Sunday, September 11, 2005

Arthur Danto on the Art of 9/11

Lohn's ArtworkPhilosopher and art critic Arthur Danto has for a long time been one of my favorite writers on contemporary art. His essays in The Nation, which I used to read avidly, functioned as a secondary, powerful introduction to the fields of aesthetics and art criticism for me. On the front page of's current magazine, he has a short, cogent piece, "9/11 Art as a Gloss on Wittgenstein," which serves as an introduction to an exhibit he's curated at New York City's apexart gallery, called "The Art of 9/11" (Jeffrey Lohn's "Untitled," 2001, from the exhibit is shown above at right).

Danto begins his brief essay with a statement of profound recognition:

I learned two truths from the attacks of 9/11, both of which I would be glad never to have come to know. One was that everyone is capable of heroism, and, correlatively, that the moral aftereffect of tragedy is a mutual commiseration among survivors. For months after the event, there was a spontaneous bond between New Yorkers that expressed itself in a rare warmth and consideration. The other truth was that even the most ordinary people respond to tragedy with art. Among many unforgettable experiences of the early aftermath of the event was the unprompted appearance of little shrines in fronts of doors, on windowsills, and in public spaces everywhere.

The shrines, as well non-artforms with aesthetic power, which I saw when I returned to the City the day after September 11, 2001, immediately struck me as truly appropriate, moving, comprehensible, and communicative responses--they were not just aesthetic artifacts, but deeply psychological and social artifacts--that a person could devise, under the circumstances. Danto continues:

I could not imagine that anyone not practically engaged in coping and helping was able to do anything except sit transfixed in front of the television screen, watching the towers burn, and of the crowds at street level running from danger and, later, trudging through smoke and detritus in search of someone they knew. I thought the last thing on anyone’s mind was art. But by day’s end the city was transformed into a ritual precinct, dense with improvised sites of mourning. I thought at the time that artists, had they tried to do something in response to 9/11, could not have done better than the anonymous shrine-makers who found ways of expressing the common mood and feeling of those days, in ways that everyone instantly understood.

For him, this common understanding is Wittgensteinian; whether the person created her artwork out of an original impulse or by emulating someone else's, which presupposes understanding or at least a recognition of the prior model, the basis for all the works drew upon a common understanding of the appropriate range of social responses to such an extreme tragedy. (That is, they draw upon rules from a commonly understood language game.) Wittgenstein, and Danto building upon his idea, called the responses an "act of piety." This introduces a religious, or at least spiritual aspect, which might be in keeping with some of the discussions of 9/11's perpetrators as embodiments of a profound "evil." (Danto even uses this term. I find this Manichean-tending argument in general a bit simplistic and, as a result, rather dangerous in the long run, but that's for another discussion.) As Danto says,

In his Notes on Culture, Ludwig Wittgenstein writes, "Recall that after Schubert’s death, his brother cut some of Schubert’s scores into small pieces, and gave each piece, consisting of a few bars, to his favorite pupils. And this act, as a sign of piety, is just as understandable as the different one of keeping the scores untouched, accessible to no one. And if Schubert’s brother had burned the scores, that too would be understandable as an act of piety."
For Danto (pictured below, at the opening of the exhibit, on September 7, 2005, photo courtesy of, this exhibit, consisting of artworks by artists who have a relationship to and with him, like his wife, Barbara Westman, or his friend, Cindy Sherman, is more than a mere showing of art; as a form of memorial to 9/11, it must be. It--and the works in it individually and collectively--is, he believes, an act of piety, that will "serve as an aspect of the question of what art is after all for, and how it, just as Hegel had said, serves, together with religion and philosophy, as a moment in what he called Absolute Spirit." While I beg off the Hegelianism--and truthfully, how many of the people who created those shrines not only did not have the slightest clue about Hegel's thought, but would agree with its premises, particularly in terms of his historicized theories of art?--I would agree that the impromptu works Danto cites, and the sort of art that will probably be in this exhibit aim to go beyond formalism, purposiveness, or aestheticism (here meaning art for art's sake).

The day-after memorials were tangible embodiments of the almost incalculable fear and sorrow of what had just occurred, and embodiments of the finitude, the incompleteness, the ephemerality, the materiality, the mortality, the indeterminacy, the ethics and humanness, of human experience. They were also irreducible social and ethical artifacts--the tragedies of 9/11, the makers' experiences of them, and the viewers' experiences of those tragedies, all were constituted by the works and the experiences of the artists in society--as opposed to some vacuum, or based on ideal templates or metaphysically based models--themselves. The same is true to a certain extent of the artworks, I would imagine, in Danto's exhibit, though as the products of established artists, they are mediated by many other elements, including the art world and art commodity system itself, to which most of the instant shrines neither belonged, nor aspired.
One day you could be going to work in a tower in Lower Manhattan, with a view of New York Harbor or the entire island itself and northern or western boroughs or Long Island or New Jersey, and the next day, as the result of events unfolding beyond your ken of knowledge or experience, your entire world might have come to an end, or at least be utterly upended, as it was and remains for so many people. Those shrines communicated this, embodied this fact that what binds us together are the social dimensions of our experience, because art is a profoundly social medium. This is a tenet expounded not only by the likes of Kant, Schiller, Schopenhauer, Dewey, Marcuse, and other philosophers of art, including Danto, but by an anthropologist like Ellen Dissayanake, who might argue (as Wittgenstein did, in a roundabout way) that the "understanding" that Wittgenstein and Danto talk about derives from the social connections we share and negotiate on a continuous basis--it is an understanding perhaps not so much of what art is, but what art is for, and what it can do. Even in response to events that seem to exceed our ability to grasp them, at least intially, like 9/11.

Danto will give a curator's talk on September 21, 2005, at 6:30 pm, at apexart.


I ask that we not only remember the tragic events of 9/11 and those who perished or were severely injured on that day, but also the governmental nonresponsiveness, indifference and incompetence that allowed it to occur. I also ask that we work together, to the best of our ability as human beings who stilll have hope for our future and this world, to end the possibility of such an event ever happening again, on US soil or anywhere else.


  1. John,

    I ask that we not only remember the tragic events 9/11 and those who perished or were severely injured on that day, but also nonresponsiveness and incompetence that allowed it to occur.

    What are you referring to here—perceived failings in our foreign policy or in our response?

  2. Hi Bill, sorry about the grammatical errors (it was a late entry). But I primarily meant the foreign policy and intelligence failures leading up to 9/11. I also was referring to the bizarre behavior of George W. Bush on that day, and to the Congress's official reports, which bailed the Bush administration out. The first responders in New York and New Jersey, in Washington, and in Pennsylvania did an exemplary job, I think, so I wasn't indicting them.