Is there salvation outside images?

Dora Maurer, Stage II, 2016


In contemporary times, the maximum image resolution of the representation has been converted into an index of the veracity of what is represented



The debate on the social function of art and status of the image in contemporaneity accompanies us in an irresolute persistence, especially when the impact of the emergence of a new form of apprehension of the real and of the different regimes of (dis)sensitivity imposed by the digital age is placed in the foreground.

However, the constant return to such themes is perhaps a symptom of the very physiognomy and social effectiveness of the aestheticization of everyday life, that is, of the hegemonic, constant and unavoidable presence of sweetened and clear images on screens and their counterparts in all spheres of life and of experience, whether in the collective and in public spaces, or in our hidden intimacy. Although intensified by new technological means, this trend has been visible since the profound massification of culture and the relocation of the artistic by capitalism began.

When we are crossed by images that do not give us any respite, the very distinctive element of the aesthetic evaporates, in an effect contrary to that imagined by the artistic vanguards of the last century, who so valued the inclusion of art beyond their spaces of clear social exclusion. In this new context, no one is excluded – on the contrary. In this violent integration of everyone into a superficial and homogeneous aesthetic regime – an even more totalizing and authoritarian form of the cultural industry – there is no more room for the turbid, for the indeterminate or for what circulates without aiming for a final and finished definition.

In fact, the images, taken here as the hegemonic imagery contents that circulate socially, are no longer just carrying a specific type of worldview and acquire a defining status of political and social discourses themselves. In yet another recrudescence of commodity fetishism, the maximum image resolution of the representation is thus converted into an index of the veracity of what is represented. In this scheme, the hierarchy between the represented and the representation is inverted. In these images without reflection, the implosion of the non-identical subsists and a regime of images without self-reflection or criticism emerges.

For some, a complete aestheticization of everyday life is observed in the meantime, which subsumes even the smallest of acts to the need for imagery. In this case, we have the impression that everything has become aesthetically elaborate, worthy of being transformed into an image put into circulation. On the other hand, we find both in conservatives and in certain progressive sectors a criticism that denounces a supposed general lowering of aesthetic sensitivity, as if we were going through an eternal crisis of representation that remains short of its true potential. Already in a reactionary vision, we would be distancing ourselves from great art and its old spaces duly protected from the “popular”. In any case, when raised to the total space and time regime 24/7,[I] the status of the image, especially in its omnipresent digital facet, has come to be endowed with the authority to determine what is or is not true, to build political and religious narratives that dispense with facts because they are satisfied with what is said about facts through the images.

In this context, the image as medium it has become an end in itself, since it is capable of replacing the real in terms of authenticity: it is more tangible than what it supposedly represents and exhibits. To arrive at this state of affairs, a long tectonic movement was necessary to deprive the artistic of its specificity and the ambiguous and contradictory loss of its autonomy in the face of the pressures of the cultural and entertainment industry. Thus, these essayistic and non-exhaustive lines are driven by the impetus to put up for debate, under a specific constellation of thinkers, how the sweetened images that circulate in our midst, also superficial and structured from clichés, not only alter the representation of the world, but the very meaning and sense of the world. In short, we would be facing the question of how the “image society”, so dear to the postmodern debate, made the aesthetic more attractive than reality itself, the latter lacking in meaning and taken over by social suffering.



Em Facing the pain of others, Susan Sontag states that “the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 it was classified as 'unreal', 'surreal', 'like a movie', in many of the first testimonies of people who escaped the towers or saw the disaster up close” (SONTAG, 2003, p.23 ). Here, we see how the real resembles the representation, and not the other way around. Perhaps we could collect the same testimonies in the face of tragedies that devastate national life, such as the political violence that only intensifies, the ruins and voids left by the pandemic, the environmental disaster that devastates our forests and biomes (either as latent and silent destruction, or as catastrophic event, as in Brumadinho and Mariana), or the black and indigenous genocide so characteristic of our history. Also wildly spectacular are the recurrent fires that devastate our cultural institutions, such as the National Museum, the Portuguese Language Museum and part of the Cinematheque. Added to an endless list of events “that seem to come out of movies”, already normalized in our time of the end, such scenes are crowned by State terrorism, skilled in destroying lives, struggles and sensibilities. In short, there's the general feel of a scorched earth.

Faced with images that carry with them deep political meanings, we are seized by an upside-down fascination, which turns our stomachs and at the same time arrests us. So worn out with reality, the images we receive, consume and pass on saturate us with shock until it becomes the norm. The scene of the death of Genivaldo de Jesus Santos, asphyxiated in a car, was seen and reviewed, shown to exhaustion without causing major inconvenience. Startled by the question of what to do, we isolate ourselves in the image plane and end up atrophying our practice.

On the other hand, the imagery power that replaces the real also takes on contours of escapism from the ongoing barbarism, projecting the gaze forward. Thus, this regime of image authority also constitutes a political belief that, among progressive sectors, sometimes clouds what is at stake and ignores the dormant challenges of the future. In their good but blind faith, some express too much hope that, depending on the nation's destiny, starting next year, an era of abundance and social peace will begin. Here, the image of necessary hope annuls the real conditions and possibilities of thinking about what awaits us – times that are undoubtedly better than the present, but not for that reason so auspicious. In this, they forget that the optimism of the will must be allied with the pessimism of reason.

However, our images are not based solely on tragedies. Apparently, there is a common thread that unites any image representation of the world. In front of the latest movie live action of Disney, a symptom of a new and deeper phase of the creative desert of the cultural industry, there is also the feeling that what is revealed by the luminous surface and of extremely high definition of the screens communicates better with our expectations, desires, frustrations and debacles of the than reality itself. Returning to reality thus becomes an operation that is always difficult because it is emotionally costly. After all, to what do we owe this deficient feeling of our own enjoyment of the world?



It is not news that we have been in a historical situation for a long time in which autonomous art has suffered a severe displacement, isolation and exhaustion. Although the genesis of such processes could already be found since the discussions of Hegelian aesthetics, their consequences intensified in the post-Second World War with the exhaustion of the classical model of the aesthetic vanguards. In Aesthetic Theory (1969), for example, Theodor Adorno states that “it became manifest that everything concerning art ceased to be self-evident, both in itself and in its relation to the whole, and even its right to existence” (ADORNO, 2008, p.11). Thus, the very category of art autonomy begins to “show a moment of blindness”, in which art ceases to be what it was, loses its uniqueness and is dominated and disfigured by the systematic entertainment industry. Faced with this scenario, art would have to seek “refuge in its own negation” (Idem, p.514), that is, its survival would take place through its own death, through its reinvention in a completely different world.

Em the aesthetic dimension (1977), Herbert Marcuse also highlights the loss of evidence of the function and specificity of art in post-war society. It starts from a question that remains as current as it was at the time of its formulation. According to the author, “in a historical situation in which poor reality can only be modified through praxis radical politics, the preoccupation with aesthetics requires justification. It would be futile to deny the element of despair inherent in this concern” (MARCUSE, 2016, p.13). For Marcuse, the answer to this despair would come from a renewed and critically active aesthetic practice, from works that are capable of creating a world “in which the subversion of the experience of art itself becomes possible”, thus allowing the “rebirth of art”. rebellious subjectivity” (Idem, p.17-18).

Guy Debord, on the eve of the 1968 riots, also identified an insufficiency and a growing decline in the role of communication and art in society at the time. According to him, “the language of communication is lost – this is what positively expresses the movement of modern decomposition of all art, its formal annihilation” (DEBORD, 1997, p.122). In this society taken by the images of the spectacle, the forbidden debate and complete social alienation, it would be difficult to find possibilities of art and image as a manifestation of disruptive desires. For Debord, “art in its time of dissolution, as a negative movement that continues the overcoming of art in a historical society in which history has not yet been lived, is at the same time an art of change and the pure expression of impossible change ( ditto, p.124). In these terms, autonomous production itself would still be the art of a time that has not yet arrived. It would point to an alterity not yet realized, to a power that can only be realized, for now, in the very domain of the aesthetic.

The debate about the “end of art” is also the substrate on which Fredric Jameson anchors his discussion on the fate of the image in contemporary times. The author clarifies that it is no longer possible to think of art on an autonomous level, as the production of works independent of external pressures and moved by immanent laws that regulate their production, distribution and consumption. In fact, Fredric Jameson points out that there was a “de-differentiation of fields, so that the economy ended up coinciding with culture, making everything, including commodity production itself and high speculation, become cultural, while culture became cultural”. It becomes profoundly economic, equally oriented towards the production of goods” (JAMESON, 2001, p.73). In short, Jameson updates, at the same time as he develops, Frankfurt's diagnosis of the cultural industry.

Taken from the spirit that moves the cultural and dialectical critique of the Frankfurtian tradition, Fredric Jameson strives to “understand the position of culture within the whole” (ADORNO, 2001, p.21), that is, he accomplishes the feat of “deciphering which elements of the general tendency of society are manifested through these [cultural] phenomena” (Idem, p.21). In this way, the author ends up identifying as one of the most striking traits of postmodern artistic production an enthusiastic return to the forms of the modern tradition, in that first nostalgic tendency previously exposed. According to Fredric Jameson, this return to historicity takes place through the temporally displaced imitation of techniques and themes from avant-gardes and past movements, becoming a symptom of the “lack of intellectual direction of a universally triumphant late capitalism, but devoid of legitimacy” ( JAMESON, 2001, p.101).

As a consequence, a bewilderment is created that summarizes the dissolution of the specificity of the aesthetic object in postmodernity. However, it is important to note that contemporary art's reference to works from the past is not a problem in itself. In fact, what bothers Jameson is that the hegemonically established relationship with tradition often turns into a relationship of obedience and imitation – as if the past provided the answers to the dilemmas faced by artists in the present. Collected and transplanted in this way to contemporary culture, such elements are reintegrated only under the sign of pastiche, in a patchwork of flashy references without cohesion.

This aimless operation would be a strong symptom of the “somnambulistic speech of a historically extinct subject” who tries to solve problems “that have long since become simulacra” (Idem, p.101). With the disappearance of the individual subject from the postmodern scene, the classic notions of style and aesthetic movement become unfeasible. In the absence of the self, the geniuses of the past are sought.

In this way, the past becomes the only fertile ground to seek the form and content for hegemonic cultural production – both in art fairs and in the most crowded commercial film sessions. However, the result is tragic: much of what is produced today is a haphazard cannibalization of all the styles of the past, a disconnected game of vague stylistic allusions. When the past also becomes the content of many of the works, it returns to a stereotypical image of a moment that never actually existed, a return that aestheticizes any historical event, whether tragic or not. Hollywood, for example, it specialized in producing films about the Holocaust and Nazi barbarism. In them, suffering takes on the tone of a defenseless beauty, which most of the time homogenizes something at first unrepresentable on the screen. Perhaps the most explicit example of this is the film Life is Beautiful (1997)

Perhaps we can extend this argument to some more recent productions, such as Jojo Rabbit (2019) and 1917 (2019). In these cases, we once again have the reformulation of a war plot that no longer shocks anyone. If Adorno problematized post-Auschwitz artistic making, this cinematographic tradition dissolves tension and takes barbarism as its theme – since, at least, Kapo (1960), by Gillo Pontecorvo. At the time of its release, Jacques Rivette was already writing on the pages of Cahiers du Cinema that absolute realism, or that which can take its place in cinema, is here impossible. According to him, “every attempt in this direction is necessarily unfinished (“therefore immoral”), every attempt at reconstitution or derisory and grotesque make-up, every approach to “spectacle” derives from voyeurism and pornography” (RIVETTE, 1961).

For Fredric Jameson, this almost obsessive return to modernism made after the war would also express the very essence of the aesthetics of postmodernism, now characterized no longer by the typical modern quest to reach the sublime, but rather by an impotent insistence on the beautiful. while decorative and superficial, exemplified in artistic productions that prioritize sensory beauty as being “the core of the problem” (JAMESON, 2001, p.129). We can include the aforementioned films as exponents of this same trend, in what Fredric Jameson called “nostalgia films”.

By re-appropriating themes and visual appeal typical of traditional films, this cinematography ends up aesthetically constructing a “real world” in which “the image is just a simulation”. In this way, these films create a pictorial look in a succession of “magical-realistic anachronisms” that become an “endless chain of narrative pretexts in which only the experiences available at the moment are available” (Idem, p.135). Thus, “we see ourselves condemned to seek the historical past through our images pop and our stereotypes about it, the past itself remaining forever out of reach” (JAMESON, 1985, p.21).

The “historicity without history” that such cultural productions express are also marked by a certain schizophrenic character. According to Jameson, the concept of schizophrenia, restricted here to its aesthetic dimension, summarizes well the specific perception of time established today: it becomes governed by a heap of disparate and unrelated meanings, in which the intensity of the present boils down to the image intensity. It is in this way that the subjective experience of temporality that characterizes postmodernity is affected, as there is no longer any perception of the persistence of personal identity through time. Thus, we begin “to live in a perpetual present, with which the various moments of his past have little connection and in which no future is seen on the horizon” (Idem, p.22). The consequence of this is that the experience of the present becomes overwhelming and total, submerged in a world of high intensity – as we saw earlier, reality tries to imitate the images, and not the opposite.



If we still want to save the image, then we should seek a “relationship with the present that defamiliarizes it and allows us that distance of immediacy” (JAMESON, 1996, p.290), now so absent. To recover this type of historicity would be to understand, after all, the “present as the past of a specific future”, bringing back the shock and estrangement produced by the precious tension between the real and the image. However, given the predominance of the aesthetically beautiful image, the filters that beautify our faces and the fetishized tradition, the so-called postmodernity reserves for us a feeling of “bewilderment” in which to find ourselves lost is perfectly normal.

Therefore, it becomes urgent to pay attention to the different forms of apprehension of the aesthetic in contemporary times, such as its influence on the other spheres of social life, especially in what concerns the status of the image in the culture of a so-called post-modern society. However, the criticism of these images without content or depth must be done with care. As Fredric Jameson points out, it is up to the critic to find in the very profusion and hegemony of the image the gaps to engender in them potentialities that point to an alterity that goes beyond what is represented – that puts it in check.

We should neither resort to a “nostalgic appeal” and apologetics of a modernity that never returns, nor embrace a totalizing “Oedipal denunciation” of the repressive and outdated characteristics of modernity, which in turn falls into an unavoidable fruitless nihilism. In fact, it is up to contemporary cultural criticism to insist on the construction of a new relationship between images and the world they represent – ​​a relationship that can produce the new and give space to the non-identical, that is, that which is not subsumed under the norm. .

In these terms, we could bet on an efficient contemporary cultural policy that would democratically direct culture and art in a truly aesthetic dimension, namely, motivated to produce images that invert the dominant logic. In other words, it would take a commitment to explore the new possibilities of the beautiful and the sublime that can go beyond the new cool and the old. vintage. Betting on its potency, Fredric Jameson states that “beauty can play this subversive role”, but “only to the extent that it escapes its mere use, its transformation into a consumer good” (JAMESON, 1996, p.136).

This would mean finding in beauty a critical power that does not bow to tradition in order to imitate it and that does not aestheticize reality or transform its representation into pastiche. Identifying the trends of culture in postmodernity, we must find their subversive possibilities in themselves, almost as in a dialectical operation that overcomes its regressive elements while maintaining, now in a new unfolding, its critical power.

Therefore, it would be important to learn how to make the beautiful walk these new paths and how to operate the metamorphosis of images into image, that is, as that which holds something beyond what is seen. At a certain moment of The idiot (1869), by Fyodor Dostoevsky, ask Prince Myshkin, the main character of the novel: “Prince, is it true that you once said that “beauty” will save the world? […] What is the beauty that will save the world? (DOSTOIÉVSKI, 2015, p.428-429).

For contemporaneity, finding this answer is much less important than incessantly stirring up the reflection generated by the question. In a game of trial and error, practices emerge that, in the fissures of the cultural industry, produce images whose source of authority is not their own reified and supposedly autonomous domain, but the artistic – and therefore critical – response they give to what they do not say. I respect art, but it goes beyond it.

*Lucas Fiaschetti Estevez is a doctoral candidate in sociology at USP.


ADORNO, Theodor. Prisms: cultural criticism and society. São Paulo: Editora Ática, 2001.

ADORNO, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Lisbon: Editions 70, 2008.

BAUDRILLARD, Jean. Simulacra and simulation. Lisbon: Editora Relógio D´água, 1991.

BAUDRILLARD, Jean. Full Screen. Porto Alegre: Editora Salma, 2005.

DEBORD, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Rio de Janeiro: Counterpoint, 1997.

DIDI-HUBERMAN, Georges. When images touch realityl. Post: Belo Horizonte, v.2, n.4, p.204 – 2019, Nov.2012.

DOSTOYEVSKY, Fyodor. The idiot. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2015.

JAMESON, Fredric. Postmodernity and consumer society. In: New CEBRAP Studies, São Paulo, nº12, pp.16-26, jun. 1985.

JAMESON, Fredric. Postmodernism, the cultural logic of late capitalism. São Paulo: Editora Ática, 1996.

JAMESON, Fredric. The Culture of Money: Essays on Globalization. Petrópolis: Editora Vozes, 2001.

MARCUSE, Herbert. the aesthetic dimension. Lisbon: Editions 70, 2016.

RIVETTE, Jacques. From abjection. Cahiers du Cinema 120, 1961.

SONTAG, Susan. In the face of the pain of others🇧🇷 São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2003.


[I] Book reference 24/7: Late capitalism and the ends of sleep (2013), by Jonathan Crary.

The site the earth is round exists thanks to our readers and supporters. Help us keep this idea going.
Click here and find how

See this link for all articles