Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 14, 2017
Susan Best Reparative Aesthetics: Witnessing in Contemporary Art Photography New York: Bloomsbury, 2016. 232 pp.; 52 b/w ills. Hardback $26.99 (9781472529787)

What art can do in relation to historical trauma has been discussed most thoroughly through the Holocaust. After (the misreading of) Adorno’s famous dictum on the impossibility of using art to work through a trauma of such scale, art has, from the distance of several decades, more or less successfully returned to the question. Claude Lanzmann’s filmic monument to the catastrophe, Shoah (1985), can stand as an emblem for this aesthetic return. It leveraged a monumental time frame (over nine hours) and the then-current turn to oral testimony on the presumption that the truth-value lay in direct access to history through firsthand witnessing. At the same time, Lanzmann cultivated a certain distance, for example through the need for translators between the director and his interviewees, and his showing of places that look banal and unaffected by the horrors narrated by the witness. How art can make an audience compassionate while circumnavigating the problems that attend any attempt to engage it is at the center of Susan Best’s ambitious book Reparative Aesthetics. Best discusses four female artists who, incorporating photography in their practice, deal with shameful historical events: Anne Ferran (Australia), Fiona Pardington (New Zealand), Roŝangela Rennó (Brazil), and Milagros de la Torre (Peru).

But there is much more. The book not only argues for the affective aesthetic qualities of these works, but strives to prove misguided a long and dominant trajectory of “critical theory,” or “anti-aesthetic tradition,” that includes theorists such as Victor Burgin, Susan Sontag, and Claire Bishop and artists who, so the introduction argues, trigger shock and shame (and thus denial, evasion, anger) instead of inviting the audience to relate to historical disaster. The list of wrongdoers on pages 3 and 4 is long: it includes Fred Wilson, Coco Fusco, Kara Walker, Alfredo Jaar, and Martha Rosler, whose work is characterized as “nothing visually interesting” and “didactic.” It will prove instructive to understand what, according to Best, is wrong with this art, even if one does not agree. Best is in any case careful to emphasize that she does not think they are bad artists, but she does seem to accuse conceptual art of a general lack of visual complexity, calling it “paranoid,” the term she opposes to “reparative” throughout the book. The two terms are taken from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s literary criticism (building on psychoanalyst Melanie Klein). Best’s objection is on one hand deeply theoretical, as is the book as a whole; on the other, I would argue, it is personal and idiosyncratic, as the artists she favors provide highly analytical approaches to the stories they are trying to tell.

The paranoid and the reparative approaches to reading an image frame the book. The paranoid approach works with shock, and is equated by Best with a conceptualism “protected from criticism and debate by invoking the idea of witnessing” (27). Shock and direct witnessing are both suspect: they are neither “true” (due to the complex psychological coping mechanisms of survivors), nor provide mental space for an audience. This criticism persists in the case studies, where Best is even more explicit: “Images that shock and images that accuse, I would argue, are highly ineffective means for art photographers to generate prolonged interest in complex political events” (155).

What is the alternative? The reparative is a complicated term, one not striving for or arising from harmonious satisfaction. More precisely, it is an ambivalent play of positive and negative feelings (Klein introduced the term for the child-mother relationship) that open space for reflection or for an indirect witnessing to work through and acknowledge trauma, and to reemerge from it either empowered or politically active. The artist seldom is, and should not be, a direct witness to events. On the contrary—Jane Blocker’s 2009 book Seeing Witness is criticized at this point for equating personal testimony as moral authority on the side of the artist (5)— on Best’s view it is precisely distance that helps avoid the pitfalls of shaming the audience.

This combativeness is refreshing, and the interest in audience engagement and reception is salient; but the contrast drawn is also confusing, given the formal complexities of the works discussed. Let us consider them before returning to the theoretical conception of the book. Ferran’s 2008 series Lost to Worlds features monochrome photographs digitally printed on aluminum. We see unassuming shots of the ground, grass, and some plants, stones, and dents in the earth’s surface. These are sites of former institutions for women convicts (“female factories”), in the most suggestive cases, as Best points out, “redolent of Ana Mendieta’s Silueta series.” Best discusses the camera angle, the “look down,” reminiscent of the downcast eyes of shame, a feeling that is transferred to the audience but complicated by the vertical hanging of the works, and by the reflection of the shiny metal surface. Skeptical of art’s ability to bear the actual trace of the traumatic history, and of the possibility of bearing witness, Best describes these works as potent due to an “affective atmosphere” (not excluding beauty) that allows the ambivalence needed to arrive at the reparative.

Photography as trace is a problematic notion, but what about the claim that photography necessarily aestheticizes what it shows, which Best, with reference to Walter Benjamin, describes as “censure of aestheticization” (75)? Pardington photographed nineteenth-century life casts of a Maori tribe of South New Zealand. The making of the casts, which encapsulate the whole face, must have been unpleasant at best, the author notes (84), and she is careful to explain the underlying racism of early anthropologists. But Pardington again complicates the shaming of the audience, thinks Best, by including photographs of casts of the anthropologist and his family, which disrupts the anthropological worldview; also, the photographs are hung as if they looked at us, though their eyes are closed. Gaze and “missed” encounter are related by Best to the refusal of the (native) artist to oppose alternative narratives to the racist one, an opposition that she assumes would be the expectation of the (nonnative) art audience; in contrast, Pardington preserves the “opacity of identity” (95). One wonders at this point whether Best’s approach is really so different from, say, Bishop’s, who also points to strategies of “beauty,” “pleasure,” and “surprise.” Best recommends that the artist avoid self-victimization (97). Certainly, Bishop’s reference points are not Klein and Sedgewick, but Friedrich Schiller and Jacques Rancière, but the insistence on pleasure and the need to avoid the “incapacitating restrictions of guilt” is more salient than the choice of heroes.

There remains something unclear then in Best’s insistence that her artists work so differently from the counterparts she wishes to expose. The chapter on Rennó, for instance, begins by positioning the artist’s use of photographic archives in contrast to Allan Sekula’s “resolute stance against compassion, empathy and pity in art reception” (103). Leaving text out of the equation for a moment, Sekula’s body of work is both critical and elegant, seductive and didactic, in my view. The misunderstanding may lie in the discourse rather than the art (sure, Fusco is didactic, and so is Rosler, but both also work with humor and irony, as does the aesthetically assured Walker). One starts to wonder why Best insists so on their particularity. These artists are interesting precisely because, in different ways, they oscillate between conceptual distance and the seduction of aesthetic pleasure.

I appreciate how Best underlines the affective quality of beauty and the need for art not to give up on the project of spectatorial empathy. Her impatience with the cynicism of intellectual indifference is needed more than ever at this point in time. I remain unconvinced, however, about the rooting of Best’s affective vocabulary in psychoanalytic theory, not least because the terms paranoid and reparative mislead if taken literally and therefore need lengthy (and somewhat exhausting) theoretical introductions. Best turns both the introduction and the conclusion, as well as the first two chapters, into fairly dry reviews of theory, leaving a bit over a hundred pages for the case studies, including historical background, which is given perhaps too much space. The book is not long, yet it is dense and sometimes convoluted, with too many theoretical battles joined. Also, the idea that some art is superior simply because it fits the psychological model one favors does little to explain how that art arose, or what we can learn from it.

However, if we are allowed to step back for a moment and to start again from the humble question with which current politics leave us, to discuss the power of art to deal with historical events and engage audiences in meaningful and compassionate debate: the discussion is absolutely worth it. I recommend this book, with all the reservations I have, partially for its careful studies of artists, but also for a reality check on our own discourse. I recommend it too because the topics of audience and of reception remain the most pressing issues of contemporary art. Without theorizing secondary audiences, audiences that grapple with a history they did not always experience, we will not understand how art deals with history. And this is the time in which art certainly should not give up this project. 

Mechtild Widrich
Assistant Professor, Art History, Theory and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago