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The Role of cultural producers during war

by Brian O'Connor Thursday, Dec. 06, 2001 at 8:17 PM

Panel Discussion at CalArts focuses on role of art and artists in “Post-9-11” World

Panel Discussion at CalArts focuses on role of art and artists in “Post-9-11” World



An open discussion hosted by the Schools of Art and Critical Studies and arranges by Michael Bears and Sergio Muños-Sarmiento convened November 14th at CalArts . Panelists Charles Gaines (conceptual artisit), Sande Cohen (philosopher), Alan Sekula (photographer), Sergio Muños-Sarmiento (conceptual artist), Kieth Pirlot (conceptual artist), Rick Berg (writer) and Tom Lawson (painter/writer) along with a sizable audience discussed and sometimes debated a wide range of issues related to the aftermath of the events of September 11th.

As at many of the “teach-ins” that have been held (including one a few weeks earlier at CalArts) by now already solidified political, social, and historical interpretations abounded. However, what made this event different was an ability to go beyond the confines of such interpretative circling, through a discussion of the role of art in the face of the current situation.

Is what happened on September 11th “an event,” “an historical inevitability,” “the tragedy”, “9-11”, “blow-back”, “Pearl Harbor: the sequel,” all of the above…?” What about the U.S. Flag among other rapidly deployed forces of instant patriotic zeal? And, what’s the role of artists as socially conscious producers of culture? All these are questions of representation, which emerged as a central theme of the evening, though the event was by no means restricted to one issue.

An initial discussion centered around whether and how signs and symbols; e.g. the flag, could be recuperated in order to promote a progressive, even critical agenda. More fundamental issues emerged later in a debate between Gaines and Sekula. At the risk of mis-representing both their positions, Gaines argued for an inherently political artistic practice of sustained criticality primarily directed at representation itself while Sekula endorsed the notion of “pragmatic representation” as a means of asserting active social and political change. This sparked a series of audience questions about the necessity for, possibility of and appropriateness of both political and non-political art, now.

The one thing that became clear from the evening’s discussions is that as Sande Cohen pointed out toward the end: “There can’t be any answer. We’ll find out; in terms of what people make and how it’s then interpreted and deciphered and if alternative criticism emerges in some other way.” It could be said that the focus of this discussion on the relatively rarefied concerns of artists attempting to confront contemporary issues seems particularly narcissistic. However, this event seemed to contradict such a view. It seems that this arena is one of the few in the current environment in which the underlying categories that produce much of what stands for political debate is being rigorously and urgently examined.

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