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Suvan Geer


When I first thought about writing on this subject I was weighing the different words of authors bell hooks and Dave Hickey about art and revolution. hooks argues that art engages the politics of seeing--who sees and which visual information is judged important or relevant to life. Hickey made art out to be an insincere game of sanctimonious unction needing a good dose of almost militant frivolity to be relevant in a world dominated by an aesthetic of entertainment. Hickey and hooks got me thinking about art as a kind of radical seeing in this democracy, and what issues are clarified or realities changed by extreme actions. Then the terrorists struck and suddenly I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea of art or seeing as something really radical.

Terror outstrips art hands down in its status as something palpably real, important and focusing. Even in a visual culture, what can transcend the images of the Twin Towers struck, burning and falling? Yet over time and with constant repetition those images too were transformed--changed from being first- hand documentation of spiraling, hypnotic destruction, into what seemed a more fixed, ever-repeating, 24-hour spectacle to which we gradually became as numb as the survivors we saw walking in ash and shock away from ground zero.

Repetition did something to the reality it presented. As I watched the replays from different channels over the next few days I couldn’t help but think of performance artist Keith Antar-Mason’s observation regarding the Rodney King beating and all the times the public sat through that video in their living rooms. While for some of us the images operated to re-present the horror of police brutality until we became immune to it, he said for many African-Americans the same tape became a repeated, graphic warning never to resist authority. In a sense the repetitive image unwittingly acted like a virtual battering that transformed one event into another with a more historically consistent meaning.

In art repetition creates emphasis and scale. So those planes crashed not twice but hundreds of times as we watched, and the towers crumbled not once but over and over until it seemed no place in America was safe. It was not just the brutal shock of knowing that passenger planes were purposely crashed into the World Trade Towers, it was the repeated viewing of it that made us emotionally one with New York. Our horror over the Pentagon attack pales by comparison, not just because the loss of life was smaller but also because the after-the-fact images of smoke rising from the building cut open like a cake were less dramatic and got less air time. Less to see, less-often presented had the effect of essentially limiting the scale of that part of the tragedy in the popular mind.

If repetition builds impact, however, it also eventually breeds a numb detachment where only the visual standin for the fact remains. The scale of the attacks was horrific, the loss of human life incredible. But eventually, or perhaps inevitably, the overwhelming reality we witnessed slipped into being just images--incredible, terrible images. One writer’s young daughter, less constrained by the social conventions around loss and mourning, called the images replaying on her family’s TV screen “beautiful”. And indeed, once we objectify the terror they record and view them as simply images, they are amazingly beautiful. So much so that just six days after the attack the L.A. Times’ Christopher Knight felt compelled to review the pictures gathered by the world press searching hopelessly for a defining iconic image of the attack.

Art however has never been about finding or creating icons, but rather a way to think visually that produces a trace of how and what we think about. And that statement, in the wake of the attack, brings me back to the idea of revolution and art. You see, more than icons of vulnerability or aggression these images are important because they trace an unprecedented shift in image-making. So much of the footage we watched was the product of cameras in the hands of non-artists capturing events. Artists have historically been defined by virtue of their exclusive capacity to produce compelling imagery, so it is unsettling and significant that technology has made that capacity so fluid.

Technology has upended the idea of democratic seeing. Cameras and the internet have in effect made possible what radical cultural theorists like Homi Bhabha and Henry Giroux have argued for as a necessity since the early ‘90s: the power and space for as many people as possible to be makers of the culture we live in. Millions of lenses aimed at the world and electronic sites open to all comers means that no single perspective can dominate. Art must now figure out what else it can offer the world when increasingly the capacity to generate images is being assumed by what used to be called its audience.

Interestingly, however, amid the visual glut of the moment there seems to be a growing sense that art has something vital to offer, even an expectation that art might be active in addressing fundamental questions of freedom, vulnerability, aggression and justice. Since the attacks artists have been queried almost as much as politicians about their response. No doubt the question springs as much from the overwhelming visual impact of the videos as from the popularly held belief that the experience of art can be cathartic. But for artists accustomed to having their output dismissed as unnecessary, suddenly being asked about a visual response to this increasingly political event is both empowering and frightening.

Back in 1996 Dave Hickey called for an art of rampant frivolity unrestrained by civility or notions of nobility and caution because, he said, art “unredeemed by courage and talent. . .is a bad, silly frivolous thing to do.” Wild frivolity he reasoned is needed to knock art off its pretenses as a benign moral good and back into visual dialogue because, he said, “Art doesn’t matter. What matters is how things look and the way we look at them in a democracy.” Perhaps he’s right and only art can engage that level of meaning around appearances.

Still, calling attention to art’s relationship to politics, even in a democracy where so much is taken for granted about freedom of individual thought always feels prickly. It’s easy to talk about art, it’s still largely regarded as the relatively limited territory of personal aesthetics, but politics is the more contested arena of social beliefs acted out on the public. Saying that democracy changes the way things look and what they mean acknowledges that art is never apolitical and that images are always linked to social beliefs and structures. That’s a much broader territory for art to be political and seeing to be revolutionary.