Is contemporary art able to grapple with the world-changing events of our day?

A New York City fireman calls for 10 more rescue workers to make their way into the rubble of the World Trade Center. Creative Commons.

A decade ago the writer Don De Lillo wrote that 9/11 would change “the way we think and act, moment to moment, week to week, for unknown weeks and months to come, and steely years.” The historian Taylor Branch suggested it was a “turning point against a generation of cynicism for all of us, “ and Time magazine added that “one good thing could come from this horror: it could spell the end of “the age of irony.”

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Michiko Kakutani, writing in the NY Times, concluded “They were wrong, of course. We know now that the New Normal was very much like the Old Normal, at least in terms of the country’s arts and entertainment.” He cites the continuing love of violence in movies and on TV, and adds that in the current economic downturn, Hollywood has taken the safer path of producing the special-effects extravaganzas that will sell.

… a lot of post-9/11 culture seems like a cut-and-paste version of pre-9/11 culture — or a more extreme version of it. Indeed, pop culture has slide so far into the  slough of celebrity worship and escapist fluff that the antics of the Kardashian sisters now pass as entertainment. Sensationalism continues its march, and so does the blurring between news and gossip. Reality shows, which took off in 2000 with “Survivor,” continued to snowball in popularity. James Patterson, Michale Crichton and John Grisham continued to dominate best-seller lists. Even things thought, after 9/11 to be verboten — like blowing up New York for a big-screen thrill—soon made a comeback: In “Cloverfield” (2008), the Statue of Liberty is decapitated as a monster trashes the city.
…. Instead of being the threshold to the future,” the critic Simon Reynolds writes in his astute new book, “Retromania,” the 2000s “were dominated by the “re-” prefix; revivals, reissues, remakes, re-enactments.”

Kakutani examines much of the art produced in relation to 9/11 — there’s not a lot of it and the best  of it seems to approach the subject by indirection. One of the best books, Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin” focuses on the walk between the twin towers by tightrope walker, Philippe Petit, in 1974. There are books and films (but mostly documentary) and sidewalk art.

Photography has been the medium that has grappled most intimately with the event, although Ed Fischl’s “Tumbling Woman,” attempted to react to the event as fulsomely. His statue of a falling woman, on display in Rockefeller Center, was designed as a memorial to those who jumped or fell to their death from the World Trade Center. After a few days, it was abruptly draped in cloth, curtained off, and removed, because of complaints that it was too soon and the sculpture was too disturbing.

Is it all just too much for art? One commentator I read suggested that too many artists today are engaged in irony and satire, and there is nothing in 9/11 that can be engaged that way. Is it that we’ve gorged on horror stories in our popular culture too long and any attempt to look at 9/11 is bound to fall short? Another article I read examined the treatment of the subject in school textbooks here and abroad. The superficiality of the accounts is breathtaking. Obviously,  it’s not just art. It’s all of us.

I suspect that that we haven’t really grappled with the reality of what happened that day. At least not in its significance as a turning point in our history.

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2 comments on “Is contemporary art able to grapple with the world-changing events of our day?
  1. “…. I suspect that that we haven’t really grappled with the reality of what happened that day. At least not in its significance as a turning point in our history…..”

    I think you nailed it right there.

    As for art, my feelings are that for several decades we have been encouraged to find our own (subjective, personal) meaning in art. We have been encouraged to ‘discover the meaning’ in: a pile of bricks, an unmade bed, some garish prints of Marilyn Monroe’s face, a picked shark and so on.

    This is a very different process to the process of art, or rather, the artist seeking to find meaning and truth in LIFE first, and then attempting to express that truth and meaning through a work of art and hopefully to enlighten us all. ‘Enlightening’ here can mean shedding light on something, as well shedding weight, a burden, negativity.

    How much of today’s art can be considered enlightening in these ways?

    By fixating on art’s capacity to stimulate our senses and titillate our (pseudo) intellects, rather than looking at life through the lens of art we seem to have all become a bit blind and idiotic (culturally, philosophically, spiritually and intellectually) AKA ‘dumbed down’.

    This also ties in with the rapid dominance of corporate consumerism and its similar effects on society. Without seeking truth or meaning in art we naturally (or rather: unnaturally!) start to feel extremely demoralised. And to offset this we end up with art that tries to impress in other ways instead…. scale, size, shock value, ‘entertainment’ value, sheer ridiculousness and so on. But these attempts to impress only end up demoralising us even more. They do not feed the soul!

    It is therefore no surprise that art as we know it today cannot handle intellectually and soulfully challenging subjects like 9/11. Art is currently extremely ill. Art is up its rear end. And so is most of humanity I fear. Art (we) will never be able to handle these vast subjects properly until truth and meaning are once again valued properly.

    Valuing truth and meaning (enlightenment) creates a mood and a culture of authenticity. It is authenticity which is so lacking in society today. There simply isn’t any authenticity in culture. And this is probably why we don’t notice the lack of authenticity in politics either. We are all forgetting how to be authentic people. And after spending an afternoon looking for some kind of meaning in meaningless and demoralising art, we end up seeking some kind of authenticity in the demoralising products and fashions of consumerism. Then we go home and let inauthentic people on TV show us an inauthentic world, as we gently slip into a TV alpha state trance.

    But luckily the truth, meaning and authenticity can still exist and be sought and be celebrated separately from art. Such as:

    A rather long example here
    A much shorter example here

    And perhaps, if we search for truth and meaning in REAL LIFE right now, and consider truth, meaning and authenticity to be far more important than any sculpture or painting or video installation, then before we know it we will once again live in a world blossoming once more with authentic art. Art which is once again capable of exploring every conceivable and inconceivable subject there is.


    I did manage to find this song about 9/11. It may not be the most ground breaking musical composition out there right now, but it is definitely authentic.

  2. Art is supposed to speak to the spirituality in people. Perhaps artists feel that 9/11 speaks for itself and doesn’t need them.

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