Boom, bust, and the re-emergence of the political?

Art after 9/11: Boom, bust, and the re-emergence of the political?

Rothenberg, Julia

IN THE 1960S, CRITICS COMPLAINED that the pop artists-and Andy Warhol in particular-really ruined art by tearing down the wall between high art and popular culture. Warhol, famous for quips like “business is the most fascinating form of art” and “everybody will have their fifteen minutes of fame” and for an obsession with celebrity, revealed a shameless complicity with consumer capitalism, hollow glamour, and boundless narcissism-everything modern art had historically sought to define itself against. By the 1980s commercialism in art was glaring. Museums, collectors, and galleries had formed a hard-hitting alliance that artificially inflated the price of some contemporary art, and the market became the final arbiter of value. The rewards of this bull market, like the rest of the booty of capitalism, were not distributed equally. The critic Robert Hughes described the glories of the art world’s boom-time when prices, at least for the work of young Turks such as Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and Jean Michel Basquiat, were inflated like junk bonds: “In the 1980s the scale of cultural feeding became gross, and its ailment, coarse; bulimia, the neurotic cycle of gorge and puke, the driven consumption and regurgitation of images and reputations, became our main cultural metaphor. Never had there been so many artists, so much art, so many collectors, so many inflated claims, so little sense of measure….” While the chosen few donned Armani suits, dated models, and sparkled in the media’s eye, the rest of New York’s artists were paving the way for gentrification in dreary, cold lofts in Williamsburg, waiting on tables or hanging drywall, and otherwise putting creative talents and art school training to good use.

Eventually the market collapsed. As it slowly climbed out of recession, the art market looked a bit more circumspect and dignified, although art was still firmly entrenched in the business model that began with pop art and climaxed at the end of the 80s. Chelsea, not Soho, became the center of New York’s art scene in the late 1990s. Then came September 11. While still recovering from the psychic shock of the event, I was asked by the Russell Sage Foundation to research the repercussions of this catastrophe on the art world. My first stop, since I live in Chelsea, was a stroll through the gallery district just a few days after the event. In contrast to the neighborhood’s bars, cafes, and restaurants-which were packed with neighborhood residents searching for news, companionship, and reassurance-gallery row was almost empty. On another Saturday, a couple of weeks later, the streets were once again bustling, and, despite forecasts of doom and gloom, the papers and the dealers themselves were reporting business as usual. Interestingly enough, even with the current recession, dealers of blue-chip artists like Gagosian and Mary Boone have told me that they have experienced little impact. One dealer reassured me that “people may be buying smaller things, but we still have no trouble selling the work of well-known artists.” Apparently, in a period of market unpredictability, art is a good investment.

Unfortunately, the attacks combined with the recession have not left the rest of the art world similarly unscathed. According to a recent New York Foundation for the Arts survey, 80 percent of artists have lost large percentages of their incomes, 13 percent have been evicted from their work or living spaces, and 22 percent have become unemployed. Smaller nonprofit arts organizations are struggling to remain viable, anticipating further state and city budget cuts and decreased private funding. Farther downtown, organizations like the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) have had a mixed response to the attack. The LMCC was located in the World Trade Center and, among other projects, ran the Worldviews studio program, which funded a small group of young artists to work for a nine-month period in studio spaces on the 92nd floor of Tower 1. These studio spaces were located in unused office space that was donated to the program by leaseholders. During the attack, Michael Richards, one of the artists in residence, was killed. The artwork in the rest of the studios was destroyed, as were the records, equipment, and the physical home of the LMCC.

Some members of LMCC hope that the plans to rebuild lower Manhattan will create opportunities for a renewed commitment to the arts, and at the very least, they hope that rebuilding will offer the possibility of rethinking the role of art in the future of New York City. But another kind of renewal of art is possible after September 11. An art scene exhausted by the whims of the market could be reinvigorated by connecting artists in concrete ways to local and global politics. The discussion generated by the plans for rebuilding downtown-and especially about the role of the arts in this process-throws into relief the position of art in today’s global cities. Contemporary urban planning reflects the current unfettered domination of capital and market concerns. Artists remain pawns in this process, as they continue to act as the agents of gentrification, only to be priced out to more and less accessible reaches of the city. The repercussions of the loss of a creative community to New York’s identity are not lost on cultural organizations, but the language needed to make this point is excluded by the marketplace.

Constrained by an environment in which they have to justify their position in the city in terms of market benefits, cultural organizations still attempt to intervene, both practically and discursively in the structuring of the urban landscape. The director of one organization told me, “I learned the words ‘cost effective’ and ‘bottom-line.’ The arts community knows it needs to use this language, but we haven’t insisted that there is something else there.” That “something else” all too often, in the language of cultural administrators, turns out to be art’s “healing power” or its role in creating greater community cohesion. Neither of these are unworthy roles for art to play, but rarely does the discourse around art mention the potential of the arts to be critical or to reflect upon the current geopolitical situation, the power of capital, or the potential of human beings to reshape society.

The public interest in art since 9/11 seems to center around an endless discussion concerning memorials and funding, and there have been a number of shows featuring explicitly “9/11” art. The first impulse of many artists with whom I have spoken was to document the events themselves, as even painters and sculptors reached for their cameras and video recorders to fix images in an attempt to make sense of the disaster. Often times, this documentation became integrated into later pieces. A filmmaker I interviewed had picked up her camera and randomly filmed images of the city during the days following the attack. She later turned these images into a short video, “WTC RIP,” which was shown at the recent Venice Biennale. This film is not directly political, but it does explore questions of community, nationalism, and loss. She saw this video as an attempt to communicate to the European world, in particular, that regardless of the foreign policies of our administration or the evils of U.S. imperialism, human beings cannot “deserve” this sort of catastrophe.

A critical response in art has begun to emerge, although not, for the most part, in the corporate reaches of Chelsea. As one dealer said, “These are established artists. They’re not going to change their work just because of 9/11.” However, some non-commercial galleries like White Box and Apexart-outfits that manage to stay within the stream of art-world discourse while encouraging work that may not fit the commercial bill-have featured shows that reflect on U.S. foreign and domestic policy, censorship, patriotism, racial profiling, and the post-9/11 loss of civil liberties. “The Blame Show” at White Box, curated by the critic Eleanor Heartney and video artist Larry Litt, included a video by Litt in which “ordinary people” were asked to comment on the political situation in the United States. The show also included examples of political cartoons and posters from Artists Resist, an organization that links artists with antiwar and anticensorship projects such as Not in Our Name. Much of this artwork challenges the pervasive power of the media to manufacture consent, and these artists in particular offer alternatives for framing current political events. Unfortunately, work like theirs rarely reaches audiences outside of the art world, and it can sometimes feel a bit aesthetically stifling, as it attempts to preach, for the most part, to the choir.

The voices of resistance raised with this art are important and, criticisms aside, one can only hope that the existence of such work speaks to the potential to re-politicize the art world. In the 1970s a great deal of art that was exciting aesthetically as well as politically was produced in response to the Vietnam War, the feminist movement, environmental abuse, and the commodification of the art market in the 1960s. Of course, good, or even relevant, art is no payoff for war casualties, recession, and the possibility of increased terrorist threats that an invasion of Iraq will surely bring. But art that seeks independence from the market while engaging either explicitly or implicitly with current social realities can help encourage reflection and maybe even help reawaken social and political dissent.

Copyright Center For Social Research and Education Oct 2002

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