September 2001

The has been a prevailing sense since the tragic events of September 11, that everything is changed.

This has been felt in the art world, as everywhere else. The sense has been accompanied by anxiety. Of course, people wonder whether the market for art will be seriously impaired, but, more importantly perhaps, they also worry as to whether art is relevant at such a time, whether faced with such circumstances it has anything to say?

A widely expressed response to the occurrences of September 11 has been that irony will lose its prominence in contemporary art. Among the many voices being raised in this debate, the one that stood out for me during the days immediately following the attacks on the TwinTowers was that of Tom Eccles, director of the Public Art Fund. Mr. Eccles, in the pages of the New York Times, declared that "It will certainly change the nature of the projects we do. (...) Now it will be difficult to be humorous or ironic."  The remark connected in my mind with a book that I had read over the summer, Robert Morgan's End of the Art World, in which he argues that we have cultivated art devoid of experience, where the 'subject' is excluded. I had written to Robert at the time and suggested that "To combat this tendency, perhaps we need to polemically assert that only work which addresses experience should be qualified as art and that the rest belongs in the 'consumer product' category". Mr. Eccles has since followed up his previous remark by declaring, in a similar manner, again in the New York Times, this time of Friday October 5, that "while public art should sometimes be edgy, right now it should reaffirm the experience of living."

If this debate is properly framed, something more may have happened here. It may well turn out with hindsight that the old 'modernist' bias of form over content has finally been rendered redundant. Irony itself was surely a response to doubts about the sufficiency of an art predicated on pure form. Now, in the current situation, in replacement of irony, we are being asked to consider real, lived experience once again. The argument would appear, therefore, to have come full turn. However, the question remains as to how art can deal with real experience, how real experience can be captured and represented in contemporary art.

A certain number of observations come to mind in this connection. First of all, the return of real experience should not, as it inevitably will, lead to an embrace of the positivist assumptions of nineteenth century Realism which lie at the origins of how we see and act in everyday life. Modern art, from its inception, has fought to free itself from this ideology of objects. Secondly, there should be no return to Neoplatonic notions of the equivalence of Truth and Beauty. Pollock and Smithson deny us that easy option. To the contrary, in a world after Nietzsche, Freud and Bataille, not to mention modern physics, together with its technological applications, this return to real experience may have more to do with a notion of 'absence', or more specifically of how language and experience function on a foundation of absence.

Does this seem such a strange proposition? On reflection, maybe it is nothing more than a modern reformulation of what we have come to term the 'myth' of creation. If so, surely it is a subject that art is peculiarly well qualified and entitled to explore. Following the events of September 11, no doubt it’s inevitable that the United States will respond militarily. The military response to a problem invariably is to seek to destroy the enemy, to reduce him to nothing. Destruction takes something and makes nothing out of it. Art, on the other hand, has always pursued another, too often neglected path, that of taking nothing and making something out of it.

Paul Rodgers