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Gradual Contemporary: Ara H. Merjian

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‘AT THE SAME TIME’: TOWARD AN ETHICS AND AESTHETICS OF (IN)VISIBILITY
ARA H. MERJIAN

Diderot’s famous Letter on the Blind, for the Use of Those Who See (1749) improbably names moral apathy as the natural inclination of the blind, whose inability to see leads Diderot to "suspect them of being, in general, unfeeling toward their fellow men." To what extent have twentieth- and twenty-first-century aesthetics elaborated strategies of representing connections to bodies unseen or unacknowledged? What, in artistic terms, might constitute a phenomenology of distance and implication, as it relates to the witnessing of history or micro-history? And how do the visual arts—whose domain is sight itself—potentially shore up such distance, or else render intelligible its effects? This paper ventures some tentative answers in the light of specific efforts by European and American artists, from both before and after the late twentieth-century digital revolution: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Renato Guttuso, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Martha Rosler, Eric Fischl, and Francesco Arena.  It explores the extent to which an ostensibly interconnected globalization might belie an indifference which, as Carlo Ginzburg writes, "already implies a form of complicity."

Ara H. Merjian is Associate Professor of Italian at New York University and author of Giorgio de Chirico and the Metaphysical City: Nietzsche, Modernism, Paris (Yale University Press, 2014).