Histories of Violence: The Violence of Art

THIS IS THE 13th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with the British-born artist Jake Chapman, who along with his brother Dinos has created one of the most distinctive oeuvres in contemporary art. Deft in a range of media, including printmaking, painting, and sculpture, the Chapmans often contaminate or remake an existing artwork to challenge our most valued beliefs.


BRAD EVANS: What do the terms art and violence actually mean to you? And can they ever be separated in practice?

JAKE CHAPMAN: While violence is presented as the excluded object of society, it is the prime mover of human history and a discrete component of social self-modification. Systemic violence ensures social stability through the immanent threat of superior force, enforcing the imperative that all violence is bad, whilst reserving exclusions — like “just” war or keeping the peace. And yet there is another form of violence that is creatively destructive. This is the violence I think we can talk about in the context of art, for while art offers a critique of the former, it engages in the latter.

In terms of thinking about art more broadly, within the most condensed history of human civilization there is an implicit disassociation between action and intention. What do I mean by this? Art appears to embody human intention in that it is crystalized in the form of civilized conduct. And yet the practical production of art itself works against this proposition by continuously disinheriting the conscious manipulation of materials for the purpose of some pre-inscribed intention or outcome.

Our interest in making art is not about producing some object that reveals the essence of its maker, nor is it about offering up something autobiographically confessional. It is precisely the opposite. It is about demonstrating a certain refusal or at least critical disruption to the very idea of an authentic anthropomorphic self. And it seeks to unhinge intentionality and all the suffocating rationalities that art ostensibly confirms. So in that sense art offers a kind of ontological violence — an autonomously destructive energy, which comes alive in the creative process — a process that cannot be mastered by the author.

This is not about some avant-garde notion of destroying the past in order to bring about a linear future. It’s more fundamentally internal to the process itself — within the mechanism itself. We are interested in the possible destruction of all instrumentalizing logic and any outcomes determined by the ambitions of intention. By intention we mean the assertion of human narratives that seek to dominate the outcome of the process. Such ideas do violence upon the notion that a work of art is necessarily communicative. Hence, whether it sets out to be violent or not, such a work of art will present itself as an assault upon the own identity of any given viewer seeking the confirmation of their identity.

This reminds me of a quote you once gave: “We can only denounce the violence we are condemned to repeat.” Can you elaborate on this?

No great earthly change has been brought about by a moral imperative. I’m not saying ideas don’t matter, but what seems quite obvious, to me at least, is the realization that war and violence have been the principal driver of history and demonstrate a remarkable capacity to modify and adapt morality in support of the civilization that violence apparently threatens. We are forever killing things off, but they never stay dead — and each transgression lacks fulfillment and thus requires endless repetition — the seasonal repetition and the wallowing in guilt as pleasure. We kill our Gods over and over to justify our obligation in celebrating their eternal return, even if only in secularized form.

Your work is full of graphic references to the raw realities of mass violence and death. Why do these topics compel you as an artist?

Society measures civility by the self-reflexive understanding of finitude. We are civilized because we understand our cosmic insignificance. And yet the instruments we use to measure this analytics show themselves to be completely inadequate. When we say we comprehend death we seem simultaneously shy of comprehending the death of the species or planet, for instance. It’s remarkable when you think of it given that this is the only truth we face after birth. None of our reasoning helps us. Our ability to understand infinitude is itself finite.

There’s a wonderful moment in Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality where he notes that when you exclude death it’s all you end up talking about. The same we can say about violence. Like death, equally excluded, it’s all we think about. This is certainly the case with art and artists who deal with forms of violence. As I mentioned, I think art deserves to disrupt the notion of the communicative model. Relinquish the idea that there is a universal truth or essence to be revealed!

How do you deal with criticism of your work in light of its politically fraught nature?

The artist is supposed to be preoccupied by a sense of inner personal rigor, and yet the work is made with a presumption of an eventual viewer. The artist can’t fully experience the effect of their work on others, and in this sense cannot make finite claims over its meaning. Rather than providing the general autobiographical reason for a work, it would seem more pertinent to consider the work devoid of the artist and as an object among a history of objects.

Art suffers the obligations of its optical presence, and considerations of sight often eclipse thought. It is nevertheless interesting how some people actually receive our work. We experience the greatest ferocity from critics assuming a Pavlovian sense of disgust or outrage on the part of others who they never identify — the unknown people who they assume they represent by their melodramatic outrage.

The simple interpretive inaccuracies can be quite astonishing. For instance, in the sequence of works that allude to the industrial genocide of the 20th centaury, often the work is reduced to the specificity of the Holocaust, despite the work containing anachronistic figures such as Stephen Hawking or Ronald McDonald, Adam and Eve, skeletons and 10-headed mutants. In fact, the inversion that places Nazis in the subordination to violence, the work should really appear as a mirrored opposite to reality. We have, of course, encouraged misreadings in the work. For instance, in the series of “Siamese twin” sculptures, the permutational anomalies seem quite often to provoke an insistence above all else to ascribe features that are not appropriate to what is being presented — to ascribe gender (usually female), to describe them as monstrous (as compared to what?), to assert that they are children (of exactly which parents?). We like to think of these works as Geiger counters for interpretive idiocy, a device for extorting vulgar Freudian assumptions about inhuman or nonhuman bodies.

What can art therefore offer us in terms of rethinking what it means to be human?

Homo sapiens has evolved an ontology that allows each and every member of its species to believe that it is a monadic entity — an indivisible existential unit, unlike any other — a species-of-one. And in believing in such a rarefied ontology, it has merely caused a hideous social intimacy, resulting in the alienated angst of civilized being. Part of modern anxiety and the terror of modern life insist the only solution is to return to some natural order of things. But nature is not a useful horizon to compare technological anxiety against since human technology is absolutely synchronous with nature.

There’s a nice linear analogue about the evolutionary relation of art and science. Once upon a time, in a dark and dank cave. Someone is furiously rubbing sticks together to make enough light for the purpose of someone else who is painting very elegant antelopes on the wall with charcoal from earlier rubbed sticks. After the passing of a magnitude of time, the technological trajectory of rubbing sticks gives rise to the combustion engine, and all the earth’s resources are eventually marshaled so that a rocket can be sent into space. A parallel evolution also occurs, such that the antelope paintings emerge from the cave into the world, and at the apex of modernity are embodied in the paintings of Jackson Pollock. For science, human thought has reached the stars, but for art, the splashes of paint chucked on canvas on the floor betrays a break with linearity, a break with the assumption of pictorial representation — pictures that are literally “worse” than the elegant antelopes.

This represents something of the real genius of the trajectory of art. Even those who profess its linearity are forced to accept the failure of a stable communicative ideal. Imagine a Martian anthropologist coming to Earth to explore its excoriated ruins. They might gravitate to the ruins of places known to have symbolic importance like the Tate, they might wander across the rubble toppled by some extinction event, stepping over piles of loose bricks without ever knowing they were Carl Andre’s sculpture.

As humans there is something we can certainly take from this. Or to put it more directly, how can we learn to live with the unrepresentable and the incommunicable as the most potent aspect of our creative expressions?

I know you have spoken at length about the influence Goya has had on your work, which resulted in your own adapted series Insult to Injury. What is it about his work that continues to capture your attention?

Our engagement with Goya has been to amplify and tease out some of the truly monstrous elements of his work — the divine violence — that are routinely suppressed by the assertion that this is simply some humanist chronicle of atrocity. Goya understood better than anybody the seductive nature of violence and our social need to have its images continually reproduced. And yet he doesn’t refrain from showing not only systemic violence but divine violence. Take “Great Deeds Against the Dead,” for example, from the Disasters of War series. This is image is particularly heretic because it denies the idea that this sagging Newtonian flesh can be redeemed from the physics that will see it eventually melt into soil. The systemic murder of these three figures utilizes violence for the purpose of a warning to others, but the divine violence exhibits the heresy of gravity, acting upon their bodies indifferently, without purpose. Thus this image was a massive act of violence upon the world.

But Goya also understands the resonances, which continue to carry over into the modern period. The cross becomes the tree, just as religious redemption becomes material redemption. So that it is still nonetheless symbolic and still charged with theological and erotic traces. Goya’s brilliance then is about the materiality of the body overlaid arguably with even greater symbolic resonance and purpose. The body that hangs, the body that drips, the body that is mutilated for the sake of it, it is not redemptive optimism that conveys meaning, but the profound nihilism and self-doubt that characterizes the modern world. Goya grounds the metaphysics of sacrifice in full modern glory.

You have once talked about violence as being the absolutely necessary conditions of life. This reminded me of Nietzsche’s earlier provocation that to live is to forever be in danger, such that we suffer into truth. How can we reflect upon this in light of contemporary world events?

Let’s take the example of Trump here. Not only has he disavowed truth; he’s proved very adept at creating the conditions, which continually deny his own truth. It’s fully incapacitating. Whatever he utters has no value. And yet it has been mobilized to devastating effect. That’s its real genius. This is beyond crude Orwellianism, for it points to the production of a system of language that has no foundation in truth whatsoever, and purposefully dispenses with it. And yet there is a danger here that we lament some position of liberal purity, as if that period in history wasn’t also full of violence. Indeed, it is precisely the neoliberals who are reducing politics to aesthetics and mere intuition, as if Trump and his followers don’t aspire to the aesthetic model of puritanical liberalism.

I’m rewriting 1984 at the moment — my version is 1984.1. If you think about Orwell’s critique of freedom in the original text it is ultimately posed in the form of free capitalist choice. Orwell has his enslaved populations wear overalls, the food is bland, they are stuck in bureaucratic models of Stalinist non-production, and so forth. Orwell’s disdain is that his fictional society is materially impoverished and their desire has no correlation in the world for things that they could purchase as a voluntary choice. I’m interested that the greatest threat that one is supposed to imagine, certainly Orwell, is the subtraction of choice — this leads me back to the idea of the species-of-one, the construction of choice as the delirium of being, but being a population nonetheless. In my version, Winston is a poet, struggling with the idea of a perfect liberal society — a man robbed not of choice, but angst.

It is clear you ground your work in some complex philosophical debates. Which philosophers have come to inform your work?

I have always been interested in the works of Nietzsche, Bataille, and Deleuze and Guattari. Accelerationism is interesting, certainly because it describes a chaos of positions, contesting thought without squeamishness. Accelerationism is less a philosophical movement than it is the combination of all (antagonized and antagonistic) reactions to the gravitation pull of capitalism. I’m interested in an excruciating vivisection of the Enlightenment and the oppressive nature of the liberal instinct, but not for the purpose of some fascistic feudal future. In fact, I’m quite tickled by the idea that capitalism might be accelerated until it collapses in favor of some new libertarian society — it’s as if romantic idealism is just reconstituted at the end of history, again — that the reward of chaos is some eventually ludicrous idyllic ideal.

We are, as you mentioned, living in turbulent and politically fraught times. What can the arts offer us in coming to terms with the state of the world?

There is nothing more vicious than managerial capitalism. As for the arts, the notion of optimism has always troubled me. I’m not a fan of art becoming melancholic. Melancholia still holds out hope that its desires might or should be taken notice of, and eventually met — or at least becomes an economy of pleasure in itself. Art can best abstain from culture within culture. The idea that we are now in a position where art feels like it has something to say merely misses the point, that this has always been the position — except the things it was always saying was supporting the doctrine of liberal humanism, which is exactly why we are where we are. Would I like art to say something? Maybe, but not if it becomes a positivist vehicle for doing away with the tragic or the pessimistic. The danger for the art is in replicating its default position — to confront the right with dominant hegemonic liberal tyranny.

The call to arms against Trump — “We shall not be divided” — should not be a request to conglomerate. It also implies a political stability that has somehow been disrupted, which is even less than a trite Orwellian fantasy. Our aim should be to keep dividing ourselves until we are invisible. The aggregation of life into indivisible cultural monads is really terrifying to me. It’s self-indulgent. It’s narcissistic. And it should be resisted at all costs.


Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.