Is Art Still “What Makes Life More Interesting Than Art”?

Cay Sophie Rabinowitz began her career with ART PAPERS in 1997 while maintaining residences in both Atlanta and Berlin. Since that time, she has promoted the magazine’s international presence and has written for the publication on numerous exhibitions both in America and abroad. While residing in New York, she wrote on the tragic events for September 11, 2001, and the ability of art to go on in the aftermath.

I recall a telephone call on the eve of Tuesday, September 11th, as I, like most, retreated to the world of mediated images. We both watched television as my friend on the line, an artist and filmmaker, said, “Can you imagine how many art works will be made about this?” I uttered a sigh of frustration and imagined countless pathetic works about suffering. I confess this because having experienced the act of terrorism in New York, I am baffled by my unwillingness to let the rest of the world go on with their lives by circulating press releases and mounting exhibitions, and even worse, my unwillingness to let the art world process this tragedy without mediation.

Amidst the constant flow of emails sent to me in the following days with subject headings pleading, “Are You Alright?,” “Hope You Are Okay” and “How Are You?”— most written in bold face type and labeled “urgent”— I received an announcement from one exhibition space in Florida (via announcing: “…pleased to present: Brooklyn! On view from…through….” Though I had been trying to get through the emails quickly, I became momentarily paralyzed by this e-press release that seemed to invade my space (albeit virtual) like the occasional siren en route to and from “Ground Zero” that pierced the odd silence of our smoke and dust bathed streets downtown. Like most locals, I witnessed the end of our World Trade Center buildings (and the end of the world as we knew it); I watched them dissolve and was horrified to imagine the experience of thousands inside. Until I received the email from Florida, there was no weighing of moral right and wrong. Perhaps reality was too unreal for believing. But I was somehow offended and decided to ask this anonymous outsider why such trivial information about an exhibition was sent to New York addresses. Expecting to receive the now perfunctory “we regret…/we share…/we are sorry for…” preface to every announcement from an arts institution, individual or group, I was shocked to receive such an uncompromising answer: “Well, while this will be disturbing for some it is reassuring for others. Things must go on somehow.”

I have spent some time discussing the exchange with friends and colleagues in New York. Most agree that this less than sensitive reply is also insulting. Now with a few miles and a few days distance from New York, one re-considers that from its brutal statement of the obvious emerges one more profound question: “How must things go on?”

I am reminded of Manifesta 3 last summer in Ljubljana, the third European biennial exhibition that has been hosted each time by a different city. By comparison with Manifesta 1 in Rotterdam and Manifesta 2 in Luxembourg, this first show in the East was criticized for having too much video work in long “non-art” formats. At first, I too complained of having to stand in dark exhibition spaces to watch documentary-style (and length) works until I realized how many artists in the show came from outside countries that had recently been ravaged by war. I began to ask myself (and others) if it would have been “appropriate” or even possible for an artist from Sarajevo to make, for example, minimal paintings in 1999. I proposed to my colleagues in discussion about Manifesta, that, given the horrible situation in which these artists had lived, documentary (and certainly video) would be a likely genre. I defended one much debated work— titled After, After (1997) by Jasmina Zbanic, about a young girl who had witnessed the death of all immediate family members— as an unavoidable subject for art from that region even if many could legitimately claim that it resembled a fund raising commercial for CARE or the Christian Children’s Fund. I recall these incidents when reading the caption of a photo in the September 16 New York Times: “Still Life: Inside the remains of one of the buildings in the World Trade Center,” which does recall a composition painted by Cezanne or the iconographic still life rendered by nearly all art students learning to draw. Likewise, on the front page of that same section a gray ghost version of the former World Trade Center Towers resembles the work of Donald Judd or even Daniel Buren.

I discussed these matters with one prominent New York art critic, who proposed that certain kinds of work may no longer be possible in this post-apocalyptic art world. I am not sure about his prediction that we may see a return to the calm of a Rothko-style painting tradition, and though I don’t know if I can refer to my view of the Sarajevo artist’s work to make sense of the current context, I only know that we agreed, most uncannily, to reject a return to the careless recycling of mediated documentation footage. 

So I return to the questions: how will things go on?— at least as far as art is concerned? Why might I support the use of documentary by artists who have suffered war in far away places but not in my own backyard? After all, when the first plane hit, didn’t I scramble to the roof with my single reflex camera in hand and minutes later return to get both my Hasselblad and the TV? I was compelled to record in visual art format what took place before my eyes and simultaneously to witness what was “really happening” in the rest of the world. Does it still ring true how French fluxus artist Robert Filliou aptly defined an era, in that “art is what makes life more interesting than art”?