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The State as Art

January 26, 2013

In Fate of Art in the Age of Terror, Boris Groys notes how the contemporary terrorist/warrior exhausts the media possibilities at hand and produces images—of shock and awe— that have “an uncanny aesthetic similarity with alternative, subversive European and American art and filmmaking of the 60-and 70s.” In particular Groys compares the gory photographs of Abu Ghraib for instance to Viennese Actionism, Pasolini etc. Yet, he notes that although there might be a similar subversive underpinnings to both types of imagery they follow two complete different trajectories: while the modern art tendencies to “be radical, daring, taboobreaking, going beyond all the limitations and borders,” is iconoclastic at large, terrorists in contrary want to produce icons. While the former is concerned with critique of the representational qualities of the image and its relationship to the real, the later in turn desires to show the real and to be taken as representation of the real. Groys opens the article by noting how before the age of mechanical reproduction, the warrior was dependent on the artist to be mounumentalized and for his heroic actions to be narrativized and depicted. But now, the fighter is free from this dependency and has full control over the documentation and dissemination of his actions.

Still, these acts of terror, from the most common depictions of atrocities to the most choreographed examples are carried out in battlefields, public urban or rural spaces or terrorist hideouts. As such, while the visual strategies of these actions might share some attributes with the avant-garde, the venues of presentation is essentially different from that of designated space of art. Even public executions, however meticulously planned are—rather strategically—staged in busy public squares and intersections.

Spectators watching the execution in front of Khaneh Honarmandan. Fars News Agency

Spectators watching the execution in front of Khaneh Honarmandan. Photo: Fars News Agency

Yet recently on January 20th 2013, a group of “thugs” or “outlaws,” were executed in front of “Khaneh Honarmandan,” (Artist’s House), an arts and cultural center in downtown Tehran with exhibition and performance spaces. It created an uproar in social media spaces and also the news media. The highly choreographed event was widely documented and photographs of the event from the start to conclusion were distributed over the internet and beyond. To go back to Groy’s analogy, what makes this event significant (not in an ethical and moral point of view, which is obvious and widely discussed on the net) is again this intersection of art and terror or bare power of state in this instance. Here, the exhibition space is appropriated by the state to display its force and as such the state also displays the desire to become art. As such, government and judiciary also become components of the art of the state as performances, exhibitions, and events. If the forces of power, terror and war have the capability to utilize media similar to the artist, they also share the desire to exhibit their aesthetic productions. While of course the spaces of art—for the most part—have far less capacity than mass media, internet, public squares, parks or stadiums, but they do present certain aesthetic and symbolic possibilities that such venues cannot offer. The state as icon finds its last resort in the exhibition space, which nevertheless follows certain ontology and a historical movement as Groys also notes in his essay. By inhabiting the space of art, the state opens itself to critique.

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