Published on Thursday, June 17, 2004 by the Independent / United Kingdom
Why is Art not Reflecting World Events?
There is no Artistic Engagement with the big, Threatening Issues that Hang over Us
by Anna Somers Cocks
What has art done to give us an antidote to the terrible images that flashed around the world of the Twin Towers collapsing, of the naked man on a leash in Abu Ghraib, of the American having his throat cut?
These acts of violence and inhumanity are now fixed in all our minds, on all continents. They have created history more effectively than hundreds of articles or books. Neither Bush, nor the Islamic world will be able to shed the implications of them, whatever moderates may do to remind us that those acts do not exemplify our respective cultures.
These pictures are masterpieces of horror, more famous now than the Mona Lisa, Sunflowers, Picasso's Guernica. The barbarism that they communicate has undone decades of humanist development, of painstakingly nurtured belief in the rights of man and the rule of law, of dialogue between nations.
It is impossible to overestimate the power of images to shape history. For example, we all know what the piles of bodies in the Nazi death camps looked like, but we have nothing comparable for the gulags, so many people think that Hitler was crueler than Stalin.
How are the artists responding today? As individuals, many in the US have shown considerable moral courage in speaking out against the war and the Bush administration, even last year when public opposition was guaranteed to bring them sack-loads of hate mail from "patriots", and dissenters, particularly in the performing arts, risked being boycotted commercially.
The painter Chuck Close is currently organizing a sale on 29 June to which artists, collectors and galleries have donated blue-chip works by the likes of Sol LeWitt, Roy Liechtenstein, Wahl and de Kooning. Called "Buy art, bye-bye Bush" this is to raise money for the Democratic campaign.
But where is the artistic engagement with the huge, threatening issues that hang over us? One would have expected an intense blast of production if artists wanted to live up to the role in which they have been cast for over a century - as exponents of humane and liberal values, as revolutionaries, gadflies, the ones who see further than ordinary mortals.
A great deal of the prestige of contemporary art has been because of this role: think of the veneration paid to Joseph Beuys by bourgeois Germans of the 60s and 70s for whom he was a kind of safety valve, through whom they could vicariously live out a nobler, freer existence.
It is not that there is not any topical art around. The British conceptual art duo, Langlands & Bell, have been official war artists, sent out to Afghanistan by the Imperial War Museum. Their virtual recreation of the house in which Osama bin Laden lived has been shortlisted for the Turner Prize and it is indeed jolly interesting to steer yourself round his rooms and garden with the joystick, but the artistic experience is entirely cerebral.
The American, Sue Coe, a particularly outspoken critic of Bush, is doing a dark - in both senses - series of drawings called Bully: Master of the Global Merry-go-round, but in their expressionistic, slightly caricatured style, they simply cannot compete with the photos of actual events.
Here is the problem. So much art is currently dependent on ideas, so accustomed to being a fleeting metaphor that it is hardly visual at all. It is like trying to oppose the image of the Twin Towers with a pun.
Art today is also immensely self-referential. Jake and Dinos Chapman take Goya's etchings, the Miseries of War, in their time unprecedented and shocking denunciations of warfare, and recreate them with shop-window dummies dripping blood. This is high camp, grand guignol, and nobody thinks for a moment that they have to take it seriously. The images of Abu Ghraib, however, are not susceptible to irony.
Perhaps it is more satisfactory for everyone if artists give up trying to deal with events of such enormity and concentrate on aesthetics or more poetic states of being. For example, this year's biennial at the Whitney Museum was full of floral pieces, cheerful 60s revivals, and a magical room of mirrored surfaces and points of light by Yayoi Kusama - in short, delicious escapism and probably just what New Yorkers needed.
But if we are going back to an idea of art for art's sake where "fine art" is concerned, it is reasonable to ask where the most powerful visual expressions of the role of critic and conscience of society are now. Where are the true successors to paintings such as David's Death of Marat, which played a real part in the French Revolution, or Gericault's Raft of the Medusa, with its desperate depiction of shipwrecked sailors and passengers, who, as everyone at the time knew, were reduced to cannibalism to survive?
The documentary recently shown in Paris about the killings under Pol Pot is an excellent example of what I mean, a work of art that has proved its usefulness and power in Cambodia, where there has been a long struggle to see justice done for the victims, against much deliberate amnesia on the part of the authorities.
Rithy Panh, the director, was himself in a labor camp, although only a child, during the period in the 70s when two million Cambodians were murdered. His film is called S-21, the death machine of the Khmer Rouge and it is about the torture center where 17,000 died and only seven were saved, among them the artist Vann Nath, who was useful because he could paint portraits of Pol Pot, and Chum Mey, who knew how to repair the typewriters on which the jailers wrote the reports about the prisoners.
If art has a moral purpose, then this art certainly aims high and hits its target.
I am not being very original in suggesting that the documentary can now be considered as part of fine art or, at any rate, the rightful heir to the aspirations art used to have for itself.
Documenta, the huge survey of contemporary art that happens every four years in the German town of Kassel, was dominated in 2002 by video and film. Its curator, Okwui Enwezor, took the aspirations of art to be world changing at face value and made an exhibition that at every turn reflected and attacked the evils and anxieties affecting us in the post 11 September world. It was full of movies that were not video art but documentaries of a more or less overtly political sort: why violence cannot solve India's border disputes; the aftermath of the Rwanda massacres; a woman searching for her mother's concentration camp number; the Balkans falling apart; the Inuits' culture dying out.
No individual images came out of Documenta powerful enough to rival 11 September or the Iraq horrors to come, but cumulatively that event at least managed to defend the dignity and fitness of art to be taken seriously.
The writer is the editor of "The Art Newspaper", which is sponsoring a debate entitled: "In a time of political crisis does the artist have a special responsibility?" It takes place on 29 June at the Royal Academy
© 2004 Independent