Ziarek’s Beyond Critique? Art and Power details the complicated relationship of art and power after modernity’s realization of the limits of critique. This essay would be ideal for anyone interested in the power of art to open up the critical conversation while freeing critique in some sense from the oppressive structures of rhetoric. Ziarek works through Adorno and Heidegger ultimately finding Heidegger’s treatment of instrumentality useful in freeing art from problematic dynamics of power.
Ziarek begins by citing the stakes of this essay, in short, to establish the nature of the unique language of art as it stands in difference from the language of critique. For Ziarek, art becomes a more powerful tool then critique through its ability to make flexible and work beyond the constraints of traditional critical language. He cites “art’s distinctive capacity to outsrip and undermine critique, that is, to void, or perhaps even to transform the very parameters within which critique operates and becomes recognizable as critique, and which critique also, by default, reconfirms and petrifies.” (107) Referencing the work of the avant-garde, Ziarek reveals how the de-aestheticization of art, the making of art into an event that subverts traditional and empirical expectations of art serves to expand it’s capabilities. After the avant-garde, there is a certain responsibility to re-evaluate what art can do, what is its job, and what kind of power does it wield?
Ziarek continues to discuss Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory which addresses the constraints and ultimately the strength of art. For Adorno, art is somewhat problematic because, like critique, it works within established schemes of representation and socially recognizable forms. It is, to a certain extent, a negation of itself, “the paradox of the necessity and the impossibility of critique” (109). Art cannot seperate itself from the language of critique and from its own forms of representation which play into dichotomies of power, but its “immanent character of being an act” (109, Adorno) has, in a sense, given art a kind of “intensity” (110). This intensity is easily disregarded; Adorno emphasizes that art is not understood as powerful or effective, its’ medium is one that is understood and valued in an aesthetic sense. When we view a work of art, we are essentially possessing it, it is open to our interpretation and oppression of its messages. Therein lies its’ effectivity for Adorno; art is a subversion. We do not expect it to speak critically away from what we bring to it, it is a “‘discourse’ whose radicality cosists in undermining power’s pervasive hold on contemporary reality” (110). In this way, art works more critically then critique itself because it has, intrinsic to its medium, an acute sense of what it is to be oppressed.
Ziarek goes on to discuss the place of art in Heidegger’s thought in relation to Adorno’s claims about the radical power of art. Adorno understands Heidegger’s notion of critique as “the concept and the object, an opposition in which the conceptual moment becomes fulfilled in the object while, in the same gesture, the object is shown to correspond to the concept.” (111) Ziarek complicates this understanding by introducing Heidegger’s emphasis on the event, Ereiginis, “the opening up of space” in which difference emerges continuously in opposition to the static difference and meditation that Adorno addresses. Heidegger then, understands the force of art, of poiesis, as one that ‘lets be’ rather than “rendering available” (113). Heidegger understands rendering available in terms of his ideas of technicity and enframing. Essentially, there is a kind of unworlding effect in light of the prominence of technology in modernity. Everything in the world, indeed the word itself neccessarily must have a distinct purpose, an instrumentality. Art, for Heidegger, evades this in its’ letting be. This allows the power of art to be characteristically antithetical to mechanisms of power which seek to control. The power of art is one of openness, of continuous folding and meditation rather than the stagnant force of traditional critique.
Ziarek also pays particular attention to Hediegger’s notion of nihilation as opposed to negation. Nihilation in this sense, enables being, it is not a negation or a destruction but an opening up (lichtung) into possibilities and difference through the letting be and fluidity of its action. “The otherness enabled by nihilation cannot be subsumed into negation or opposition but marks instead the differentiation intrinsic to the event. This differentiation is ‘grounded’ not simply in difference but in the futurity kept open by nihilation. Furthermore, otherness here is not a matter of identity and difference, since it is inscribed not just on the ontic level of beings and entities, but on the level of the ontological” (119). Here we understand that nihilation provides a kind of motion that does not seek to qualify on the ontic, average-everyday level. It will not simply provide an identity or explain or critique another explanation, but rather reach in some sense, through its insistence on difference, an existence that evades and exploits power a power that effects rather than allows for an opening up. Art’s responsibility then, is in a kind of taking-care. Heidegger understands being as informed by other beings. However, in order to approach those beings without oppressing them or using them on an instrumental level we must approach those beings as-they-are-in-themselves. This is the letting be that allows for a futurity of power in art that is antioppressive. On the contrary, art becomes an event that, in its openness, is transformative and newly critical.