CAA Art Journal Award

New York, February 19th 2003

First and foremost, I would like to thank former Executive Editor Janet A. Kaplan and Editor Michelle Lee-White, without whom I would not be standing here today. Janet took the time to engage with a dense piece of writing that was submitted to Art Journal entirely on spec whilst Michelle made sure that I wasn’t going to win the Bad Grammar Award.

 

When I left last Sunday, London was on terror alert. Tanks and armoured vehicles had been deployed around Heathrow to discourage anyone from shooting down airplanes with surface to air missiles. For better or worse I had booked an Air India flight, only to be told by a Pakistani colleague that that was a bad idea; (Kashmir and all). It seemed, the timing of my journey was a little bit unfortunate, especially since New York had been put on Orange Alert, the second highest on the new colour coded homeland security scale. With war on Iraq imminent,  I almost packed a couple of rolls of duct tape but decided against it since I wasn’t sure what use sticky tape would be in a terrorist attack.

 

It was very reassuring to wake up on Monday morning in the midst of the worst blizzard New York had seen in decades.

 

Perhaps this is what the Chinese mean when they say to people they don’t like: ‘May you live in interesting times.’ For these are interesting times indeed. And it is not the weather we are worried about.

 

As we are gathered here in this great city to discuss and celebrate art in all its facets,  we will also, without a doubt, question if and to what extent the times we live in should find their way into our work. Can we as artists, writers, critics, curators and educators avoid taking issue with the world around us? Does art lose its autonomy when it engages with the socio-political sphere? Is it rendered meaningless, a mere ornament, if it doesn’t?

 

When Gerhard Richter decided to paint dead terrorists, he violated, according to Benjamin Buchloh, and I quote, ‘the prohibition against representing historical subjects in modern painting as well as the taboo against remembering this particular episode of recent German history.’ In other words: this was not the done thing. Richter broke the rules.

 

History painting had been declared dead long ago, David’s Marat, Goya’s The Third of May 1808 or Picassos’s Guernica all but distant memories of painting’s erstwhile possibilities. But more importantly, after a series of terrorist attacks in Germany throughout the 70s, culminating in the events around the 18th of October 1977, the general public in Germany was in no mood to be lectured about the complexities and ambiguities involved in terrorism. Things seemed far more clear-cut. You would certainly not think of describing dead terrorists as the victims of their own ideology.

 

And yet, Gerhard Richter did just that: he appeared to be inviting us to see perpetrators as victims, icons of an emblematic and collective failure. Rather than de-humanise or demonise terrorists, Richter seemed to be doing the very opposite:  granting murderers the dignity of a compassionate gaze. By stripping bare some core qualities that we can all relate to: personal hopes and dreams, aspirations and tarnished ideals, Richter invites us to recognize ourselves, our own humanity, in the ghost-like figures of the dead. If we manage to do that, if we manage to overcome our rage and mourn the murderer as well as the victim, we are already taking the first and decisive step towards reaching out and overcoming our divisions together.

 

’18. Oktober 1977’ appeals to an idea of humanity that rejects ideology, indeed one that goes beyond all ideology, an idea that connects perpetrators with victims for what they share not what divides them. It is fair to say however, that this position was and still is, and not just in Germany, extremely controversial if not downright unthinkable.

 

In my text, as published in Art Journal in 2002, I wonder whether Richter’s work of mourning can outgrow its German roots, now that it is located in New York. Only time will tell. I am sure however that we, as practitioners and theorists in the arts, will have to continue to address and reflect upon these issues in our work too if art is to retain currency and meaning.

 

In times such as these, we need art more than ever to brake the rules, to think the unthinkable and put ourselves in touch with what it means to be human.

 

Thank you very much.

 

Rainer Usselmann