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  • Concerning Consequences: Studies in Art, Destruction, and Trauma by Kristine Stiles
  • Anna Harpin (bio)
Concerning Consequences: Studies in Art, Destruction, and Trauma. By Kristine Stiles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016; 504pp.; illustrations. $100.00 cloth, $39.00 paper, e-book available.

A key concern in trauma studies is the manner in which catastrophe calls and confounds the practice of witnessing. Critical thinkers including Cathy Caruth, Dori Laub, and Roger Luckhurst have grappled with the volubility of testimony in dialogue with the apparent unknowability or irresolvable breaches that lie at the heart of traumatic experience. Kristine Stiles’s Concerning Consequences both chronicles and critiques such debates as well as adds further [End Page 170] texture to the paradigm of witnessing within the field of trauma studies and the discipline of art history. The volume of critical essays is framed via questions of cause and effect, ethical responsibility, and the place of morality in wounded landscapes and practices. Stiles begins by reading the group of Upper Palaeolithic cave paintings known as the Shaft of the Dead Man dating from circa 16,800 BCE in Lascaux, France. These images provide a departure point for Stiles to consider the ways in which trauma necessitates witness in the form of its address. It is particularly the imagery of violence in tandem with the illustration of gaze that enables Stiles’s engagement with these paintings as traumatic. In this sense, she argues that trauma insists that its spectators reckon with their own act of looking. Trauma thus, for Stiles, asks a viewer to consider what kind of gaze is requested by the image. While Stiles’s argument may risk essentializing trauma insofar as it foregrounds an ahistorical dimension to both its expression and its reception, the issues of traumatic address that she sees the cave paintings encoding nonetheless offer the reader a clear framework through which to begin to navigate this extensive and fascinating collection of essays. In its focus on witnessing, biography, politics, and morality, Concerning Consequences argues eloquently for the urgency of looking at the art of emergency.

The book is composed of writings from roughly the past 25 years of Stiles’s career as an artist and art historian. The volume includes an introduction that foregrounds the key concerns of the book (the ethics, politics, and morals of looking and making) as well as a survey of key developments in the field and its critical literature. The introduction also productively acknowledges some of the risks of the enterprise owing to the overexposure of trauma (trauma fatigue) within art history specifically and the humanities more broadly, the hazard of fetishizing pain, and the limits of biographical criticism. Stiles, however, signals her understanding of the centrality of biography for a critical interrogation of art in general and of destruction art (creative works that represent devastation or else emerge out of traumatic sites and experiences) more particularly. Indeed, the book makes a persuasive case for an entangled understanding of trauma cultures, enmeshing questions of geography, time, embodiment, and so forth. Stiles argues that bodies and art are always situated in places and histories and thus to abstract them is to bypass a more dimensional, complex engagement with the particularity of these artists’ interventions. This, she suggests, is all the more paramount in trauma and destruction art given the centrality of the body. If the artists gathered in this collection’s lives and bodies are the sites and texts of trauma and politics, then biography becomes an invaluable critical lens. Stiles here evidences the twinned histories of trauma and civil rights, understanding intergenerational legacies of wounding as politicized pasts, and thereby underscores an intersectional understanding of traumatic experience. However, Concerning Consequences is not purely biographical criticism; rather, the volume lingers within multiple ecologies of trauma. The book advances what Stiles understands to be a planetary understanding of trauma and destruction, resurrection, and resistance. In this way, the volume makes a clear and important political argument: if destruction art explores the annihilation and extinction of self, other, and planet, then both the practice and an audience’s critical gaze upon these works become an ethical imperative. Stiles, like her chosen case studies, then, insists upon...


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pp. 170-172
Launched on MUSE
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