Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Has 9/11 Changed American Art (for the Better)?

I can still recall the conversations I had with artists in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Many were knocked off their game, having relied on a set of conditions they took for granted in which to respond to their world and create their work. The question I heard again and again was, "How can I continue to make this same work now? It seems so unconnected to this new reality."

There was an almost immediate consensus that the post-9/11 world would see a return of sincerity in art, but that didn't quite pan out. Mostly, artists either made work that addressed the attacks (most of which was simply dreadful) or they wandered aimlessly a bit, contemplating what had happened, doing what artists do better than anyone else I know, making sense of it all.

In the past 6 months or so, I've been seeing what looks to be the first serious, actually good crop of post-9/11-era art in New York. I won't highlight any particular artists (as I don't want to set them up for an artifical critique based on my personal read of their work...which is to say, I'm not sure their work is necessarily a response to the events, as much as, in my opinion, it couldn't have been created pre-9/11, and well, that's a rather serious opinion they shouldn't have to respond to), but I did find it interesting to see my thoughts on this echoed in an article by Marc Spiegler in the
Art Newspaper. Titled "American Renaissance," the article focuses on the resurgence of interest in American artists (as opposed to Liepzig or Polish or YBA artists), especially in Europe, but it was this passage that really struck a cord:

Currently preparing a massive [Terence] Koh show for opening on 25 August, Kunsthalle Zurich director Beatrix Ruf also cites the influence of previous generations on today’s young Americans, saying the strength of the current scenes lies in artists working in a void created by 11 September, looking toward local histories for inspiration. “The four New Yorkers we showed together know a lot about art history, and though they say they’re not political, they’re very precise in their attitudes toward the market and toward working collectively,” she explains.

“That historical awareness creates local scenes, and in Los Angeles you can see how people like Catherine Sullivan and Daria Martin are influenced by Baldessari, McCarthy and Kelley.” Longtime London dealer Maureen Paley, who recently added Violette to her roster, suggests the work coming out of the States has evolved in a new direction. “The generation of artists that figured in the last two Whitney Museum biennials are darker—more melancholy and contemplative,” she explains. “It’s a very different stance.”
Immersed as I am in American (especially New York) art, I hadn't really seen the widespread attention for the Germans or Polish artists as a neglect or lessening of interest in American artists, but OK, if it's swung back this side of the Atlantic in their opinions, I'll take that (although I think we're seeing a globalization in the market that makes such trends, if indeed there is one, fairly short lived, but that's fodder for another post). But there's no doubt the mood is much darker than it was five years ago.

The question this raises is an age-old one. Does adversity set the stage for better art? And conversely, does the good life make for less interesting art? It seems a silly cliche. Surely there's plenty to respond to even when terrorists aren't attacking, and aren't we simply gobbling up spectacle or perhaps, worse, suspending our critique, when the subject matter is something as serious as death and destruction? (See, cynicism didn't go anywhere.) Or am I wrong, and this is the same art we would have seen had the attacks been thwarted? Or is there something in all this? Does the melancholy that sets in during chaos and crisis help artists edit themselves better?

Too many questions...I'll turn it over to you.


Blogger James Wolanin said...


I agree one hundred percent. Adversity does equal great art. In stressful times, the artist is more tuned in to his or her surroundings, the artist is receiving an abundance of new data. This all has to be processed and the stress has to be released, so the artist releases stress the only way they know how, by creating art.

8/08/2006 09:52:00 AM  
Blogger William Knipscher said...


Art that is darker in mood would still have been created if September 11 hadn't happened. It's always been there. September 11 created a lens through which art is being viewed. What has really changed is that curators and galleries are seeing darker work as more relevant and thereby making it more visible.

8/08/2006 10:56:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I don't disagree William, but are you suggesting it's merely cyclical? That there's no increase in the darker work since 9/11?

James, I tend to agree with you as well, but don't like the implications...one of which would seem to be artists should seek out adversity.

8/08/2006 11:04:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

Edward, these are good questions. Remind me in twenty or thirty years to try to answer them. Not trying to be flippant here, it's just that I think it's hard to have any real perspective on trends that we're in the middle (or even early stages) of.

8/08/2006 11:07:00 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

I mentioned on a 9/11 site shortly after the event that it would forever change of art in the U.S., for this generation most. It creeps in slowly over time. For some it will be a grand statement as in a Guernica, which took several years to come about. So far I've tended to grasp the simple graces of life.
There is something interesting/bizarre about the U.S. society that encourages shopping after a disaster and to wage war while carrying on with little or no sacrifice. That symptom must be included in this discussion too.

8/08/2006 11:25:00 AM  
Blogger William Knipscher said...


I certainly don't think or hope it is cynical. It is something real that happened and changed the way the world was viewed and therefore it is appropriate that it be shown. I do agree with you that a trend towards more dark work is likely, but I agree with David that its hard to really tell without a longer perspective.

8/08/2006 11:26:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know why other artists do what they do unless they say why. Curators have their own agendas.

I'm one of the artists who didn't/couldn't work for a while after 9/11. Then I did some big black paintings which were big black cliches so I didn't show them. Over those years I gradually leached the color out of my paintings and now they're blacks, whites and greys and somber. I don't separate my own natural melancholia from the futility I feel about living in the US now. In my case, I don't think 9/11 has as much to do with my attitude as does the Republican junta and the war(s).

8/08/2006 11:26:00 AM  
Anonymous danonymous said...

My immediate response to the 9/11 attacks was that I had to really kick in and do art, not nessacarily 9/11 stuff but not to lett the event freeze me from myself. Over the next year, I did somee 9/11 stuff, a bunchof it quite self-consciously "trying to be" art,. BUt then that started leading to a lot of work which seemed to hint at turmoil and pain and darkness. And while that began to reflect my personal life, I also had a clear sense that 9/11 did change everything and changed a lot about my work as well. In some senses, the first step was to move toward political statement or just plain statement. But then the shift went to "just go deeper into yourself" and I really stayed out of the thinking about my work. A great deal of my work is paper sculpture and pure white. But the blacks started to make a major inroad into my vocabulary and thorns became prevalent and I had to look and admit that a "dark side" was now everprenest in my thinking, sometimes forefront, sometimes background, sometimes unnoticable.

8/08/2006 12:04:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


Sorry about the confusion. I didn't mean to suggest it's "cynical"...I was asking if you felt it was cyclical? Does it naturally happen (the darkening mood) in waves independent of world events?

8/08/2006 12:05:00 PM  
Anonymous jj said...

Unanswered questions and tension are good for art but a lack of engagement with that the causes of that tension coupled with a retreat into merely amusing styles creates a passive agressive fantasy feedback loop.

Rachel Feinstein set up the fantasy paradigm before 911 and now there is way too much inexexpensive artsupply princess art. There are other tropes as well, like the work on paper glut set up by the Royal Art Lodge, also pre 911. In fact, I believe WTO in Seattle a few years before was just as important an event.

What was the effect? Maybe more art that wihdrew inward and it is part of the reason I really loved Jason Rhoades work. He was active not passive. A few other artists like Germany's Daniel Richter refused to be passive agressive.

I feel like things are changing again... things seem less passive and I'm seeing a new boldness out there.

8/08/2006 01:54:00 PM  
Anonymous nonantum said...

The first anonymous commenter above hit the nail on the head:

In my case, I don't think 9/11 has as much to do with my attitude as does the Republican junta and the war(s).


Adversity does not produce great art, but yearning for change does, in the sense that the person who thinks their voice is not being heard will try to amplify it. Adversity could lead to many things, but only a need to be heard leads to expression. (Which is also why it is fashionable to argue that the media is comprised of people who have something to prove, with CNN/NYT on one side and FoxNews on the other).

Immediately after 9/11, by which I mean during those historically unique days when the rubble was still dusty and warm, many of the art-related websites and media I had occasion to read were quite frequently wondering when the new post-9/11 art was going to be produced, and why it wasn't being produced already. I thought to myself, give it time, let people digest it. Sure enough, with time, some art was produced with a 9/11 influence, by which I mean both visual art and literature. (In fact I'd argue there has been more post-9/11 literature than visual art).

But then came Abu Ghraib, the 2004 elections, the renewal of the Patriot Act, and so on. Artists jumped on these issues like a thousand starving piranha released into the largest aquarium on earth. It made me realize that the art world doesn't really give a damn about 9/11, but only their own perceived repression. We were attacked by people so right-wing, anti-liberal and socially restrictive they make "the Republican junta" look like hippies, and the current administration is hardly different in spirit than the last one (Janet Reno endorsed the Patriot Act with great fervor), but fear of the GOP drives artists much more strongly than fear or memory of 9/11.

8/08/2006 02:20:00 PM  
Blogger ec said...

I see violent imagery, ie in paintings by Joy Garnett, Susanna Heller, and in ways of working: splintering, fragmentation, scratching into the surfaces of things, words. Color field painting and its social evolution from of WWII has new impetus (L'Envolee Lyrique at the Luxembourg Senat, abstraction show in Buffalo, etc). Rothko couldn't paint violins and nudes while Rome was burning and his sentiment feels relevant now and revives my deeper interest in abstraction through a political lens: when image won't do and process might better express the situation. There is also a desire to resist images since they are so saturating.
A recent e-flux mail introduces the Taipei Biennale, grounding the show's theme in how desire and lifestyle overtake ethics or morality as a mode of consumption. Against the backdrop of what is happening in the world politically, this provides a powerful framework for despair--and action--making art.
Before 9/11 my friend and I scheduled a collaborative installation 9/14-9/27/01 (1 year in advance). One artist per day had responsibility of the space and could elaborate in any way they chose on what had gone before. It was amazing to see what happened in the shock of the recent event. One guy came in and chiseled into a brick wall for hours, another lay on his stomach writing cryptic messages; another put gold stars on the wall for each person who had died. People needed to take action, but were unable to proces the information immediately so the collaboration was especially rich for that time.
Personally Matisse is on my mind as a solution, not blind, but to rejuvenate, give rise to the best in the human spirit.

8/08/2006 02:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For most of us who live in the US, the islamic fundamentalists represent perceived repression. The GOP has boots on the ground, here, now.

8/08/2006 02:56:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

I'd agree that adversity has been a powerful factor in creating intense, enduring artwork. Do American artists deal with that level of adversity nowadays?

I realize that for people living in New York during the attacks, there's a depth of psychological reaction that I can't comprehend living out here in the C-T. Maybe that's what's behind Carolee Schneemann's Terminal Velocity piece, images of people falling off the towers -- I hope it's that personal for her, it would be too painful to consider otherwise in my opinion.

As for the darkness I have seen in the galleries in the past two years, the thrash, scratchy surfaces, blackness, anti-religion, destruction -- to me most of it is just the Goth kid-angst we've become used to, part and parcel of the emo tattoo body piercing skateboarding mentality, in some cases juiced by Hollywood special fx. It feels juvenile, self-indulgent, almost festively anarchic.

No comparison obviously with Jewish artists painting in the Warsaw ghetto, Jean Fautrier during the war years, Van Gogh painting under the adversity of his own insanity -- Nan Goldin growing up in a very troubled household -- Joseph Bueys's experiences in the Luftwaffe -- to me these amount to real adversity, granted not all the art was created in it, but its effects endure.

8/08/2006 03:57:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

We were attacked by people so right-wing, anti-liberal and socially restrictive they make "the Republican junta" look like hippies

I agree with your description of our attackers, but nobody could make Dick Cheney look like a hippie.

8/08/2006 04:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"International peace researchers report that worldwide conflict is on the decline as are the number of casualties"


Perhaps things have changed since 2004.

8/08/2006 06:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Angela Ferreira said...

9/11, Global warming, Middle East conflict, water shortage, everything that is going on in our unbalanced planet at the moment is a reason for a visionary artist to reflect and be inspired, the wise ones that can see beyond the comfort of our sofas and are blessed with the gift of raising awareness with their Art.

8/08/2006 06:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

9/11 was an oddly regenerative time for me. I did not feel alone in my paranoias - first time in a long while. I made art that day because I could not keep watching the TV at home.

Did it change my style or view? No. But not feeling so alone, even if it was for such a little while, well, I still remember that feeling.

Nowadays though it seems like all of it made no difference at all, save giving our gov't a license to kill.

8/08/2006 06:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's the URL for the "international peace researchers"mentioned in the last post.


I can't remember where I originally read this (I want to say it was in The Economist). It is amazing how little there is on the web about this study. Why is that?I'm posting this URL for that reason. I know no one will believe or trust this information which in a way makes it even more amazing.

8/08/2006 06:46:00 PM  
Blogger William Knipscher said...

Sorry, my fault. I swear I saw cynical. Anyway, I do think it is cyclical, although I wouldn't say it is independent of world events. Seriously there are so many awful things going on in the world at any one time that it has to be affecting people/artists. I think it is all tied together and the visibility comes when the right people take notice just as with disasters in the world like genocide in Darfur.

8/08/2006 11:29:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

I was asking if you felt it was cyclical? Does it naturally happen (the darkening mood) in waves independent of world events?

No. The cyclicality occurs in the world events, which are generally biased towards the shitty, but ebb and flow between extremes. An event like 911 is a spike, a "disturbance in the force" as Yoda would say. It also depends on where you are, if you’re in the middle east right now, shitty is definitely spiking.

If you are an artist, unless you are working in a vacuum, I cannot see how these "event spikes" don’t enter into the work, consciously or unconsciously. Certainly there are artists with "darker moods" who plug into the darkness more easily or more frequently but I also believe that all sensitive people are affected by such events. How they are dealt with, what we do with them as artists, is a function of who we are as individuals. Nicole Eisenman painting "Progress: Real and Imagined" was one of the best paintings exhibited this year. It is down and dirty, no holds barred, plugged into the darkness, shoved in your face. Tough.

Right after 911, I had this discussion. My position at the time was that 911 would change the current course of art. I couldn’t see how someone could make "personal little bedroom installations" and the like, after seeing 50 feet of green plywood in front of Agostino’s plastered with hundreds of 8-1/2 by 11 pictures of missing loved ones. It made everything in the galleries look fake.

I made a painting that I started on Wednesday, the day after 911 and finished it four years later. In the end I overcame the darkness, but only after a long struggle. The painting came out ok.

Right now, I’m just pissed off at the world, maybe more pissed of than after 911. Does that affect what I do in the studio, you betcha. Cyclical yes, but event driven.


8/09/2006 12:28:00 AM  
Blogger John Morris said...

Wow, Bill Gusky is very articulate!

8/09/2006 08:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

I thought we were already on the post-tsunamis or post-flood trend?

At any rates, while some artists have made some great art influenced by 911 (I especially like Cai Guo-Qiang, who affirms that some of his latest works are sort of an omnidirectional reply to this event), we've also seen the bad (spare me another Thomas Hirschorn scrapbook), and the profusion of references.

While I think historical events have the tendency to bring back
artists under a common grounds for a while, and while I'm sure each of these events gets the Guernica that it deserves, I don't see how art should be any better or worst
because it's happening under certain circumstances.

The mid-1990's had its share of great art, many considering Barney a great representant for that era.
I for one will not ever thrash on
Ann Hamilton's art from the pevious decade.

I personally don't think the goth-angst art of the younger era is any less juvenile than pop art, frankly. I think it is an interesting assimilation of present horror. Definitely as
righteous a response to sincere art made to make you shed tears over war tragedies. Let's face it war is dumb, so maybe we need the dumb art to make us face how stupid we've been.

I also do not see hedonist or pleasure art as inconveniently light. There is a political attitude in refusing distress, and that doesn't need imply any loss of compassion. (remember that clown doctor?)

By thw way, I love bedroom installations, especially when the artist invites me in their bed.


Cedric Caspesyan

8/09/2006 02:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


8/12/2006 09:31:00 PM  
Blogger Kate said...

I have always made "sincere" art. I recall that, even pre-9/11, there was talk of the new "post-ironic" art. After that tranformative event, I thought, "well this will REALLY seal the post-ironic thing", but it never happened, in my opinion. There is just as much fluffy art as ever, simply reflecting the attention-deficit superficiality of our popular culture without any transcendance or transformation.

I do believe that adversity deepens life experience, and can consequently deepen art, in the hands of some artists. What percentage of artists making important work would you consider "happy"?

I addressed this very question in my own blog

8/21/2006 12:45:00 AM  

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