Not long after the attack on the World Trade Center, when my wife and I sat dazed and weeping by the television screen, a call came through from a journalist wanting to know what the art world’s response to all this was to be. We were amazed that any call could get through, since the phone lines were pretty much down. I had not been able to call any of our artist friends, but the last question I would have raised with them was how they were going to deal with the tragedy in their art! My sense was that every artist I knew was in the same state of grief and disbelief as we. Indeed, as I discovered in the days afterward, everyone I talked to wanted to express the same thoughts and feelings I needed to. Asked by a colleague how I felt, I said: like everyone else. And my colleague responded, We all feel like everyone else. And it would have been inconsistent with that feeling to think much about art at all.
Still, it says something about the power of art that someone should have looked to the art world to do something. I remembered a somewhat corny lecture from an undergraduate art history course, in which the people of Paris cried out, Take up thy brush, David! when Marat–l’ami du peuple–was stabbed to death in his bathtub. However corny, it was not all that far from the truth, as I recently read in T.J. Clark’s marvelous study Farewell to an Idea. Like most political events, the French Revolution was enacted through images–think of how important to radical Islam those posters of Osama bin Laden have all at once become. Marat was a cult figure for extreme Jacobinism, and it is entirely credible that someone actually stood up on the floor of the Convention and shouted to David, Give us back Marat whole! This is what David might really have believed himself to have done in his tremendous painting of the slain Marat, shown as if descended from the cross. Pictures, in the people’s eyes, are miracles, Clark writes, where what everyone thought was lost, or maybe just subject to time and fevers, comes back forever into the world. To whatever degree this not uncommon view of the power of images coincided with David’s own, no one could look to art to give us back the World Trade Center whole. If someone did try to turn the event into art, it would in any case not be by means of painting a picture of the twin towers as they stood. A painting of the sky over ground zero is hardly needed, since the reality of their goneness inflects the glamour of everything that remains of the Manhattan skyline. But in any case, contemporary art has pretty much abjured pictorial representation as its main vehicle. Whom would the people summon to artistic action today?
On a recent visit to the Maryland Institute College of Art, I saw an especially moving installation in a faculty show by its graduate dean, Leslie King-Hammond. It was moving because it was of a piece with the hundreds of shrines that appeared spontaneously all over New York–in front of firehouses, along the edges of apartment building stairwells, surrounding monuments in parks and public places. In her installation, King-Hammond had placed votive candles, photographs, flowers, flags and other ephemera. One of the things contemporary art has made available to artists is the freedom to appropriate to their own artistic ends the very things with which ordinary, artistically untrained persons express themselves, so they can now bring the powers of life into art. So, much of contemporary art consists in selecting and arranging the things that define ordinary life. The avant-gardes of the 1960s were eager to overcome the gap between art and life, or to abolish the distinction between high and popular art. An agonized correspondent asked in an e-mail what Beuys would do if he were alive today. My sense is that he would do exactly what King-Hammond has done. He would assemble candles, photographs, flags and flowers. I was told that when her piece was installed, people stood in front of it and wept. How often does that happen in faculty shows, or in any show at all? It was as if the difference between what was in the art world and what was not had entirely dissolved. The art world could do nothing better than what the world itself did. In truth, I think, it could do nothing other than the world itself did. There was no room for anything else as art.