Art and Public Trauma

Theme 1

How do public traumas like 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise in income inequality in the U.S., and the current recession affect, or frame, the production of your art works and art criticism? What is the role of individual style or idiosyncrasy in these times and circumstances? What is the role of the art market/fashion/art history versus such public or individual/idiosyncratic motivations and frames?

Susan Bee and Mira Schor
New York City, November 2011

Anna Chave

A day or so after 9/11 — when I witnessed the second tower’s collapse and then stared at the phalanx of ghostly, shell-shocked Wall-Streeters streaming past my front window on the Bowery — I had to go as usual out to Queens College to teach. I was meant to lecture on landscape and nature imagery that day in my History of Photography course, including the surpassingly romantic work of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, who mostly photographed the Western U.S. during the Second World War as if they had never got the news. I did consider switching it up, jumping ahead to documentary work, zeroing in on war and crisis photography, but I finally decided against teaching material for which the students were unprepared. Yet it seemed an absurdity, if not an obscenity, to be discoursing on exquisite images of sand dunes and green peppers as the World Trade Center smoldered not far away and desperate people cased the city in vain hopes that their family members had eluded unthinkably horrible ends. So I halfway apologized to the class, when it convened, for proceeding with business as usual. But the class surprised me with a (unprecedented) round of applause at the beginning and again at the end of the lecture. And one of my most serious students — namely one of my “Greatest Generation” auditors — said to me afterwards that Weston and Adams had been, after all, just right for that dreadful moment: everyone had needed more than anything to be transported, and so they were.

When circulating outside the art world, among people who don’t generally meet art historians, I find that their dominant notion about my peculiar vocation is that I must lead a fortunate life. And I acknowledge that I do. But going on four decades into this field, I sometimes add that, although the art world has become appreciably more global in recent decades, it can still seem a lamentably parochial or marginal place, especially at times when the larger world is coming conspicuously unglued. And the response I almost invariably get is this: What better times could there possibly be to have the job of bringing art to people and vice versa? — a response that always takes me back to the warm reception I got for my apparently, utterly irrelevant lecture following 9/11.

Much as I admire 20th-century and contemporary artists who find ways to do effective political work through their art, I seem to keep getting brought around to this reality: that the public doesn’t tend to look to art, in the first place, for its political efficacy. Speaking generally (or through my proverbial hat), inasmuch as people feel that they need and want art in their lives, it often seems to be as an avenue to remove them from the world’s more frustrating or galling realities, while returning them instead, in other ways, to their senses. Those of us who tend to view art through political lenses may lose sight of what else it is that art does or, I will venture to add, of how — precisely by returning people to their senses — the things that ostensibly non-political art does may have their political valences after all. Just so, those mesmerizingly sensual photographs of Oceano Dunes turn out to look compellingly, hauntingly post-apocalyptic when viewed at an apocalyptic time.

Anna Chave is known for her revisionist readings of Minimalism and for her writings on issues of reception, interpretation, and identity, on subjects ranging from Brancusi, to the Gee’s Bend quilters, to Hannah Wilke.

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