The Seen and the Obscene


Elizabeth Costello takes art seriously. She says: if you believe that art has the capacity to make people better, then you must be prepared to consider that it also has the capacity to make people worse. Doing so heightens the responsibility of the artist, who must now consider not only the positive but also the negative effects of her or his work. If we want to remain human, Costello argues, certain things ought not to be represented. Certain obscene things should remain off-scene. If—big if—we want to remain human…

In an essay entitled “Air War and Literature”, W.G. Sebald regrets the fact that after the Second World War, the Germans failed to represent the harm that was done to them by the allied bombings of civilian targets in Germany. This lack of representation prevented Germany—the perpetrator–to come to terms with the violence it had also suffered—its victimhood. It seems that Sebald believes art has the capacity to make people better. And his art—his fictional works—may indeed hold this capacity. But what about the essay “Air War and Literature”? This is not a work of fiction. Do Sebald’s descriptions of “horribly disfigured corpses [lying] everywhere. Bluish little phosphorous flames still flickered around many of them; others had been roasted brown or purple and reduced to a third of their normal size. They lay doubled up in pools of their own melted fat, which had sometimes already congealed” make the Germans better? Do they?

But perhaps the question of the seen and the obscene needs to be reconceived beyond good and evil, with an interest only in the capacity of art. Art does not have the capacity to make people better or worse; it simply has the capacity. It holds a pure kind of potentiality, cut off from moralized actuality. Like political potentiality, it just “can”—but “what” it can and the moral value of this “what” should perhaps remain unstated. This potentiality marks another kind of off-scene, an off-scene that is not obscene but simply off-scene: outside of the frame, acting from afar, constitutive of the reality that we are witnessing.

Think, in this context, of Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of George Washington. Washington has his right arm lifted, with his hand seemingly gesturing towards something outside of the painting. This was probably a standard pose at the time; if not, Stuart was possibly representing Washington in the middle of a speech, or else as making a characteristic gesture that would make him more recognizable. But if this painting indeed represents Washington at the moment of the hand-over of power, isn’t it interesting that Washington’s hand would be gesturing to something outside of the frame of his power, to the power of the people that put him in that position, thus marking both the off-scene potentiality of his political power, and of the artwork in which he is being captured?

References: Coetzee, J.M. Elizabeth Costello. New York: Viking, 2003; Sebald, W.G. On the Natural History of Destruction. Trans. Anthea Bell. New York: Random House, 2003. Image: Dan Davis, Man Immersed in Dark Matter, pencil and india ink on paper, A4, 2009.


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