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?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A pack of seagulls squabble over discarded food left on the beach at St Ives on July 28, 2015  

Number of urban seagulls in Britain nearly quadruples: Hide food and avoid chicks to stay in gulls’ good books

Tom Bawden
 

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

RuPaul interview

The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

Secrets of comedy couples

What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

The best swimwear for men

From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

Mark Hix goes summer foraging

 A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

Aaron Ramsey interview

Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men