It was reported in the Washington Post that the Trump White House had asked to borrow Vincent van Gogh’s 1888 painting Landscape with Snow from the Guggenheim Museum in New York in order to display it in the President’s private quarters. [1] The request for the Van Gogh was refused. In its place, the Guggenheim offered to lend a different work: Maurizio Cattelan’s America, an 18-karat, fully functioning, solid gold toilet that has been used by over 100,000 visitors to the Guggenheim.

The Guggenheim’s gesture was remarkable — first, for its redundancy, since Trump is more likely than anyone alive to already be in possession of a solid gold toilet.[2] Instead of shining interesting new light on the White House’s current occupant, the Guggenheim simply mirrored Trump’s self-fashioned image about as subtly as the playground taunt “I know you are, but what am I?” — or as subtly as anti-American pique is conveyed in Cattelan’s objet de ridicule itself.

Cattelan called his golden toilet “one-percent art for the ninety-nine percent.” But the name “art” is not earned — as Santiago Zabala wrongly claims, invoking Duchamp’s Fountain — merely by placing a readymade “within the walls of a museum.” [3] As Duchamp understood, the term “artwork” applies in late modernity only to those objects that are treated like artworks, in virtue of belonging to a collection of such works.[4] For a start, to be treated as belonging to an art collection means that the object in question is taken out of the cycle of use, consumption, and waste.

Manifestly, the claim that America is “art” is nothing but a hollow assertion — not borne out by the Guggenheim’s treatment of it. For one thing, it is not publicly displayed, nor is it conserved in the bowels of the museum’s archives. Instead, it is installed as a functioning toilet in a restroom that accommodates one “user” at a time. [5] One is thus not invited just to view or admire America — one is explicitly urged to use it, in just the way one would utilize any other toilet in the world as a means of waste disposal, say, after enjoying a cup of coffee in the museum’s café. In contrast to other works in the Guggenheim’s “art collection,” the golden loo is not preserved from routine use. It is treated as a commodity — a commode-ity, if you like.

America is therefore not, as Catellan falsely claims, “one-percent art for the ninety-nine percent.” It is a one-percent toilet temporarily on loan, courtesy of the Guggenheim, to individual museum-goers (a demographic that is, in any case, a questionable metonymic for the ninety-nine percent). In effect, the Guggenheim “lends” America to one private user at a time — but not as an artwork; only as a ridiculously expensive latrine. Anyway, the Guggenheim itself already retains the power to annul Cattelan’s definition since, as the offer to Trump shows, the museum has the power to restrict the use of toilet to the “one percent” as, indeed, to one person.

But “art” is not only a misnomer here. It is also deceitful since the term “art” serves to actively mask the golden toilet’s true significance.

The truth, of course, is that the toilet’s status reflects the Guggenheim’s (at least temporary) ownership of it — a relation of private proprietorship that is underscored by the toilet’s sheer expense, its ostentatious wastefulness and manifest excess, its placement and maintenance on the Guggenheim’s premises, as well as the “generosity” with which the museum loans the toilet to needy individuals on a limited basis (for the amount of time needed for someone to “use the toilet”). The Guggenheim displays Cattelan’s “art” as its property, as something owned, in exactly the way Trump features his gilded escalator in the lobby of the Trump Tower — except for the fact that Trump makes no deceptive claims about the escalator being “art.”

By offering Trump exclusive use of its golden loo, then, the Guggenheim revealed the true status and significance of Catellan’s achievement. It was never an artwork. It was always a luxury consumption item, a kind of “fake art.” The appellation “art” barely masks the Guggenheim’s hypocrisy in offering the toilet to Trump. A more forthright approach would have been to ask Trump to pay rent for the Van Gogh.

Contemporary artworks like Cattelan’s are “determined to save us,” writes Zabala in Why Only Art Can Save Us (8). Perhaps this claim would be true, if it meant that contemporary works like the golden loo “save us” by servicing the demands of human consumption (and constipation). And perhaps — where extreme wealth abounds — salvation might also come from “making available to the public an extravagant luxury product seemingly intended for the 1 percent.” [6] What we produce in the contemporary world might perhaps begin to save us, that is, just by serving unmet material needs.

Alas, Zabala has a more pious form of salvation in mind.

The cover of Zabala’s Why Only Art Can Save Us is adorned with the image of yet another work by Cattelan. This time, it’s an installation called The Ninth Hour, which depicts Pope John Paul II lying on the ground, clutching a crucifix, after being struck by a meteorite. “The sculpture’s title,” Zabala explains, “alludes to the ninth hour of darkness that fell upon all the land when Christ called out ‘ Eli, Eli lema sabachtthani?’ — ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (xi). The sentence just cited is — somewhat bafflingly — the only comment that Zabala dedicates to Cattelan’s sculpture in his book. The next sentence moves on: “This alludes to this book’s title, which paraphrases Martin Heidegger’s famous statement that ‘only a God can still save us’…”

The suggestion that being forsaken by God “alludes” to being “saved” by a God (and only a God) is a sleight of hand — not unlike the quick substitution of “art” (and “only art”) for “only a God” in the “paraphrase” offered by Zabala’s book. [7] The sleight is facilitated by the fact that the verb “allude” occurs three times in the first four sentences of his book — where Zabala suggests that Cattelan’s installation alludes to Scripture, which in turn alludes to the title of Zabala’s book, which in turn paraphrases Heidegger’s famous statement, which in turn “alludes not to God’s representative on earth, as portrayed in Cattelan’s work, but rather the absence of being” (xi).

If it seems like nitpicking to point out that these allusions take the place of logical argument or interpretative judgment, then consider that Zabala’s entire book rests on this string of associations, which tumble into the book’s basic conclusion: We are “thrust us into” the “essential emergency (the absence of Being) … as it is revealed through works of art” like Cattelan’s (xi).

And yet another sleight of hand is not far behind, since it also turns out that the “essential emergency” into which art thrusts us, according to Zabala, is not, as Heidegger claimed, “Being’s abandonment.” Instead, it is “the political ‘neutralization’ or ‘lack of a sense of emergency’ that we find ourselves in” (11).

Because Zabala’s use of Heidegger is confusing, a few words about Heidegger’s theory of art are in order. For Heidegger, the historical-philosophical significance of artworks is connected to their status as “events.” Art is above all something that happens, rather than just something that is done. Art is thus both unconcealing and concealing at the same time, the way a gust of wind both covers and uncovers as it passes over a sandy beach. What is “at work” (am Werk) in artworks is not so much a particular artist, Heidegger claims, but something more like the artist’s world (the historical world — “technology-saturated” societies, for instance). “Art is the becoming and happening of truth,” writes Heidegger — where the “truth” that happens is both the “unconcealing” and “concealing” of the world in tension with what Heidegger calls the Earth, das Erde[8]

Like the Trump White House, Heidegger turns to Van Gogh for a perspicuous example of what he means by “art.” In Pair of Shoes (1886), Heidegger sees the work of art allegorized by the painting’s disclosure of the peasant-farmer world, in tension with the Earth, as visible in the “equipmentality” of the shoes as painted. For Heidegger, the value of this is the way in which Van Gogh’s painting compels us to acknowledge something that, Heidegger thinks, modern technological modes of self-understanding not only overlook but actively conceal: namely, the opacity that adheres in any truth claim or in any historical self-understanding. Heidegger speaks of all this as the “struggle” of earth and world, or as the tendency of “metaphysical thought” to “forget” Being’s concealment. For Heidegger, this tendency is countered by the “preserving” function of art like Van Gogh’s. In sum, art not only discloses a historical world’s tacit self-understanding; art also shows how that disclosure is also opaque, a “concealing” as much as an “unconcealing,” a struggle of earth and world.

Cursory as this account is — and as questionable as Heidegger’s own conclusions may be[9] — this should give some sense of how important it is to Heidegger that art be seen as a kind of corrective to the tendency to imagine that any social world can ever declare itself transparent to itself, can ever fully be “unconcealed” without also being “concealed” — that a social world’s self-understanding can be made transparent by means of artworks.

It is thus striking that, although Zabala turns to Heidegger for support throughout the book, he ultimately sees art in ways diametrically opposed to Heidegger. First: adopting the stance of what he calls the “militant hermeneuticist” — a political stance “in favor of the victims” (124) — Zabala claims, contra Heidegger, that what art discloses is “not truth, but emergency” (124). Second: “Works of art,” according to Zabala, following Gianni Vattimo’s interpretation of Heidegger, “have become remnants of Being.” But by “remnants of Being,” Zabala does not mean (as Heidegger does) material sites of a tension between world and Earth. He means, rather, “ontological or existential alterations that aim to shake our logical, ethical, and aesthetic assessments of reality” (25). Third: Zabala quotes Heidegger defining “emergency” as “a lack of sense of emergency” which is “greatest where self-certainty has become unsurpassable, where everything is held to be calculable” (2). But what Zabala himself means by “emergency” (as “lack of emergency”) is something else entirely. Zabala has in mind a lack of urgency that “seems to constitute the condition of our globalized world” (4).

In other words, by “emergencies,” Zabala just means to refer to festering crises that often elude collective acknowledgment: oppression and domination; poverty; landfills of toxic waste; endless wars and occupations; homelessness and the expansion of slums. Zabala imagines that art “saves us” from these crises by “shocking us” (125) into the “militant stance” of the interventionist, by awakening us from our ideology-induced slumber or complacency.

For example, Zabala argues, if Tony Blair and his allies try to sell us on a “fake” emergency — “the absence of democracy and neoliberalism in Iraq” — then kernardphillips’ Photo Op 2007 “saves us” by disclosing “the hypocrisy of Blair, the absurdity of the invasion, and also the political paradox of invasion by liberal states” (36). Whereas Heidegger had spoken of a concealing in every unconcealing, Zabala sees only an “actual emergency” (Blair’s hypocrisy) brightly revealed by kernardphillips — a naked “speaking truth to power” gesture. “As we can see,” writes Zabala, kernardphillips’ work has “thrust us into the essential emergency, disclosing the political paradox of our age…” (38).

Leave aside the fact that such strident declarations are precisely the sort of hubristic conclusions (about the transparency of self-understanding) against which, Heidegger thought, art served as an indispensable talisman. It’s also difficult to discern just what kernardphillips actually “disclosed” about Blair’s “hypocrisy” that was not already crystal clear to a general public that had never laid eyes on a kernardphilips — given, I mean, the dramatic drop in the popularity of Blair’s Labour Party during the general election of 2005, even before Photo Op was created. As theGuardian aptly observed in 2013, Photo Op now looks less like an artistic masterpiece than a mere historical document, a kind of crystalized reflection of increasing public disapproval of Blair in the mid 2000s — a historically indexed “selfie.” [10]

At any rate, it quickly becomes clear that Zabala has no philosophy of art, and no account — above all, no interpretation — of the artworks he gathers together in his book as evidence for his assertion that “art saves us” by becoming “political” or “existential.” All the Heidegger quotations notwithstanding, Zabala’s thesis is pretty straightforward — even commonplace. In fact, artists — including many of those discussed by Zabala — have long voiced claims about the way in which their works are meant to “shock” us into an awareness of various social crises, to focus our attention and actions on deficiencies in social justice and so on. [11] “Consciousness-raising” was once a term that feminists used for this kind of collective social practice, and the contemporary art-world is chock-full of practices that explicitly present themselves in just these terms. For some time now, what counts as “critical” in the art world is the idea of, say, “resistance” – art is deemed critical insofar as it “resists” or “challenges” unjust features of capitalist, neoliberal, bourgeois society.

Whether it makes sense to call such challenges “art” — rather than activism or consciousness-raising or “existential intervention” (Zabala’s term) — is an issue I’ll return to at the end of this review. But first I want to express a genuine puzzlement, or better, a suspicion.

To wit: why present such an uncomplicated, straightforward set of claims about art-as-activism in the form of a university-press academic book of “philosophy” or “theory,” replete with de rigeur, if misleading, citations of Heidegger, Gadamer, Benjamin, and company? Why propose a practical “intervention” (Zabala’s word) that is actually at odds with Heidegger’s far more circumspect understanding of art as unconcealing/concealing, and certainly at odds with Heidegger’s views about the necessary priority of interpreting the world over changing it [12] — all the while invoking Heidegger as a guiding thinker? What is going on?

There is no doubt about Zabala’s passionate sincerity when it comes to pollution or the evils of war. Without question, he wants the world to be a gentler place. But another kind of genuineness is at issue, analogous to the issues of fraudulence and authenticity in contemporary art that I raised at the outset in reference to Cattelan’s work.[13] To put it plainly: there is now a crisis of authenticity in academic philosophy, quite like the crisis of authenticity in contemporary art.

Consider Zabala’s “use” of philosophical work in order to persuade us of something that not only does not require the invocation of philosophical writings (one can be persuaded of the political uses of “shock art” without ever reading Heidegger), but actually turns out to be difficult to reconcile with, even at odds with, the philosophical work under discussion (in this case, Heidegger’s theory of art). The worry is not that Zabala himself is inauthentic — anyway, no one is duty-bound to be authentic. Rather, by offering us something that appears to be a “theory” or “philosophy” book — much as Cattelan offers work that can appear to be art — Zabala’s book actually obscures, in its misleading references to Heidegger for instance, any normative appraisal of it as philosophy.[14] And this is not something Zabala is doing on his own. Like Cattelan, he is working within a context (in this case, academic “philosophy”) that is currently in the grips of a deep crisis in authenticity.

Anyone working in the contemporary humanities will immediately be able to think of hundreds of titles of “theory” or “philosophy” that are the academic equivalent of Cattelan’s golden toilet. I have in mind works that are obscurantist not only in that they are impenetrably written or just plain confused but, rather, obscurantist in the sense that they advance, ostensibly through discussions of canonical philosophers, ultimately straightforward or even self-evident and moralizing conclusions: “Aspects of contemporary social life are unjust and need fixing!” or, “We need to be shocked out of our complacency about catastrophic crisis!” Moralism, after all, is probably the most common form of inauthentic philosophy. Lately, it seems to permeate academic publishing in philosophy, in the kind of reader-expectations it stimulates and the sort of discursive norms it fosters, in something like the way that art-museums seem increasingly unsure of what they should display or collect.

What is wrong — one might ask — with inauthentic philosophy as long as one’s morals and politics are in the right place? Well, one could begin to answer this by pointing out that the “emergencies” at issue — deficiencies in how we acknowledge real suffering, for a start — are themselves connected to the social conditions under which authentic forms of life are possible and recognizable as such. So, one can hear the passionate sincerity of a moral plea, while nevertheless wondering whether — in books like Zabala’s — the “use” of philosophy in the making of that plea masks an inauthenticity that, if one thinks about it, actually goes to the heart of the social-moral emergencies whose case is being pleaded.

Heidegger is far from my own personal philosopher of choice, but I here invoke his language of “authenticity” since Heidegger, too, thought that a crisis of authenticity in the activities we undertake was at the heart of modern social crises of all dimensions. For Heidegger, the threat of fraudulence and inauthenticity arises because human being is a form of being for whom “being” itself is always at stake, never settled by natural or moral laws. Inauthenticity is an extremely unsettling threat, of course — typically, we flee from it or deny it. Heidegger famously saw its denial as, basically, the whole of metaphysical culture in the West after Plato. Like Socrates, Heidegger believed that the problems of social inauthenticity and philosophical inauthenticity are inextricably linked.

At any rate, surely one of the most common forms of denying the very question of authenticity is to appeal to the opinion of others — to accepted doxa, rather than to our critical judgments — in order to settle the issue of what is authentic and what is not. It’s what we do, for instance, when we ask the Guggenheim or some other curated institution to tell us what counts as contemporary art, or when we turn a university press — or promotional “buzz” — to tell us what counts as contemporary philosophy. Confronted with such “buzz,” readers (and reviewers) might feel as if they are being invited to suppress their doubts — which, of course, saves a book not from doubt but from being taken seriously.

The only response to this state of affairs, it seems to me, is to give Cattelan and Zabala reinvigorated scrutiny as artists and philosophers, by way of giving contemporary art and philosophy — and, for that matter, activism — proper scrutiny as collective, authentic activities.

To that end, let me close by returning — as promised — to the question of art and politics, and to the basic question of what distinct human need(s) art responds to, in ways unavailable elsewhere. Obviously, the nature of art and its role in human life is far too large a question to tackle here. But invoking this immense question can at least help us point to the pitfalls that adhere in defining art merely as the vehicle for a politically critical idea, or as a “saving power” that is — as Zabala puts it — equally available in “God” or “communism” (11). This is, I would argue, an impoverished way of thinking about art’s distinctiveness, about what “only art” can do (not to mention an impoverished way to think about God or communism).

The impoverishment of Zabala’s reflections aside, one final point is worth making: just calling something “art” (or “political”) does not make it so. If Zabala is going to title his book Why Only Art Can Save Us, then the least he can do is to tell us what counts, in his view, as art and why. Here is the only passage I could find where an attempt in this direction is made:

“Art often works better than commercial media or historical reconstructions as a way to express and bear emergencies. A work of art, such as a song or a photograph, is not that different from other objects in the world. The difference is not one of kind but rather of degree, intensity and depth. This is evident in our everyday encounters.” (7)

I should think that artworks are very different “from other objects in the world” — especially if they are the “only” objects that can “save” us. I should think that it is incumbent upon Zabala to tell ushow artworks are distinctive “in kind” in a book entitledWhy Only Art Can Save Us[15] Since Zabala fails to do this, we should at least remind ourselves that whatever calls itself art, or is purchased or sold as art, might not really be art. To take art’s distinctiveness seriously is to admit that one can be wrong about that distinctiveness. Beware of fraudulence.

Of course, human products that look like art can also do important political work — they can “intervene” in social reality in ways that we might want to applaud, or interrogate, or study. This happens all the time, and we need hardly look to the twelve “cool” artists that Zabala treats in order to see this. Hollywood movies, folk music, or protest performances can play this role, serve this need. [16] So can public speeches, rhetorical gestures, propaganda, emoticons, YouTube videos, street activism, pamphlets, soap boxes, flags and banners — even bumper stickers. In a generous mood, one might even imagine that all these things “save” us somehow. But, if they do, they don’t just thereby do so as art.

I hope it’s clear by now that the statement “only art can save us” is absurd. Even Zabala cannot really believe it’s true, since by “art” and “salvation” he just means ethical practices that might have some social or politically salutary dimension to them. Rather than reduce those practice to just one, to the “only” savior — art alone — we are better off heading in just the opposite direction.

That is, we should instead reconsider and engage the manifold practical ways in which human beings deal with suffering and ongoing catastrophes, taking more seriously, too, Hegel’s claim about art’s highest vocation being a “thing of the past.” [17] Hegel never meant, in saying this, to suggest that art-making comes to an “end.” Rather, art itself starts to register the pastness of the hope that — wherever oppression and suffering persist, reflections on ethical life incompletely formed — art can come to the rescue and save us.

Paul Kottman is an Associate Professor of Literary Studies at the New School He is the author of Love as Human Freedom (Stanford University Press, 2017); Tragic Conditions in Shakespeare (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009); A Politics of the Scene (Stanford University Press, 2008).
Santiago Zabala, Why Only Art Can Save Us, Columbia University Press, 2017, 198 pages, $60.00


[3] Glossing Arthur Danto, Zabala mistakenly claims that the dependency of art on interpretation “began taking shape in 1917, when Marcel Duchamp revealed his Fountain and pointed out how any ‘readymade’ could become a work of art if placed within the walls of a museum, which forced the public to question of the work and enter into dialogue with it” (8). This short passage manages to suggest at least two falsities. First, Duchamp never “revealed” his fountain to a public, and it was never placed “within the walls of a museum” (a replica is displayed in the Tate Modern). Second, simply placing a work within the walls of museum hardly amounts to “forcing [a] public to question… and enter into dialogue with it.” Surely, readymades – if nothing else – make clear that museum placement is hardly sufficient to “force” meaningful encounters with artworks. There is also a larger contradiction between Zabala’s valorization of museum exhibition (as ‘interpretation provoking’) in this passage and his recurring discussion of (and seeming agreement with) Heidegger’s insistence that museum exhibition is a merely kind of “frame” [Ge-stell], not adequate to the disclosure of truth in art (see pp. 21-22, for example). More on the contradiction with Heidegger in a moment.

[4] This is not to say that being thus treated is sufficient for something to qualify as ‘art;’ only that such treatment is a necessary condition for qualifying as an ‘art object’ in late modernity.

[5] As the Guggenheim declares: “Its participatory nature, in which viewers are invited to make use of the fixture individually and privately, allows for an experience of unprecedented intimacy with a work of art.”

[6] Ibid.

[7] It turns out that Zabala’s book owes its title to a passage by Mark C. Taylor, cited as the epigraph to the Afterword: See, Zabala, 127.

[8] Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Poetry, Language, Thought, 71.

[9] I have written elsewhere that I think Robert Pippin’s After the Beautiful contains a number of missteps, when it comes to thinking about Hegel’s philosophy of art in relation to modernism [see, Kottman, “Hegel and Shakespeare on the Pastness of Art” in The Art of Hegel’s Aesthetics: Hegelian Philosophy and the Perspectives of Art History , eds. Michael Squire and Paul A. Kottman (Fink, 2018)]. But I that think that Pippin’s reading of Heidegger in that book – and his criticisms of Heidegger’s theory of art – point us in the right direction. See, After the Beautiful: Hegel and the Philosophy of Pictorial Modernism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 96-130.

[11] “Now that aesthetics has overcome metaphysics,” writes Zabala – we “can focus on the existential claims of art [which] enact the demands not only of art but of politics” (7). “Works of art are points of departure to change the world…” (9).

[12] See Heidegger’s televised comments on Marx, for instance.

[13] I have in mind Stanley Cavell’s comments about fraudulence in art, in “Music Discomposed,” in Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge, 2002).

[14] Consider Zalaba’s remarks from a promotional interview for Why Only Art Can Save Us: “I’m more interested to know what the art world will have to say about [the book] as I can predict the philosophical community’s reactions to theories such as the one I explore here. A philosopher who posits that only those who thrust us into the “absence of emergency” are intellectually free today risks being marginalized as a radical who is surpassing the limits of rationality or common sense. But the problem is precisely this common sense. To be intellectually free today means disclosing the emergency at the core of the current absence of emergency, thrusting us into knowledge of those political, technological, and cultural impositions that frame our lives. I think the art world (from artists to curators and art historians) is better prepared for challenges, change, and even emergencies.”

[15] The triumvirate – “degree, intensity and depth” – is, of course, nothing but smoke and mirrors.

[16] In a breathtaking and telling admission, Zabala writes that he only treats visual artists– not because of any essential distinctiveness of the visual arts with respect to the ‘emergency’ thematic – but because of the market-based, material demands of writing an academic book. As if the academic book form itself obviously prevented authors from treating the non-visual arts to serious discussion: “The twelve works of art that I present are all visual works, but it’s not because visual works do better at disclosing the essential emergency than other forms of art (dance, music or cinema). They are simply easier to reproduce in a book” (29).

[17] See Kottman, “Hegel and Shakespeare on the Pastness of Art”