The subject matter is of so urgent a nature that it seems to find its own, direct mode of expression just as panic will find relief in a cry of terror rather than in a sequence of coherent words.
— Fred Licht, in Goya: The Origins of the Modern Temper in Art, 1979
It’s just words, folks, just words.
— President-elect Donald Trump, 2016
In these dark, unshakable, post-election days—when terrible contingencies claw at one’s balance—what is an art writer to do? Language feels imperiled, rhetoric thrown about like confetti and calcifying into a divisive wall of apathy. If words are so dismissible, if cries of terror are the most immediate form of relief, why sit at our desks and push towards “a sequence of coherent words?”
The work of Goya is once again paramount. Goya, an artist who lived through a revolutionary age of violent régime change, censorship, and isolationism, used imagery and language as forms of blunt resistance to collective amnesia. In his treatise on the artist, art historian Fred Licht describes the Disasters of War series as Goya’s ultimate form of self-defense: “the only sustenance left to an artist” was to viscerally put pen to paper. We know of the brutality of the images, but it is also the artist’s words—the captions—that sharpen the blow. Yo lo vi; No se puede mirar; Esto es peor; Enterrar y callar; Que hay que hacer mas? Meaning: I saw this; One cannot look at this; This is worse; Bury [them] and shut up; What more can one do?
One can write with veracity. One can, as Goya did, put into high relief the stakes of the present. This conflation of the two epochs—Goya’s and our own—may seem dramatic, but the inspiration that can be gleaned is consequential. It is no mistake that the work of the critic, the teacher, the artist is often disregarded and unpaid, but structures of power are not inevitable. They can, slowly and tactically, be exposed and eroded.
From 1808 to 1814, Goya watched as the Spanish resistance slowed the French conquest with small bursts of militia-style fighting, the origin of the term guerrilla—the diminutive form of guerra, the Spanish word for war. Though perhaps not in his own day (the series was first circulated fifty years after the artist’s death), and perhaps not consciously, the fierce, unequivocal clarity of the series makes it impossible to disengage. Each etching is a concise and potent affront to the subterfuge of war: One cannot look at this; I saw this. That is the task of criticism today: to clarify what is of consequence, to record and demystify, to galvanize the malaise, to see. It is, at best, our most enduring form of self-defense.
Sara Christoph is a former Managing Director of the Brooklyn Rail.