Susanne Slavick's Out of Rubble is an exhibition in a book that boldly epitomizes the new, globally nomadic curation of art representative of current concerns of the world's vital cultures, both ancient and modern. Although the motif of rubble is chosen by Slavick to index the ubiquitous features of war and its aftermath, the artworks included herein equally represent indigenous cultures' intent to reinforce and maintain local customs and values as a defense against both reactionary regional insurgencies that embrace modernity from within and the long arm of homogenizing forces that are insidiously imposed from without, internationally. Although largely unintentional, Slavick's essay and selection of art combined present the scholar and critic of theory and ideology with a fascinating study of the ongoing tension between the current predilection for commentary and analysis of conflict and the universal visual signage of war that compels a more immediate response. This tension agitates beneath the surface of Slavick's study, renewing the debate between poststructuralist and existentialist analyses of conflict. Whereas the poststructuralist commentary is ideally suited for exhuming the archeology and economics of war, it is prone to textual insularity. By contrast, the existentialist reading, particularly well suited to the imagery of the aftermath of war, is given to overly metaphysical, if at times overwrought, ideological melodrama. Meanwhile, Slavick's selection of artworks reconciles two threads of the art-making process that are exceedingly relevant to cultures grappling with the effects of war: the direct experience of war knowable only by living through it and the empathetic response to war gathered and “known” through the media. In less capable hands, the distinct responses would polarize to the point of canceling each other out. It is to Slavick's credit that she manages to make the two seem equally viable, even complementary.
There is no superiority in the experience of war. At least, so goes the wisdom championed by pacifists for millennia. Yet the myth extolling the virtues of war veterans—be they military or civilian—is gratuitously resurrected at the outset of Susanne Slavick's Out of Rubble, a book that functions as much as an exhibition of vitally relevant visual art made in the wake of 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as it does an essay on how the signage and embodiments of war, specifically the remains and evidence of war's aftermath, have come to dominate the aesthetics and artistic production of politically minded artists of the previous decade.
This is only the first of instances in which Slavick reprises a myth that has been devalued by recent generations of artists and public, to counter with the current valuation of the issue before moving on without either dismissing or endorsing it or attempting to reconcile either of the views she has just unearthed. If neutrality is her aim, Slavick might have pointed us to the fact that the military model for evaluating the art of war hasn't been applicable to wartime art in the West since the late nineteenth century—the last time that painters who glamorized war were made canonical to art history.
Despite the sentimentalism that permeates so much journalism, the reality of war has held sway in recent US presidential elections, namely, in the victory of civilian Bill Clinton over the war veterans George H. W. Bush and Robert Dole and again in the recent victory of civilian Barack Obama over erstwhile prisoner of war John McCain. Yet there are at least two circumstances that compel us to consider Slavick's motivation for resurrecting the military bias for civilians; it may be justified, at least ironically. In keeping mindful of the wars that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its allies have led in Eastern Europe and the Middle East in the past two decades, the militaries of Western governments have shown how well they learned from the liberal media's close observation of the Vietnam War, to the extent that they today banish journalists to green zones miles removed from the front lines—except when embedding them within military campaigns, with all their attendant restraints, censorship, and disinformation. The US government also sought, but failed, to legally ban the media from the funerals of fallen soldiers. Considering the West's continued financial and cultural ties with military-backed governments, occupying powers, and parliamentary governments under threat of civil war, it may be no exaggeration to say that we find ourselves assimilating military perspectives into our media and art at a level comparable to that not exercised since the early 1960s, a time when the world political theater was dominated by Charles de Gaulle in France, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy in the United States, Juan Perón in Argentina, Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Nikita Khrushchev in the Soviet Union, Mao Tse-tung in China, Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan, and Fidel Castro in Cuba—all of these men championed to lead their nations during peacetime on the basis of their wartime achievements.
There is another, more pressing reason to review the military model. One look at Slavick's roster of artists informs us that she has compiled a globally representative selection, with a good number hailing from nations that have developed historically outside the Western avant-garde and its devaluation of art made in the service of state, church, and class propaganda. With Lida Abdul from Afghanistan; Adel Abidin from Iraq; Diana Al-Hadid from Syria; Taysir Batniji from Gaza; Xu Bing, Liu Bolin, and Xu Zhen from China; Osman Khan and Samina Mansuri from Pakistan; Julie Mehretu from Ethiopia; Simon Norfolk from Nigeria; Walid Raad from Lebanon; Armita Raafat from Iran; and Rocio Rodriguez from Cuba, more than one-third of the artists gathered by Slavick have experienced their primary enculturation in nations that, in many cases, have only in recent decades emerged from colonial rule, some of the nations having been wracked by wars during the artists' lifetimes, while others continue to be governed by despots and military occupations. Such an expansive representation at this point in the developing global agora of art urges us—as it obviously did Slavick—to reprise the debate on whether or not surviving war somehow makes us better, wiser, more responsible citizens and spiritually more enlightened leaders—if for no other reason than that this is a prejudice that still vitally propels the military backing of the administrations and regimes in several of these states.
One myth that Slavick might have better left dormant for its having so little influence today concerns the so-called beautification of tragedy and suffering through art. On the surface, the myth is a fallacy by the mutual exclusion of its terms: how can tragedy and suffering be rendered beautiful? And yet there remains the belief among certain moralizing schools of aesthetics that the beautiful art of tragedy is capable, through prolonged exposure, of anesthetizing the viewer to the pain of its subjects. It is ironic that Slavick would allow this myth such leeway, considering that her entire project is to a great degree devoted to an aesthetic process that gets erroneously labeled alternately as the aestheticization and the anesthetization of suffering.
The issue of Slavick's ambiguity toward these myths becomes clearer when we are made aware that it is through the eyes of Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Bertolt Brecht that the old admonishments of the aestheticization and anesthetization of suffering and tragedy seep into her discourse. In our resistance to let go of canonical texts, we signal that it is long past the time when our old warhorses of aesthetic criticism should be put to rest—if for no other reason than to clear room for more viable and vital voices to take hold. Benjamin, Adorno, and Brecht will always have much to tell us about the art and developing culture of the mid-twentieth century, as they had much to remind us between the 1960s and 1980s, when a new generation of political art cognoscenti were negotiating postmodernism. Yet not only have we since assimilated their more arcane insights with the art and criticism of our own day, but all three are to some extent being reduced to threadbare clichés in having their theories trotted out by every art writer seeking credibility by association with their precedents. All of which appears ironic when considering that as early as the late 1960s, student radicals in Europe, particularly in Frankfurt, came to regard theorists such as Adorno to be hopelessly out of date for their reticence toward taking political action (Leslie 1999).
For whatever reason, Slavick doesn't come out in full support of empathy. Instead, she prefers to cite an array of antecedents and competing critical opinions that mull over the beauty versus empathy debate. Of course, in raising the very name empathy, the author cancels out the notion that the “beautiful view of suffering” is an anesthetic. We need only understand that empathy isn't a learned trait but rather is evidenced as early as infancy. Empathy enables us, as we mature, to form instantaneous judgments against cruelty, in favor of the generosity of others. And since empathy cannot proceed from nothing, the metaphors by which we express our capacity for empathy—that empathy is “in our blood,” an innate component of “our collective unconscious,” that we “inherit it genetically”—all convey that empathy is received through some innately human, and perhaps some higher animal, structural regeneration.
Whatever arguments we pick with Slavick over her rhetorical delivery, we must give her credit where it is due for focusing our attention on the generic and iconic manifestations of rubble as the premiere and ubiquitous signifiers of war. Not since the early 1950s, when Harold Rosenberg (1952) branded action painters as existentialist—their primal marks registering as political defiance and asserting their individual existence in the face of adversity and enmity—have we witnessed so acute a singling out of an artistic motif, in this case to represent the universality of war. Rubble is, of course, not just a metaphor for war; it is the direct material effect of war, and in the art that depicts or assimilates war, rubble is war's document and evidence. Rubble is the single assuredly universal and unifying principle providing continuity between present-day representations of war and the historic and prehistoric visual representations of battles known through art and archeology, even to the earliest human memories and recognitions of combat and ruin.
Hence this is not the first generation to incorporate rubble as the subject of the iconographic theater of war. Since the earliest war photographers were not able to record the motion of soldiers and their weaponry, after the remains of the dead and the convalescence of the wounded, the sedentary remains of fallen fortifications marking the abandoned battlefields are what characterize some of the more placid and picturesque nineteenth-century war photography. Among the earliest of these, Roger Fenton's Valley of the Shadow of Death, taken in 1855 during the Crimean War, has captured a dirt road in a ravine littered with cannonballs. Similarly, Interior View of Fort Sumter Showing Ruins, one of the many well-known photographs by anonymous Confederate photographers of the ruins of the South near the close of the American Civil War, demonstrates a remarkable continuity with the video (or stills) of Lida Abdul's White House, Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla's How to Appear Invisible, MadeIn Company's Calm, and many other works depicted in Slavick's book.
Slavick's discursive exegeses of texts, by contrast, is confounded and complicated by the brevity and dialectical succession of the textual snippets she provides. Before we can grasp at any one of the cursory handles to meaning extended by Slavick's citations, the handle is cut from us, preventing us from deriving any gratification from the citation before we are handed the next one and the next after it. If we at all sympathize with Slavick's Rolodex approach to skimming through cultural theory, it is because the idea of nomadically visiting the different, contrasting, even conflicting conceptual paradigms is a highly desirable method of comprehending the many facets of any given global conflict when afforded the opportunity to study its multipolarities in depth. Unfortunately, while we are provided an index of contemporary criticism of great value to the student who can use Slavick's book as an introduction to more in-depth criticism and commentary, in the cursory and elliptical format that Slavick has submitted, the coherence required to formulate a compelling argument for or against any given issue remains fugitive. We know that the clues are somewhere there to be found, but they pass us by too discreetly, too quickly, to be identified with any real assurance. To succeed resoundingly in her ambitious project, Slavick would have to compile a more comprehensive and thorough anthology of writings that are at least representative of each writer's reasonings.
In addition to the artists already named in this review, Out of Rubble features the work of Joseph Beuys, Enrique Castrejon, Lenka Clayton, Helen de Main, Decolonizing Architecture, Jane Dixon, Christoph Draeger, Monica Haller, IDEA sarl, Andrew Ellis Johnson, Jennifer Karady, Mary Kelly, Anselm Kiefer, Barry Le Va, Curtis Mann, Raquel Maulwurf, Cornelia Parker, Thomas Ruff, elin o'Hara slavick, Susanne Slavick, Elaine Spatz-Rabinowitz, Pamela Wilson-Ryckman, and Tomoko Yoneda as well as an essay by Holly Edwards.