Image: Portraits From Ground Zero Exhibit
New York's Grand Central Station held an exhibit in January by photojournalist Joe McNally entitled "Faces of Ground Zero," an example of the stark realism that characterizes the arts in the wake of the attacks.
Special to MSNBC

It usually takes cataclysmic events to change the direction of art. Perhaps that goes without saying. Ever since the days of cave painting, people have been making art about dramatic events. These days, anyone interested in culture is wondering how the terrorist attacks of 9/11 will transform the arts. And it’s not only the visual arts. All forms of cultural production, from literature to film to music, drama, dance and television, have geared up for a major paradigm shift.

But as artists react to 9/11 and its aftermath, changes in the visual arts may be anticipated more than in other disciplines — even in literature, their ancient rival — because of their long track record of responding to historical events.

In many ways, art is a running chronicle of history. During the last century, the emotional and physical traumas caused by World War I led directly to German Expressionism. A horrific incident in the Spanish Civil War produced one of the greatest art works of all time: Picasso’s Guernica. And though less well known, William Kentridge’s charcoal animations inspired by the injustices of South Africa’s apartheid system are among the most powerful works of art in recent times.

But climactic events that shake the world don’t always inspire great works of art or art movements. Take World War II. A lot of people have compared the World Trade Center attacks to Pearl Harbor. Yet no great artwork sprung from that sneak attack, and even World War II didn’t directly inform an art movement in the United States.

Climate for change
If international conflicts are not necessarily pivotal moments in art history, they can certainly create a climate for change. The Vietnam War is a good example. That chaotic enterprise was a catalyst for a cultural revolution that spun out numerous art movements, including Pop Art, Performance Art and Conceptual Art. It had a similar galvanizing effect on film, literature, music, and theater.

Today’s society is impatient for results, so it’s not surprising that even before the dust settled on lower Manhattan, critics were declaring that the ironic art of postmodernism was dead. And the artistic production that erupted right after 9/11 certainly seemed to substantiate that claim.

Most of the efforts were brimming with sincerity, such as Joe McNally’s Faces of Ground Zero-life-size Polaroid portraits of rescue workers and survivors. Their size was impressive and they probably touched thousands of people, but as artworks they lacked intellectual and creative depth. While these immediate responses tugged at heartstrings, they seemed unimaginative and opportunistic.

‘Seize the moment'
If more time is needed to let the great works percolate, what can we expect to eventually come out of 9/11?

I put that question to Lawrence Rinder, Curator of Contemporary Art at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. As chief curator of this year’s biennial, he should know the pulse of the country’s artistic community as well as anyone. Rinder said he had detected a change in artists even before 9/11, reflecting “a feeling of the preciousness of life and the need to seize the moment for all it’s worth.”

Rinder added: “While I do think that there is a change in the air and that we may see art moving in the direction of sincerity and social engagement, it is not because of 9/11; it is because we live in a world that is in a state of acute crisis, and more and more people — artists and others — feel a sense of urgency and a need to respond.”

No more navel gazing
The new sincerity may have already doomed one art movement that has thrived on insincerity. For much of the 1980s and 1990s, when people seemed to have nothing better to do than count their money, Los Angeles had a contribution to make to the art world. During the time of Rodney King, O.J. and the L.A. riots, the art world revered artists like Charles Ray, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy and Lari Pittman, who reflected the turbulence in their back yard through rousing works like Ray’s reproduction of a wrecked car.

Los Angeles aroused interest when it was entertaining, but it’s hard to get excited about the latest news from the City of Angels, such as Charlton Heston’s Alzheimer’s revelation. The young hopefuls now trotting out of L.A.’s once-hot art schools are mostly concerned with fun, fashion, and fatigue. In a world bracing for more trouble, making art about navel gazing doesn’t seem interesting anymore. Whatever the art that comes out of 9/11, it’s bound to be more inspired than that — and, I would bet, more likely to come from New York.

Mike Rogers is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles.

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