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New Art-World Order

How will contemporary art change in the aftermath of the disaster? And will old works take on new meanings?

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"The world will never be the same." "Everything has changed." "America's illusions are shattered." As these common observations suggest, there is today an overwhelming consensus that the destruction of the World Trade Center represents a cultural watershed, marking the end of a superficial era -- the carefree years that followed the Cold War -- and the beginning of a weightier period in American history. If the consensus is correct, the arts may change dramatically.

No one can know what those changes will look like. In Western society, the response of art to a change in social conditions is never uniform and rarely obvious. And there is no guarantee whatsoever that art will rise to the occasion. Frivolous, decadent periods can produce brilliant art; serious times can produce pious bunk. If there is to be a profound change in art, however, its early harbinger will be impatience -- even disgust -- with the broad worldview that has sustained art during the past 40 years. Imagine Andy Warhol, his blond wig splashed over his pale face, watching the collapse of the south tower on television. What would Andy say? He would have to say, "Wow."

The Warholian Wow -- with its overlays of irony, satire, and kitsch -- represents a brilliant response to a titillating culture of money and celebrity. But the deadpan cannot adequately take the measure of the dead. It's insufficient to the task. In the aftermath of the bombing, the dominant values and concerns of the art world, chief among them irony in its many guises, may begin to erode. The metaphysical temperature of art, so cool and knowing for the past 40 years, may begin to rise. Of course, irony will remain essential to the modern mind -- we cannot live without it and still call ourselves modern -- but it may yield ground to warmer, more direct means of expression: Artists may want to send the arrow directly to the mark. The intellectual elaborations of the academy, spreading over the practice of art like vines on a tree, may grow burdensome. After the destruction of the World Trade Center, artists may want to escape from the fuss of the professors.

The scale of the disaster may even provoke artists to take a larger view of the world -- and, perhaps, a smaller view of themselves. In the past few decades, works of art have grown in size but diminished in effect: Artists have had few reasons, in a time of peace and prosperity, to resist the grandiose dreams of the narcissistic self. Given the slaughter, history itself may suddenly appear all too real, a weighty, visceral thing that can no longer be stylishly "appropriated"; the glibly apocalyptic may now cause feelings of revulsion. The obsession with "the marginal" in all its forms may also weaken somewhat, as energy focuses upon a renewed interest in the central issues of existence. And the common belief that there is no knowable reality, only various representations or systems of reality, may erode before the stark facts. Does "the truth" belong only in quotation marks? Or will that soon seem a nihilistic luxury? Cleverness may attract less admiration than it once did, and the crowlike fascination with shiny things -- money, gossip, stylish smarts, the inventive inanities of popular culture -- may become embarrassing. Surface may yield to depth, glitter to grit. There may even be less condescension directed at "the beautiful."

Merely reversing a few fashionable ideas, however, won't accomplish much. Any radical challenge to the established culture of art must come from young artists who are impatient with the present not just because they are testy but because they believe they can see the outlines of a new reality forming. Their work must not simply reject present platitudes but also find original shape for revolutionary -- or, at least, freshly recovered -- ideas about art, human nature, and the pressures of history. And where are those invigorating new ideas?

Whatever its eventual influence upon contemporary art, the destruction of the World Trade Center has already changed the art of the past: New Yorkers will bring a new perspective, for example, to Giacometti at the Museum of Modern Art and to Norman Rockwell at the Guggenheim later this fall. In the aftermath of the carnage, the lush mysticism of Alfred Jensen (1903-81) -- one of the mad monks of postwar American art -- becomes a joyful reminder of other realities. Jensen is an artist who insists upon order, but order of a special kind. He invokes the mysterious unities, the hidden codes of the cosmos. Largely self-taught, he had an almost physical relish for the ancient cosmologies, whether Mayan, Chinese, or Greek, and he created glowing pictures full of incantatory marks -- checkerboards, wheels, numbers, reflections, arrows, words, dots. The selection of his work in Concordance, which Lynne Cooke has organized for Dia Center for the Arts, contains some of Jensen's largest and most ambitious multi-panel pictures. They look revelatory, ecstatically so, in the open daylight of Dia's galleries.

Jensen was quite clear in his own mind what his iconography meant. No doubt art historians will extract the literal meaning from his signs. But the strength of Jensen's art does not derive from such details. Instead, Jensen powerfully conveys the sensation of systems, the feeling of a theory. There is nothing arid or merely abstract in his work: His pictures have the otherworldly shimmer -- but also the pungent physicality -- of Russian icons or religious tribal art. It may even be important not to understand all the chapter and verse. A mystic must not explain all; otherwise, he risks diminishing the authority of the unknowable. Of course, the West is filled with moony-eyed people who would like to become shamans in the bush. But Jensen avoids that sentimental slop. No slavish admirer of other cultures, he brings together values that are painfully separated in the contemporary world. He is childlike: The colors are high-keyed, the surfaces doughy, the handwriting that of a conscientious 11-year old. But he is also sophisticated, a serious student of ancient systems and the color theory of Goethe. (His prescient pictures even seem to anticipate computer systems.) He is at once naïve and wise, modern and archaic, an artist who restores a sense of touch to a world that often seems sterile and abstract. His universe is handmade without being quaint.

Alfred Jensen
"Concordance," at the Dia Center for the Arts, through 6/16/02.


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