Everything is different in America, and everybody knows it. We don’t know how, only that it is. All bets are off. Old arguments are out the window. American history has leaped off the tracks. This is what a paradigm shift feels like. Lives have been changed. Ideas will be tested. Art will be altered. We don’t know what all this means, only that it is happening. Complacency was buried in the rubble; narcissism went up in smoke. The blinders were blown off. Like a pet snake that has escaped its glass cage, something familiar—terrorism—has turned truly terrifying. In the art world, the rush for money and fame will continue; careers will be spun, self-absorption will persist, and there will be art that is adolescent and petty. But all this, and the art world of the recent past, will soon seem dated.
Many say, “How can you think about art at a time like this?” Art can appear so insignificant when the world gets crazy. But the world has always been crazy, even if it hasn’t been as horrifying. Art’s been around a long time. It knows how to handle good times and bad. And it’s never really been insignificant. Theodor Adorno famously wrote, “Poetry after Auschwitz is no longer possible.” But isn’t the very phrase poetic? Most art is superficial. However, the aesthetic experience (the term always rings tinny), the enigmatic interior place we go when we make or look at art, is still what it’s always been: complex, rich, rewarding, meaningful, and moving. It is a place we will always return to. A place, presumably, we all come from. A place, moreover, that tells us things we didn’t know we needed to know until we knew them.
We should keep in mind that this place is also old, deep, and probably hardwired. In 1980, George W.S. Trow published the immensely influential Within the Context of No Context. Trow claimed (and many believe) that ours is a world without differentiation, where all distances have faded into one continuous blur—a world where dissimilarity has been replaced by similarity. This is an absurdity, especially now. America’s context just bumped into the world’s. Or more accurately, the world’s context just bumped into America’s. Whatever happened, we should never again allow ourselves the illusion that everything that happens is happening to everybody, everywhere, at the same time. The pragmatists were right. Everything that happens to everyone is understood differently by everyone. That globalist hum people thought they were listening to turns out to have been background noise to a cacophony of conflicting contexts.
Now we know we are nothing but context and that context changes everything. When it comes to art, this means things made in one time under one circumstance will look different in another time or circumstance. Who thinks about flatness when they think about Rothko? Who thinks about German Neo-Expressionists like Rainer Fetting at all? The Sistine Chapel doesn’t rouse the passions of the Counter-Reformation. Cubism isn’t shocking. Fauvism isn’t ugly.
On September 11, context changed again. This month’s terrorist fashion feature in The Face doesn’t look so imaginary anymore. Camouflage designs are more ominous. The titles of current movies like Training Day, The Glass House, and Soul Survivors take on new meanings. Suddenly, “Beau Monde”—the title of Dave Hickey’s Site Santa Fe exhibition—seems a little off. In Venice, Robert Gober’s installation in the American pavilion, with its glowing, redemptive light shining through cracks in a cellar storm door, takes on new relevance. Closer to home, Anya Gallaccio’s scorched plywood floor installation at Lehmann Maupin now seems little more than a hollow flirtation with cataclysm. At Friedrich Petzel, Richard Phillips’s big, gray-toned portrait of George W. Bush really looks different. Gazing at our leader’s sly expression is more disconcerting than ever. Before he was just a nebbish. Now he’s a nebbish at the helm of a country in danger. Either this image will turn out to have predicted a catastrophe for America or it may one day register an entirely different range of emotions. With some kind of retaliation looming large, it’s likely this painting’s context will change yet again. This doesn’t make Phillips—who is excavating the terrain between John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, and Mel Ramos—a better artist. But he has channeled something important in the culture into his work. A few blocks north, at Sean Kelly, a video piece by Lorna Simpson featuring a stark grid of 15 mouths humming John Coltrane’s arrangement of Rodgers and Hart’s “Easy to Remember”—a work that not so long ago might have struck one as just another neoconceptual wrinkle—now makes one weak in the knees with grief, and comes off as a sorrowful hymn.
Given recent events, how will masculinity, violence, and government be represented in the near future? What will become of our taste for celebrity and glamour? Has the audience for art changed? All these questions hang in the air. Nevertheless, although contexts change, people sometimes stay the same. That’s why some are resorting to shooting the messenger. Already, an old American puritanical streak has resurfaced. Some of the very people who have raked it in for the last 10 years are calling for art to “clean up its act.” Others condemn the art of the ’90s for being “shallow” or “trivial”—as if Jeff Koons and Karen Kilimnik are responsible for pissing off the Arabs; as if the art world were the Great Satan. As surely as patriotism will bring kitsch, guilt walks hand in hand with hypocrisy. We may be in for a wave of preachy art, mawkish performance pieces, all manner of castigation, and insipid social realism. We have already heard cries for “a return to quality” (as if quality had ever left). Others claim that formalism and self-involved art are now gratuitous. Perhaps, although Chicago painter Gaylen Gerber sounds the right note when he talks about “small victories.” Gerber reported spending the day after the attack “looking at shiny plastic furniture from the ’60s and ’70s that in some way, maybe because of their superficial and ultra-clean look, made me feel a little better.” It’s an elegant way of saying art that is not apparently about serious things can still satisfy and comfort us immensely.
Those who look back in anger at the art of the recent past use the current situation as a soapbox to beat up on things they either never liked or felt ashamed of. It’s an old song in a new time. We don’t know what will come any better than they do. All we can say to them is, when it comes to art, have a little more faith.
The Anya Gallaccio show runs through October 20 at Lehmann Maupin, 39 Greene Street. Richard Phillips continues at Friedrich Petzel, 535 West 22nd Street, through October 6. Lorna Simpson’s show runs through October 20 at the Sean Kelly Gallery, 528 West 29th Street.