Archive: Issue No. 50, October 2001

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The World Trade Center under attack on September 11

Art and the art world after September 11
Following the attack on the World Trade Center, Flash Art's Giancarlo Politi posed some questions to players in the art world. Rasheed Araeen, founding editor of Third Text, sent Artthrob his response

Letter from Giancarlo Politi:

Dear friends

The attack against the World Trade Center not only shocked the whole world; it also changed it. Our behaviours will be forever changed, and our culture will be radically transformed.

Art has always been a sensitive detector of change, a delicate seismograph of our time, often anticipating shape of things to come.

We would like to know your opinion (your comments will be published in Flash Art magazine and/or on our new website, which is always open to your ideas and suggestions):

  • How will art react to the World Trade Center attack?
  • How will the art world change?
  • And will the art market be affected?
Giancarlo Politi
Flash Art

Rasheed Araeen's reply:

Dear Giancarlo Politi

I do appreciate your concern, and I think we who are involved in art should pay serious attention to what happened in New York on September 11. It was horrendous, and no sensitive human being can remain aloof from it, or unaffected. Those who were responsible for this shocking tragedy must be brought to justice.

However, the questions you have asked are somewhat confusing. Are you concerned with art, art world or the art market? They are different things, and they ought to be separated in order to understand the true value of art. The function of art must be recognised in its own right, without it being dragged to the art market whose primary function is to make money by turning art into a reified commodity. You may argue that in a capitalist society there is no other way art can function, nor can its significance be recognised unless it enters its exchange system. But that is exactly the problem today.

The radical function of art, when it was "a sensitive detector of change ... anticipating shape of things to come", as you rightly pointed out, was only possible when the enlightened bourgeoisie and its liberal institutions had provided art a space or historical framework for the development of new and progressive ideas. This space or historical framework no longer exists, as the independent function of liberal art institutions has collapsed with the overwhelming power of the art market that derives legitimation for whatever it does from the sensationalism of the media. Your question about art being "a sensitive detector of change ..." makes no sense within the cultural milieu of the prevailing art world, and its obsession with fame and money. In fact, what we are talking about is a decadent culture of bourgeois capitalist society which is now on its last legs; and it cannot therefore function and survive without exploiting and dehumanising the world. Art of this decadent culture can reflect upon itself - and indeed very profoundly, as is evident from the kind of art being produced and promoted today - but this reflection is celebratory and self-consuming and without a critical sense which would show a way forward.

Your question "How will art react to the World Trade Center attack?" is extremely important, but its answer depends on how we look at the whole thing. Is it really true that Civilisation is under attack by Evil forces, or that some children of Civilisation have come home to roost? In the present atmosphere of media hysteria and militarism of politicians, it has become very difficult to separate truth from falsehood.

However, I find your questions very exclusive and historically misplaced. Why are we asking these questions only today? Why did we not ask such questions before? Are you suggesting that a shocking tragedy had not occurred before? What about millions of innocent peoples who have lost their lives around the world as a result of US imperialism? If art is concerned with humanity as a whole - and it should be - then we will have to look away from and beyond New York. Humanity does not exist only in New York or in the US - nor only in the West.

Those who are concerned with humanity and human values must look at what is happening in the world today. Is the present predicament of most of the world a result of natural causes or a consequence of a globally dominant system? Shouldn't the system which wants to dominate and control the world also show some human responsibility and obligation towards those it wants to dominate, without dividing the world between privileged and deprived communities and societies?

Given the track record of the United States' political leadership and what it has been doing to the world over the last 50 or so years, and its continuing ambition to turn the world into a cowboy ranch, how can anyone have any hope in it for change for the betterment of humanity as a whole? What bothers me is the blindness with which most of us accept whatever the US says and does. Why is it so difficult to understand that all this talk of Civilisation by the US is nothing but a dangerous neo-imperialist charade, A charade of a dehumanised and dehumanising culture. Why do we in Europe [or elsewhere] have to go along with this charade? I'm not saying that Europe is not part of the same system, but I have more hope in and with Europe.

Europe is still linked with its antiquity, going back to the time when the Mediterranean was the centre of what we today call Civilisation. Although this Civilisation was a civilisation of conquests and domination, it also gave us the ideas of human liberation, freedom and equality. It is now important to separate the former from the latter, because it is only through the human values of freedom and equality that we can fulfil the ultimate expression of universal humanity. What is even more imperative today is to understand that what we call Civilisation is not just a European civilisation, but it has its roots going deep in the Mediterranean where the three continents of Europe, Asia and Africa meet; and Civilisation was the result of an encounter and dialogue between the cultures of these three continents. We must return to these roots, and re-establish this dialogue on the basis of the equality of all that constitutes the Mediterranean - a meeting point of three continents, three religions and three cultures - in order to reconfirm and strengthen the true values of Civilisation which recognise the humanity of peoples all over the world. It is only when we recognise this Mediterranean (if not human) heritage that there will be hope for change and for a better future. Art can play an important role in the realisation of this future.

It's time Europe woke up to reclaim this heritage of Mediterranean Civilisation. It's time the intellectuals in Europe woke up and spent their energies in pursuit of truth rather than expressing a solidarity with a fictionalised reality. We need a dialogue among artists, writers, philosophers, social scientists etc from all over the world (including the US) at a level which is free from the ambitions of politicians and the interests of the art market, in order to grasp the reality of the world today and think about a different and better future for it.

Viva Mediterranean!