Art, Word & Image (2010)

John Dixon Hunt, David Lomas, and Michael Corris, Art, Word and Image: 2,000 Years of Visual/Textual Interaction (Reaktion Books, 2010)

Excerpt from Part III, “Word and Image in Art Since 1945”:

The Play of Resolution
What did the conjunction ‘word’ and ‘image’ mean to art produced in the aftermath of World War Two? What possibilities did these two pillars of expression conjure up for artists still struggling to come to grips with the enormous cost, in human and material terms, of that historic conflict?

The prospect of a cornucopia of civilizing virtues lurking deep within the categories ‘art’ and ‘literature’ seemed doubtful after the experience of total war. Art and literature proved to be fluid, rather than foundational, markers for the future. While creative expression has always been in dialogue with currents of ideological conflict, the status of art and literature was challenged by the extreme polarization of left and right characteristic of the inter-war period and extending into the post-war era in the shape of the Cold War. The ideological mobilization of societies for the sake of war or Communism or capitalism from the 1930s through the 1950s left its mark on art while bringing home the lesson that the promise of culture’s autonomy — a condition linked to the autonomy of the subject — rested largely upon a certain understanding between power and society at large.

The events of World War Two taught the world that the individual was expendable. In particular, it was the Shoah that demonstrated precisely how autonomy could be obliterated using the available tools of Enlightenment rationality and capitalist efficiency. Art of the immediate post-War period could not remain indifferent to this history, to these truths. Yet, it was caught in an irresolvable situation: while it was art’s ethical duty to bear witness to the disasters of genocide and war, art could not be certain that it possessed adequate means to do so. A benchmark of horror had been installed in the history of civilization; not just art, but life itself was in question.

This chapter begins at a point of crisis: in art and society. If 1945 marks the end of the autonomous subject, then it also signals the beginning of a reaction against the post-War aporia of representation so brilliantly addressed in the writings of Theodor W. Adorno. Without trivializing Adorno’s conclusions or remaining indifferent to the historical events that gave rise to them, it can be said that the aporetic relation between word and image in art presented artists of the post-War period with a means to stave off cultural paralysis. In this context, the dialogue between word and image in a single artwork becomes a symbol of compensation; a symptom of the acknowledgement of the impossibility of art and literature to represent the collapse of the autonomous subject. The condition of the possibility of art is exemplified by the closing utterance of the protagonist in Samuel Beckett’s 1953 novel, L’Innomable (The Unnamable): ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’