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The Transformative Self: Art and Image

Marko Zlomisli (forthcoming from Quest for Wisdom: Unfolding the Mosaic Self)

Aesthetics is traditionally defined as the study of the nature of beauty. Aesthetics examines the
role of taste, the meaning of art, the purpose of art, the relevance of artistic intent and how art is to be
defined. Rather than focus on these traditional concerns I want to show that there is a deeper meaning to
aesthetics that links it to transformation, metamorphosis, creativity and ethics.
Oscar Wilde argues that it is through art and through art only, that we can shield ourselves from
the sordid perils of actual existence. Art according to Wilde protects us from the Real, from the actual by
transporting us into the virtual. Art provides us with a world of antiseptic safety.
Art for Wilde is preferable to life because, we weep but are not wounded. We grieve but our
grief is not bitter. Art for Wilde transforms the real into the virtual. In my view, art must force us to
confront the real. Art can heal us when it forces us to confront our fictions.
If our social space is becoming virtual then our art will conform to reproducing the dominant
images of that space: anorexic models, advertising porn, beer commercials, fast food and infomercials.
This art is sterile, generic and mechanical. It leads to further confinement, rather than genuine
The art of the virtual promises us a better world. This better is to be achieved through more
consumption of things that we really do not need. In service of this mouth that must always eat and the
mind that must constantly be entertained, media, advertising, marketing, merchandizing, financial
services and retailing have invented the space in which we are to make ourselves into the new, the exotic
and the exciting. This very old game has its roots in the bread and circus of ancient Rome.
In our time, instead of actual creativity we have the left overs of a disposable culture that sells us
poison in the guise of what is beneficial. It is little wonder that William Burroughs in Naked Lunch
symbolizes this state of affairs in an anus that can speak. Instead of saying enough, it cries more! The
empty commodities that we are told will transform us are packed into an ever-growing structure of plastic
storage bins to be re-sold on E-Bay. Plastic and junk circulate within a loop of desire.
Modern art shows us the decay of its own meaning much like the end of Pulp Fiction when
Samuel L Jacksons character opens his case. The audience sees a golden glow reflected on the lid but
does not see what is inside the case. There is nothing inside the case, even as it is filled with cows, sheep
or sharks as in Damien Hirsts work.
What would it mean to live ones life as a work of art? The performance artist Stelarc believes his
skin hooked body suspensions are transformative. In his performances that make use of prosthetics, he
seeks to re-organize the body. He believes the body is an object for redesign. Stelarc argues that with a
complete prosthetic body we would no longer be subject to the limits of human life. He argues, this life
would no longer commence with birth and end with death. Stelarc envisions metamorphosis only
concerning the organs that would be replaced with synthetic counterparts. For Stelarc this would redefine
not only the significance of being human, but also of that which we call existence.
The French performance artist Orlan uses plastic surgery to question standards of beauty. The
surgical knife becomes the tool that helps her to achieve her metamorphosis. The skin is a site where
identity can become transformed. Both of these examples are outer transformations and as such are still
caught up in the imaginary and the predictable.
W.J.T. Mitchell teaches us we cannot see what seeing is. But we can attempt to uncover the
unseen, the unseeable and the overlooked. I take this activity to be what art attempts to do. Because we
are seeing animals, our society is arranged on the foundation of visuality. Plato has warned us against the
seduction of images because they lead us to ignore the truth of what is real and unchanging. What would
a world without images look like? Would eliminating the image mean eliminating the light?
To live in a culture is to live in a culture that is visual. Yet there are societies of the blind where
vision is not central and where images do not hold sway. The light, while bringing clarity and clearness,
can also bring blindness. We are told not to stare into the sun. Not being able to stare into the source of
light we turn our stare to other things. The stare is the time required to make sense of the unexpected.
Can the images created by art evoke the stare that holds your eyes in one place? To stare is to be
attracted and confused by what is seen.
We gaze at what we desire but we stare at what confuses us. Our eyes cannot adjust to what is
placed before our view. I think that excellent images cause us to stare. It sends our vision into disarray.
For the most part, our art extends the comfortable narrative we have createdart adorns walls, it is used
in advertising and other media. Of course, this is what corporations who control the dissemination of
images want. How do we move away from the corporate image-making machine to images created by
individuals who show us how to look at our world with new eyes? We must close our eyes to what
present day media presents us with so that they can be opened anew. The truth of art lies in its ability to
provoke us past our complacency.
In an influential book entitled, What Do Pictures Want? W.J.T. Mitchell outlines the strange
relationship we have with images. What does it mean to say that images influence us? We know that
pictures are material objects, marked with colours and shapes. Yet Mitchell writes we frequently talk
and act as if pictures had will, consciousness, urgency and desire. Mitchell asks, why do people behave
as if pictures were alive, as if works of art had minds of their own, as if images had a power to influence
human beings. What does it say about us that we can be persuaded, seduced and led astray by the
image? Mitchell argues that we have a double consciousness towards images. We know they are not
alive and yet we treat them as if they were. Mitchell asks, is our task as cultural critics to demystify
these images, to smash the modern idols, to expose the fetishes that enslave people? Further, Are
images the site on which political struggle should be waged, the site on which a new ethics is to be
What would this new ethic of the image look like? It might be in the impulse to lessen the hold
that images have on us. In our culture image is everything. This is evidence that we have allowed
ourselves to be enslaved by nothing. It is nothing but an image. But the nothing of the image has the
power to affect our emotions and behaviour. We give our desire over to what is impotent. The image like
the idol is sterile and hollow. This what makes it deadly. It pretends to offer us something and we are so
willing to sacrifice ourselves to receive its false promises.
A woman was recently charged for keeping her dead husband in her house for ten years. She told
authorities that she could not accept death. She chose to hold on to an image that she had staged for her
The image has a hold on us. The image captures a moment in time. It makes available for future
recall. Each photo album is like a crypt to be opened. The image inhabits the realm of death even as it
makes us cry or laugh. This is one way to read Holbeins famous painting The Ambassadors The image
already carries with it the stain of death that is its true ground. Yet at the same time, the image provides us
with moments of joyous recall. The image is both mourning and joy.
What is there left to see? What new spectacle can art offer us when what is placed on stage for
our view is a spectacular example of mediocrity much like a beauty pageant or a fast food commercial?
Art must make visible what cannot be seen. This is why Andy Warhols Brillo Boxes remain
coffin boxes. There is no surprise. Art must retrieve what the darkness attempts to hide. It must bring the
unseen to light. This light does not only saturate the canvas it also radiates from the face of the child in
clarity and beauty that cannot be anticipated and therefore never boxed in.
Following Nietzsche, Schlick sees the metamorphosis into the spirit of the child as the highest of
all transformations. Schlick writes that we ca learn from the child who is capable of the purest joy.
Schlick believes that the enthusiasm of youth can save our life-worlds from decay. But most cultures,
send their youth off to war while generals are decorated with medals for their good deeds in foreign
countries. The fight of art, if there is a fight still left to fight, should be against those who serve death and
decay in all its forms, while presenting these forms to us as images of true beauty.
Stephen Levine attempts to "focus on the ways in which arts can come to terms with human
suffering. His conclusion that Samuel Beckett's work is exemplary in capturing the essence of suffering
is fine from a literary point of view but not from an existential position.

Levine believes that "we are powerless before trauma. This is not correct. In trying to make
sense of the traumatic, we have power over it. Unlike Levine, I do not see trauma within the perspective
of tragedy. The fictions of Greek tragedies are not on the same level as real trauma. Yes, someone may
provide yet another reading of Oedipus or Electra, but in the end, the traumatic still happens. The
hopeless are not saved by the publication of another book on Sophocles.
Levine does realize that his work is "an impossible project" As he puts it, "it attempts to speak
about the unspeakable" and in doing so, "must necessarily fail" Of course, while Levine's logic may be
correct, I do think that we can make sense of trauma and suffering. After all, trauma and suffering have a
human origin. It is not as if some alien descended from the planet X and committed these atrocities
unexpectedly. Humans did these things because this is how humans choose to act. As such, there is
nothing mystical or unspeakable about suffering. We simply assert- humans did this to their own kind.
I differ from Levine in believing that trauma and suffering do not defy understanding. If they did
defy understanding, I would not have begun to paint. I would have sat down like Job in a pile of ashes
smoking Marlboros and eating apple pie. If trauma defies understanding, then the obvious question to ask
is, what role does the therapist play in analyzing the so called "unspeakable.
Levine argues, "in suffering, the sense of the world disappears. I believe the opposite to be true;
suffering is one way in which to sense the world. This also means that trauma forces us to discover the
core of joy that no amount of suffering and sorrow can erode. This great truth emerged for me, out of the
mass grave at Vukovar.
Levine believes that "art aims to become effective, to have an effect on others. Last week, I
looked at the collection of paintings that I finished during my time of trauma. Over 200 pieces of work
were completed. The works that I will never publicly exhibit are foreign to me now. All that can be said,
is the person who painted these pieces was obviously suffering. The fact that I no longer recognize myself
in these works shows me that trauma does not remain, "a badge of identity.
Art, as I see it, is not surrender to death, but a struggle against it. Rilke may have loved life so
generously that he loved death too, but I no longer believe in Greco-Germanic myths that have us
surrender to our fate so that we may become blessed.
Levine's brand of Dionysian poesis, in my opinion fails to capture what is really at stake. For
example, he writes, "The only cultural act.which the West brought that was meaningful to the besieged
city of Sarajevo was Susan Sontag's production of Waiting for Godot. Having lost friends in that
conflict, my reply is simply, how wonderful of Susan Sontag to bring culture to a city that was one of the
most culturally developed capitals in Europe before this Europe allowed it to be destroyed.
Levine sees Godot as "a mimesis" of the Sarajevans "own reality. What the citizens of Sarajevo
desperately needed was not another staging of Waiting for Godot but the arrival of a means of defense. As
Zizek has repeatedly pointed out, such beautiful souls fail to do what really needs to be done. For those
who lived through the siege, the cultural act par excellence was the West allowing the bombing to
continue for so long when it clearly had the means to stop it. Godot in Sarajevo signals the catastrophe of
Levine writes, "this is the groundless hope of a Dionysian philosophy that even in an abyssal
world, it is still possible to sing. At the grave, I did not hear any singing. Perhaps people sing after
having seen Oedipus Rex staged. At the mass grave, I heard only silence. It was a strange silence; very
different from the meditative silence found in Buddhist temples and university libraries. Here the words
of psychologist Rudolf Arnheim are poignant. He writes, "eyesight is insight.
The insights I gathered from my lived experiences run counter to Levine's theoretical insights,
however well articulated and well referenced they are. Any theory of art therapy will ultimately fail to
capture the uniqueness of every singular experience. This is why so many have not caught up with
Derrida's Franciscan insights as they continue to read him through other filters. Theory is useless when
one is confronted with trauma.
When I saw the mass grave, I did not think to myself, "You know, Beckett was right when he
wrote, "Nothing to be done" or Lacan was correct in his formulation of objet petit a as the basis of human
lack. At the grave, I did not think of Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology of the body even though hundreds
of stinking corpses surrounded me. No, I recalled the children's song, "Ashes, ashes, we all fall down",
especially as I gazed upon the little skulls with bullet holes in them.
I returning to my homeland ravaged by a war imposed on it, I was told that I alone was
responsible for what happened to me. I do not think that I was looking for death. I was looking for justice,
not revenge. I do not need to understand why this happened to me. I need to understand why this event
happened at all. It is of course, reassuring for those on the outside to blame the victim so that somehow
they will avoid the same catastrophe. Did I ask for this gift of death that was to become an event that
would re-orientate the co-ordinates of my life?
I did not seek out the traumatic because I enjoy suffering. What if the opposite were true-that
suffering was the only way to finally wake me up from my philosophic slumber. The mass grave was a
kind of initiation. Here I can agree with Chogyam Trungpas insights. He writes, to our horror we find
that there is no place to run. We are discovered in the act of hiding behind a faade, exposed on all sides;
the padding and armor that we have worn are all stripped away. There is no longer any place to hide. The
mass grave forced me to really stop properly. This proper stop, where X marks the spot put an end to self-
deception and dreaming. At the grave, all of my dream-worlds disappeared.
Levine would have us "embrace our own chaos. However, what does this exactly mean? He
writes, "Since we are chaotic, we can face the chaos of trauma without feeling that we must expel it from
our being. Is it not the other way around? Since we are not chaotic, we have such difficulty with trauma.
If chaos were the essence of our Heideggerian ground, then there would be no problem in dealing with
trauma. Trauma would be just another form of chaos that we already are. The experience of trauma says
Levine asks, "What kind of art is adequate to the experience of trauma? To me, the answer is the
art of the terrible, the grotesque, and the ugly. Here Levine cites the paintings of Francis Bacon. Bacon's
work had a huge impact on me. I thought, yes, this is it. I must take his work further into ugliness and
darkness. Therefore, I painted a la Bacon and then I had an epiphany. What I was painting was only
giving strength to death, darkness and chaos. I then began to paint landscapes and I think this is when I
began to heal. Ten years after my traumatic event, I realize that art cannot save us from anything. Art is
not salvific. It is not a salve or ointment. Returning to life is the grace that saves. Art can be compared to
the planting dead trees, decorating them with plastic fruit, taking a picture and then submitting it to
landscape magazine. Your deception is rewarded with the best garden of the year award, which simply
reinforces the delusion that there is nothing wrong with your approach to reality.
Levine believes that we must find a way to acknowledge all the pain and suffering in the world
and still say Yes! to our existence. This Nietzschean turn of phrase is very poetic. Somehow, I would like
to see an existence that is free from trauma. If the Buddhists are correct, then such freedom can be found
in the kitchen sink while the dishes are being washed.
Levine contends that " the wildness of Dionysian revelry is the orgiastic coming of new life from
the grave of the dead. At the mass grave, I did not see the Dionysian things that ground Levine's
theorizing. To answer Yeats, the rough beast that slouches towards Bethlehem to be born is a human
made chimera that will be celebrated by the Dionysian mob that never quite knew what thinking means.
When I hear a return to the Dionysian I am reminded of what Hulsenbeck, one of the founding fathers of
Dada said in Berlin in 1918: " Life should hurt, there is not enough cruelty. This is the art that Paul
Virillio calls "pitiless.
Levine argues : "And when the grave digger shows us our grave, we will leap into it, both
laughing and crying. Here I am reminded of a song by the Dave Matthews Band. Matthews sings,
Gravedigger, when you dig my grave, can you make it shallow, so I can feel the rain. I wonder, why all
this negotiation with gravediggers who have forgotten what it means to be alive. My son and daughter
love life. They are reminders for me that any philosophy that still traffics with death suffers from a
negativity that destroys life. Art is an attempt to overcome all graves. It is precisely the grave that must be
overcome. The Dionysian orgiastic is a thanatophilia without hope or promise of resurrection.