Saturday, December 12, 2015

Guest Post: “The Darkest Color: Lament of the Images by Alfredo Jaar” by Roya Lillie

            Though traditionally art has been confined to the realm of paintings and statues, contemporary art has begun to move away from these restrictive forms. Experience-based art, art which seeks to simulate experiences or emotions through a more palpable medium of expression, has become increasingly popular because it forces the viewer to feel, regardless of his or her artistic background. When visiting the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, I happened upon one such piece of art, Lament of the Images by Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar. This art piece was unlike anything I’d ever experienced; after reading three texts, one about Bill Gate’s archiving of photographs in an abandoned quarry, one about Nelson Mandela’s near blindness from imprisonment within a limestone quarry, and one about the U.S.’s decision to purchase all satellite images after a bombing in Afghanistan (each of which was printed in illuminated white text on a black background), I walked through a winding black hallway which ended facing an bright white light that was the size of the entire gallery wall. While museums such as MoMA have devoted multiple floors to the exploration of this kind of contemporary art, many people are hesitant to classify exhibitions such as this as a legitimate form of art, so I will describe, analyze, and critique “Lament of the Images” to ascertain whether or not this unconventional piece is indeed worthy to be classified as “art.”
            Though unconventional, this piece of art produces strong reactions from its viewers, and my experience was no exception. When I turned the first corner, the brightness of this piece caused me to instinctually turn my head and body away from the light. Even though I had read a sign that cautioned viewers about the strength of the light, I did not anticipate the light to be quite so strong. After overcoming my initial shock, I was able to weakly gaze into the light, and I felt an overwhelming sadness; because the light overpowered me, I felt like I had been stripped of my humanity and any sense of relevance. I also felt a sense of unity with the three other people in the exhibit with me because we were all struggling to appreciate the piece. This exhibit continued to affect me after I left; as I wandered out of the winding black hallway and back into the heart of the museum, I had a dazed expression on my face and a heavy feeling in my heart. Though the piece absolutely has an intellectual component through the inclusion of posters, I was primarily affected by the emotions that the light instilled in me; however, these emotions would not have manifested themselves if the intellectual component, the three pieces of text, had not been present to stimulate certain thoughts.
It is the combination of these two features, emotion and intellect, that has earned Alfredo Jaar quite the reputation in the contemporary art community. Though he has previously created pieces that discuss genocide and the horrors of war, Lament of the Images plays with the viewer’s anticipation of art to reveal the ways in which the powerless are blinded by the actions of the powerful. He does this not only through his piece of art but by manipulating the viewer’s experience leading up to the viewing of the piece. Each of the selected texts serves a purpose; each highlights some aspect of blindness. In the case of the archival of photographs, people are blinded by their loss of knowledge, in the case of the South African limestone quarry, people are nearly blinded by the brightness of the rock, and in the case of the U.S.’s purchasing of images, people are blinded and put in the dark about the actualities of war. By connecting the element of blindness in these texts, it is easy to understand the function of the light within the culmination of the piece; it serves to literally blind the viewer and force them to recognize their plight and powerlessness. In an interview with Patricia Phillips, Jaar states, “I wanted to complete the piece by offering a final ‘blinding’ experience to the audience. So the next space offered a large illuminated screen that simply contained light without images, but a very powerful light that left the audience temporarily out of sight and shocked into blindness.”[1] Jaar’s creation of blindness is intended to reveal a harsh juxtaposition: though we as a society may have access to a seemingly infinite amount of images, we should be “suspicious and disillusioned about the uses and misuses of photography in the art world, the press, and the world of entertainment”[2] and realize that images to not reflect knowledge. In this piece, the complete lack of images represents the “inadequacy of the image to represent contemporary experience.”[3] Much like many mythological tales, Jaar wants the viewer to understand that though we can “see,” we are truly blind.
            Because it incorporates blindingly bright light and harsh contrast, this piece does not have the aesthetically pleasing qualities that are traditionally attributed to pieces of art. On the contrary, this piece is anything but aesthetically pleasing; it assaults the viewer by cloaking them in darkness and then incapacitating them with light. This sharp, harsh contrast is done not through intricate craftsmanship but rough construction, and this means that there are no fine details or nuances that suggest a significant investment of time or money on the part of the artist. It is not complex, like more traditional mediums, and it only consists of five recognizable parts: light, dark, and the three informative texts. It is this “barebones” composition and its poor aesthetic qualities that would cause some philosophers such as David Hume to question the quality of this “art.” Hume would argue that this piece is not something that falls into the realm of “good taste” because of its crude physical construction. For Hume, fine details and delicacies are what distinguish pieces of good art from bad, and because this piece consists of five large pieces, it lacks details “of a very tender and delicate nature.”[4] Hume further asserts that the presence of refined elements “is the source of all the finest and most innocent enjoyments,”[5] and because this piece lacks refined elements, it cannot be considered “fine art.” Though Hume created his Standard of Taste to provide guidelines with which art should be judged, the ideal critic has a sense for fine details, and because this piece of art does not provide the critic with details to study and savor, this piece is simplistic and (possibly) crude; to say the least, it is not worthy of the title “work of art.”
            However, other philosophers argue that it is this simple, immense, and overwhelming harshness that makes this piece truly great. Because this piece features stark contrast on a grand scale, Burke would argue that viewing this piece is a sublime experience, one which could only be created by a true work of art. Because the light is present in an obscure and dark environment, the light takes control and shocks the viewer, and this makes it impossible for the viewer to attempt to fathom anything other than the art piece. Burke describes this sublime experience as a case where the “mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.” [6] In this way, this piece is sublime because it creates a completely immersive and engaging experience by uniting the mind and body in contemplation of the art piece. Burke argues that this piece is also sublime because it instills feelings of delight and terror. Initially, the piece startles and instills terror, but after the viewers finds themselves able to stare into the light, they experience delight at such a profound and incredible light; however, it is the immensity of size of the light that maintains an element of “astonishment,”[7] a feature that can interpreted as an aspect of terror. Though the intellectual components of this piece are intriguing, it is the presence of the sublime through the inclusion of light that makes this piece “without comparison greater.”[8] Though the sublime is something often found in nature, the initial and resounding terror of the brightness of the light combined with the delight in the ability to stare at the light makes this piece truly a man-made sublime experience.
            Still other philosophers agree that this piece is “good art,” but disagree as to the reasoning explaining why it is “good.” Leo Tolstoy would argue that it is not the sublime necessarily that makes this piece of art good but rather the feelings that the piece intentionally instills. Tolstoy states that a piece can be considered art only if “the spectators or auditors are infected by the feelings which the author has felt.”[9] This piece fulfills this requirement because, upon viewing it, I was filled with the same sense of powerlessness that Jaar felt as he witnessed the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.[10] Furthermore, Tolstoy states that this piece is art because it is the result of an activity where a person “consciously, by means of external signs, hands on to other feelings he has lived through.”[11] Again, because Jaar seeks to instill his own feelings in others, the piece is highly artistic. While the emotions that contributed to the creation of this piece clearly make this a work of art, the degree to which the emotions appear further clarifies the quality of the work. Tolstoy notes that though “the feelings with which the artist infects other may be most various,”[12] the degree of infectiousness, and therefore, the quality of the work, depends the most upon the “degree of sincerity in the artist,”[13] and it is Jaar’s earnest approach to spreading awareness through the emotions in his work that makes this piece sincere, and therefore, a high quality work of art.
This piece, though not physically complex, is incredibly emotionally powerful, and this is what distinguishes it as an excellent piece of art. The simplicity of this piece causes strong emotions in multiple formats, including the delight and terror of the sublime as well as sadness and nothingness that comes from erasure, and its ability to do so in such a minimal way suggests a great deal of skill on the part of the artist. Though this piece does not conform to traditional aesthetics, it is nonetheless effective in its ability to create a significant emotional experience. Furthermore, it is this untraditional approach that forces the viewer to engage with the work, something that traditional mediums are not able to do; it is absolutely possible to view the Mona Lisa and have an apathetic response, but it is impossible to walk through the dark hallways and view this piece without having either a physical or emotional reaction because this piece’s engaging properties “encourage people to take time, to stop, to read” [14] and have an immersive experience with art. Jaar notes that he “can’t force people to see, but [he] can provide conditions for people to slow down so that the work can engage them in a dialogue,”[15] and it is this dedication to increasing art appreciation within a culture that increasingly devalues art that makes this piece truly genius.
Though it is impossible to compare this piece with traditional mediums such as statues or paintings, this piece is significantly more powerful when compared to similar contemporary experience-based art found in MoMA because it alters the mood of the viewer for prolonged periods of time and seeks to engage the viewer in a much more profound and meaningful way. Though the piece does not manifest itself as physically complex, it is intellectually complex and multifaceted, and it encourages the mind to ponder the emotional significance of global issues.  In this way it makes fine art accessible and engaging for people of all ages; it reaches across socio-economic and racial barriers and forces its readers to engage regardless of their prior art education history.

Burke, Edmund. "The Sublime," in Aesthetics:  A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts, 3rd. ed., ed. David Goldblatt and Lee B. Brown (Boston: Prentice Hall, 2011), 404-5.

Hume, David.  "Of the Standard of Taste," in Art and Its Significance: an Anthology of Aesthetic Theory, 3rd ed., ed. Stephen David Ross (Albany: State University of New York Press,  1994), 78-94.

Phillips, Patricia C. “The aesthetics of witnessing: A conversation with Alfredo Jaar,” Art Journal 64.3 (2005): 6-27.

Tolstoy, Leo. “What is Art?,” in Art and Its Significance: an 
Anthology of Aesthetic Theory, 3rd ed., ed. Stephen David
Ross (Albany:State University of New York Press, 1994), 178-181.

Walker, Sydney R. “Artmaking and the Sinthome.” Visual Arts
Research 36.2 (2010): 75-82.


Roya Lillie is an English major at San Jose State University,

[1] Patricia C. Phillips, “The aesthetics of witnessing: a conversation with Alfredo Jaar.” Art Journal 64.3 (2005): 21.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Sydney R. Walker, “Artmaking and the Sinthome.” Visual Arts Research 36.2 (2010): 76.
[4] David Hume. "Of the Standard of Taste," in Art and Its Significance: an Anthology of Aesthetic Theory, 3rd ed., ed. Stephen David Ross (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 81.
[5] Ibid., 84.
[6] Edmund Burke. "The Sublime," in Aesthetics:  A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts, 3rd. ed., ed. David Goldblatt and Lee B. Brown (Boston: Prentice Hall, 2011), 404.
[7] Burke, op. cit., 405.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Leo Tolstoy, “What is Art?,” in Art and Its Significance: an Anthology of Aesthetic Theory, 3rd ed., ed. Stephen David Ross (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 179.
[10] Phillips, op. cit., 21.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid., 180.
[14] Phillips, op. cit., 21.
[15] Ibid.

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