Jumping into the Void. Photography in the age of distracted delight PDF
Written by Juan Antonio Molina   


chapter I | chapter II | chapter III | chapter IV






In 1960 Yves Klein published a photo of himself floating in the air, apparently after jumping out of a window. The composition was thorough and you could see both the window and the pavement, both essential to accomplish the desired effect.


The subject is located at a point in which he can either be falling or rising. In spite of the general opinion, I do not think that the artist was trying to convince us that he is jumping out the window, but that he is capable of establishing an harmonic –but also aesthetic- relationship between him and the air.




Yves Klein was one of the prophets of the dematerialization of art. In parallel his discourse and his work put in practice the aesthetics of the immaterial, the poetry of the aerial, and the semantics of space. That is how I understand his emphasis in space as a goal of artistic sensitivity. In his Chelsea Hotel Manifesto he states: “Man will only be capable of conquering space after impregnating it with his own sensitivity”1.



The picture of “jumping into the void” can be read as the document of an extreme gesture of the impregnation of artistic sensitivity in space. You could think that is the reason why the critics and art history have devoted so much attention to it. However, there are also reasons to suspect that the most attractive elements to comment on the relevance of the image are its character of both spectacle and simulation.


Yves Klein tried to make a photomontage believable, but he also reproduced it and distributed widely as flyers. From a Post Modern point of view, these actions would truly be considered as artistic genius, and that would be the place to look for aesthetic effectiveness. From that standpoint, the photo would not be working, as a document of an ephemeral, even immaterial work, since such immateriality would lay in the fact that such “jump from the window” never really happened. Therefore, the work consists in the appropriation and unfolding of a mechanism of collective persuasion. And specially, in the exhibition of that mechanism, even when such exhibition was not completely foreseen by the artist.


This work has a very relevant role in the photographic medium. In fact, Yves Klein produced a piece that sums up the relationship between contemporary photography and art in the context of mass culture. This piece marks the place of photography within Post Modern art and the social impact of mass media as a means of persuasion.


1. This manifesto was written by Klein in New York in 1961, when he has his first solo exhibition sponsored by Leo Castelli. The sentence in question is directed to defend a humanist and spiritual model that already was in crisis before the thrust of the scientist and technocratic utopia derived from the developed Capitalism, specially in the post-war years euphoria of the USA: “Neither missiles nor rockets nor sputniks will render man the "conquistador" of space. Those means derive only from the phantom of today's scientists who still live in the romantic and sentimental spirit of the XIX century. Man will only be able to take possession of space through the terrifying forces, the ones imprinted with peace and sensibility. He will be able to conquer space - truly his greatest desire - only after having realized the impregnation of space by his own sensibility. His sensibility can even read into the memory of nature, be it of the past, of the present, and of the future!”







Among the numerous photos taken in 9/11 there are several that caught my attention. They show people jumping out, in horror and despair, from the WTC.



The quality of these pictures is not good. They were mostly shot with digital video cameras without zoom lenses. They are, nonetheless, extraordinarily aesthetic images that are also historic documents. Their historic and the aesthetic functions are connected. I think this is a feature that adds extra value to the photographic document in the age of mass media communications. The possibility of preserving a visual testimony of key events would appear to be too neutral a statement in a context in which the outrageous, the shocking and the immediate are privileged as the prime values of the image. 1


This means that the documentary value of a photo that has mass media attention lies in its significance as a spectacle and its functionality as news. Both are conditioned by their worth as pleasure, which are more important than their capacity to convey information or to commemorate an event. In these circumstances the transcendence of the image yields to the immediate pleasure of consumption.


This is, basically, the position of the aesthetic fact in the context of mass culture.

This affects photography beyond its technical aspects and craft. Things like bad quality, narrative, grain or pixilation, which are supposed to be noise within the visual structure of photography, could become parts of the language of photography and video. This is directly related to the proliferation of technologies and media that are restructuring the appearance and consistence of the photographic medium. And this is one of the factors that influence the dissolution of photography. It is part of the transformation of its production and value codes.


The distribution of photos, videos and broadcasted images of 9/11 induce an aesthetic consumption of history. It is in this sense that I venture to say that this event helped to demonstrate the state of affairs of the Post Modern visual culture, and also to draw attention of the place of the mass media imagery within the contemporary visual culture.


It is not news to anyone that we live in the Age of the Image. But if I go back to this commonplace, it is not to reaffirm the specific historic role of contemporary imagery (its assumed usefulness to History), but to point out that History itself is subordinated to the fate -and even the whims- of the image.


One of the features of the Post Modern context is the acceptance of a lack of contradiction between History and imagination. We have been living in the fantasy of participating in History thanks to the image. Image reinforces this illusion of the synchronicity effect, of fictitious or artificial relationships. Our access to History, to the world and to reality is mostly imaginary; it gives us a sensation of comfort before reality. It is almost a prophylactic relationship.


The obvious distance between Yves Klein’s picture and the images of people jumping out of the WTC does not mean that we should put aside the equivalences. We are talking about the use of the dramatic image aiming to persuade, of the use of the image for the masses and the insertion of photography in the imagination of society. We are talking about situations that can be considered, to a greater or lesser degree, simulations or spectacles. Yves Klein’s’ photo is an example of how image -and imagination- contaminate art History. The WTC photos are an example of how historical account is determined by the use of the image and its intervention in the collective imagination.


Yves Klein’s photo is a representation that is exhibited as such, to the point of its value of exhibition surpassing its value of cult.2 I believe the cancellation of its value of cult implies the dissolution of the idea of death. The example is quite explicit: The photo is not showing a man that is about to hit the pavement, it is simply showing a man that has jumped into the void. The action is so absolutely aesthetic that is, in itself, motionless; it does not imply a past or a future. It is the present in a pure state. The pavement and the window simply exist as spatial references, as rhetorical elements that help to place the photographed subject as a sign, even as an account.


A photo of a person jumping out of the WTC does not cancel by itself the idea of death. On the contrary, it is the idea of death that helps to emphasize the drama of the account. What gives a special meaning to the picture is that we know the subject died a few seconds later; the pavement does not have to be included in the picture, the void is sufficient. However, the excessive use of the photo in the media, and the way its aesthetic (over dramatized) consumption is induced lead to a reversal of its meanings, because the values of representation and exhibition (as spectacle) are attached to death, which leads us to understand that, in the end, every cult is incomplete without dramatization and simulation. More that presenting the anticipated death of the subject, this photo would present what Baudrillard calls an “anticipated resurrection”, the transit from the real world to the world of image.3


If Lyotard is right when he states that the sublime comes “when imagination fails”, then this triumph of imagination over reality can also be seen as a symptom of the failure –or at least the recoil- of the sublime. Representation acquires a lightness that is proportional to the taming of reality performed by simulation.


There is a curious contradiction in this scenario. The dissolution of the artistic object does not necessarily imply a lightness of the aesthetic experience of art. The density of text and breadth of discourse of contemporary art sometimes seems to be too weighty, too severe. If there were an effect of lightness, it would probably have to do with a superficial representation, this meaning: On the one hand, the de-sublimation of the artistic event. The frequent possibility of art facing representation without conflict. Quoting Lyotard, the frequent cancellation of the contradiction between the representable and the conceivable, since representation is focused on the surface of things, in the most visible side of reality. On the other hand, the banalization of the artistic event -understood as a shallowness of the artist, mentioned by Morawsky as one of the symptoms of the crisis of art since the 19th Century.4 Yet, that “shallowness” can be understood as “superficiality” in the sense I just suggested, not referring so much to the artist but to the artistic object and event. In this sense Morawsky is correct when he states that the work of art has been pushed to a private world. I want to make clear that it is private meaning domestic, but also meaning self-referring. However, unlike Morawsky, I think this retreat towards privacy is no longer a symptom of exclusion or a consequence of a resistance or lack of adaptability to the laws of the market. Nowadays it has become a legitimate strategy, sanctioned by the market and the more or less institutional fields of the “world of art”.


The lightness of representation seems to be part of the “aerial” quality of Post Modernity. Ironically this “pneumatic” attribute of Post Modern culture seems to give continuity to the Neo vanguard ideal of an artist such as Yves Klein. In any case, the use of photography to represent his “jump to the void” implies avoiding the conflict between representation and imagination. When Klein suggested that the artist of the future would express himself “through eternal silence”5, perhaps he was proposing a disproportionate and theatrical way out of the sublime. But when he published his “jump into the void” he was proposing the paradox of a silence that could only be fully performed with a touch of scandal and showmanship -a false silence. The great discovery of this action is the possibility of using photography to provoke a crisis in the ideal of the sublime within art.


1. For comfort, I use the term “image” to refer to the photographic object, with the risk of creating confusion due to my own use of this concept in the context of the “imaginary” or the “imagination”. In such cases, I understand the image as something essentially subjective. I must confess this second meaning is the one I’m more satisfied with and the one I think suits better my analysis of photography.

2. In Walter Benjamin’s concept of “aura” there was a chief position for the ritual function he attributed to the artistic object. The ritual (in his view the equivalent of the cultural) would place every artistic object in relation to a past or tradition, but above all, connected with an origin: “…the only value of the authentic work of art lies on the ritual in which had its first and original value”. So when Benjamin defined the aura as “the unrepeatable manifestation of a distance”, he was talking about both spatial and temporary references. The distant is the origin of the work and its maximum value would rest in connecting with that distance. Benjamin himself completes his definition of aura by stating that such distance “does not represent other thing that the assertion of the cultural value of the artistic work in space-time categories of perception…”

For Benjamin, to talk about a crisis of the aura would imply to talk about a crisis of the cultural value of the image. Such crisis would take place in the conditions set by the mass culture, which provokes a ”secularization” in which the object of cult becomes merchandise. However I still consider that the value of exhibition of an image structures other mechanisms of cult, perhaps too sophisticated for the ideological, social and cultural conditions of Modernity and Post Modernity. Maybe they are not associated to the quest for a mythical origin, but possibly to the desire of constructing an authenticity based on the origin of the work. Nonetheless its most evident manifestation is its emphasis on the present, in that sensation of immobility, in that effect of non-transcendence that apparently is shared by most products of the society of masses. See La obra de arte en la época de su reproductibilidad técnica. In Walter Benjamín. Discursos interrumpidos I. Madrid. Taurus, 1973. P. 15-58

3. “The reality will never happen again. Such is the vital function of the model in a system of death or, in other terms, the anticipated resurrection that will not grant any opportunities to te very phenomenon of death” See Jean Baudrillard. Cultura y Simulacro. Kairós, Barcelona, 1994. P. 11-12. A very different philosophical and poetic perspective is offered by Jose Lezama Lima who seems to have anticipated Baudrillard reagrding the issue of a relationship between image and resurrection. Lezama finishes his “Prelude to Imaginary Eras (1958) stating that the image is where “the susbstance of resurrection” gets life . In a 1960 poem he says : “The man that dies in the image wins the overabundance of resurrection”. We also found in “The Historic Image” (1959) the concept of the image as a promise: “·The image extracts a glance that can help us penetrate -or at least live in the hope of- resurrection”. Hope and expectation, resurrection and redemption. Those are the keys that Lezama uses tu bulid his concept of image. This mysticism, vulgarized by mass culture brings us, in tis age , a simple formula for substituting rality with imagination. See José Lezama Lima. Confluencias. Selección de ensayos. Letras cubanas. La Habana, 1988..

4. “The paradox –present to this day- lies in the fact that the more the cultural goods are democratized, the more uncertain the place of the artist becomes. The artist has to abide the laws of the market, if he does not accept such a pact; his worked is pushed to a totally private world. As a consequence, an attitude far more drastic and dramatic than the bohème and the representatives of l’art pour l’art from the end of the 19th Century up to the 1930’s has appeared in the field of the arts. We are talking a bout the superficiality of the artist”. Stefan Morawsky. Las variantes interpretativas de la fórmula “el ocaso del arte”. “Criterios” Magazine. No. 21/24. Tercera época. January 1987-December 1988. P. 129

5. "Would not the future artist be he who expressed through an eternal silence an immense painting possessing no dimension?" Yves Klein. The Chelsea Hotel Manifesto. Consulted in Yves Klein-Art Minimal and Conceptual Only.








Photography has a degree of vulgarity that was detected from its very beginning and that has been the center of the debates regarding the medium. It incorporated a touch of vulgarity to the system of the arts, which pretended to be elitist or aristocratic. Photography initiates a new age in media, an age of a relative “democratization” of the access to media (obviously putting aside the control of the meanings). This democratization entails a sort of vulgarization of the medium and of the ideas of production and reproduction of the images.


saltaralvacio-walterbenjaminThe concepts of “distracted delight” and “technical reproductivity” are clearly stated in the work of Walter Benjamin. These notions are frequently used in the theory of photography, because they place photography within the context of what we now call “Post Modernism”.


What Benjamin called the “age of technical reproductivity” was later labeled as the “age of the society of the masses”. I believe that we can take the coinciding points of both concepts to place the image in the context of the present epoch.


One of the most interesting aspects of Benjamin’s discourse is the idea of the transition of the image from a cultural function to an exhibition function. This transition would allegedly take away its “artistic” aura, which is evidently part of the vulgarization I mentioned earlier. The change of the image from monumental to relative and extravagant would have not been possible without the technical conditions that allowed for mass reproduction. The criticism is also applied to other early mass media, such as cinema. It would seem that there is something in Benjamin’s discourse that disagrees with the place of photography within the system of the arts, which would have meant to accept the idea that art ceased to be what it was at the beginning of the 20th Century and become what it is in the dawn of 21st.


The decline of artistry has been quite rapid and the results have been unexpected. It is not a decline of art itself, but a decline of models and paradigms that held the structure of artistry and that no longer work in the Post Modern context.


The Post Modern context, in which contemporary photography is located, can be seen from different perspectives (even using a different terminology). What Benjamin deemed a symptom of the vulgarization of culture and artistic production is the concept elaborated by Gianni Vattimo -in his efforts to minimize the concept of “the death of art”- the “explosion of aesthetics”1. The “distracted delight” would be considered a modality of aesthetic pleasure as an experience for the masses and an experience of reproduction. Both the work of art and the aesthetic experience are subject to the effects of reproduction. Let us say that the aesthetic experience is submitted to a kind of dispersion that contributes to its dwindling, or at least be conceived as a “weak” experience according to Vattimo. That is why I think concepts such as “beauty” become so vulnerable, since they refer to more consistent, immovable end even metaphysic phenomena. These phenomena, at any rate, no longer fit into this dispersion of aesthetics, which is not only a dispersion of the object but also of the way we perceive it. We are witnessing the decentralization of the aesthetic experience.




That is why today’s critics talk about an aesthetification of life that was not foreseen by the Avant Garde discourse. It has more to do with the way we asethtisize our experience of reality and the diversionist resources to perform such aesthetification. The decentralization of aesthetics somehow contributes to the taming of the aesthetic experience. The dramatic images of 9/11 are positioned in the imagination of society due to the contemporary processes of massification and aesthetification of reality. I draw attention to these photos and videos because I wish to suggest that we witnessed a process of aesthetification of reality. When I say that we are comfortably living the illusion of participation in history I also mean that we are aesthetically participating in history. We live in a world in which the experience of reality is filtered almost completely through imagination.


The concept of distracted delight on the one hand refers us to a festive, playful and hedonistic notion, on the other, to the new ways of the aesthetic pleasure. The object of pleasure is hardly traceable and quite erratic, as it is the identity of the subject that obtains the pleasure. This is where I find a key to understand the concept of “weak” subject introduced by Gianni Vattimo.


This erraticism of the object of pleasure –and the erraticism of the pleasure itself- is also an evidence of one of the conditions imposed by Post Modernism to the consumption of the image ant the enjoyment of the work of art. In this context the ideas of the “death of art” are minimized (or at least updated). I find these ideas useful for the analysis of contemporary photography since the dissolution of photography must be seen in the context of the dissolution of art. The distracted delight also affects the existence of photography within contemporary art. This is an effect of displacement similar to the one of the so-called “explosion of aesthetics” –this meaning the change of the traditional position, manifestations and “settlements” of pleasure-. I think it’s time to draw attention on the changes that have taken place within photography itself as an aesthetic object and as an object of aesthetics, but also as an artistic object an object of the arts.


We must look in detail the changes in position and space where photography used to be defined, constructed and “settled”. If it’s difficult enough to uphold that photography requires its specific field of study that separates it from the rest of the arts, is precisely because photography is submitted to the same displacements and erraticisms of all the other artistic media, technologies and methodologies.


The dispersion or distraction of aesthetics is consistent with the conditions and characteristics of the chief role performed by mass media in contemporary society, since they create the aesthetic consensus, a standardization of taste and the adjustment of the object to such standardization. This consensus is a must for the “explosion of aesthetics” to happen in a strict sense. What I mean is that the explosion of aesthetics is not a phenomenon that is exclusively related to the artistic destiny and manifestations. I tend to suspect that this phenomenon is taking place in the artistic field because contemporary culture has set the new conditions of production, reproduction, distribution and consumption of its symbolic goods.


1. I’m referring specifically to the chapter “Death or Dusk of Art” by Gianni Vattimo. El fin de la modernidad. Nihilismo y hermenéutica en la cultura postmoderna. Barcelona, Gedisa, 1985. For a complementary vision, see Stefan Morawsky. Las variantes interpretativas de la fórmula “el ocaso del arte”. In Criterios. Magazine No. 21/24. Tercera época. January 1987-December 1988. P. 123-153.







If we are to accept the chief role of the image in the construction of the historical account, we also have to accept the relativity of the historical account. And we must also accept that there is a dialectic relationship between the need of believing in the image and its lack of credibility.


For example, there is a proliferation of Web pages that question the verity of the official information regarding 9/11. These Web pages offer a resistance to the almost obsessive manner in which people have been involved, not from the standpoint of History but from a story constructed by the media. And the media itself are untrustworthy. The distrust is part of the identity of the medium. This provokes that the official versions do not seem more believable than those versions looking to undermine their credibility.


If it still seems necessary to discuss the credibility of the media is because we still believe in them. If it is still necessary to debate about the lack of reliability of photography is because we still think that we still believe in it, because it remains to be efficient. It is efficient even if we do not believe in it, since its ability to persuade is beyond its untrustworthiness. At any rate, this maintains the debate of reality versus fantasy, History versus fiction, or History versus image.


saltaralvacio-jeanfrancoislyotardJean François Lyotard states in his essay Post Modernism explained to Children, states that Post Modernism in terms of annihilation of meta-accounts regarding the historical accounts and the progressive mission of History (the paradigm of the illustrated man, the paradigm of techno-science or the moral paradigm of Judeo-Christian roots.)1 He points out that one of the moments marking the annihilation of these meta-accounts in the so-called “Holocaust” of WW II. For him, this is the moment that should have favored the vindication of modern man.


It is possible that the events of 9/11do not have the real impact or even the symbolic magnitude of the concentration camps of WW II. There is no comparison, not even in terms of spectacle, between the televised images of 9/11 and the publication of the images of the Nazi camps. However, it is very probable that the capacity for visual impact was superior in 2001 than in 1945. Therefore, the efficiency of the rhetorical mechanism of these images is easier to confirm. Finally, it is quite possible that there is a kind of substitution mechanism that puts the impact of an event that is currently represented, reproduced and broadcasted above the impact of 60-year old occurrence.


In any case the events of 9/11 explicitly evidence how those paradigms are being substituted by other accounts, which are constructed, distributed and supported from, and by the mass media.


The media treatment of iconography is an example of the repercussions and re-elaboration of the crisis and meta-accounts of Modernity. It shows the way in which these accounts are used, taken and recycled by the mass media. This also forces us to understand Post Modernity as a moment full of residues, a moment filled with the debris of Modernity. And this debris that remain in the world of the arts, are recycled, reabsorbed and reassessed in the mass culture. That is also part of the effectiveness of the mass media.


If a lot of the people that was watching CNN or BBC on 9/11thought they were watching a Hollywood film, is because this effectiveness of the media is based on the confusion between reality and fiction, called the “space of hyperreal” by Baudrillard which showed all of its capacity to convince and confuse. The space of the hyperreal is, in the end, the space where imagination precedes history and reality. In consequence, skepticism is no longer as directed towards image as it is to reality. We arrive to the certainty that the media tampers all of our experiences of reality. It is a lot less stressful to distrust reality than to distrust the image. In conclusion, to distrust all the metaphysics that historically had surrounded our experience of reality.



1. See Jean-Francois Lyotard. La postmodernidad (explicada a los niños). Barcelona, Gedisa, 1987

Juan Antonio Molina
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