Art as Far as the Eye Can See [Review]

Cover: Art as far as the eye can seeA well established cultural critic, Paul Virilio writes insightfully on the profound effects that the technological advances of the twentieth century have had upon the West. Virilio seeks to tackle the problems such progress has created, principally in so-called “advanced” Western societies, and his concerns that we are rapidly losing our ability to meaningfully interact with the physical world that surrounds us cannot fail to strike a chord with readers disillusioned by the rampant progress of what we have called the information revolution.

Setting out to deal with the concept of “art,” although just what this concept refers to is left rather vague throughout the book, this short publication offers at once much more and much less than it seems to promise. Virilio is clearly a writer who has much to say on a broad range of topics, and perhaps it is for this reason that his short treatise seems unable to help itself from spilling over from its remit and encroaching upon political and philosophical concerns familiar to any reader previously acquainted with his work. Yet whilst this does not make the book itself any less insightful, it leads one to ask whether many of its core ideas have already been explored, if not developed, in previous titles such as Open Sky (1997).

Art as Far as the Eye Can See is developed in three sections with a fourth providing a short conclusion. The first of these sections, Expect the unexpected, explores the loss of our ability to empathise both with our physical environment and those with whom we share it. Sunk in the quicksand of virtuality and its quick and easy communication, we have, in Virilio’s mind, succumbed to a species of apathy from which only panic and fear can rouse us. Consider, for example, his depiction of television:

… this combat sport that does battle with the apathy of televiewers who expect the unexpected alone to wake them out of their lethargy a little, out of the attention deficit that has replaced the vigilance in them.

And art too, it would seem, has been corroded by much the same phenomenon:

…you no longer expect some brainwave of genius, the surprise of originality, but merely accident, the catastrophe of finality.

The second part of the book, An exorbitant art, sees Virilio move on to consider technological advances in terms of what he calls “aeroscopy” (looking inwards at the earth) and the rise of the “technosciences.” He considers how the former, a direct consequence of the possibilities of air and space travel, has fundamentally altered how we view and relate to the world, and as an example, invites us to consider the parallel between Jackson Pollock’s decision to place his canvas on the ground and work from above, and the aeroscopy of air travel. With respect to the latter, he shows how a range of sciences, based on teleperception have allowed us to see far beyond what can be seen by the naked eye. Virilio then links the two to the demise of Western metaphysics: the waning interest in gazing outwards towards the heavens in contemplation of the “hereafter” has been contemporaneous with the development of the new technologies by which aeroscopy and the technociences first became possible.

And so Virilio explains, the “sacred art of humanity’s origins” has been replaced by the “profaned art” of the present, one that looks inwards towards the earth and one for which the “accident of something unforeseen” is of vital importance in captivating the deficient attention spans of modern day “art consumers.” Just like the televiewers of the preceding section, it would appear that art and its public have also been affected by the large scale shifts in our mechanisms of perception.

The third and final section of Virilio’s treatise concerns the phenomenon of what he refers to as “mass individualism” whereby the now somewhat anachronistic notion of a community that shares common beliefs and interests has given way to an “instantaneous community of emotion,” a new breed of collectivism that takes over from that of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. It is much to his credit that Virilio perceives, rather astutely, the paradox of Western liberal democracy that is now becoming apparent, asking:

…is the direct democracy of the global age’s community of emotion still democratic […] Or is it not, rather, a sort of communism of public emotion that cunningly revives that of Marxism, in order to serve the interests of a TURBO CAPITALISM?

As a reflection of this, Virilio posits that we are seeing the gradual disappearance of aesthetics: it is no longer the work per se that is of interest, not its substantiality or retinal persistence, but instead experience and emotion, which have become of primary importance. Whence his example of Banksy’s clandestine paintings left languishing in public view on the walls of several of New York’s museums, or the concept of Museum Night where it is not the museum’s artefacts themselves but the experience, the emotions produced by the novelty of visiting a museum at night, which it is hoped will catch the attention of the public.

In his conclusion, Virilio asserts that we are in the early stages of the

dematerialization of the art of seeing and knowing; the confusion of the perceptible that is analogous is many respects, with the confusion of this Babelian language where everything dissolves into the indistinction, followed shortly by the indifference, then by the passitivity, of a befuddled subject.

He sees the choice as one between the “art-light” of the televised image, marked by the absence of retinal persistence, and the “art-matter” of the visual arts, forcing us to confront that at the heart of the matter is the issue of whether one of our most precious ways of interpreting the world around us will, like so many other aspects of our lives, be swept under into the virtual world by the currents of digital progress.

Yet for all its perspicacity, Virilio’s book raises the issue of to what extent his own writing bears the hallmarks of the phenomena he observes: is his prolific use of neologisms and intellectual soundbites not merely a repetition of the same “accidents” he critiques in both art and television in order to rouse his own readership from its own species of passitivity? Moreover, just what is this “art,” the elusive object of Virilio’s study? Whilst the insightfulness of his commentary is undeniable, and whilst the argument he creates will doubtless be of considerable interest to the readers of our time, one is also left with the feeling that it is to the detriment of this book that below this fragmentary and at times almost incoherent surface that screams to attract attention to itself, the strongly grounded, substantial and well-developed argument necessary to really get to grips with the complexity of the subject matter and tackle with any profundity the dynamics of “art” in the twenty-first century, whatever this “art” may be, is sadly lacking.

Virilio, P. (2007), Art as Far as the Eye Can See, Oxford & New York: Berg.



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