“Into what?” might be the necessary appendix to this question. The implied assumption that art by definition holds a preferable alternative to the current state of things is easily belied by the architecture of Albert Speer, the chief architect for Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Of course, that reference invites the logical evasion that Speer’s work is not actually art—if it were it would not have elevated the fascist worldview. And so, a question such as this can loop into hopelessness.
Let us frame it another way. What if it is art that keeps the world from changing absolutely . . . from letting madness have its way? The horror begins just where art ends. As the American poet Diane DiPrima has pointed out, “the only war that matters is the war against the imagination.” That war is being waged with a special—if not unprecedented—intensity in our own place and time. The ability to propose alternatives to the reality that established power presents as exclusive is always threatening. Art, at its best, dismisses otherness—erasing the necessary enemies that institutionalized violence requires.
Torture’s failure to see itself for what it is finds its counter in painter Leon Golub's Interrogation III, which depicts a naked, abused, blinded woman at its center who has her humanity restored by the artist's outrage. It reminds us that we are easily horrified in museums, while the artless cruelties of the news turn mundane around us.
Goya’s Los Desastres de la Guerra, a series of eighty prints depicting the consequences of the nineteenth-century Spanish War for Independence are unbearable, but they are not meant to simply document atrocities. The real paradox of horrors transformed into painting or sculpture or print is that art does not let the savagery have the last word.
Equally absurd and joyous, that defiance belongs to art. What more can the world require of it, even if—in the end—there are only broken statues in the sand?
—Stephen Vincent Kobasa is a writer and activist who contributes occasional essays on art and society to the New Haven Advocate.