Art In and Out of the Age of Terror

by Dieter Roelstraete
from Afterall

‘I will not accept that there should be first-class and second-class cemeteries. All enmity should cease after death.’

Manfred Rommel, mayor of Stuttgart during the Deutsche Herbst1

Facing terror

If mass-scale terrorism truly is the defining political obsession of our times – whether its perceived danger or urgency is a self-perpetuating illusion or not is a question that must remained unanswered, for now – it is definitely one that contemporary art continually struggles to come to terms with. The spectral, faceless nature of present-day terrorism (that of 9/11, of course, as well as that of senseless sectarian violence in post-Desert Storm Iraq, not to mention that of the state-sponsored military-industrial variety) has proven to be a rather arid source of inspiration for contemporary art. Indeed, when it comes down to dealing with this new brand of terrorism, the first decade of the twentyfirst century has so far produced surprisingly little in the way of convincing artworks; we need only invoke the well-meaning but ultimately lacklustre example of Robert Storr’s Arsenale exhibition in the 52nd Venice Biennale to prove our point.

This awkward state of paralysis in the face of terror has not always been the case; indeed, the relationship between art and terrorism has been one of the great troubling romances of twentieth-century culture, and the romantic identification of the artist with its outlaw warrior (‘unlawful enemy combatant’) has been one of the more controversial hallmarks of avant-garde ideology. It is a long and hallowed tradition that stretches all the way back to Gustave Courbet, a pivotal figure in the Parisian Commune uprising of 1870, and – after having (in part) been materialised in the aesthetic claims of the Russian Revolution of 1917 – reached its first apogee in the belligerent rhetoric of Dada and Surrealism. For instance, in his ‘Surrealist Manifesto’ (1924) Andr√© Breton famously proclaimed the terrorist act of shooting into a peaceful crowd to be the authentically Surrealist, artistic gesture. more

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