An exhibition now touring several cities in Europe is worth visiting and thinking about, as it reflects both the political and cultural sensibility of Europe. PIGS is curated by Blanca de la Torre, a Spanish art curator who develops projects throughout the world and understands art as a social tool to disclose political injustices and prejudices. The “pigs” to which this exhibition refers are not simply the four countries (Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain) with useless economies according to the Troika (the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund) and certain media outlets (Financial Times, The Economist, and Newsweek). They are also necessary emergencies, a necessity that emerges from the aesthetics of emergency that, I believe, underlies this entire exhibition. To outline this aesthetics, I first situate its place within contemporary society and culture.
Today, the term “emergency” signifies more than crisis or alarm; it marks an event where something different emerges from the status quo. This difference is not necessarily a new object of perception, but rather a new way of perceiving what had been considered useless or indifferent, what has been discharged from “realism,” in this case, the “real” is Europe’s neoliberal system and its discharge is the four European countries (and Ireland) whose economies are marked as useless, degraded by the truth-defining system that seeks to mute any sense of emergency. This marks the emergency as absent, which does not mean there are no actual emergencies, such as the terrorist attacks, natural disasters, or cases of political corruption that we saw in Belgium, Ecuador, and Spain these past months. Instead, what this absence indicates is that all these real emergencies have been framed within our globalized system. In other words, they emerge as a consequence of this frame — and this emergence is an emergency.
Framing the world militarily, environmentally, and financially has created a condition where the “greatest emergency,” as philosopher Martin Heidegger predicted in the 1940s, is “the absence of emergency.” Today this absence is evident in the global “call to order” to behave accordingly. It is evident in the acts of the economists and politicians who constantly stress there is no other alternative to bailing out banks (Timothy Geithner), austerity measures (Mario Draghi), or coalition governments (Angela Merkel). This return to reality in contemporary culture is called “ new realism” and its aim is to declare the end of postmodernity by submitting philosophy, politics, and art to an independent reality that is not exhausted by any relation to humans.
According to new realism we ought to judge works of art independently of their effects, environment, and relations. Against financial alternatives, political change, and cultural alterations today, we are called to an order that is both unjust and under surveillance, as Edward Snowden demonstrated. This is probably why since the beginning of the twenty-first century attention around the concept of emergency has increased among philosophers (Giorgio Agamben) political scientists (Bonnie Honig) as well as literary critics and theorists (Arne de Boever). But how can aesthetics help resist this ongoing call to order?
This resistance was already under way when Walter Benjamin called for an “activist art,” when Arthur Danto asked that we “address art pragmatically,” and when Nicolas Bourriaud demanded that we move away “from the language of object-based analysis” that sought to “render discursive and dialogic projects more amenable to museums and galleries.” But today we need an even more radical turn. The “relational” or “social” turn art took in the 1990s to overcome the traditional relationship among the artist, the work of art, and the audience must now include emergencies, which are an integral part of the relationship. After all, as Danto explained,
“[art] is not for connoisseurs or collectors alone. Nor is it only for the people who share the artist’s culture or nationality. The globalization of the art world means that art addresses us in our humanity, as men and women who seek in art for meanings that neither of art’s peers — philosophy and religion — in what Hegel spoke of as the realm of Absolute Spirit, are able to provide.”
Without attempting to declare the end of the social turn and beginning of an “emergency phase” in contemporary art, it is possible to distinguish the sort of intervention each state demands. The former marks a social cooperation (Grant Kester) or collaboration (Claire Bishop) that is largely therapeutic. The latter is existential and strives to thrust us into the essential emergency. This move is evident in several works composing PIGS, such as Culture by Bill Balaskas or ANCAPS: Total Market by PSJM and José María Durán. Whereas Culture thrusts us into the indifference for culture imposed by our technological ways, ANCAPS displays one of the dominant concealed ideologies of our times — anarcho-capitalism. These emergencies are vital and necessary for our salvation; in other words, they are signposts of ways to avoid cultural and social annihilation. If these emergencies are to save us, it is because “where the danger is,” as Friedrich Hölderlin once wrote, “also grows the saving power.”
The works brilliantly curated by de la Torre are an indication of the main goal of aesthetics today. As Michael Kelly pointed out, aesthetics needs “to explain how the transformation of demands on art to demands by art is already a reality in some contemporary art.” PIGS discloses this demand through artworks that are not simply by the “pigs,” but also for the “Troika.” A question now arises: will they notice us?