June 8th, 2009
Flashed around the world in September 2001, the pictures of the World Trade Center towers lying in ruins were both horrifying and — though few would openly admit it — strangely stimulating. The former because we instantly realized, with despair, that many people had died in the towers’ collapse, and that many others would suffer as a result of it for the rest of their lives. The latter because such a grand scale of destruction evoked an essential truth about human existence, a truth so disturbing that it is usually cloaked in denial: we are all going to die.
Not only will we die, but so will all our works. The great buildings, the great works of art, the great books, the great ideas, on which so many have spent the genius of human invention, will all fall to ruins and disappear in time. And not only will all traces of the human as we know it vanish, but the human itself will, too, as it continues an evolutionary trajectory accelerated by bioengineering and future technological advances. What all of this means is that we cannot take comfort in any form of earthly immortality that might mitigate the suffering caused by the certainty of our personal extinction.
It is true that through works of art, artists can live on in the thoughts and actions of others. This, however, is more of a comfort to the living than to the dead, and while it may help a living artist maintain a denial of death effective enough to keep believing that working and striving is somehow lasting, it is an illusion, and a pretty thin one at that. In contrast, the solidarity that develops between people who accept the inevitability of oblivion is more substantial and sustainable. When we witness an accident or disaster, we are drawn to it not because of ‘prurient interest,’ or an attraction to the pornography of violence, but rather to an event that strips away the illusions of denial and reveals the common denominator of the human condition. For the moment of our witnessing we feel, however uncomfortably, part of a much larger scheme of things, closer to what is true about our existence than we allow ourselves to feel in the normal course of living.
Religions have promised immortality and certainty in afterlives of various kinds, but for many today this is an inadequate antidote to despair. There are people who want to focus on the present and in it to feel a sense of exultation in being alive here and now, not in a postponed “later.” This desire cuts across all class, race, gender, political, and economic lines. In some religious lore, the ruins of human forms will be restored to their original states, protected and enhanced by the omniscient, enduring power of a divine entity. But for those who feel this is too late, the postponement of a full existence is less than ideal. For them, the present — always both decaying and coming into being, certain only in its uncertainty, perfect only in its imperfection — must be a kind of existential ideal. The ruins of something once useful or beautiful or symbolic of human achievement, speaks of the cycles of growth and decay that animate our lives and give them particular meaning relative to time and place. This is the way existence goes, and therefore we must find our exultation in confronting its ambiguity, even its confusion of losses and gains.
The role of art in all this has varied historically and is very much open to question from the viewpoint of the present. The painting and poetry of the Romantic era made extensive use of ruins to symbolize what was called the Sublime, a kind of exalted state of knowing and experience very similar to religious transcendence, lacking only the trappings of the church and overt references to God. Hovering close to religion, Romantic ruins were old, even ancient, venerable. They were cleansed of the sudden violence or slow decay that created them. There was something Edenic about them — Piranesi’s Rome, Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” Friedrich’s Wreck of the Hope. The best of such works are unsentimental but highly idealized, located intellectually and emotionally between the programmed horror of Medieval charnel houses and the affected nostalgia for a lost innocence of much architecture and painting of the late nineteenth century.
Taken together, these earlier conceptions are a long way from the fresh ruins of the fallen Twin Towers, the wreckage of Sarajevo, the blasted towns of Iraq, which are still bleeding, open wounds in our personal and collective psyches. Having witnessed these wounds — and in a palpable sense having received them — gives us no comfortable distance in which to rest and reflect on their meaning in a detached way. Hence, works of art that in some way allude to or employ these contemporary ruins cannot rely on mere depictions or representations — today that is the sober role of journalism, which must report what has happened without interpretation, aesthetic or otherwise. Rather it is for art to interpret, from highly personal points of view, what has happened and is still happening. In the narrow time-frame of the present, with its extremes of urgency and uncertainty, art can only do this by forms of direct engagement with the events and sites of conflict. In doing so, it gives up all claims to objectivity and neutrality. It gets involved. By getting involved, it becomes entangled in the events and contributes — for good and ill — to their shaping.
Thinking of Goya, Dix, Köllwitz, and so many others who bore witness and gave immediacy to conflict and the ruins of its aftermath, we realize that today the situation is very different. Because of instantaneous, world-wide reportage through electronic media, there no longer exists a space of time between the ruining of places, towns, cities, peoples, cultures, and our affective awareness of them. Artists who address these situations are obliged to work almost simultaneously with them. Those ambitious to make masterpieces for posterity would do well to stay away, as no one of sensibility has the stomach for merely aestheticizing today’s tragic ruins. Imagine calling in Piranesi to make a series of etchings of the ruins of the Twin Towers. They would probably be powerful and original, but only for a future generation caring more for the artist’s intellectual and aesthetic mastery of his medium than for the immediacy of his work’s insights and interpretations. Contemporary artists cannot assume a safe aesthetic distance from the ruins of the present, or, if they do, they risk becoming exploitative.
How might the ruins of today, still fresh with human suffering, be misused by artists? The main way is using them for making money. This is a tough one, because artists live by the sale of their works. Even if a work of art addressing ruins is self-commissioned and donated, some money still comes as a result of publicity, book sales, lectures, teaching offers and the like. Authors of such works are morally tainted from the start. All they can do is admit that fact and hope that the damage they do is outweighed by some good. It is a very tricky position to occupy, and I would imagine that no artists today could or should make a career out of ruins and the human tragedies to which they testify.
Adorno stated that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz. His argument rested on the fact that the Holocaust could not be dealt with by the formal means of poetry, owing to poetry’s limits in dealing with extremes of reality. Judging by the dearth of poetry about the Holocaust, we are inclined to believe he was right. Looking at a similar dearth of painting, sculpture and architecture that engage more contemporary holocausts, we are inclined to extend his judgement into the present. Still, if we concede the impotence of plastic art in interpreting horrific events so close to the core of modern existence, we in effect say goodbye to them as vital instruments of human understanding. If we concede that, because of their immediacy, film and theater have been more effective, then we consign them to the limits of their own traditions. And so, we must ask, how have the arts dealt with the ruins of Sarajevo and Srebrenica, of Rwanda and Beirut and Iraq, of the Twin Towers’ site? How will they deal with the new ruins to come? Time itself has collapsed. The need is urgent. Can art help us here in the white heat of human struggle for the human, or must we surrender our hope for comprehension to the political and commercial interests that have never trusted art?
Today’s ruins challenge artists to redefine both their roles and their arts. People need works of art to mediate between themselves and the often incomprehensible conditions they live with, especially those resulting from catastrophic human violence. While not all works of art are universal, they share a universal quality, namely, the need to be perceived as the authentic expression of the artists’ experience. Without the perception of authenticity and the trust it inspires, art becomes rhetorical, commercial, and, by omission, destructive. What are the authentic forms of interpreting ruins — the death of the human, indeed, ultimately, of everything — today?