We live in a world that fluently
manufactures catastrophe. Though tragedy is deplorable, artistic imaginations encumbered
by the configurations of adversity are nonetheless essential to how art is
Some artists, like Luzene
Hill and Vannak
Anan Prum, have wrested the indelible power of art to integrate severely
traumatic experiences and then interpret them profoundly. Other artists, such
as Ed and Nancy Kienholz, mine the terrain of severe trauma in
Bear Chair for instance, that function as ethical
imperatives for cognizance and reflection. Clangorous orchestrations that delve
deeply into acute psychological crises certainly exist as well, notably in
artists marked by tragedy, David Wojnarowicz for
By heralding a world of captivating
artistic visions unbound by customary constraints, artists who express the
appalling torments of severe trauma in their artworks are also inevitably
creating tributes to autonomy, defiance, and resilience, and by doing so, their
artworks are affectingly illustrating the power
of aesthetics (Dewey, 1934; Saito, 2007, 2017). Though originally
formulated to acknowledge the inescapable impact of everyday aesthetic
judgements on our physical, social, and ethical worlds, it seems no less
reasonable to now extend the imprimatur of the power of aesthetics to the
creative representations that emerge in the aftermath of tragedy, certainly in
terms of how these artworks augment insight, empathy, and identification with the
trials and tribulations of adversity.
Our task is not as difficult as it
may seem. Visit any Holocaust Memorial, such as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin (see Illustration), and the
viewer will immediately grasp the overwhelming power of aesthetics for
transforming a wretchedly catastrophic epoch into a riveting site of devastating
illumination and singular enlightenment. Even the death camps themselves, like the
Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site,
are extremely valuable aesthetic recreations of unimaginable brutality, and are
thus essential links for grasping the unbridled depths of human depravity, as
well as acting as effective remedies against contemptuous denials of murderous iniquity.
shift in aesthetic design is noteworthy in and of itself, especially evident in
relation to memorials that are explicitly reverential, largely statuary, and vaguely
classical in form with embedded inscriptions, the Lincoln Memorial
being a definitive
model. Though let us remember
is the common ground that all memorials share, the Holocaust memorials
intentionally incorporate indicia of unfathomable savagery, like a crematorium,
which inevitably provoke a very different kind of contemplation and reflection.
Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, dedicated to
victims of lynching and white supremacy, is yet another exemplar of the
underlying power of aesthetics for depicting human atrocity. All of the exhibitions contained
therein were conceived by artistic imaginations that sought to render despicable
tragedies in such a way that the aesthetic power of the representations could elicit
compassionate understanding and galvanize legislative action.
If the manifestation of art is an
interplay between artists, audiences, and contextual cues in the environment, the
flood of information accessible to viewers will obviously have a profound
impact on their judgements, lending future credence to the aesthetic power of renditions
that emanate from artistic visions manifested in the aftermath of severe trauma.
What we know about an artwork, and more assuredly about a memorial, animates what
we see. This point is especially significant because severe trauma leaves an indelible
mark, an unduplicatable fingerprint as it were. Since perception is always nuanced
by a multiplicity of informational, sensory and constructive dynamics, the
aesthetics of artistic visions that materialize as residuals to calamity also have
the auxiliary power to perforate the veils of amnesia, Holocaust denials and
Civil War apologias among them, through their inescapable narratives of evidentiary
Memorial to the
Murdered Jews in Europe. Photograph by Tania L Abramson, 2016.
Tania Love Abramson,
California, Los Angeles
Paul R. Abramson,
California, Los Angeles
Published February 7, 2019.
Dewey, John (1934/2005). Art
as Experience. New York: Perigee.
Saito, Yuriko (2007). Everyday
Aesthetics. New York: Oxford University Press.
Saito, Yuriko (2017). Aesthetics
of the Familiar: Everyday Life and World-Making. New York: Oxford University Press.