PRINT January 2005


David Joselit on art and terror

IN 1968 HENRI LEFEBVRE, former fellow traveler of the Situationists and occasional muse to the students of the May uprisings in Paris, wrote in Everyday Life in the Modern World, “A pure (formal) space defines the world of terror. If the proposition is reversed it preserves its meaning: terror defines a pure formal space, its own, the space of power and its powers.” Reading these lines in 2005 is both inspiring and confusing. How should we take up Lefebvre’s oxymoronic conjunction of terror and form in a post–9/11 world? My first answer is perverse and possibly distasteful: a simple affirmation that terrorism is in fact a pure (formal) space, that the commercial planes Al-Qaeda repurposed as missiles constituted a stunning instance of Situationist détournement, causing an icon of American mobility to perform its own negation. For terrorism—unlike conventional warfare yet like twentieth-century art—follows a logic of appropriation and subversive recoding. This is as true of terrorist actions as it is of the widespread coverage they capture through the terrorist’s self-conscious fabrication of mediagenic events. Indeed, the compulsive replaying of video footage showing the attack on the twin towers and their collapse was reminiscent of works like Paul Pfeiffer’s video sculptures, in which a single action, like the transfer of a basketball between players, is stilled through constant repetition, like a hummingbird whose madly vibrating wings keep it suspended in midair.

Clockwise from top left: World Trade Center burning after terrorist attack, New York, September 11, 2001. Photo: AP Photo/Patrick Sison. Paul Pfeiffer, John 3:16, 2000, still from a color video, approx. 2 minutes 7 seconds. Sidney Lumet, Network, 1976, still from a color film in 35mm, 121 minutes. Howard Beale (Peter Finch) and Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway). Thomas Eggerer, The Wisdom of Concrete, 2004, acrylic on canvas, 90 x 79".

I have allowed my citation of Lefebvre to imply an association between form and terrorism but, in fact, his emphasis lies elsewhere. The terror he diagnoses is not terrorism perpetrated by groups in the developing world against us but the terror immanent to our own socioeconomic system, and particularly our devotion to the rule of law. As he writes: “This aspiration to a pure abstraction imposing its laws and its strictures is part of the power of forms, it endows them with the power to terrorize. Specific contracts exist characterized by their content. Nevertheless there is a general form of contract or agreement, a juridical form.” The genius of American terror is that this “juridical form” is sold to us as entertainment, thus eliding it with a different form of “terror,” the bullying blandishments of the culture industry at large. In prime-time television, for instance, we choose between the law as drama (police patrolling the cities, doctors probing our bodies), as comedy (the middle-class family in sitcoms is disrupted only to be reaffirmed), or as video vérité “documentary” (codes of gender and social behavior in “reality” shows are relentlessly policed through peer pressure). We’ve learned to love our terror.

The slippage in my reading of Lefebvre’s text between the terrorism of others and our own juridical terror offers a further lesson: Just as Benjamin Barber argued in Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World (1995) that religious fundamentalisms like the radical Christian right have arisen in the West in a manner analogous to the spread of Islamic fundamentalisms in the Middle East and elsewhere, terror is as much a quality of our own culture as it is a tactic of the culture of our antagonists. For Lefebvre, everyday life, as the locus of desire and human sociality, is terrorized by the law. A difference certainly exists between the terrorism of violence and the terror of seduction, but these two forms of praxis are structurally linked in what we might call a terror system, just as in the 1976 film Network Faye Dunaway’s maniacal television executive packages video documentation of a California terrorist cell as a hit program (a prescient prefiguring of “reality TV”). Such a recognition (or admission) on the part of the West might well be the quickest way to de-escalate terror’s mad spiral. But even if we agree with Lefebvre that the form of the law exemplifies terror (in both its ecstatic embrace and its angry transgression), can we, too, posit the reversibility of the proposition? If terror is (abstract) form, is form—including those visual forms that circulate as art—a species of terror? And if so, is such terror a “medium” of political art?

I suspect that painter Thomas Eggerer’s recent exhibition at Friedrich Petzel Gallery in New York demonstrates the operation of such a politico-painterly practice. For in these works one of the reigning tropes of postwar abstraction—the gestural brushstroke—collides with architectural renderings to create impossible spaces redolent of apocalypse. In works such as Mezzanine, The Privilege of the Roof, and The Wisdom of Concrete (all 2004), an open mesh of abstract lines or lozenge-shaped planes is established beyond and/or beneath a perspectivally correct structure: an atrium, a pavilion, and a bridge, respectively. On the one hand, the cross-hatching of paint in The Privilege of the Roof and The Wisdom of Concrete resembles actual explosions, but on the other, this allusion to physical violence is indistinguishable from the semiotic violence that the paintings manifest between the signifying systems of abstract art and architectural rendering. The two modalities of terror that I have discussed—its violence and its obsession with the law—converge, here manifest as the law of different image rhetorics. Indeed, they intersect at the social: Groups or crowds of people, distantly derived from photographic sources, don’t inhabit these spaces convincingly but float in front of them like a hallucinatory frieze. Through the abstraction and decontextualization of their movement, these characters seem alternately aimless and stunned. Subject to both violence and the law, they are the true citizens of terror. Within their own formal economy, Eggerer’s canvases thus diagram the limits on citizenship that the Bush administration has enacted in response to terrorism—where in a very material sense the threat of external violence has been exploited to reinforce the ecstasy of the law. Art like Eggerer’s manifests deep social structures in form. Whether this information inspires action depends on how we use it.

David Joselit is professor of art history at Yale Univeristy.