241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 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.

Ad Reinhardt, Moma
Ad Reinhardt, Moma

What does it really mean? Artistic research

Everyone is suddenly talking about “artistic research” and the “artist as researcher”. Only since recently can artists and designers undertake a PhD at the University, a new Master Artistic Research has started at the Royal Academy of Fine Art of The Hague, and art tutors are conducting research.

Ad Reinhardt (1913 – 1966) said his black paintings were about “nothing”. In the first of these paintings, made in 1953, darker tones of green, red and blue were discernable. They also varied in size. But from the 1960’s until his death, Reinhardt only painted black canvases on identical formats, five by five feet (157,5 x 157,5 centimetre. He was “painting the very last paintings,” he said, “the last that you can make.”

The paintings are severe, although they are less stringent than you might initially think. They are not evenly black, in some places the paint is more matte, catches more light, than in other spots. Glancing sideways at the surface, you’ll see squares within the paint, and Greek crosses. Otherwise, every other characteristic of a painting has been discarded: representation, composition, brush stroke, expression, and colour. Yet, they are not anonymous or mechanical. The black breathes, is space. These paintings are exceptionally fragile, because Reinhardt used minimal amounts of binder to ensure a paint made almost purely of pigment. The black plane is unfathomably deep, and all light disappears into these depths.

Reinhardt owes his important position within modern art to these black canvases, as well as to his radical views on painting. But to the general public, he was known in a very different manner, namely as cartoonist for, among others, the magazine The New Yorker. In 1946, Reinhardt made a series of cartoons named “How to Look at Modern Art”. One of the drawings from this series, “How to Look at a Cubist Painting”, is depicted above.

Cartoon uit de serie “How to look at a Cubist Painting”, 1946.

A mocking viewer responds to a cubist painting. In English, “to represent” has the same double meaning as in Dutch: “to represent” as in “to portray” or “to display”: but also “to represent” in the sense of the degrading, “that doesn’t represent much”, “that doesn’t mean much”. By angrily retorting, “what do YOU represent?” the painting confronts the viewer with himself.

And this is exactly what happens while looking at an artwork. The artwork is silent and confronts you with yourself. As opposed to all other forms of art like theatre, music, dance, and literature; visual art does not immediately immerse you. This silence is not only relevant to painting and sculpture, but in general also to performance, video, film and acoustic art: little is “said”, and there is no finality in intent, or hardly. Duration of time is rarely ever prescribed. The artwork unfolds itself within the span of time that the viewer takes to look at the work. The “narrative” that arises is the exchange between the viewer and the artwork.

Only through the viewer’s effort does the artwork reveal itself. The viewer must take the first step, open himself up, and set aside his own preconceived notions. He can then penetrate the work and engage with the artwork. Within this dialogue, the distance is bridged between one world of thought and another. The experience of engagement with an artwork allows the viewer to become aware of the activity of his own thinking, of living, and of being alive. As the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer said: experiencing art is a “multiplication of existence.” This is what makes artworks important.

It’s difficult to look, said Reinhardt, but we can learn to do so through art. This is not just true for the viewer; it also counts for the artist himself. The artwork is the result of the combination of the desire to make something and the desire to see something. The artist is the first viewer of the artwork. He must learn to see what it is that he’s made, and to recognize it’s meaning. This is reflection; thinking about one’s own experiences and about how and why something has been made, with the goal to clarify the structure of the work and to find a foundation and a context for it. This reflection can only take place once the maker distances himself from the experience of making. To then, if the work is unfinished, pick up where he left off.

The artist's reflection on his own work is the subject matter of artistic research. Within this, the importance of the process of making outweighs that of the final product. Artist-researchers share this reflection with others through conversations, debates, publications etcetera; and are likewise fed by this.

making = thinking
thinking = speaking
speaking = thinking
thinking = making