Regarding the Pain of Others/ Strange Beauty

Susan Sontag and Kristin Makholm’s piece on Hannah Hoch both analyze new forms in relation to history and their historical contexts. What strikes me in these two pieces is the centrality of violence, atrocity, and war. For Hoch, World War I and the modernist movement in full swing directly affected her work. Moreover, the war and art movements like expressionism led to new movements, such as Dadaism. As Makholm explains, “Essentially an antagonistic nonsense word, ‘Dada’ became the battle cry of a group of young Berlin artists disillusioned with war and politics and the discrepancies between traditional art and modern life” (19).
Dada emerged as a response to the war and its effect on human subjectivity. Art could no longer reflect the artist’s sense of subjectivity, unbroken and unfettered. Rather, political instability and social uprisings pushed Hoch and the Dadaists to have “explosive, modern forms of expression” (21). This type of call for art resulted in the photomontage (or collage?) that also seems to de-personalize the artist from their work. The artist is no longer the unreachable genius but a technician that works with preexisting images and remakes them into new images.
On the one hand, war and instability broke open subjectivity for the Dadaists and Hoch, but such violence does not work only in one way. In fact, as Sontag explains, the spectacle of atrocity and photography work in ambivalent ways. For war photographs, they can actually also consolidate and reinforce the presence of an artist/journalist.
Robert Capa’s photos of the Spanish Civil War were published as news but also as features (33), and his photo of the Republican soldier ensured his status as a professional war photographer (also as artistic genius?). At the same time, however, Sontag also examines “A Democracy of Photographs.” This exhibition of “hellish events” showed that photography was a form that did not require the same rigorous training as painting or other form of art (26). The witness and by-stander could participate in this form. For me, these two articles inform how in an era of technology and emergent forms that allow us to see, feel, and sense at an ever-increasing speed, these two essays shed the ways in which we examine evidence, art, and participation.
Hoch’s work also engaged with the notion of disruption of social norms. In an era of violence and violent images, social norms cannot remain intact, and Hoch’s photomontages worked in multiple ways to critique our participation with images. The Dadaists works in ways that questioned the boundaries between avant-garde art and commercial production working with images from magazines to make ironic statements. For Hoch’s work and her “kitchen knife,” she illuminates the gendered dynamics of consumer culture (21).
Sontag’s view on photography also discusses how we participate, engage, or view photos. In light of the Hoch article, it made me think more specifically about the intersection of art, photography, and context. Sontag explains, “The ultra-familiar, ultra-celebrated image—of agony, of ruin—is an unavoidable feature of our camera-mediated knowledge of war” (24). In other words, our context of war is already mediated by technology. We are not engaging directly with violence but with images of violence. These photographs carry a weight that can be read as evidence. They are seen as evidence of war, atrocity, and ruin. We must remember, however, it is our engagement as such that turns them into evidence rather than viewing them as purely evidentiary.
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