When our greatest emergencies emerge through art: An Interview with Santiago Zabala about Why Only Art Can Save Us – curated by Tiffany Troy

Santiago Zabala is a philosopher and cultural critic. He is an ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. Why Only Art Can Save Us is a timely and provocative exploration of art in the age of “absent emergencies.”

Tiffany Troy: Your title, Why Only Art Can Save Us, is obviously very provocative. How is it influenced by and extends from Martin Heidegger’s idea that “only God can save us”?

Santiago Zabala: Martin Heidegger responded to a question regarding the technological advances in the 1960’s by saying that maybe only God can save us. I took it in another direction, to show that maybe the idea of God does not work as well as it used to in terms of salvation. After the so called “death of God” announced by Nietzsche it is necessary to come up with new responses to the technological developments that frame our lives. This is why for the cover of the book I chose an image of The Ninth Hour, the most celebrated sculpture by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, which represents Pope John Paul II lying on the ground after being struck by a meteorite. Art can save us also from God. But it is important to remember that Heidegger was not alluding to God’s representative on earth, as portrayed in Cattelan’s work, but rather the absence of Being, which in our technological world has become the essential emergency. I fuse both notions together. The greatest emergency is the absence of emergency, that is, those emergencies we do not confront. The goal of this book was to show works of art that thrust us into this emergency. I was very happy to see this sculpture also used in the opening credits of Paolo Sorrentino’s first season of The Young Pope series, which I enjoyed very much. 

Tiffany Troy: How is hermeneutics philosophy like art and poetry, by dealing with things as they always will happen rather than showing what really happened?

Santiago Zabala: First of all, I don’t think what really happened can be described or told once for all. That’s not possible. Scientific facts or historical events, for example, are facts and events only when they are sustained by their community of interpreters. Facts and events alone lose credibility and often are also forgotten. Actually, this is where “alternative facts” come from, they are the consequence that facts and events can be known without it’s community of interpreters. This does not mean historical events like the French Revolution or 9/11 did not exist. They existed, but in order to make sure that we continue to believe in them, we need to sustain and conserve them through interpretations.

Hermeneutic philosophy has a long tradition that goes all the way back to Plato, Saint Thomas and more recently Richard Rorty. It is a philosophy that deals with conserving and passing along important facts, events, and messages to open up the future through interpretation. We start from the past and interpret it in such a way to open up to a new future. Whereas science requires us to submit to the description of the way the world is, hermeneutics requires you to interpret in order to understand, and understand differently. Ideally an alteration of reality will take place. In this condition truth becomes a consequence of the multitude of interpretations we produce, rather than one objective interpretation. This book invites readers, through works of art, to interpret and intervene. The goal is to reveal our Being, that is, our existence. In order to do this we need to be called upon. A call, request, and demand must be take place for this to occur. This is where art comes in. 

Tiffany Troy: How does your work attempt to counter the “loss of Being” created through a system that constantly tries to judge whether art has any value at all? 

Santiago Zabala: The loss of Being or, which is the same, existence, can be countered by requesting new interpretations. These, contrary to descriptions, demand we make an effort. After all who interprets? Certainly not the powerful who are conformable and want to conserve the condition they are in. It is the weak who interpret, those who are unsatisfied with their condition. It is through this effort (interpretation always request an effort on our part) we can counter the loss of existence today and begin to value art. 

Tiffany Troy: How do the works you selected tie in with your thesis and in what ways do they go beyond Heidegger’s thesis?

Santiago Zabala: Heidegger says art is where truth can be disclosed. Instead I think it is where our greatest emergencies can emerge. This is why I searched for works that disclosed the absence of emergencies. I did not care about who the artists were, in the sense of whether they were famous in the art world. Some of them were not. I chose them because they all engaged in our greatest emergency, that is, in absent emergencies as deforestation, genocides, or global warming. Nele Azevedo’s “Minimum Monument” is a good example. Azevedo placed small statutes of ice on the stairs of several cities squares to call attention to urgent issue of global warming.

Tiffany Troy: The first section talks about how art could prompt us to interpret and encounter our own Being. The second section raises our awareness of absent emergencies through art. How do you bridge the two sections? 

Santiago Zabala: If we understand art as an ontological event where Being can emerge then it is possible to interpret those absent emergencies that are central to the book. Even though a work of art, such as a song or a photograph, is not that different from other objects in the world, it often works better than commercial media or historical reconstructions as a way to express emergency. The difference is one of degree, intensity, and depth. Media photographs can be truthful, but they are rarely as powerful as a photographic work of art. The example in the book of Alfredo Jaar photographs of the Rwanda genocide are a paradigmatic example.

Tiffany Troy: Do you have any closing thoughts?

Santiago Zabala: This book is meant to engage readers in an existential journey through those absent emergencies that characterize our age through art. There are several absent emergencies I examine in the book that are directly related to the pandemic we are still confronting. If we find ourselves in this pandemic it is because we have not taken seriously those warnings or, which is the same, absent emergencies. This is why my next book is on warnings. 

Tiffany Troy is a critic, translator, and poet.