Santiago Zabala responds to Ivelise Perniola review of Why Only Art Can Save Us

Zabala’s extraordinary book strikes at the very heart of our spiritual predicament. From austerity politics to security measures, everything is legitimized with the axiom that we live in a state of emergency. The first task of the critique of ideology today is thus to dispel this myth of emergency—something that Zabala does brilliantly, combining theoretical stringency with immense readability.

~Slavoj Žižek, author of Less Than Nothing and Absolute Recoil


In today’s piece, Santiago Zabala responds to Ivelise Perniola’s review of Why Only Art Can Save Us: Aesthetics and the Absence of Emergency. Readers can download the PDF of the discussion with Danela Angelucci, Amandsa Boetzkes, Paul Kottman, and Ivelise Pernola from Labenswelt.

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Ivelise Perniola’s insightful response was written during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both of us were born in 1975, and we have similar perspectives and experience as far as emergencies in Europe are concerned. I agree with her that the ongoing pandemic is an emergency that we’ve been “missing globally at least since the end of the Second World War, at least in our protected territory of Western democracies.” She mentions the terrorist attacks of 9/11; I would also add the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl in 1986, which in Vienna (where I was living at the time) was probably felt more strongly than in Italy. I remember we were not allowed to drink milk for several weeks. I also recall that many of my classmates (at the International School of Vienna) had experienced wars, genocide, and terror in their countries of origin, to which the nuclear disaster, in comparison, was of little significance (although they also missed our milk breaks).

The first objection Perniola raises concerns the reality of the pandemic. While I agree with her that the pandemic is an event whose consequences will be with us for several decades, I have some reservations about her insistence on the “reality” of this emergency. This objection is closely related to art’s inability to “be the spokesperson of an emergency” and to the “role played by the market in the artistic context.” These, together with other insightful observations, are at the center of Perniola’s intervention, which I will attempt to respond to, hoping to clarify further some of my book’s arguments.

When Perniola states that “this is a real emergency” in relation to COVID-19, it seems she is devaluing not only other related emergencies but also the absence of this one during the years previously, when we were warned it could emerge. What is dramatic about COVID-19 is that it was an “absent emergency” until very recently; just one year ago the WHO director-general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned us that the “threat of pandemic influenza is ever-present.” And David Quammen, author of Spillover (2012), predicted this was going to happen. This emergency is “fully and exclusively on the plane of reality” now that it has emerged, but it also was in the years of warnings. This is why questioning or stressing the reality does not work well for those “essential” (also called “absent” and “greatest”) emergencies that I discuss in my book. Aren’t deforestation and plastic and air pollution—which are absent emergencies—also “fully and exclusively on the plane of reality”?

Aren’t deforestation and plastic and air pollution—which are absent emergencies—also “fully and exclusively on the plane of reality”?

What is vital for me in this book is not the reality of emergencies but rather their distinction from those “absent” or “greatest” emergencies. I’m not trying to imply that the coronavirus is not a fundamental emergency that we must confront at all levels, but the greatest emergencies are the ones we do not confront. These, I claim, are also real. I can only hope climate change—which is responsible for the deaths of seven million human beings every year because of air pollution—will also become a “real emergency” fought with the same unified purpose by many people as the pandemic is now. But for Perniola the pandemic represents a “triumph of reality” and a “metaphysical revolt.”

If, as a hermeneutic thinker, I tend to favor warnings, predictions, and interpretations, it is not because they turn out to be “real” but rather for the pressure they exercise against such realization. This is where art comes in. When Perniola asks, “How can one still defend the subversive and revolutionary charge of art,” considering “the role played by the market in the artistic context?,” I feel compelled to respond, “What else is there?” Scientists, in particular the ones now searching for a vaccine against COVID-19, must also operate within a market that has different priorities.[1] But art, unlike science, always involves a critical element meant to stir our existence. This element ought to be particularly evident in the artists I chose to examine as thrusting us into absent emergencies, considering that most of them are not in the art market. I agree with Perniola when she states that the “market is still a form of control of the message and that in the end only what capital, in all its perverse forms, wants it to become to us.” However, this does not mean that there is no possibility to resist or confront the market. The example of Banksy’s Girl with Balloon intervention at a 2018 auction at Sotheby’s demonstrates this. Whether a work of art is part of the market circuit is irrelevant as long as it thrusts us into absent emergencies—that is, rescues us into emergency.

But art, unlike science, always involves a critical element meant to stir our existence.

Perniola turns to cinema and documentaries to question the difficult relation between truth and beauty that any philosopher dealing with art must confront. As her research demonstrated,[2] “what emerges in the new documentary cinema is the end of the beautiful,” an end that “brings with it a consequent habituation to ugliness and a sensorial dullness towards the great expressions of human talent.” To Michael Moore and Brian De Palma I would also add Oliver Stone, whose documentaries on Castro and Chavez too often are forgotten. These documentaries (similar to the examples of Steven Soderbergh, Dmitry Lipkin, and Colette Burson in my book) not only rescue us into absent emergencies but also “mark the end of a certain aesthetic discourse,” as Perniola points out. But the “consequent habituation to ugliness and a sensorial dullness towards the great expressions of human talent” does not “grasp a certain resignation” as much as a responsibility toward the emergencies. This responsibility is evident in art’s superiority to commercial media or historical reconstructions as a way to express and bear emergencies. The difference, for example, between Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine (2002) and Gus Van Sant’s movie Elephant (2003) is not one of kind but rather of degree, intensity, and depth. Documentaries can be truthful, but rarely as powerfully as cinematic narration, as in the case of Van Sant. Something similar occurs with climate change: How is it possible that teenage activist Greta Thunberg mobilizes more people than respected philosopher of science Bruno Latour?

There are two points at the end of Perniola’s brilliant contribution that I want to clarify: the need to “make the emergency fully perceptible” and art’s ability “to take the place of God.” In the first paragraph of my book’s introduction I criticize those who interpreted the word “God” too literally in Heidegger’s statement “only a God can still save us.” They ignored that to the German thinker God was simply another realm where Being and truth take place, as he explained in “The Origin of the Work of Art.” The other realms can be the “essential sacrifice,” “founding a state,” or a “work of art.” I do not think art ought to or can take the place of God, science, or philosophy. The issue is who manages to rescue us into the greatest emergency. Also, this emergency can never be “fully perceptible.” Climate change and refugee crisis are impossible to fully perceive. In this condition we can only strive to interpret, that is, intervene existentially in those absent emergencies that concern us and that environmental artists have been working on for decades.

[1] Ara Darzi, “The Race to Find a Coronavirus Treatment Has One Major Obstacle: Big Pharma,” The Guardian, April 2, 2020,

[2] Ivelise Perniola, L’era postdocumentaria (Milan: Mimesis, 2014).

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