Anna Somers Cocks: Why is art not reflecting world events?

There is no artistic engagement with the big, threatening issues that hang over us

Share

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?

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 crueller 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 organising 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 labour 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 centre 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

events@artfortnight.com

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The author with David Leppan, the co-founder of Wealth-X, in his BBC series  

What I learnt about inequality after spending time with some of the richest people in the world

Jacques Peretti
 

If I were Prime Minister: I would halt the charitable status enjoyed by private schools

Rosie Millard
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links