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Crossing the Ethical Line in 7 Art Books

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Vienna Actionism

Art incorporating the body comes in many forms – Yves Klein’s usage of models covered in blue paint as paintbrushes, any of iconic artist Marina Abramovic’s many performances or even the late Vito Acconci’s subversive commentary on private and public space – but there is a form of art that goes one step further. Abject art ignores boundaries between artwork and viewer, artwork and creator, and social propriety to produce contentious, unavoidably human and visceral works. It is art that is too real, often off-putting in its disregard for ethical boundaries and the idea of art for pleasure. Here are seven publications exploring the complex psychological and philosophical interpretations of art that isn’t afraid to tackle the uncomfortable.

Powers of Horror

This 1980 book coined the term “abject” in response to contemporary French literature, to which it is a solid introduction. Kristeva examines the “cast off”, repressed and taboo elements that substantiate the abject, and their roles throughout history and their complex effect on the human psyche, individual or collective. From Freudian theory through to exile and feminist criticism, she outlines how the abject refers to fear of and physical reaction to a breakdown of the boundaries between subject and object, self and the other, and anything that threatens individual senses of propriety. For understanding why art, something supposed to be enjoyable, can be so repulsive, this is must-read.

Regarding the Pain of Others

Addressing ideas of whether the public is becoming jaded by images of war and violence, Sontag questions the specific use of photography to falsify or objectively document, their meanings, viable authenticity, the nature of conflict, the limits of sympathy, the appetite for Schadenfreude, and critically, when art gets uncomfortably real – whether or not the public has moral obligations. Instigating reflection on how we picture suffering and the aestheticization of conflict, Sontag concisely asks difficult questions and lets readers’ consciences give the answers.

Teresa Margolles and the Aesthetics of Death

Banwell’s extensive and scholarly monograph on Mexican conceptual artist Teresa Margolles delves into her controversial practice that uses the physical remains of victims of Mexico’s drug war. Whether the water used to wash their bodies in morgues turned into bubble machines, or the stitches from autopsies tied together and stretched across a gallery, this is a deep dive into the philosophy of death, the specific and unique Mexican cultural connection to it, spectatorship, exploitation of anonymous victims, and whether or not this kind of art serves to illuminate the Mexican plight or simply turns it into something much more visually digestible, and therefore, dismissible.

Francis Bacon

The French philosopher broaches English painter Francis Bacon – of whom he was a fan and collector – known for his surreal images of contorted figures on flattened planes of perspective. Engaging with the artist’s practice as a case study for the application of his aesthetic philosophies, this widely lauded book looks at portraiture in a wildly different manner – approaching the figure as meat, a material to be consumed. Organized, clear and engaging, it makes an abject interpretation easy to swallow as readers journey through Bacon’s practice, the aesthetics of sensation, and the philosophy of painting.

Artificial Hells

While French curator Nicolas Bourriaud invented the term “relational aesthetics” to describe a kind of art that fuses performance and participatory art, therefore annihilating the distance between viewer and art object, few publications have examined it. Bishop’s historical and theoretical overview traces the development of immersive art through the 20th century and touches on the artists who walk a fine line between socially engaging art and repelling those adventurous enough to take part. Adopting a stance that contradicts the relational-art praise from critics, Bishop questions a form of art that has more ethical, than artistic, criteria.


While Herlinghaus addresses the very relevant, critical issue of how film and literature depict illegal activity, violence and ‘bare life’ in Latin American narco-culture, his approach can be seen as a case study for a much larger contemporary dilemma of how media has sanitized the abject. Popular culture is widely used as a resource for understanding and formulating perceptions, and Narcoepics deconstructs well-known examples to argue that to see beyond the villainizing or idolizing effect of artistic license on traumatic, violent situations and figures, we need to recalibrate and normalize sobriety, not the abject.

Vienna actionism

For full immersion in the movement that epitomizes Abject art ,which had a resurgence in June 2017, this book offers a look into the extreme practices of Vienna Actionism. Started in 1960s Vienna by Herman Nitsch and Otto Muhl as a reaction to conservative values, Kraus, along with the Ludwig museum, tackles the difficult, violent and often literally stomach-churning works that served as the basis for critiquing performative norms while simultaneously incorporating accepted forms of spontaneous art happenings. Though a niche art form, Vienna Actionism is revered as one of the most significant moments in postwar European art, and a testament to art as brutal fact that influenced many of the iconic performance artists today.

Katrina is a contemporary arts editor/writer and TCK based in the Middle East with a special fondness for abject art, gourmet cheese and asking too many questions.