Why Only Art Can Save Us


In Why Only Art Can Save Us, Santiago Zabala uses a wide range of visual works to make his point about how the contemporary world may survive the onslaught of what he terms “essential emergencies”. His interests lie with how these works – purpose-driven ones, created with activism at their centre – can challenge the criteria of our evaluative engagement with them. They destabilise the comfortable notions of what constitutes our reasonable, values-based relationship with the world around us. While not necessarily – or completely – subversive, these art works nevertheless have change at their heart. These are works that meet the pressing issues, such as climate change, the immigration crisis, war and violence, head on. Not new issues, but certainly ones that have become more urgent, given the intensity of their reccurrence and the mounting devastation of their consequences. Today’s emergencies have, as their bases, the added propulsion of technology, hence implications of reach and speed.

Zabala runs the gamut of Heideggerian event throughout Why Only Art Can Save Us, culling particularly from the Black Notebooks. Crucial to these is the state of every contemporary moment: the circumstances of possibility that give rise to the conditions of emergency that have stricken the age in which we live. The true nature of our current state of emergency is not that the crises confronting us today do not make ours a unique era; there will always be wars, and there will always be injustice. What distinguishes our little corner in human history is our neutering of these emergencies. For Zabala, ours is a moment more troubling than the emergencies we are faced with; the true crisis is in the absence of emergency – or at least our own complicity in the repudiation of these emergencies.

The proliferation and our over-exposure to all manner of subjection and exploitation have normalised these emergencies, even as they have desensitised us to them. We are reminded of the formula, “if everything is, then nothing is”. Here, we can think of the commodification of art in relation to the commodification of, for example, human tragedies through news reportage, as well as the memetic inevitability of social media trajectories. The hashtag tags an event as much as – and in the same vein as – the price label on a piece of art.

Zabala’s book was published some months before the 2017 sexual misconduct scandals that raged through the entertainment industry, particularly in America. The speed with which a few high-profile cases of sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood turned, first into an empowering moment for victims, with the #metoo hashtag, then becoming a weird combination of hysterics, witch-hunting, and media/social-media gawping, best exemplifies the structures that make possible the absence of emergency. To be clear, Hollywood is not Mosul, but through the voyeuristic lenses of crisis spectation, the lines are blurred.

It is in the context of the foregoing considerations and theoretical frames that Zabala trains his attention on his artistic subjects:

Néle Azevedo – Minimum Monument
Mandy Barker – Penalty: The World
Jota Castro – Mortgage
Jane Frere – Return of the Soul
Alfredo Jaar – The Eyes of Gutete Emerita
Jennifer Karady – “Former Segeant Jose Adames…”
kennardphillipps – Photo Op
eter McFarlane – Nest
Filipo Minelli – Contradictions
Michael Sailstorfer, Forst
Hema Upadhyay – Dream a Wish, Wish a Dream
Wang Zhiyuan – Thrown to the Wind

The choices are stark, yet representative of the points that Zabala raises in his key arguments in the book, of denying the absence that has come to define the troubles of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Where he has posited that the central difficulty of the contemporary moment is that, absent responsivity to crises, then the ability of art – of activist art – to modify and interpret the world and “reality” can give rise to a renewed understanding of this very absence, as well as of the overwhelming stakes that are involved. His engagement with these works thus provide a way to delineate a reconfigured idea about aesthetics, as one that is fully entrenched in this emergency, but from which it can drag humanity from fire, brimstone and high water – mostly of our own making. For Zabala, art done well – by the emergency-bound criteria that he sets out – is art that can expose the very heart of the emergency. But by locating art as existential events, we can also identify ways with which to intellectually and ontologically tackle the urgencies at hand.

If there is any complaint, it is that the art works in discussion in the book are relatively recent pieces, dealing with subject matters that are also fairly event-specific. These risk dating and constraining what are essentially some very universal philosophical considerations that have been raised by the book. Nevertheless, Santiago Zabala has written a profound and important work that responds to some of the most demanding issues of our day.


Santiago Zabala. Why Only Art Can Save Us: Aesthetics and the Absence of Emergency. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

Lim Lee Ching

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