Rafael Argullol is Professor of Aesthetics and Art Theory at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra. Author of more than thirty books, he has been visiting professor at Berkeley and has lectured in many American and European universities. His most recent essays include “Maldita Perfección” (2013), “Una Educación Sensorial” (2010) and “Visión desde el fondo del mar” (2010).
- The Interlude
If I had to summarize Max de Esteban’s latest work in a single phrase, I would write: “unsettling interlude.” This is the predominant sensation one has in viewing the series he creates for us. A moment of transition, a momentary shelter on the border. The content is on the limit, phantasmagorical; time is suspended. Yet what draws our attention at first is the way in which the form is adjusted to the background. Max de Esteban himself explains this in his Manifesto, where he defends a type of art where technique and method coexist in the world they seek to reflect. The search for a clear, perfectly framed image is undone by the proliferation of polycentric paths. Photography, painting, film, and video are interlaced in his effort to capture an infinitely fragmented present where the past disappears and the future is an illusion, and often one with very poor taste.
This experiment is exigent and clairvoyant since it slips away from the deceptive pulchritude of “photography as a work of art.” Yet it is also a risky experiment, inasmuch as it places the author and the spectator on uncertain terrain. Apparently we are faced with an imminent dark age; still, rays of light always seem to break through, suggesting a voyage in the opposite direction. Once again an age-old question emerges, one that has been with us for many years now, ever since the great ideological convictions fell into decline: Are we coming upon a new Middle Ages, or a new Renaissance?
Perhaps it is not one or the other, but rather an incursion into chiaroscuro, where perspectives are always ambivalent and ambiguous. A tenuously lit highway at dusk, while simultaneously at dawn, and vice versa. We walk or better yet run at high speed along this road. Yet where are we going, and in what direction, and what for? What is sure is that all certainty is quickly taken apart at the speed at which we move. The word, “logos,” has been the first and main victim. Our ancestors, at least the honorable ones, understood each other when they “gave their word.” We no longer give each other words. Now all we do is offer each other thousands of images colliding into each other, mutually vampirized in a spiral effect where the ephemeral proposition ends up seeming like the only evident reality. These are images that are lacking in an essential core, leading us to the most recent formulation of idolatry.
- The New Idolaters
Max de Esteban deftly captures the consolidation of nihilist idolatry. How might we define an idolatry of this kind? Perhaps it is like when powerful images, able to draw the viewer’s attention and even reverence, become stages closed in upon themselves, leading to no other sphere of meaning. An idol is a form of a god that in fact does not refer to any god at all: form without content, impact without substance.
In recent decades the opulent media of universal advertising have succumbed to the extreme the ways of this nihilist idolatry. The entire history of art—and at times a part of the history of philosophy—has passed before our eyes like a grandiloquent signal. Leonardo da Vinci or Parmenides associated to this or that brand. The result is technically brilliant, though in all cases it is a question of showing the external crust in spectacular fashion so as to obfuscate the disappearance of the nucleus.
Advertising however, whose origins lie in totalitarian agitprop, is nothing but the shiny tip of the iceberg of an immense mountain of images submerged in a retinal ocean. Present-day man is subjected to a never-before-seen bombing of icons. The possibilities he has to escape from this are slight. We are speaking in any case of perpetually slippery and fragmentary images, weakly anchored to the terrain of meaning. Goethe, in his search for archetypes, has Faust travel to the world of forms without form, where he finds those matrixes, those maternal modes, which might give meaning to the universe. We could say, in a similar way, though in the opposite direction, that today’s man, horrified by profundities, submerges himself in images without image, idols without spiritual essence through which all meaning is dissolved, or just as well where it is camouflaged or veiled.
With this series Max de Esteban brings the condition of the images surrounding us to the fore. Reality, here infinitely atomized, tends to be converted into abstraction. We no longer know what lies behind things, and we even come to suspect that this could be because there is nothing there, like in the stories of Kafka or Beckett. The difference with Kafka’s or Beckett’s man, who still fights to untangle the web of absurdity, is that we find coherence in the absurd, living alongside it and in the end upraising it to the supreme law of existence. We assume that power has no face, which is one of the questions where Max de Esteban’s proposal is most insistent.
Acceptance of a faceless power, however, brings with it ethical implications of the highest order. Power without a face is the prelude to irresponsible power. This is tremendously degrading for responsible individuals, yet it appears as a consequence in men who, by means of idolatry, have given up all pretense of responsibility.
- Motionless Vertigo
This abandonment necessarily brings with it an absence of freedom and of moral resistance. One of the most moving aspects of the mosaic created by Max de Esteban is the extraordinary fragility of the world we live in. We have technology beyond compare in relation to previous historical periods, and we constantly parade it about, but that does not free us from our sense of defenselessness. This is, to a great degree, the paradox of motionless vertigo: on the one hand everything seems to move about us at great speed, and we have the sensation of living life swiftly as well; on the other hand, however, there is a feeling of repetition within this dynamic that rarifies everything, rendering it static. We run about a lot but move rather little. We travel though always find ourselves in the same place. We are constantly fleeing but can never manage to escape.
Max de Esteban brings this everyday fragility of present-day man to the fore with his symphony of accidents and catastrophes. It is a cruel symphony, though it is necessary to frame the landscape surrounding us. In any case, to the same degree that we have accepted absurdity (even in its most evident form) as an indelible feature of our condition, we have become so greatly familiarized with catastrophe that we cannot live without it; it is like the air we breathe each and every day. Thanks to being bombed by icons, cutting through existence from the cradle to the grave, how many accidents and catastrophes does a human being witness throughout his or her life? Thousands? Tens of thousands?
There is no doubt that this in part makes us immune. We are impassible spectators before any type of destruction, as if it were merely a domestic affair. Yet this also makes us more vulnerable. We interiorize, however unconsciously, a vulnerability against which we know we have no armor. Or, just as well, we have physical but not spiritual armor.
- The Epidemic
And thus our fear explodes. Technological power, in contrast to what enlightened optimists may think, has raised our level of fear. The Enlightenment, by means of progress, sought to eradicate all epidemics and thus put an end to one of the founts of human terror. However, in spite of scientific advancement, or perhaps in parallel to it, we seem to require a staging of Biblical plagues. We only have to recall that in the last two decades almost all food sources for human sustenance have been contaminated by apparently relentless morbidities. When we were not talking about “mad cows” it was “swine flu,” and when it was not “avian influenza,” fresh fish had become infected. Humanity, which was destined to live happily alongside technology, has been driven to live in a state of permanent emergency.
Max de Esteban is highly sensitive to this state of emergency, and his images are able to capture the viewer in this regard. He almost seems to suggest that we are living in a state of siege, and there is truth to that. What happens however, as we see in many of his images, is that the state of siege is set out in concentric circles. From a distance, as a blurry source of fear, there is the great quantity of far-off though permanent wars, which are constantly being restarted, phantasmagorically necessary conflicts meant to nourish an ethereal ambience of tension. Closer to us we have cyclical economic crises with their concomitant social decline, threats of collective illness, with its resultant physical anxiety. Fear of blurry war is blended with uncertainty about the future and intense fear of death.
The combination of various fears, as Max de Esteban captures perfectly, brings about the ongoing surveillance of citizen control mechanisms. The eye of Big Brother has multiplied the control efficiency foreseen by George Orwell a thousand-fold, with the particular consideration that nowadays, due to the powerful reproductive effects of the Internet and mobile telephones, all citizens contribute to totalitarian control of the entire community, while whether willingly or not controlling each other. In this way the twenty-first century man, who after the disasters of the last century was predestined for greater freedom, appears as someone subservient to mechanisms of control that had been unthinkable until now.
- Medici without Medici
If we were to judge by the images Max de Esteban offers us, he is particularly concerned with denouncing the structure of power that agglutinates these control mechanisms: capitalism in the very place the capitalist tradition itself has been dismantled. We are speaking in any case of capitalism without any remains of the enlightened project it had lived with over a long period of time.
In this respect it would not be overstating things to recall that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 meant the end of the totalitarian socialist model, although it also had a convulsive effect on the conception of an apparently triumphant capitalism: nothing seemed to remain of the historical bourgeoisie, and even less so of its cultural vestments. The capitalism that takes hold worldwide after 1989—part of which is so-called “casino capitalism”—leaves behind, in the attic of useless toys, both the starting point of the Protestant ethic and the ideal of enlightened culture and education. It does not seem that the aggressive nouveau riche of the beginning of the twenty-first century (in part a substitute of the old European bourgeoisie, in part a social product of emerging nations) is at all concerned about the way civilization is going. This “hero of our time” would in all likelihood be unrecognizable to Karl Marx, and just as well to Thomas Mann. Yet he would definitely play a key role in the construction of the nihilist idolatry that characterizes our time.
Max de Esteban pays particular attention to this veritable “decline of the West,” a process whose features are much more sharply defined than in the epoch diagnosed by Oswald Spengler. Modern Europe, born in the spirit and élan of the Medici—of their capitalist and cultural symbolism—would find itself without Medici, while the United States, which had taken up the cause from Europe, has lost spiritual and moral impetus as well. On the other side of the chess board the new emerging powers do not seem to be interested in reestablishing any type of enlightened thought. Thus the battleground tends to be that much starker, more immoral, more darkly sarcastic: the images of this struggle emerge again and again, themselves equally dark, in the series Max de Esteban brings us.
It could be said that the main character on this battleground is the wounded body. The wound in its many forms features in some of the most impacting images of the fresco Max de Esteban has created. In the midst of a world dominated by uncertainty, the body is the final frontier humans might cling to. Yet even here it does not seem that humans have even the slightest freedom of action, in that their emotions and feelings are managed from the outside, by invisible hands or, what could be worse, by hands with impunity. In line with this perception, Max de Esteban parades before our eyes a humanity that has been automated and standardized, men and women with only the slightest trace of individuality behind the mask, people whose aura has been stolen along the way of their existence. The use of collage, overlaid images, and visual combine to heighten this suggestion of a directionless, disorientated humanity, desperately hanging on to its idols. A wounded, ravaged humanity.
Bodies, the final refuge, have here been assembled. Yet the deepest wound infringed upon them is solitude.
- No Man’s Land
Along with one of the images, this idea: we are everywhere and nowhere at once. This is an excellent explanatory synthesis of Max de Esteban’s work. With deadly precision it shows us the solitary existence of the contemporary human being in the heart of global communication. A century ago the tragedy of the absurd was man’s solitude in the prison of organized masses. Fascism meant the culmination of the dominance of the mass over the individual. Yet the game was played out in the agora, in the street. In our day what is exposed alternates with what is concealed.
On the one hand we are immersed in the chaotic multitudes inhabiting the great megalopolis, with scenes repeating themselves over and over again. The mass has substituted totalitarian order for nihilist chaos. On the other hand, however, our solitude, the solitude that most deeply stigmatizes our time, is related to technological reclusion. A parallel network to what until recently was called “real life” spreads out en masse across the world. We call it “virtual life.” And our solitudes are like those of tiny spiders leaping from one end of the web to the other, convinced it is the only existence possible. In reality they create a no man’s land, the perfect counterpoint to that other no man’s land our cities have turned into.
These are the shards of the world Max de Esteban has chosen in composing his unsettling mosaic; it is lucid, soberly beautiful and, above all and hardest of all, a mosaic that is true.