A glimpse at Alfredo Jaar’s struggle with beauty, and what this can teach us about aesthetics


In the field of contemporary art, more and more images and works aim to show us that life is precarious. Alfredo Jaar, a New York based artist from Chile, struggled with an ongoing tension between ethics and beauty. He wanted to capture the fragility and precariousness of lives lost to violence, but he did not want to focus solely on beauty. The struggle is important because a sole focus on beauty would aestheticise the message of a work of art, canceling out its ethical or political dimensions.

Works such as the poetry and art created by prisoners in Guantanamo, or the images of suffering that Jaar attempted to convery in “Project Rwanda” are what motivated me to explore the anxiety underlying the problem of aesthetizication. Such tension between beauty and suffering can also teach us something about aesthetics. I will analyze Jaar’s own thought and Susan Sontag’s work On Photography to point to the ambiguity in their claims about the relationship between aesthetics and ethics. I also turn to Judith Butler’s recent work “Frames of War” because it reveals that grieving and precariousness can, and should, be framed by art. My further goal is to show how the search for a relief to this anxiety has caused aestheticians and philosophers to problematically separate aesthetics from ethics and politics. I defend instead the claim that ethics, politics, and aesthetics intersect. Aesthetics is not necessarily the source of anxiety, especially if we understand it as strategy for artists to allocate more egalitarian norms and frames of recognition in the perceptual field.


Judith Butler explores in her recent book Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? how is it that, in the face of violence, we can encounter the precariousness of another life.  From this encounter it follows that certain kinds of lives will appear in the field of perceptual representation as more precarious than others. The reason for this, Butler argues, is that certain normative frameworks will establish in advance what lives will be worthy of preservation and worthy of being grieved when lost. She argues that we cannot refer to this “being” outside of the visual field, and that life is produced through these specific mechanisms that frame and organize the operations of power. But this determination also implies that certain lives are perceived as lives, while others, though apparently living, fail to assume perceptual form as such. So certain forms of exclusion are instituted and active at a level of perception, where populations are framed a certain way Butler writes “Forms of racism… tend to produce iconic versions of populations who are eminently grievable, and others whose loss is no loss, and who remain ungrievable” (p.  24). I argue that art can envision better, more egalitarian versions of populations who are grievable at the level of perception; and here lies its power to challenge the dominant norms and frames. So far I have talked about art, and perception, but I suggest that here also lies the central role of aesthetics in political critique. The ontological question referring to the being of life inside these operations of power leads Butler to distinguish between “apprehending” and “recognizing” a life (p. 4). Recognition is a term, linked to cognition, but apprehension is less precise and can imply “marking, registering, acknowledging without full cognition” (p. 5). This last concept is linked to sensing and perceiving, but in ways that are not yet conceptual forms of knowledge. This distinction is important because apprehension is crucial in its link to the sensing or acknowledging grievability, which allows us to apprehend precariousness.

In the face of violence, art can allocate grievability in the perceptual field, providing an encounter with the vulnerability of a life that was previously rationalized by the discourse of war as an unworthy life. We apprehend the precariousness of those lives that have yet to be recognized, so apprehension of precariousness is necessary for the establishment of what Butler calls “better, or more egalitarian norms of recognition.” As I have argued, Butler’s work, which is predominately a political critique of the dominant norms and frames of recognition, can become a starting ground to explain how art plays a major role in this political critique.

The “frames,” that work to differentiate the lives we can apprehend from those we cannot, organize visual experience. If grievability, precariousness, and affect are differentially allocated in the field of perception, then art can represent more egalitarian framing of lives, groups, or populations by re-allocating grievability. For example, we sympathize, feel compassion, outrage, or mourn only those lives that “count” as living and lost, while other lives are counted, but not grieved, so they do not “count” as lives, as subjects etc. Art, by allocating grieveability in the perceptual field, can provide us with this affective encounter where we sympathize, feel compassion etc. towards the precariousness of the other who was previously outside of the dominant frames. So art contributes also to what Butler calls the “struggle against those forces that seek to regulate affect in differential ways.” (p. 52) There are lives that “count” as lives precisely because grievability, and thus, precariousness is allocated differentially within the dominant frames. Butler writes how “the apprehension of griveability precedes and makes possible the apprehension of the living being as living” (p. 15). So those forms of life remain invisible within the frame, and we do not generally acknowledge them as vulnerable or precarious unless we apprehend that something (or someone) is not being recognized by the frames of recognition. Art can manage these norms and frames because it is displayed, or takes place, in the field of perception where these function.

Taking as a first example the poetry written by prisoners in Guantanamo, which Butler mentions, I explain how the lives of these prisoners can be apprehended affectively as grievable, and thus, precarious lives. The prisoners, trapped in a context of violence, manage to break the loneliness of their seclusion de las cadenas precarias de la soledad, by making words that return to them their dignity and worthiness as lives. The reality is that, in the field of politics, these bodies undergo an inhuman torture because they have already been conceptualized through norms as less than human, or as ungrievable/ unworthy lives. Yet the epistemological “frame” which justifies the exposure of these bodies to violence has breaks, and the poetry breaks through these cracks when the words of the prisoners filter into the frame. These prisoners, whose lives do not count in the differential allocation of precariousness of the dominant discourse, are forming words and the forming of these words is “linked with survival, with the capacity to survive.” (p. # 56).

These lives which are counted daily, but do not “count” as lives (or as lives protected by human rights discourse) print their words as a form of resistance. In consequence, the poems re-allocate perceptual experience so that those who read them can apprehend the words as belonging to precarious lives. Survival of these bodies is linked to the powerful survival of their words which, Butler tells us, at the beginning where written on Styrofoam cups, with toothpaste, and engraved with pebbles or small stones. Image

Butler, who focuses on the cultural modes of regulating affective and ethical dispositions through a selective and differential framing of violence, uses the example of the poetry written in Guantanamo to show us how affect is differentially allocated. If these poems can challenge the military rationale, the normative power that frames the rationality of torture, it is because in an effort to establish a social connection, poetry becomes an act of resistance. The way the prisoners are re-allocating the grievability of their own lives, through poems that can produce an affective response from its readers, is an example of this act of resistance against the dominant frames that exclude their lives as being worthy of protection. Butler mentions how “most of the poems written by Guantanamo detainees were either destroyed or confiscated,” (p. 55). She also explains that “when the Pentagon offered its rationale for censorship, it claimed that poetry ‘presents a special risk’ to National Security” (p. 55). In the perceptual field of war, regulated by norms and frames, art is necessary because it allows us to apprehend affectively the precariousness of these lives that would have otherwise been ignored or instrumentalized. The frames are always incomplete, in that the frame breaks, making room for the poetry. The precariousness of the lives of prisoners led them to write as a mode of survival, and this writing breaks through the frame. Poetry can manage to aid us in the search for more egalitarian conditions of precariousness as Butler argues, and this to me is an example of how art is a central tool for this political critique.


The poetry of Guantanamo can then be considered as a form of resistance to the social and political normative frames that justify violence. The lives of the prisoners are not allocated as grievable lives in the context of war, and are framed as lives unworthy of protection. Yet their words of resistance manage to break through the frame. So the necessity to write these words becomes also the necessity of a moral response to the violence justified by a military rationale. And, somehow, as the poetry manages to leave the prison while the prisoners cannot (or cannot yet) we encounter, in the face of an expression of violence, the precariousness of another life.

The encounter with the precariousness of the other through the poetry written in prison is also a way to apprehend that something is not, or was not, being recognized by recognition. Further, this leads Butler to argue for “more egalitarian norms of recognition” that will allow us to more broadly apprehend the precariousness of lives. Clearly, art re-allocates grievability and precariousness on the representational field, re-allocating, also, our affective encounter with the precariousness of the other. Art can, further, provide us with imagery of how these more egalitarian norms of recognition can be rendered in the perceptual field.


Jaar’s artworks give perceptual form to populations that remained previously ungrievable within the dominant norms and frames. I read him as an artist known for attempting to convey what the majority have unfortunately ignored. That is, while most would rather ignore “seeing” torture, suffering, genocide, or the reality of violence, Jaar wants to convey this ethical dimension where precariousness demands grievability through his art. Focusing on Butler’s notion of apprehension, I want to show how Jaar’s art challenges the differential norms of recognition to give a second example of the role of aesthetics in political critique. In Valle del Matador, Tijuana, at the border between San Diego and Mexico, more than three thousand people have died in the last decade trying to cross into the United States. Military tactics implemented to seal the border and prevent immigrant workers from crossing have managed to stop the entering flow, creating an unacceptable tragedy of deaths from shooting, drowning, automobile accidents (caused by speed-chases by the border patrol) and extreme climate conditions. Jaar wanted to address this tragedy in his work titled “The Cloud” (2000) by giving us a site of grief. He used white balloons, as one aesthetic strategy, to represent each life lost daily attempting to cross the border. His notes on this piece describe its unfolding:

“I created The Cloud as an ephemeral monument in the memory of those who lost their lives trying to cross the border. The Cloud lasted 45 minutes in which we offered a space and time of mourning. Music was played on both sides of the border, symbolically uniting a divided land and people. Poetry was read and a moment of silence was observed.”


Butler explains how “the differential distribution of grievability across populations has implications for why and when we feel politically consequential affective dispositions” (p. # 24). And Jaar, who appears to be aware of this, re-allocates grievability in the perceptual field by offering us a space for mourning (through symbolism, music, and moments of silence) to apprehend the precariousness of these lives. Consequently, Jaar can critique the politics of immigration by offering us a different framing of the lives of immigrants, where we can apprehend grievability, which allows us to apprehend precariousness, which allows us to have more egalitarian norms of recognition in the perceptual field. Most importantly, the apprehension of precariousness allows us to recognize that those “beings” that die crossing the border daily are lives that escape, break away from the dominant frames which portray them merely as living, but not as lives. The prisoners in Guantanamo bay write words as an act of resistance and Jaar’s work re-allocates grievability by representing a space for mourning in the field of perception, both works reminding us of the precariousness of life. The poems written by prisoners, and the works of Jaar, have a central ethical dimension which is apprehended. So apprehension is a crucial term to Butler, and it is crucial in art because we apprehend grievability, thus, the precariousness of life, thus, a more egalitarian framing of norms. Apprehension is distinct from recognition because it involves a form of sensing that is not always cognitive (like recognition is) and can be affective for example. While we recognize lives that are framed by the dominant norms, we can apprehend that some lives (such as those of the prisoners in Guantanamo, or the immigrants who cross the border) are not being recognized by recognition.

The distinction is more explicit if we think of the media giving us, at the level of recognition, the numbers of lives lost to war and violence daily, but avoiding at the level of apprehension, that we should grieve or mourn these lives. Art, on the other hand, can rely on apprehension to frame and re-allocate grievability as it challenges the dominant frames.

Not only in “The Cloud” but also in “Project Rwanda” did Jaar strongly see the tension between counting and accountability, and this paradox of numbers is also a result of the differential allocation of precariousness. Jaar followed the tragedy from the beginning and was outraged at how we were told this was happening.  He read on the newspapers that “yesterday, 35,000 bodies were recovered; they were floating on the Kagera River.” About 35,000 dead bodies and it was just a five-line story. So he thought he had to go to Rwanda, because there was something he had to say about this.

We accept that the dominant media gives us the numbers of the losses everyday, for example, those lives lost trying to cross the border, or the number of deaths due to genocide, but those numbers do not give us accountability. So counting is also a way to allocate grievability and precariousness differentially, given that the deaths are counted and yet the lives lost do not seem to count. An example of how Jaar’s work acts upon, and challenges, the differential allocation of numbers is by allowing us to apprehend affectively the vulnerability and suffering of these lives so that these are not merely numbers. If numbers tell us what populations count as living beings, and what lives fail to count as lives, then the lives lost at the border or in Rwanda are counted, but the fundamental question is, do they count? Jaar struggles to convey this reality of violence and suffering by “making them count” with aesthetic strategies such as focusing on the eyes of Guetete Emerite, and Nduwayezu, reducing the scale of deaths to one human being with a name and a story, allowing for a process of identification with the victim, working with silence, allowing his audience to mourn these lives and generate a sense of empathy or solidarity. In this case, the precariousness of the lives of the victims who where counted as dead, and yet unaccounted for, breaks away from the dominant frame, and is re-allocated so that we can affectively mourn or grieve this situation through the work of art. This is an example of how art has a role in political critique, by pointing at this differential allocation of grievability, and allowing us to apprehend the ethical implications that precariousness of life demands from us.

ImageAnd yet Jaar, haunted with nightmares after coming back from Rwanda, declared his project to be “a failure” because he could not find the “appropriate” way to convey this ethical reality. He claimed that,

“It was the most horrific experience in my life. We went to gather evidence, myself and one assistant. We spent time talking to people, photographing the situation. We accumulated probably 3,500 images of the most horrific things—so much so that when I got back to New York, I didn’t want to look at them. But when I finally had the courage to analyze them I realized that I couldn’t use them. It didn’t make sense to use them; people did not react to these kinds of images. Why would they react now? I was starting to think that there must be another way to talk about violence without recurring to violence. There must be a way to talk about suffering without making the victim suffer again. How do you represent this, respecting the dignity of the people you are focusing on?”


The problematic relationship between ethics and aesthetics is strongly prevalent in Jaar’s own thought, but also in the field of art theory. As a brief background about the relationship between aesthetics and ethics, it is important to point how these disciplines are generally known to be pursued in relative isolation. For example, philosophers coming from a Kantian tradition found primarily in The Critique of Judgment have associated aesthetic judgments of beauty as those which should be viewed with a disinterested attitude. This attitude separates art and beauty from any sort of ethical or political judgment a viewer could make upon a work. Yet all the examples I provide in this paper are of artworks with a central ethical dimension that is constitutive of these works. Ethical and aesthetic values or judgments are often difficult to separate and these fields often connect, even when we can distinguish them. And making a disinterested judgment about a photograph of suffering in this case, is not only ineffective politically, it would also fail to account for the central ethical dimension of the image which is constitutive of the work as art. A viewer who admires an image of suffering for its beauty may be considered a moral monster and, further, with this attitude, the work of art fails to convey what it attempts for the viewer to notice. It is necessary to ask what is it that is at stake with the use of beauty in these works, and to claim that beauty can be seen, not as the all abrasive saturator of ethical reality. Beauty can rather be used as a tool to bridge ethics with aesthetics, if we understand that these fields intersect in the perceptual ground. I suggest we can make use of Butler’s notion of allocation of grievability in the perceptual field as a starting point to address the problem of beauty, or the charge of aesthetizication, differently.

Issues of aesthetizication are to be found in the Jaar’s own statements about his work. Rwanda Project (1994) was born of his anger that much of the world turned away from adequate intervention in the short months during which a million people were slaughtered. Mark Reinhardt, in his article “Picturing Violence: Aesthetics and the Anxiety of Critique,” explains how Jaar, who declared the project to be a failure, attributed this failure, in part, to the insufficient pressure from the mass media in providing us with more pictures of this reality (p. 34). Yet, Jaar also saw the pictures of people suffering as contributing to our failures of perception. This anxiety caused by the problem of aesthetizication, or the use of beauty, is so relevant, that even the artist appeared to have problems displaying this reality aesthetically. On one hand, he wanted his audience to recognize this reality, but on the other, he distrusted the capacity of his own work, of his aesthetic strategies, and of beauty, to make a moral demand upon this audience. Jaar, cautious about the beauty that could be found in his images of the genocide, decided to avoid all images of Rwanda. This is an example of the anxiety caused by the intersection between ethics and aesthetics.

For example Jaar, in response to this problematic anxiety of using beauty to convey horror, does not picture the events directly in Rwanda Project, but rather makes it a work that “gets us to see what we missed as the events unfolded.” (Reinhardt, p.34) The artist, who ambitiously attempts to capture the suffering, undercuts his own work by declaring his inability to successfully “triumph” at capturing its referent. Yet this inability or “failure” is such because Jaar himself is not sure, or is anxious, about using beauty to convey the horror. What I suggest is that Alfredo Jaar, who declared Project Rwanda to be “a failure”, was merely constraining this claim to the anxiety of aesthetizication, precisely, one of the causes for the separation between ethics and aesthetics.

Jaar, who was invited to participate in an issue of a famous Canadian Magazine in 1991, inserted his own work in the form of an advertisement which said “How can I make art/out of information that most of you/would rather ignore?” This statement occupied four pages and was accompanied with drawings of blank squares, representing empty frames in each page. This question generated by the artist is an example of how, the stronger the separation between ethics and aesthetics, the less substantial the ethical dimension of the work is. As we can see with this work, art that has an ethical dimension may be condemned for portraying human suffering in ways that denote beauty. But art that expects a disinterested aesthetic judgment of beauty about an ethical reality is empty, like Jaar’s frames. So Jaar is so cautious about beauty and other aesthetic properties that he would rather avoid all images, such is the case in the empty frames, and in Project Rwanda, where he took thousands of images but exhibited none.

I have shown how the fear or anxiety about the ethical dimension of a work being “at stake” when an image is “beautiful” is caused partly by the historical separation between ethics and aesthetics. This separation prevents us from understanding the two fields as intersecting continuously because, as I earlier stated, the aesthetic is linked to a judgment of beauty, but more relevantly to a judgment of beauty that is disinterested. This problem is clear as we read Jaar’s struggle in his own work to create images which balance aesthetic beauty and the ethical reality he wishes to convey. In the age of photography and journalism, where “contingent factors” such as violence, suffering and marginalization of groups are a central ethical dimension of the work, beauty, or making an aesthetic judgment of beauty, would either cover up this reality, or numb the viewer by “glorifying” or “beautifying” it. This last issue about beauty causing a “numbing” effect on the viewer also has a history which needs to be explored further.

Susan Sontag has argued that images of suffering can saturate us, and in her first study of images, On Photography, she worries about the moral and political failings of photographic images of war and suffering. Yet there is ambiguity within Sontag’s own thought, like there is with Jaar. On one side there is the claim that beauty can make us callous to the ethical reality, but on the other hand, images can, and in fact do, “haunt us.” My reading of Sontag concentrates on her fear over the insubstantiality of aesthetic judgments of beauty which would neutralize the ethical dimension of the work of art. She writes, “Photographs can and do distress, but the aestheticizing tendency of photography is such that the medium which conveys distress ends by neutralizing it.” (p. 108). So we encounter a criticism of photography grounded in the problem of beauty or pleasure, which, judged with a disinterested attitude, only generates callousness towards the moral reality the image conveys.

But Sontag herself is slightly confused, or even bothered by this tension between ethics and aesthetics. My reading of her second work on photography may provide some insight on this, and may illuminate my own argument. After warning us that photographs, in their omnipresence, were deadening our responses to the suffering of others, she displays a different view in her second book Regarding the Pain of Others, where, thankfully, she is not so sure about this anymore. Her conclusion is, “Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function”. Here Sontag addresses the ethical dimension of images, instead of focusing on the issue of aesthetizication. This ethical reality is apprehended affectively and aesthetically, and the grief from these losses “haunts” us. Here, Butler’s notion of allocation of precariousness may allow us to come out of the problem of aesthetizication without having to eliminate or separate beauty from suffering. If we understand that the artist, the photographer, or the writer are all attempting to re-allocate precariousness with their aesthetic strategies ( beauty being one strategy) that help them convey this reality, then ethics, politics, and aesthetics cannot be separated in art. These images, which according to Sontag have the capacity to “haunt” us, can precisely do this because the ethical dimension of the image, which is apprehended affectively, has re-allocated grievability in the perceptual field. The viewer’s responding or not to this suffering, is distinct from the image giving us more egalitarian norms of recognition.  Now, the issue appears to have less to do with beauty and more to do with the way precariousness is allocated in a work of art. If we understand beauty as a tool for this re-allocation, as a tool for the imagery of more egalitarian norms of recognition, then beauty has a fundamental role in art, and should not have to be the cause of so much anxiety. Through this claim, it follows that beauty is only one of the many aesthetic strategies used by the artist, and employed adequately it may allow for the successful conveyance of an ethical reality.

Art can, and does, make moral and political demands, as Sontag later claims in her second book.  Like I have shown through my reading of Butler, art also is capable of making a political critique. But Sontag, who admits that these images can “haunt” us, falls short from explaining how is it that we can have an encounter, in the face of violence, with the precariousness of the other. Butler who argues for more egalitarian norms of recognition, allows me to take her starting point into the perceptual field of aesthetics, to explain how is it that the vulnerability of human lives is allocated in the political field, and can be re-allocated in the aesthetic field so that more forms of life are framed as worthy and precarious lives. We apprehend grievability, which allows us to apprehend precariousness in the perceptual field, so apprehension is a crucial term in aesthetics, which allows us to account for its intersections with ethics and politics. The work of Jaar offers examples of this re-allocation, and also of the tension between ethics and aesthetics within his own thought and art. What I have intended to show is how, in the face of violence, art can provide an encounter with the vulnerability and exposure of life, and as a political critique, how art can urge us to re-think the norms and frames which allow us to register the suffering, the precariousness of life.


Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? New York: Verso. 2009.

Jaar, Alfredo. Website: http://www.alfredojaar.net/

Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgment.  New York: Hafner Press, 1951.

Reinhardt, Mark.“Picturing Violence: Aesthetics and the Anxiety of Critique Beautiful Suffering, Photography and the traffic in Pain. Edited by Mark Reinhardt, Holly Edwards, and Erina Duganne. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2007.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador. 1977

Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador. 2003



To Butler, “without grievability, there is no life,” (p. 15). Which implies that without testimony, there is something living, but it is something other than life.

“It becomes possible to apprehend that something about what or who is living but has not been generally recognized as a life.” (Frames of War, p. 12).

When I say “breaks” I do not wish to imply that these frames are solid foundations that define what goes into and outside of them. Butler, using a Foucaltian language, explains that frames are “operations of power” (p. 1) and “organize visual experience” by “differentiating the lives we can apprehend from those we cannot. (p.  4). Also, “normative schemes are interrupted by one another.” (p. 4).

“What might be done?” Butler asks, “to produce a more egalitarian set of conditions for recognizability?” (p. 6).

Reference, website:  HYPERLINK “http://www.alfredojaar.net/index1.html” http://www.alfredojaar.net/index1.html

Alfredo Jaar, Interview in Art 21, PBS. Found at:  HYPERLINK “http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/jaar/clip1.html#” http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/jaar/clip1.html# )

On the problems related to this, see Mark Reinhardt, “Picturing Violence: Aesthetics and the Anxiety of Critique,” Beautiful Suffering, Photography and the Traffic in Pain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. He relates it to the problem of aesthetization, and addresses thinkers such as Kant, and more recently Jerome Stolinz and Marcia Muelder Eaton, who make disinterested pleasure and beauty central in aesthetics. (pp.13-37).

I explain this more extensively in my paper “Ethics and Aesthetics at the Intersection, Doris Salcedo and the Problems with Art Theory.” My argument, briefly, is that the ethical dimension is central to the ontology of certain works of art. I stress this because theories that rely either on disinterested judgments of beauty, or essentialism fail to account for the ethical dimension of art, which is apprehended affectively. To account for these works, we need a different approach that will incorporate the ethical dimension of the work, which, I argue, is apprehended first, and later recognized cognitively, as a stronger act than sensing.

For work on this recent debate, see Hagberg, Garry, editor. Art and Ethical Criticism,. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2009. Also see, Costello, Diarmuid, editor. Life and Death of Images. New York: Cornell University Press, 2008.

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