The Art of Survival: On Santiago Zabala’s “Why Only Art Can Save Us”

Martin Woessner in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

WhyonlyartcansaveusMAURA AXELROD’S recent documentary film, Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back (2016), is a portrait of an elusive and controversial artist, one who has consistently turned manufactured scandals — a miniaturized sculpture of Hitler praying over here, an oversized middle finger in front of a stock exchange over there — into handsome paydays, whether in his native Italy, his adopted New York City, or many other places in between. Cattelan cuts a captivating figure on-screen: he is handsome, sly, seemingly in on the joke that is the global art market. It is easy to see why his works have been popular not just with curators and collectors, but also with museum-goers. Cattelan talks openly about his art, without a whole lot of pretense and without relying on academic jargon, either. How refreshing — he’d be perfect for the Guggenheim!

Only halfway through Axelrod’s film does the unsuspecting viewer begin to have doubts. Doesn’t the talking head on-screen seem a little young to have produced all these works, to have staged all these exhibitions? Don’t his words seem, well, a little rehearsed? The illusion is eventually revealed. It turns out Cattelan has been utilizing a surrogate for years, a stand-in who makes public appearances and sits for interviews in his stead. Naturally, the documentary would be no different. Suddenly, everything about Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back seems artificial, constructed. The artist has left the building. Maybe he was never even in it in the first place.

This trick has been pulled before (the 2010 Banksy film Exit Through the Gift Shop is an immediate and recognizable precursor). Still, it says something meaningful not just about our ambivalent relation to contemporary art but also about our complicated relation to truth and reality these days. If everyone agrees that the international art market is a fiction, a confidence game of global proportions, what else can artists do but find new things to fictionalize, including, perhaps most of all, themselves? Similarly, if everyone agrees that politics is, above all else, a performance, why should it come as a surprise that we continue to elect actors — “reality television” actors, no less — to high offices?

There is a growing consensus today about the dangers of living in a post-truth era, about the need for a new realism, which might cut through all of the artifice — all of the nonsense — and set things straight. The philosopher Santiago Zabala will have none of it. In his new book, Why Only Art Can Save Us: Aesthetics and the Absence of Emergency, Zabala rejects this rappel à l’ordre and suggests that now is precisely not the time to banish the poets from the city. It is from the artists, not the philosopher-kings, he thinks, that we have the most to learn.

More here.