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Terror(ism) and Aesthetics (2015)

Creative Iconoclasm and Cultural Trauma


My paper proposes to make sense of creative iconoclasm, i.e. those contemporary, individually committed violent ‘terror attacks/acts’ which strategically aim at spectacularly damaging an original artwork with a specific political and aesthetic intent, driven by a wish to ‘unlawfully’ challenge established dogmas.[1] To gain a better understanding of what I mean by creative iconoclasm I shall start out with highlighting its major characteristics.

1) It is a solitary act we should distinguish from other cases of mass-iconoclasm which can be, say, the outcome of the blind fury of a revolutionary mob. 2) It is a strategic act because although assailants are associated mostly with mental disturbance or perverted tastelessness they perform highly conscious, stylized, meticulously planned acts with a very specific message. 3) It combines politics and aesthetics because it neither resembles the general destruction of statues simply identified as symbols of a criticized regime in times of political turmoil, nor is it just a l’art pour l’art, playfully proto-postmodernist Duchampian gesture, like painting a surrealistic moustache on Mona Lisa. 4) It is more deconstructive than destructive because the aim is to leave a mark of difference (decoded as damage), and never to completely demolish. (Curiously, damage may even heighten aesthetic and market value, as in the case of one of the examples of my present study, concept artist Chapman brothers’ vandalisation of Hitler’s original watercolours, now available as a job lot for £685,000.) 5) It is spectacular not necessarily so much in the resulting end-product itself but in the memory trace of the act of iconoclasm invested in it, the residue of violent performativity that associates the existing artwork with its potential demolishing never brought to full realization, combining being with non-being, on the verge of the sublime. 6) Accordingly, since it does not simply attempt to totally annihilate or erase the artwork from the canonical, (art) historical record (as censorship does in most cases), creative iconoclasm functions rather as a kind of uncannily ‘counter-spectacular’ scripture, which signals unrepresentability itself by simultaneously marking for removal from remembrance and thus, paradoxically, commemorating a traumatic kernel or residue of cultural memory: it maps a terrifying and ravishing blind spot apt to evoke the experience of the sublime. 7) That traumatic kernel is inherently related to an unmediated experience of a direct corporeal presence through an absence that lures and terrifies the subject with “the possibility of ecstatically transgressing the ideological boundaries of signification.”[2]

Although 20th—21st-century post/modern creative iconoclasm takes an impressive variety of multiple diverse forms, there is a common denominator to them all. My following brief introduction of two apparently different, yet similar cases focuses on this intersection.

The first case is a memorable act of feminist iconoclasm: on March 10, 1914 militant suffragette Mary Richardson at the National Gallery in London attacked and slashed with a meatchopper she smuggled hidden in her muff into the gallery perhaps the most famous Venus of art history, Diego Velázquez’s only surviving female nude, the painting Rokeby Venus (also known as The Toilet of Venus, Venus at her Mirror, Venus and Cupid) (1647—1651).


Kérchy fig 1 Richardson Velazquez

Diego Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus slashed by Mary Richardson


Her act was equally meant to problematise femininity’s devaluing artistic representation throughout Western cultural history and women’s present lived experience under patriarchal oppression alike. Her attack aimed at mutilating an artwork epitomizing woman’s sadistic, fetishistic enslavement as object of desire by the male gaze; she said she “didn’t like the way men visitors to the gallery gaped at it all day long.”[3] But, even more importantly, the assault signified a gesture of protest against the public prosecution of fellow-suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of Women’s Social and Political Union. As Richardson spelt out in her explanatory statement, immediately printed by the press, her iconoclastic gesture was an outcry against the “artistic as well as moral and political hypocrisy and humbug” that protects and idolatrizes “the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history” but willingly denigrates and destroys Pankhurst, “the most beautiful character in modern history” and other “beautiful living woman”[4] who happen to see beyond the hegemonic male gaze’s ideological control. Richardson called her slashes on Venus’s body “hyeroglyphics” of a counter-writing indecipherable for her contemporaries but “expressing much to the generations of the future.”[5]

The second case comes from the oeuvre of Jake and Dinos Chapman, enfants terribles of the Young British (concept)Artists’ heterogeneous movement, who have become infamous for their testing the limits of representation through transgressive themes elaborating on horrific, thanatological, anatomical and pornographic aspects of the grotesque. The Chapmans bought anonymously from collectors around the world (for a total of £115,000) Adolf Hitler’s original watercolour landscape paintings and transformed them by painting kitschy, naive or infantile rainbows, psychedelic skies, floating hearts and smiling faces into the background of each picture.


Kérchy fig 2 Chapmans Hitler

A painting of Hitler, transformed by Jake and Dinos Chapman


The 2008 show at the White Cube gallery in Mayfair was given the title If Hitler Had Been a Hippy How Happy Would We Be to draw on the macabre joke that the Second World War and the Holocaust might not have happened if Hitler had been more fulfilled as a painter. The Chapmans talk about “creative vandalism,” the “annihilation of bad art,”[6] while critics supporting them argue that the abjectification of “abject paintings” associated with the “monstrous imagination”[7] responsible for the ultimate crime of humanity, the Holocaust carries out a moral mission on various grounds: by ruining the Nazi memorabilia that remain highly collectible, by ironically “recycling rubbish” and creating degenerate art the Nazis would have loathed, by demystifying cultural cataclysms as merely all too human through revealing the Führer’s mediocrity as a painter, (illustrating that “it takes neither a genius nor a psychopath to organise genocide”[8]), and by shedding light on the difficulties, even impossibilities of commemoration and oblivion, as well as the limits of the representable and the imaginable.

What makes iconoclasm so terribly frightening and fascinating is perhaps not so much the alteration of the original, as museal restauration process recurs to that for the sake of the preservation of the artwork, nor is it necessarily the violation of aesthetic qualities, of beauty, as the Chapmans, for example, refer to their doodles as means of the “prettification” of the Führer’s “awful landscapes.”[9] According to David Freedberg, iconoclasm engages complicated responses on behalf of spectators primarily because it threatens a cherished art object that arouses very powerful, emotionally invested and embodied, cathartic reactions we have learnt to safely sublimate, and replaces the docile sublimation of contemplative, respectful, distanced aesthetic delight with the most vital, untamed, performative, physical responses to images, through violently foregrounding the real, historical, biological presence of the spectator beholder within the aesthetic experience, as an entity who is equally able to admire and to annihilate.[10] This is all the more shocking, since spectatorial presence or bodiliness is strictly disciplined in the museal space where one is forbidden to shout, run, eat, or touch, to enter into any physical contact with the artwork elevated to realm of the sacred. However, that sacred might not be after all as disembodied as the codes of conduct of artistic pleasure require it to be.

In what is commonly referred to as the Western, “civilized” world we are trained to regard art with the same ravishment and anxiety we relate to the vulnerable human body. There is a touch of necrophilia to this connection (especially if we think of canonized, ‘dead’ art), but at the same time the masterwork is presumed to be kept very much alive and kicking by our cultural memory. As a result, the violation of a painting is prohibited with the same intensity as the violation of a living human person, in terms of universal humanitarian laws of moral duty and good will. Creative iconoclasm foregrounds the embodied personification of artwork also via the responses it provokes.

Tellingly, Rokeby Venus was personified by contemporary journalists to such an extent that — as Lynda Nead highlights — on describing the damages in the pictorial representation of the female body on the canvas they used words that conjured “cruel wounds”[11] and “incisions” inflicted on the actual female body, and nicknamed Richardson “Slasher Mary,”[12] neglecting the fact that her act was meant to challenge precisely the scenario they eventually enacted. Richardson’s iconoclasm can be regarded creative and prophetic in so far as through the seven slashes she makes on the painting she re-embodies the gaps within the conventional patriarchal visual narrative, and manages to see beyond or behind the violated body of the mythical Venus, exploring the injured body of actual living women and also the (journalists’) masculinised spectatorial blindness to it (along with the double standard applied to certain supportable and other insupportable acts of violence).[13]

In a similar vein, the Chapmans’ iconoclasm mocks the traditionally cherished, aestheticised and anaesthetised artistic violence and the metaphorical toying with the lived, material reality of pain and death. They set up in their 2008 Fucking Hell, a diorama-series of 5000 miniature wax figurines of Nazis and their victims displayed in ultra-violent scenes of torture, suffering and decay in a nightmarish Hieronymus Bosch-style, arranged in glass cases in the shape of a swastika, and portray Hitler as a tiny figurine perched on the side of a mass grave of depersonified Holocaust victims, while he is musingly absorbed in the painting of a joyous landscape with a pink house and a sunny sky — the very canvas the Chapmans will damage on their turn.


Kérchy fig 3 Chapmans Fucking Hell

Jake and Dinos Chapman, Fucking Hell (detail, London, White Cube Gallery, 2008)


The Chapmans’ violation of Hitler’s artistically worthless canvases is a means of creative cultural recycling and reutilisation of rubbish, whereby the original material remains mostly intact and recognisable, apt to recall the somber memory of the object’s identity in its first use, but it also enters transformed a new production-cycle of postmodernist, self-reflective re-use where it represents “an intrusion of the past into the present,” and a “dialectic and drama of remembering and forgetting.”[14] With the doodles on the painting (like with Richardson’s slashes) we are reminded of cases of the Ancient Roman practice of damnatio memoriae,[15] the official obliteration of communal memory, whereby a person may be scratched off from a painting, or his statue might be decapitated, distorted, but far from total removal from remembrance, his absence, the gap left by him, the fact of his public disgrace will forever be commemorated. The Chapman exhibit’s cruel subtitle “The aim of all life is death” matching the ‘hellscapes’ of Hitler’s unimaginative canvases and the detailed miniature models of torture-scenes problematises this impossibility and inevitability of remembering and forgetting at the conjunction of art, abjection[16] and trauma.

Creative iconoclasm here reflects Adornoian anxieties[17] concerning post-Holocaust-art’s capacity to transform the ultimate inhuman sin of the genocide and the actual pain of victims into a valuable cultural property apt to offer aesthetic pleasure, cathartic pathos, purification and relief through ‘purging,’ commodifying, neutralising the traumatic event as “representation as,”[18] and hence in the long run, reproducing and validating the cultural values of the very society that generated the tragic cataclysm. As Slavoj Žižek writes on trauma — in connection with Western world’s (first) major twenty-first century cultural trauma, the September 11th 2001 terror attacks of the WTC towers — in times of terror when the repressed Real returns (re)embodied as Unimaginable Impossible itself, it is so much inapt to be integrated into our experience of reality that it must necessarily become fictionalized as traumatic “reality transfunctionalised through fantasy.”[19] Yet there are ethical problems to the artistic reformulation of this necessary fantastification of the traumatic real, and the Chapmans seem to realize these on refusing more conventional means of commemoration. For the stylised, ceremonial, figural-fictitious discursive convention — associated with ‘the Holocaust industry’[20] — risks negating real historical violence by substituting it with imagined horrors and hazards desecrating both survivor testimonies and the dignified silence commemorating the dead, the fallen comrades’ voicelessness that constitutes a phantom-presence in any representation willing to testify to the tragedy. The difficulty in acknowledging a huge cultural trauma (be it the Holocaust or 9/11, Danto calls “our Holocaust, in being caused by a parallel order of evil”[21]) leads from initial repression to a growing fascination with sanitized — softened and sentimental or shocking and sensationalist — images spreading in popular cultural representations, which “affirm life rather than death, survival rather than destruction,” individual kindness rather than majority tragedy, and even find the place for melodramatic happy endings to replace the “uncompromising horrors of reality” (as Susan Marshman suggests in her analysis of films like Schindler’s List or Life is Beautiful).[22] This difficulty[23] is complemented by our culture’s “compassion fatigue” and “pathos habit” resulting from viewers’ “over-exposure to images of excessive violence” and the succeeding demand for ever more violent scenes apt to temporarily satisfy our compassionate catharsis-dependence[24] and desire for recreational grieving.[25]

The Chapmans attempt to escape all the above pitfalls of commemoration when their grotesque dance-macabrish shock-art and the scratching on the original Hitler-canvas refuse to mimetically re-present the unspeakable traumatic past and rather opt for undoing, bruising the representational and interpretive process. Yet, this might be something similar to what Arthur C. Danto had in mind when in an opening speech to a post 9/11 art exhibition he called even a violent or banal act, like destruction “an understandable act of piety,” recalling an anecdote by Wittgenstein on Schubert’s brother who after the composer’s death “cut some of Schubert’s scores into small pieces, and gave each piece, consisting of a few bars, to his favorite pupils.”[26] Beyond mere vandalism, the Chapmans’ sympathy gains an embodied form when they summon Non-being off-canvas, in the spectators’ intimate and violent bodily relation and calculable corporeal/emotional reactions to the artwork.[27] They turn “cultural suppression into subcultural artistic revelation”[28] when they make repressed memory-traces of cultural and individual trauma return as violent bodily sensations, without visualisation, sequence or logic. As one critique puts it, “The Chapman Brothers offer a kind of punk art that spits in your face, punches you in the stomach, and nicks your wallet while you are puking on the floor.”[29] The violent bodily unpleasure conjoining critical self-reflection directly involves spectators in a co-authorial interpretive process paradoxically based on the creation of non-meaning, on the refusal to create meaning. We are all troubled on being invited to give sense to the gut-churning non-representable (ie. Non-being) perversively reinscribed into the socio-culturally sanctioned museum-space created to institutionally circumscribe a safe scopophilic-epistemophiliac regime, a canonised realm of what is worthwhile to be seen, known, enjoyed, and preserved for Eternity. Thus, the interaction of art and spectator is reinterpreted in terms of violence here: they gain a simultaneous violent embodiment and as a result mutually endanger each other. The spectator should be just as much protected from the artwork as the artwork from the spectator.

This is neatly portrayed in Kerry Skarbakka’s photography, too. I consider Kerry Skarbakka a creative iconoclast in so far as he stages the violation of his very own body that serves as the major art-object of his photo-performances. He is an American artist who claims to have been so distraught by the sight of the workers jumping from the Twin Towers during the September 11 terror attacks that in 2002 he began a long-term ongoing project at the intersection of performance and portraiture which he has been continuing ever since and in which he photographs himself “in scenes of losing balance and control, especially at a crucial tipping point, the moment when balance and equilibrium are lost and a fall begins.”[30] He is seen plunging from bridges, tripping from the stairs, slipping in the shower, and in the most obvious homage, plummeting from the top stair of a New York office building.


Kérchy fig 4 Skarbakka FallingKerry Skarbakka, Falling


He philosophically claims that the project called The Struggle to Right Oneself dramatizes one of the deepest human anxieties over losing and regaining balance, both personally and socially, and attributes the main inspiration to Heidegger’s description of human existence as a process of perpetual falling, highlighting “the responsibility of each individual to catch ourselves from our own uncertainty.”[31] Moreover, his project also has a clear socio-political message with reference to our world’s constantly testing human stability with war, violence, issues of insecurity, effects of globalization, and the politics of identity; “external gravities turned inward, serving to threaten the precarious balance of self, exaggerating negative feelings of control” (ibid.).

His iconoclasm is creative on the same grounds as the other works studied in my paper: the threatening of the sacred artwork (the human body here) is a response given to the violence of the ideology (patriarchy for Richardson, Nazism for the Chapmans, terrorism for Skarbakka) implied in it, and against the aggressivity of images produced by this ideology to consolidate its powers and manipulate our perspectives, against the violation of viewers forced to watch what they would rather not see, and what they must see in order to be able to commemorate. The risking of the vulnerable human body/art also faces us with the material stakes, the unpredictability, and the incomplete, unfinished nature of art, and especially self-reflection. The terror attacks’ real-life sacrificial victims seem to metamorphose here into a voluntary self-sacrifice to art in a gesture of homage, reminiscent of the initial stage of mourning characterised by an overidentification with the deceased. As Skarbakka describes his commemorative metaphorization: “I wanted to be able to respond intelligently, conceptually, responsibly to what was going on. [ie. the sheer inability to do anything about (watching) 9/11 ’jumpers’].”[32]

Obviously, the performances never fulfill the promise of total annihilation. True to an autobiographical work that cannot ever contain the closure of the life it narrates, Skarbakka’s body/art only aims at death without ever fully reaching it: his body is captured in a series of freeze frame images, in suspended motion, stuck between earth and sky, denying the laws of gravity in a “sublime metaphorical space,”[33] struggling between ever-so-human dilemmas of letting go or holding on, yet already at the point of no return, half-flying, half-falling, risking who one is/was. This pondering over human’s capacity of flight in dangerous images of fall explores the sublimity of mortality and of homo moriens’ very knowledge of this mortality, but also runs the risk of aestheticizing death.

However, the spectators’s shock over the macabre sublime of these photos which sacrilegiously endanger the human body while turning presumably unrepeatable last moments of living/dying into artistic meditative repetition is likely to be replaced by a strange feeling of disillusion as we learn that Skarbakka plays it safe. He uses special support during his falls, strung up in place with harnesses and wires which keep him still and secure during the action shots, and are digitally removed from the final photographic product. This is a truly postmodernist simulation many — including New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and governor George Pataki — find “nauseatingly offensive,” an “utter disgrace,” and a “vulgar America-bashing.”[34] This last critical comment highlights that Skarbakka’s major fault in the post-9/11 art-scene is perhaps not simply his threatening his physical integrity identified with the nation’s well-being (see body-bashing/ America-bashing parallel), but even more so his turning his falling-body, as the emblem of the nation’s traumatic communal loss, associated with violence, pain and death, into stuntmanship, daredevilness, by very clearly refusing to become a sacrificial victim of art. The problem is not that he turns tragedy into farce, but that with an insincere imitation he fakes tragedy, and ends up being like the magician: once we learn his trick, the enchantment evaporates. Skarbakka’s most obvious homage to the falling victims of 9/11, his performance when he jumped more than thirty times from the four-story Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art[35] with a crowd of hundreds watching, and photographs taken for a series entitled “Life Goes On” triggered such a tremendous backlash in New York that the artist was forced to apologise to the WTC victims’ family members.[36]

Perhaps the Chapmans were right on refusing mimetic representation for fear of inappropriate commemoration, since Skarbakka’s fully authentic, ‘photorealistic’ reproduction of the 9/11 jumpers’ fall hurts with its perfect pretense, with spectacularizing, avoiding, thus denying the imminence of pain, death, and thus sympathy. It is as if turning an unprecedented and unpredictable traumatic, catastrophic event into a consciously planned, calculated happening denigrated the veracity of the reality transubstantiated into art. The 2005 “The Art of 9/11” exhibition curated by Danto revealed universal dilemmas emerging in the aftermath of a cultural trauma: What can we do? How to proceed with our usual, trivially mundane preoccupations? How to create exceptional art by means of sublimation? The standard set of alternatively provoked responses were fuelled by obsession, escapism, irony, abstraction, decorativeness, or documentarism[37] throughout creative commemorative practices.

My final example, one of the most remarkable exhibits of “The Art of 9/11,” Jeffrey Lohn’s Untitled series used distanced documentation to pay an emotionally, ethically invested tribute to the deceased by relying on a very special kind of creative iconoclasm. Lohn wandered around the mourning city and kept re-photographing the posters of the missing persons as they gradually underwent a slow deterioration by time, began to curl, fade, and literally pass away. The artistic gesture consists of Lohn’s having captured an image-destruction that is strangely ambiguous, yet, in a way, also appeasing. The ruining of portraits, iconic of lost beloveds, resulted from a peaceful natural process of decay that sharply contradicted the violent, morally-aberrant, ‘unnatural’ annihilation of the 9/11 blast. The portraits’ gradual defacement by metropolitan pollution and weather conditions was counterbalanced by the unforgettable, rare face-to-face encounter with the victims. Although as if “in a second death, there was nothing left”[38] in the end, this disappearance never denoted forgetting, but, on the contrary, absence proved to be the hard traumatic kernel of commemoration.


Kérchy fig 5 Jeffrey Lohn Untitled 2001Jeffrey Lohn, Untitled (2001); color photograph


Lohn’s approach seems particularly adequate since it transcends both mimetic and metaphorical representation, and escapes the potential pitfalls of aestheticisation, fictionalization, rationalization, metaphorisation, or esotericising alike. Just like the multitude of little hand-made shrines spontaneously and ephemerally set up in public spaces everywhere in New York by nightfall on 9/11, Lohn’s Untitleds — picturing the invasion of public space by private pains — capture the common mood of communal loss in a manner “instantly understandable for everyone” (ibid.). We are reminded of the lesson Danto learns from the anonymous post-9/11 shrine-makers: “even the most ordinary people respond to tragedy with art” (ibid.). It is noteworthy that artistry resides here not so much in a tangible end-product itself but a particular perspective, an artistic way of seeing that allows people to realize the imaginability and possibility of the Unimaginable and Impossible as events which should be paid a tribute by a nearly ritualistic memorial practice meant to prevent them from ever happening again, while forging a solidarious community among the knowing survivors. “Understanding” gains a double meaning: on the one hand, the traumatic tragic event (the terrorist attack and the collapse of the Twin Towers, the programmatic annihilation of people during the Holocaust, the cruelly inhuman treatment of freedom-fighter suffragettes, etc.) itself remains radically incomprehensible; as Primo Levi puts it “perhaps one cannot, what is more must not, understand what happened, because to understand is to justify […] If understanding is impossible, knowing is imperative, because what happened could happen again.”[39] On the other hand, a sympathetic, empathic understanding of shared sorrows resulting of the collective tragedy, and the comprehension of the urgent need to express and alleviate the grief and bewilderment by sublimatory artistic means is a fundamental, vital necessity, satisfying our need for interconnectedness and faith, and enabling us to learn to live with our collective cultural traumas while taking precautions against their reoccurrence.




[During the writing of this essay the author was supported by the Bolyai János Research Grant of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.]



[1] The timeliness of the topic is reflected by recent art events such as Tate Britain’s exhibition running from Fall 2013 to early 2014 tracing vandalised art through the ages under the title Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm.

[2] Attila Kiss, “A gyönyörtelen színház, avagy a reprezentáció kitakarása (A trauma színrevitele A Hamletgépben),” Gondolat-jel 1-2 (1994): 44-48.

[3] “Interview with Mary Richardson,” London Star, 22 February 1952, quoted by Leo Steinberg, “Art and Science: Do They Need to be Yoked?,” in Art and Science, ed. Stephen R. Graubard (Lanham: University Press of America, 1986), 10.

[4] “National Gallery Outrage. The Rokeby Venus. Suffragist Prisoner in Court. Extent of the Damage,” The Times, 11 March 1914, 9-10,

[5] Mary Richardson, “Letters of Fire,” Women’s Dreadnought, 25 April 1914.

[6] Ben Hoyle, “Jake and Dinos Chapman Go to Work on ‘Abject’ Hitler Art,” The Times Online, 30 May 2008,

[7] These are the expressions used by director of the exhibition Tim Marlow, quoted in Hoyle, “Jake and Dinos Chapman”.

[8] As James Smith, chief executive of the Holocaust Centre in Newark, puts it: “Hitler’s mediocrity and blandness as an artist illustrate that it takes neither a genius nor a psychopath to organise genocide, and as such, his paintings do have some value as historical artefacts. Painting over his originals to make a point about the past and its relation to the present is probably the most appropriate form of vandalism I have encountered,” quoted in Hoyle, “Jake and Dinos Chapman”.

[9] Richard Brooks, “Tracey Emin Puts on a Show for Royal Academy,” Times Online, 25 May 2008,

[10] David Freedberg, Iconoclasts and their Motives (Montclair: A. Schram, 1985). Extract Available at Columbia University Academic Commons Website,

[11] The brief reports of the event in the 11 March 1914 issue of The Times provide quite an anatomical inventory of the “incisions” by mentioning “a cruel wound in the neck,” “a broad laceration starting near the left shoulder,” “cuts cleanly made in the region of the waist,” “six clean cuts […] and the seventh and most important injury a ragged bruise” (“National Gallery Outrage,” 9-10).

[12] Lynda Nead, The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality (New York: Routledge, 1992), 2.

[13] The inspirational quality of Richardson’s feminist vandalism is attested, among others, by contemporary Hungarian feminist concept artist Orshi Drozdik’s lipstick paintings and fractured Venus mon­tages that use a similar technique of cutting or mutilating the artwork with the aim to explore blind spots of conventional themes and modes of representation, and ways of seeing, through complementing spectacularity/visibility with a tactile feel by means of wounded canvases’ torn surfaces and depths, associated with violated femininity. See the artist’s webpage at Also see Gabriella Schuller, ”Archaikus Vénusz-torzó,” Balkon 4/5 (2007), 2007_4/05venusz.html.

[14] Walter Moser, “Garbage and Recycling: From Literary Theme to Mode of Production,” Other Voices 3/1 (May 2007),

[15] Charles W. Hedrick poignantly calls procedures of damnatio memoriae “ostentatious erasures and noticeable omissions,” “an interdict of silence, not one of thought,” a productive gesture that dishonors memory instead of destroying it, and does not negate the evidence of the past, but creates new signs, significant silences and erasures of it. See Charles W. Hedrick, History and Silence. Purge and Rehabilitation of Memory in Late Antiquity (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), xii.

[16] I use the term in Julia Kristeva’s sense. Her Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection elaborates a corpusemiotical theory of the subject “abjectified” by the haunting return of a repressed, traumatic otherness that threatens with the collapse of identity and meaning alike, through its uncanny fusion of the homely familiar with the horrifically unthinkable. One of her examples for abjection is the heap of children’s shoes traditionally associated with infantile joys and Santa Claus’ presents, now dislocated, abandoned in Auschwitz museum, as a trace of the senseless massacre, the depersonalising mass graves, and of the void left by them, a memento of the voiceless victims’ unburied past. The piles of human hair in concentration camp memorials illustrate how the human bodily form reduced to waste, devalued as useless, disordering impurity, as flesh turned into corpse marks the abject’s “elsewhere,” “beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable” summoning the breakdown of sane self and sense caused by the loss of distinction between order and disorder, visible and unimaginable, systemic inclusion and exclusion, “psychic expulsion and retention” (Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection [New York: Columbia University Press, 1982]).

[17] Adorno writes in Negative Dialectics 6:359: “The fact that it could happen in the midst of all the traditions of philosophy, art and the sciences with all their enlightenment, says more than just that these traditions and mind in general were unable to take hold of men and change them […] all culture after Auschwitz, together with the urgent critique of culture, is garbage.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (London: Routledge, 1973), quoted in Rolf Tiedemann, ed., Can One Live after Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2003), xvi.)

[18] Anna Richardson, “The Ethical Limitations of Holocaust Literary Representation,” eSharp 5 (Borders and Boundaries, Summer 2005),

[19] Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real! Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (London: Verso, 2002), 18-20. Jean-Michel Ganteau and Susana Onega reiterate a similar argument on contending that trauma’s imperative to represent the unspeakable and unimaginable has “forced [contemporary] fiction to problematize the traditional conventions of transparent realism” and resulted in a paradoxical shift towards strategies of nonfictional testimony, emphatic modes of “fictionality and fantasy” (4) and in particular the romantic mode. “Romance becomes the privileged vehicle for trauma fiction” because of the overlapping thematic concerns of the two genres, such as subversive excess, psychological imbalance, intense emotional, affective experience challenging representational confines, the historical past, haunting and repetition (10). See Jean-Michel Ganteau and Susana Onega, eds., Trauma and Romance in Contemporary British Literature (New York: Routledge, 2013).

[20] See for example the recent book of Anne Rothe, Popular Trauma Culture: Selling the Pain of Others in the Mass Media (London: Rutgers University Press, 2011).

[21] Arthur C. Danto, “9/11 Art as a Gloss on Wittgenstein,”

[22] Susan Marshman, “From the Margins to the Mainstream? Representations of the Holocaust in Popular Culture,” eSharp 6/1 (Identity and Marginality, Autumn 2005),

[23] The institutionalized commemoration of any programmed annihilation, such as the Nazi genocide or the 9/11 terror attack, also results from the fact that very few objects have been left behind for museal display because of the all pervasive nature of destruction. Yet the remaining tangible traces of the past trauma – like the heaps of victims’ abandoned suitcases, shoes, prisoner uniforms, even prosthetic limbs and shorn human hair in Auschwitz Museum, or even more fragmentary, devastated memorabilia, like broken bits of cell-phones and burnt-out computers, at The National September 11 Memorial & Museum – cannot be regarded otherwise as metonymically embodied mementos of the Unnameable Impossibility itself. They are equally associated with a moral prohibition and a compulsion to recall, to represent and to forget, and, thus, constitute an immense challenge when it comes to locating them in the museum’s memorial space.

[24] Sarah Kent, “Shock and Awe,” Manchester Creative Tourist Guide, 19 August 2009,

[25] Keith F. Durkin. “Death, Dying, and the Dead in Popular Culture,” in Handbook of Death and Dying, ed. Clifton D. Bryant (Newbury Park: Sage, 2003),,_Dying,_Dead,_Popular_Culture.pdf. “Recreational mourning” has recently also been dubbed by a much harsher term as “grief porn.”

[26] Arthur C Danto, “9/11 Art as a Gloss on Wittgenstein.” The essay was an introductory gallery talk given on 21 September 2005 to an exhibition called “The Art of 9/11” Danto curated for Apexart Gallery in New York City, 7 Sept.—15 Oct. 2005. Artists featuring in the exhibition were Audrey Flack, Leslie King-Hammond, Jeffrey Lohn, Mary Miss (with Victoria Marshall and Elliott Maltby), Lucio Pozzi, Ursula Von Rydingsvard, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Westman and Robert Rahway Zakanitch.

[27] Violent bodily reactions include nauseous disgust, outraged horror, frustrated giggle, blushing, compensatory yawning, or tremulous excitement.

[28] Jeff Persels and Russel Ganim use the expression in relation with the Bakhtinian carnivalesque grotesque. See Jeff Persels and Russel Ganim, “Scatology, the Last Taboo: An Introduction to Fecal Matters in Early Modern Literature and Art,” in Fecal Matters in Early Modern Literature and Arts: Studies in European Transition (Hampshire: Ashgate, 2004), xiii-xxi.

[29] Johann Hari, “The Art of Subverting Enlightenment,” The Independent, 5 February 2007,

[30] Martin Irvine, “Indepth Art News: Kerry Skarbakka: The Struggle to Right Oneself: A Survey and Sebastian Martonara: Uncommissioned Memorials,, World Wide Art Resources,

[31] Kerry Skarbakka, The Struggle to Right Oneself,

[32] Fred Camper, “Life Goes On: Is Art Defaming 9/11 Deaths?,” New York Newsday, 10 July 2005,

[33] Skarbakka, The Struggle to Right Oneself.

[34] Condemnatory Reviews Include: Adam Lisberg, “Families Rage At Phtog’s Fake Plunges,” Daily News, 16 June 2005,; “9/11 Stunt Provokes New York Backlash,” The Daily Mail, 17 June 2005,; Associated Press, “Ny Mayor Rips 9/11 Jump Recreations,” US News on, 16 June 2005,–elf w8riu.

[35] The New York public reception of Skarbakka’s work performed a compulsively referential reading in so far as they utterly neglected its possible meta-narrative layer and disregarded the fact that his choice of the location of his fall, his jumping off from the top stairs of a Museum, might have been a deliberately forecasted visual commentary on the difficult relation of traumatic events, aesthetics, and visibility/spectatorship. An exciting parallel can be drawn here with ’Slasher’ Mary Richardson’s (mis)interpretation of the Velazquez painting she attacked, while very likely ignoring the subversiveness of the nude genre in an era strictly controlled by the Spanish Inquisition, and forgetful of the potentially self-reflective, aesthetic-philosophical implications of the fact that the Velazquez Venus’s gaze reflected in her mirror defies optical laws, and hence presents a physically and politically impossible look.

[36] Skarbakka’s fiasco was not singular. Other artwork that attempted to pay homage to the falling victims of 9/11 in the mimetic representational mode, Eric Fischl’s life-size bronze sculpture “Tumbling Woman” exhibited at Rockefeller Center, and Sharon Paz’s falling silhouettes on the windows of the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, had to be removed from public display after local complaints. See Lisberg, “Families rage.”

[37] Lyra Kilston, “The Art of 9/11,” The Brooklyn Rail: Critical Perspectives on Arts, Politics, and Culture, 1 October 2005,

[38] Arthur C Danto, “9/11 Art as a Gloss on Wittgenstein.”

[39] Primo Levi, The Truce, trans. Stuart Woolf (Turin: Einaudi: 1963), 395-96, quoted in Anna Richardson, “Ethical Limitations.”