘women’s fiction’, that the ‘realism’ of the working-class artist should aestheticize deprivation, and so on. It’s a dangerous tendency to identify individuals entirely with their circumstances, and artist Katherine Behar is among those to caution the left against subscribing to the same assumptions about human behaviour that big data builds into predictive models. Even intersectional approaches, Behar insists, must accommodate people’s freedom to escape the patterns they are conditioned to follow.
One means of asserting independence from these structures is to refuse to participate in them. Nikita Gale’s Private Dancer (2020) is among a number of works made in recent years to dramatize the artist’s withdrawal from circulation. The installation comprises the silent play of a light show choreographed to Tina Turner’s 1984 solo album over a collapsed lighting rig. After fleeing her notoriously abusive husband in the middle of a 1976 tour, Turner discovered that she was legally responsible to its promoters for the cancellation of the remaining dates, and Gale plays on the double bind of the performer who must support the apparatus that oppresses her. Private Dancer asserts that any ‘given’ reality is constructed and can be escaped; the important caveat is that some bodies are more constrained than others, and their withdrawal more severely punished.
Reality is constructed by the powerful to imprison the powerless. This is the lesson of Hiwa K’s View from Above (2017), which proposes the imagination as one means of slipping through the bars. Forced to pretend for the sake of his asylum application that he is fleeing a city in postwar Iraq deemed sufficiently ‘unsafe’ by the UN, its Kurdish narrator must concoct a fiction. It transpires that this lie more closely corresponds to his European interrogator’s version of reality than the real accounts of the city’s residents. He is granted asylum while they are not: his ability to recognize that the reality of power does not map onto lived experience frees him. Living in Oran during the making of her sound installation Paradis (2018), Lydia Ourahmane realized that the city’s young people wanted to emigrate because their experience of the West was mediated through photos posted by European teenagers on Facebook. One role of the artist, she concluded, might be to provide ‘a space of respite’ for young Algerians from both the pressures of living in a broken society and the fabricated realities of the internet.
A work that helps us escape reality returns us to it, changed. Even when its mode is ostensibly realist. I have been thinking recently about Caravaggio’s The Beheading of St John the Baptist (1608), commissioned by the Knights of Malta and the artist’s largest work. John lies dying on the stone floor of a jail. An apparently innocent bystander observes the scene with horror. The left hand of John’s executioner pins his head to the ground while the right hand reaches for a dagger strapped to his back. In the next moment he will use it to saw through the Baptist’s neck.
Caravaggio goes to great lengths to implicate the viewer in the murder: he arranges his figures in a circle around the victim, which is completed by whoever stands before the canvas. The appalled bystander is typically identified as Herodias, the woman who first called for the saint’s head on a plate. The artist’s signature is written in blood trickling from John’s slit throat, and a legend holds that the letter preceding his given name (‘f. Michelangelo’) is not an ‘f’ but an ‘I’, to mean ‘I did this’. Samuel Beckett – a writer preoccupied by the limits of human freedom – takes inspiration from this painting in the original script for Not I (1972), a monologue in which Herodias figures as the silent Auditor, responding to the traumatic stories delivered by a spotlit mouth with ‘gestures of helpless compassion’. All of these readings suggest that the viewer is at once implicated in the murder and powerless to stop it. The impression – and this is why I chose this example – is that there is no escape.
I don’t buy it. Beckett’s caustic stage direction calls to mind Aruna D’Souza’s contempt, in Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts (2018), for the museumgoer who, confronted with an artwork depicting suffering from which their privilege precludes them, kids themselves that the only
viable reaction is to feel ‘sad and empathetic’. D’Souza’s point, as I understand it, is that the viewer is neither totally excluded from, nor totally implicated in, a work of art. To claim either is an abrogation of moral responsibility: in the first case, because it allows the viewer to pretend it is not their place to intervene in the suffering it describes; in the second, because it declares the overarching system that generates this suffering is too vast for any individual to act upon.
It’s important, in this respect, that The Beheading foregrounds its fictional construction by taking for its subject an apocryphal story from a shared cultural inheritance. Because it does not trespass on someone’s lived experience, it establishes a clear boundary across which its audience is invited to step into an imaginative space. This distinguishes it from Dana Schutz’s misguided attempt, with Open Casket (2016) – a work that D’Souza discusses in Whitewalling – to break down a boundary when it would have been better to put up a screen.
Caravaggio’s world is bounded, but its walls are porous. There is traffic between his reality and others. In this biblical scene, his peers would have recognized allusions to the artist’s own violent past; any contemporary viewer is likely to be struck by its formal correspondences with videos of police brutality that sparked a global uprising.
Ariana Reines has characterized writing poetry as a ‘radical openness’ to the world followed by a period of retreat in which to recollect and reorganize the experience. There is a practical sense in which art is a closing off as much as an opening out – even the most ecstatic poetry is typically composed in a quiet room with the door closed – but Reines’s description of the white space surrounding her lines on the page as ‘protecting’ them is instructive. It serves a similar function to the towel in Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.’s photograph Devin in Red Socks (2016), which screens the naked subject from the viewer’s gaze,
preserving a space for their interior life outside an image economy that circulates Black bodies. By way of the blank space or the towel-screen, the artist controls how much of the world they choose to let in, how much they choose to show.
Art is based on implied consent: as the artist sets the terms of their own reality, so the viewer is always free to leave it. A similar idea underpins Iris Murdoch’s description, in ‘The Sublime and the Good’ (1959), of art’s ‘tragic freedom’. The tragedy is that our capacity to ‘imagine the being of others’ only alerts us to the fact that they are, ‘to an extent we never cease discovering, different from ourselves’. A work of art is one means of resetting the boundaries that separate us. The question is: how are we changed by the experience of another’s world?
From the street below the apartment in Athens where I am writing, I can hear protestors chanting. The march might be in support of the hunger-striking leftist revolutionary Dimitris Koufontinas, against an education bill that will allow police onto campuses, or in solidarity with the #metoo movement that threatens to bring down the cultural establishment. My shamefully poor Greek and the ignorance bred by solitary confinement mean I don’t know what they are protesting (nor do I understand why they need to play U2’s ‘Mysterious Ways’, 1991, so loud); yet, because my reality is mediated by anglophone news sources and social-media feeds, I can tell you about the latest QAnon conspiracy theory and the prices paid to trade things called NFTs that I have no interest in understanding. To close my laptop, leave my phone on the desk and go join the protest is to escape one reality and, if its organizers will allow me, momentarily to join another.
This article first appeared in frieze issue 219 with the headline ‘No Escape’.
Main image: Caravaggio, The Beheading of St John the Baptist, 1608, oil on canvas, 3.7 × 5.2 m. Courtesy: Alamy