239 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

239 Things

I recently read a news article critical on the way social media is used by the public after disasters occur. It questioned whether sharing intimate tweets and photos originally posted by victims of a disaster on online social media platforms expresses genuine sympathy or is merely an act of voyeurism.

It was in response to the social media activity following disasters such as the Boston bombings of 2013 or the recent tragedy of flight MH17 in the Ukraine. In both cases graphic and intimate images and messages regarding victims emerged online and were shared en masse by the public without any accountability. Although the article's main question seems to describe an activity that can be justifiably criticized, the piece ended with a disappointing conclusion, stating: “the line between sympathy and voyeurism appears to be wafer thin.”

The problem with openly sharing photos, information, assumptions, etcetera on social media platforms isn’t necessarily that others will turn out to be misinformed – although this is still a legitimate point to make. Arguably, sharing the photo of a ‘Syrian boy’ in between his ‘dead parents’ as an illustration of the horrors resulting from the civil battle in Syria could have had a benefit. Though erroneous, when that image spread it got a reaction from the West that no longer could ignore the atrocities in Syria. The fact that the boy in question was neither Syrian nor actually orphaned (it was a Saudi boy posing for a photograph by Abdul Aziz al Otaibi) didn’t take away the fact that many Syrian children are suffering. What does this newly found awareness from Western citizens really mean? It doesn’t mean anything to the Syrians - the conflict is still raging - so does it mean anything to us?

This brings me to a different side of the story; the moment that the West is hit by catastophe. After the disastrous turn of events surrounding Malaysia Air flight MH17, social media outlets flooded with horrific images of clothing, airplane parts, and bodies strewn across a flowery field. Images of the contents of ripped open luggage. Images of stuffed animals. It appears that disasters do have the effect of luring many into the realm of voyeurism. This voyeurism isn’t a pleasurable gaze into the private space of another, but its fantasmatic, internalized counterpart.

I would like to argue that so many of us in the West live in relative safety, freedom, and prosperity that it becomes increasingly difficult to identify with people affected by disasters and suffering around the world. Let me take the example of stories of monsters told to children. The older children or adults tell stories of monsters and ghosts coming to haunt you in the night. As the stories pile up you have yet to encounter your first sighting. One evening you are in bed and the pile of clothes on the chair in your room appears as a silhouette of the monster you have created in your mind. This is the type of fantasy at play. Not a yearning for the monster to be real but knowing that it, in a sense, is real without knowing what it looks like and having the need to define the monster. Seeing the monster, acknowledging it, in this way becomes a subversive duty defying the reality that there is no monster for you to see.

Sharing graphic images and messages online can express a genuine (but perhaps misplaced) feeling of sympathy. However, more likely they express a need to free oneself from the burden of living in safety and not having a real idea of what disaster and collective suffering really are. We constantly hear ghost stories so our duty becomes to seek out what our nightmares look like. In order to try and grasp the feelings of those affected by the tragedy, onlookers share intimate tweets from victims, photos of the disaster area, speculate about culprits, etc.

This digging into the world around a disaster happens immediately after the first glimmers of the news are out there. The online presence of victims or possible culprits is excavated and spread (note the circulation of false accusations directed at innocent people regarding the Boston bombings). But all of this happens in the name of sympathy for those affected. In this way the wafer thin line between sympathy and voyeurism doesn’t need to exist; sympathy requires voyeurism.

Let’s be clear; this is not a polemic engaged in a struggle to dismiss genuine grief. It is to try and show the duality in trying to remedy those suffering by freely spreading images and accounts of suffering. The harmful aspect is that this act of sharing replaces the moment of reflection immediately with a moment of activity, or rather pseudo-activity, an act that merely serves the status quo, or as Theodor Adorno put it: (..) Pseudo-activity; action that overdoes and aggravates itself for the sake of its own publicity, without admitting to itself to what extent it serves as a substitute satisfaction, elevating itself into an end in itself.

The act of sharing horrific images means, “look at these atrocities! Share if you care! I care!” Implicitly leaving anybody who doesn’t share as though they don’t care. This is the pseudo-activity within burden of collective suffering; the act overdoes itself and aggravates its intention (that of offering support to victims and affected families by ‘raising awareness’). It doesn’t show support to grieving families of victims but a need to partake in their suffering – sympathy comes from the Greek words syn meaning “together” and pathos meaning “feeling”, and pity derives from piety, which comes from the Latin pietas meaning “dutifulness.”

The burden of our position of relative safety in comparison to those in grief requires us to define suffering the moment we encounter it. This implicitly makes collective suffering a duty. However, to “feel together” becomes an impossibility almost if you are not directly affected by such a tragedy. There is no line between voyeurism and sympathy. The latter depends on the former. Perhaps instead of relentlessly confirming and repeating the stories of monsters one should silently provide a flashlight for those hiding under duvet, petrified for what might happen during the night.

Claude Monet
Jean Baptiste Camille Corot
Claude Monet

We returned from our art trip to the north west of France feeling disappointed. What we had encountered were mainly echoes of Paris. Silently, we drove homewards. We felt let down, it certainly had rained on our parade.

It was in this state that we were confronted by the accident that would prove itself a gift from the gods; the sensation we’d been yearning for all that time.But let’s start from the beginning.

The first museum was in Rennes and it immediately set the tone for the remaining excursions. One or two of the worst works by big names, mainly French of course, were being exhibited. Granted, a bad work can be illuminating in reminding us that even a genius is but human. But after a number of these reminders we began to grow bored.

In Rennes our eagerness was still boundless, and so we dutifully shuffled from one painting to the next. Suddenly we pointed out one that was truly exquisite. Caillebotte, how beautifully he managed to render light in his painting! How he succeeded in creating such a grand effect with something as simple as the construction of a bridge and a man leaning over its railing!

Caillebotte, PontdeL'Europe, Rennes
We became increasingly lyrical and were beginning to exaggerate, and we stopped being able to properly look at the paintings. We no longer trusted our own judgement and decided to ask the invigilator for directions to the museum café.

There was no café at the museum of Rennes.

Musee de Vannes
The same pattern repeated itself in Vannes. In the brochure Corot, Millet, Delacroix and even Goya were featured to lure the visitor. The thirteenth century judicial building transformed into a museum showed work by all these giants, with the exception of the Spaniard. He’d never even been there, they said. Handfuls of regional artists, on the other hand, had apparently frequented often, as the plethora of at times downright clumsy paintings attested to.

The most interesting anecdote was pertained to the painting by Delacroix. The pastor, whose church was to receive the painting, studied the work in his own room for weeks. He came to the conclusion that Maria Magdalena, the central figure in the work, was wearing a robe with an indecent décolleté. Like a ruthless restaurateur, he made his adjustments using thick black wall paint. The painting was then taken to the church tower to cover a drafty hole.


Goldreyer is of all ages we thought, and asked the way to the cafe. Once again, to no success.

The museum in Nantes had a better, albeit equally obligatory collection. After seeing the two deplorable Monets and hearing that the museum cafe would “maybe be built” the following year, we gave up.

Delacroix restorated
In the second building we came finally came across something that made an impression: a cryptic by Bill Viola. The three panels showed, respectively, a woman giving birth, a man under water, and a dying woman. We watched the newborn being brought into the world while the woman perished. We heard moaning and screaming, the bubbling of water, and the pumping of the life support machine.It was just what we needed—confrontational, yet at the same time soothing.

Where could we find more in this vein? Would it be better to simply go out into the world and cast our eyes onto harsh reality? In other words, onto life and death itself? All the to and fro in between only resulted in compromise, fabrications, art.

In the end, we drove home in silence, disgruntled by the inability of our stomachs to automatically communicate their richly filled contents to our brains. Then, on the N25 towards Arras, a two-lane road, we saw the horrific accident.

We trudged onwards. A car lay on its back in the curb, completely crushed. Two military officers strapped a man and a woman, both possibly dead and, in any case heavily bleeding, onto stretchers. The air was filled with shouting, lights were flashing all around. Men and women in white jackets hurried around the ambulance while the fire brigade hose the car. While one police officer filmed the scene, another urged us to keep moving.

At the very last moment we thought we noticed something strange. We saw the male victim laughing. Could it be possible that some people really do leave this world with a smile?

A few kilometres down the road we saw a large billboard on had only the letters ACF (Automobile-Club de France) written over it and the question: “Have you see an artwork recently?” “No,” we said out loud.


We decided to leave the road as soon as we could and to take a back road to return to the site of the accident on the main road. It took us four hours to manoeuvre back, four hours to witness twenty seconds of something that might have been art.

It was an artwork. Everything was unchanged. The white coats were still running around, the victims still hadn’t been loaded into the ambulance, the policeman was still filming. This time we saw that on the side of the ambulance, a large reproduction of Gericault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” was printed. The military officers wore uniforms that corresponded exactly to the flute player on Manet’s famous painting. In the air above the scene, swirls and curls hung, unmistakeably like van Gogh. But we had to drive past straight away.

That day the television broadcasted news of the accident we’d seen.

Motorists were extremely upset. For hours, the roads had been hindered by absolute nonsense. Afterwards, the minister of transportation who had granted permission for the spectacle, claimed the uproar to be self-righteous. At least ninety percent of those passing the accident had no clue that the accident was a fake. A member of the artist collective responsible for the work asked himself why people weren’t relieved now that the victims were, in fact, healthy and well. “You operated under the name ACF,” the reporter said, “now the auto club is outraged.” “There’s nothing we can do about that,” was the answer, “l'Art se Conforme à la Folie. That’s what those letters mean to us. “