Having agreed to “respond” to Dublin Contemporary I felt, initially, a little resentful. The call to “respond” seems to mirror the demand on the Dublin Contemporary website to “ENGAGE!”, and I, perhaps petulantly, resented such extortion. An initial idea, then, was to follow John Peel’s producer John Walters’ example of criticism: he once said that it was his life’s ambition to review a Yes album with one word: “no.”[1]

Instead of responding in such a stark way I offer two concrete examples and then the necessary judgment. I have a strong intuition that my examples are related to the task in hand, albeit tangentially. They are both underwritten by the same idea: that any claim that we should look to art for answers in times of crisis and change will always ring hollow. When politics becomes curated into an empty spectacle it loses its edge; and artworks become mere symptoms of the structural flaws in the social systems that they are supposed to ‘cure’.

Manhattan, Woody Allen, dir. (1979)Manhattan, film still, Woody Allen, dir. (1979); image held here.

My judgement is similarly underwritten by two thoughts: that we can expect a lot from art, but not so much that we have a right to be disappointed when the world doesn’t change around it; and that if you’re going to put on an empty spectacle, then at the very least you should do it well.


(1) Art, Crisis and Change?

 

On the 17th February 1821 the following notice appeared in Saunders’s Newsletter, a Dublin newspaper (published between 1746-1879):

Messrs Marshall respectfully beg leave again to solicit the kind patronage  of the Nobility, Gentry and the public of Dublin, and its vicinity, for their lately  finished, entirely novel Marine Peristrephic Panorama of the Wreck of the Medusa French Frigate and the Fatal Raft. Also the ceremony of crossing the line. Each view Accompanied by a full and appropriate band of music. The picture is painted on nearly 10,000 sq. feet of canvas, under the direction of one of the survivors, in a superior style of brilliancy and effect – the figures on the Raft and on the boat being the size of life and the Picture being of the Peristrephic form, give every appearance of reality….[2]

The subject matter for this spectacle was the sensational, and by this point hugely well known public scandal of the wreck of the frigate Medusa. It had been the flagship of a small French fleet of four boats carrying soldiers, officials, and slaves that set off in June 1816 to re-possess the French colony of Senegal from the British, in part to continue activities involved with slavery. The mission had been poorly planned and the commanding Captain, Hugues Deroy de Chaumareys, was incompetent and inexperienced (he had not been to sea in twenty years). The ship ran aground on a sandbank fifty kilometres off the coast of what is now Mauritania. In the resulting chaos around 250 people (mostly officers and their friends and family) made their escape in a small craft leaving the remaining crew, low-ranking soldiers, and general civilians (149 men and 1 woman) to survive on a large makeshift raft that was agreed would be towed to the shore. The officers, however, panicked and broke their vow. The raft was unhitched leaving those onboard to fend for themselves with little food or water and no navigational equipment or means of propulsion. The situation quickly descended into desperate acts of mutiny and violence. By the fourth day cannibalism was rife, and by the eighth injured and dying survivors were thrown overboard. After thirteen days just fifteen men survived.

To retell this grotesque and scandalous story, the Marshall spectacle immersed the audience in an environment that made a multi-sensory address through a rotating (peristrephic) painted panorama of six scenes accompanied by a loud soundtrack.[3] And it proved immensely popular. Scandal had become entertainment. Accounts tell of it playing three sell out shows a day and continuing by popular demand until the 9th June.

There are two reasons to think of why this spectacle would be relevant to contemporary Dublin and they hinge on the relationship between the publics that are created through display and collective forms of aesthetic experience; and moments of social crisis and change which those publics witness.

First, there is the reason that the Medusa scandal had become such a cause célèbre in France and beyond. It was taken to be a very clear manifestation of the absolute failure of the ruling establishment and existent political order in France. The system itself was in crisis, and this had lead to the terrible consequences for those who were subject to it.

 

As a result of Napoleon’s defeat a neo-conservative, Royalist, ruling order was established under the Bourbon-restoration monarchy of Louis XVIII. The ship’s captain, De Chaumareys, was widely regarded as a pompous, complacent relic from the ancien regime who was appointed through privilege and cronyism. The subsequent scandal was characterised by attempts by politicians and officials to cover up what had happened in order to protect those responsible, and the public were outraged at the ‘whitewash’ of the court martial of De Chaumareys when he was sentenced to a mere three years in jail.

 

In Narrative of a Voyage to Senegal in 1816, the sensational account of survivors Henri Savigny and Alexandre Corréard, the authors were unequivocal in directing blame for the whole incident directly at the ruling order. In the preface they write:

 

Here, we hear some voices ask, what right we have to make known to the government, men who are, perhaps, guilty, but whom their places, and their rank, entitle to more respect. They are ready to make it a crime in us, that we have dared to say, that officers of the marine had abandoned us. But what interest, we ask, in our turn, should cause a fatal indulgence to be claimed for those, who have failed in their duties; while the destruction of a hundred and fifty wretches, left to the most cruel fate, scarcely excited a murmur of disapprobation? Are we still in those times, when men and things were sacrificed to the caprices of favour? Are the resources and the dignities of the State, still the exclusive patrimony of a privileged class? and are there other titles to places and honours, besides merit and talents?[4]

 

Second, there were a number of different iterations of Medusa phenomenon. The Marshall panorama, and Savigny and Corréard’s narrative were just two such instances alongside William Thomas Moncrieff’s The Shipwreck of the Medusa: Or, The Fatal Raft!, a melodrama.[5] And, of course, Géricault’s large history painting The Raft of the Medusa (1819) that was also exhibited as a public spectacle by the impresario William Bullock first at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, London 1820 (12 June – 30 December) and again in the Rotunda in Dublin from 5th February 1821.

What’s interesting about the Dublin exhibition is that it was cut short by the competition that the Marshall panorama offered despite Bullock’s attempts to generate interest by dropping the price from one shilling and eight pence to ten pence “in order that all ranks may have the opportunity of viewing”.[6] The reason why is pretty clear; and it is not because of a simplistic conflict between high and low art in which the low can be seen as meshing more neatly with a public will. It’s rather that when seen equally as forms of entertainment within a visual culture the panorama more fully captured the public’s attention and made for a better spectacle than the painting. It generated a more thrilling aesthetic experience.

The Medusa represented a moment – with obvious pertinence today – when a crisis in a political system irrupted into the social imaginary to become a visible wound in the order of things. Crucially, however, the wound became a spectacle to be enjoyed. It acted as a focus for phantasmagorical delight and shared aesthetic experience. It offered a form of sociality by generating a collective fascination in a pathological injury in the body politic.


(2) Non-Compliance?

Just last week in London, I had a strange and jarring experience. I was waiting for someone in Trafalgar Square and decided to sit on a wall just below the Fourth Plinth (where the Yinka Shonibare piece Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle was on show). After a few minutes, I was approached by two men in semi-official looking jumpers and peaked hats. They asked me, politely, if I would mind getting down from where I was sitting.

“Yes I would mind,” I said.

They asked again politely, and again I, also politely, declined. I gave my reasons: that I was doing nothing illegal, or in any way offensive, and that I didn’t want to move. I then asked them who they were and was told that they were employed by GLA. (I later found out that this was the Greater London Authority who had contracted the private company Chubb Security Personnel Limited.)[7]

“So, you’re not police, you can’t arrest me then,” I said.

“Well you see sir, it’s a health and safety issue. We’re just doing our job.”

This back and forth went on for a little bit longer, during which time they remained calm, polite yet insistent whilst I became increasingly upset, irrational, and incoherent. It ended with me getting down and shouting.

“Fuck off!”

They just laughed and walked off. My miniature protest and attempt at non-compliance had been utterly inconsequential. It had been a pointless, petulant bluster of inchoate impoliteness that had no effect whatsoever.

A few moments later I saw them chatting with some adults and taking photographs for them of their kids clambering over the lions down in the square.

I had found the intervention of these ‘Heritage Wardens’ threatening and troubling and had been unsettled by the whole experience. The claim that it was a health and safety issue seems to point to what’s at stake; because it’s in the regulation of the body, specifically, to which the concerns of health and safety are directed. It was my body that was precariously balanced on the classical balustrades, and it was my body that was being challenged.

The body is important in this example because of its involvement. We are implicated in a whole system of things and meanings; we are involved in what Husserl called a “thingly nexus”[8] of objects and events. There are at least two implications of this involvement.

On the one hand when demands are made of me, or infringements, then they are directed specifically not toward my ideas or my feeling but toward the substance of my body. It is a direct physical address.

And on the other, the body is a transcendent, or at least quasi-transcendent thing. It can migrate between different places and different systems; and disrupt their operations.

Clearly this is Merleau-Ponty’s insight in The Phenomenology of Perception. But, crucially this is also what Husserl means when he says that that the body is constituted in a “double way,” as a physical thing and as an entity that participates in meaning (or “sense,” Sinn).

This doubling means that the body cannot only be acted upon, but also that it can resist. It can push back. It can refuse to comply.

The body is coiled up with a potential to disrupt the easy flow of capital and information within social systems. And hence, it forms the origin of a politics. This would mean, then, a politics that is grounded in what Husserl calls the “physical-aesthesiological unity” of the body. He says of this unity:

In the abstract, I can separate the physical and aesthesiological strata but can do so precisely only in the abstract. In the concrete perception, the Body is there as a new sort of unity of apprehension. It is constituted as an Objectivity in its own right, which fits under the formal-universal concept of reality, as a thing that preserves its identical properties over and against changing external circumstances.[9]

To make a leap – it is a critique of politics that are abstract which forms the basis of Žižek’s critique of the “lost causes” of liberal politics. In this section his focus is Simon Critchley:

The lesson here is that the truly subversive thing is not to insist on ‘infinite’ demands we know those in power cannot fulfill (since they also know it that we know it, such an ‘infinitely demanding’ attitude is easily acceptable for those in power: “so wonderful that, with your critical demands, you remind us what kind of world we would all like to live in – unfortunately, however, we live in the real world, where we are just honestly doing what is possible”), but, on the contrary, to bombard those in power with strategically well-selected precise, finite demands which cannot allow for the same excuse.[10]

Which when I read it recently (he is particularly critical of Critchley’s defence of humour as an ethical and political strategy) immediately reminded me of that great exchange in Manhattan:

Man: I heard you quit your job?

Isaac: Yeah, a real self-destructive impulse. You know, I want to write a book, so I, so I … Has anybody read that Nazis are going to march in New Jersey, you know? I read this in the newspaper, we should go down there, get some guys together, you know, get some bricks and baseball bats and really explain things to them.

Man: There was this devastating satirical piece on that on the op-ed
page of the Times. It is devastating.

Isaac: Well, well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point.

Woman: Oh, but really biting satire is always better than physical
force.

Isaac: No, physical force is always better with Nazis. Cos it’s hard to satirize a guy with shiny boots.[11]

It’s hard to satirize a guy in shiny boots. And ones in jumpers and peaked hats too. We need to think about what forms of non-compliance are most appropriate. And it’s my guess that swearing, sculptures, and large scale art shows are equally inconsequential.


(3)  A judgement

In the Autumn of 2011 a large exhibition took place in Dublin called Dublin Contemporary. The curatorial statements around the show were incoherent and so broad as to be nearly meaningless. It was as if they’d been sketched on the back of a cigarette packet on the plane over. Frustratingly this failure to define any terms made the claims slippery and hard to pin down, and engage with (what has “terrible beauty” got to do with crisis and chance?; “non-compliance” with what?). The publicity for the show was similarly lacking in coherence and included bill posters that read like parodies of advertising slogans: “see the world through different eyes.”

It seemed to be offering up a form of politics as a spectacle; but it was not very spectacular. There seemed to be some claim being made about art as a form of social commentary; but it had nothing concrete to say. Some art in the show was very good, some quite good and some very bad. Right now we need responses to contemporary crisis and change that address specific problems with precise and finite demands. In these times any shoddy spectacle, and particularly this one, is not good enough.


Francis Halsall is lecturer in the history and theory of modern/ contemporary art at National College of Art and Design, Dublin where he coordinates the MA: Art in the Contemporary World. He has research interests in aesthetics, systems theory, phenomenology and modern/contemporary art. Recent writing and ideas can be found at his blog: alittletagend.blogspot.com.


* This essay was originally published in the Paper Visual Art Dublin hard copy edition that was launched on 18th November, 2011.

_________________

 

[1] My second favourite review is the one for Spinal Tap’s album that Marty DiBergi reads out in the film: “The review for Shark Sandwich was merely a two word review which simply read “Shit Sandwich.’”

[2] Quoted in Lee Johnson, ‘“Raft of the Medusa” in Great Britain,’ The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 96, No. 617, (Aug., 1954),  p 249-254.

[3] See also: Jonathan Crary, “Géricault, the Panorama, and Sites of Reality in the Early Nineteenth Century,” Grey Room, 09, (Fall 2002), pp 5-25; Christine Riding, “Staging the Raft of the Medusa,” Visual Culture in Britain. Vol. 5, no.  2, (Winter 2004) pp. 1–26; Jonathan Miles, Medusa, The Shipwreck, The Scandal, The Masterpiece, (Jonathan Cape, 2007).

[4] J. B. Henry Savigny and Alexander Corréard, Narrative of a Voyage to Senegal in 1816 available at Project Gutenberg: HYPERLINK<www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/11772/pg11772.html (Oct. 21, 2011).

[5] The panorama was shown in London from 1st December 1823 at the Great Room, Spring Gardens, as ‘the French panorama of the Shipwreck of the Medusa’; Moncrieff’s play  showed at the Royal Coburg Theatre (The Old Vic) from 29 May to 28 June 1820 and played again there in 1827 after which it was adapted for a show at the Bowery and Franklin theatres in New York City in 1837.

[6] Saunders’s Newsletter quoted in Jonathan Miles, Medusa, The Shipwreck, The Scandal, The Masterpiece, (Jonathan Cape, 2007), p 206.

[7] “It is proposed that a tender exercise is undertaken in order to procure a new contract for Security Services at Trafalgar & Parliament Square, with an estimated start date of 1 May 2011 for a period of 4-years with the option to extend for up to 2 years in 1-year lots…The estimated cost of the proposed new contract for 4-years is £1,715,044, which equates to approximately £428,761 per annum and will have to contained within the budget provision for London Squares subject to the annual Strategic Planning & Budget Process.” “Trafalgar and Parliament Square Heritage Warden Contract Extension and Tender ” at: HYPERLINK <www.london.gov.uk/>;(accessed 17th Oct. 2011).

[8] “We have seen that in all experience of spatio-thingly Objects, the body ‘is involved’ as the perceptual organ of the experiencing subject.” Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy: Second Book, trans. R. Rojcewicz & A. Schuwer, (Springer, 1990) p 36.

[9] Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy: Second Book, trans. R. Rojcewicz & A. Schuwer, (Springer, 1990) p 40.

[10] Slavoj Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes, (Verso, 2009) p 349-50.

[11] Woody Allen (Dir): Manhattan, (1979).