On Art-Making After Tragedy
The accelerating speed of communication makes artistic responses to trauma impossible to ignore.
USA. Brooklyn, New York. September 11, 2001. Young people relax during their lunch break along the East River while a huge plume of smoke rises from Lower Manhattan after the attack on the World Trade Center. Photo by Thomas Hoepker. Courtesy Magunum Photos.
A photographer rushed into the ruins of the World Trade Centers to capture the wreckage as it happened. Two days later, a painter invited friends to view her “evolving” series about 9/11. Echoing the sentiments of poet Theodor Adorno, who once said, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” art critic and painter Peter Plagens expressed doubts to Newsweek that any artist could create an artwork “profound enough to do justice to the horrors of this September.” Yet in 2001, the accelerating speed of communication made artistic responses impossible to ignore. Social media was growing exponentially, and as a result, sentiments could be shared like never before.
Today, we live in the resultant world; public figures and Facebook users post responses, visual or verbal, immediately after tragedies and disasters occur. Following the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, our sister site Broadly published a list of singers who had not yet responded to the tragedy, pointing out that many who had adapted elements of queer culture to their own ends, and who had made quick posts on attacks of similar natures, were now silent. This expectation of public grievance via social media is all but expected in the art world, pressuring artists to create pieces that respond to tragedy insomuch that it takes 140 characters.
These easily created and intrinsically shareable responses raise some important questions: Is this art created for social media? Is it created so quickly that its quality suffers? Is there something disingenuous about art-making under such forced and mediated circumstances?
When terror attacks killed 130 people in Paris last November, French graphic designer Jean Jullien sketched and shared an image of the Eiffel Tower inside of a peace sign, an image that quickly became the visual imprint of a tragedy. Simple and patriotic, the design, though neither as colorful nor easily adopted as Facebook’s French Flag Paris Filter, spread across social platforms, and people drew the image on their bodies, or purchased it on clothing, as a sign of mourning and solidarity.
Multidisciplinary artist Michel Hebron, who has extensively studied memes, internet art, and social media trends, is optimistic about these kinds of responses. Hebron tells The Creators Project, “Immediate and amplified responses [...] can help solidify that event in our memory.” Many of these gestures, she explains, simply rely on “the visual economy of good graphic design,” and an artist’s ability to sum up “a devastating event in a single image, usually one that is small and square” is admirable. She notes that designs which are easily modifiable allow for even more creativity, as other artists can reinterpret the images and add their own voices. This is precisely how memes work.
But Hebron does worry about the ease of social media. “Hasty reactions can lead to superficial or generalized responses,” she says.
Take, for example, one iconic photograph of New Yorkers sitting in a park on September 11th with the Twin Towers smoldering behind them. The photo sparked a debate some years ago in Slate. The photographer, Thomas Hoepker, describes his image as depicting a group of young people who were “totally relaxed like any normal afternoon.” He chose not to publish this photo until 2005, but the eventual publication of the photograph, along with a New York Times column about the image, led two of the people pictured to step forward and remark on the experience.
Walter Sipser and Chris Schiavo disputed their characterization in the photograph: “A snapshot can make mourners attending a funeral look like they’re having a party,” Sipser wrote, explaining that he and his girlfriend at the time were having a conversation with strangers while witnessing the collapse of the World Trade Center. “A more honest conclusion might acknowledge [...] how easily a photograph can be manipulated.” Schiavo, herself a photographer, declined to comment.
Conversely, artist CJ Hendry’s immediate response was well received. With a livestream set up in her studio that allows fans—over 259,000 on Instagram—to watch her work throughout the day, her artistic methods are both performative and transparent. Following the Orlando shooting at Pulse, Hendry drew an image of a t-shirt folded into the shape of a gun with a blood-soaked muzzle. She then blew the piece up into three 3,000-square-foot banners and flew them over Chicago, Orlando, and New York, just a week after the shooting. They bore the hashtag #EndGunViolence.
Until then, Hendry had been planning a piece on gun violence, but imagined it wouldn’t take place until 2017. She describes the banners as “extremely topical” and “current”—they certainly garnered attention, receiving coverage from The Guardian and the Huffington Post. The latter piece was titled “One Artist’s Heartbreakingly Perfect Response to the Orlando Attacks.” Is there a ‘perfect’ response to national tragedy?
Hendry herself wants to make clear that her banner was anything but a ploy for Instagram likes or feel-good stories. She and her team worked for six days to create the pieces: “I don’t know why we did it, it just felt like the right thing to do,” she says. The project had all the makings of a good ‘gram, but, rather than a social media-sized art campaign, she wanted to do something bigger.
Hendry says her gun banner isn’t ‘pretty’ like her other work, but that it was the product of an intense, post-tragedy whirlwind of emotions. This process can produce art that is not self-reflective or edited, but pieces created in the midst of grief just might be redeemed by their rawness.
Art can be instrumental in the grieving process, says grief counselor and coloring book creator Deborah S. Derman: “A tragedy opens up the ability to see things in a different way.” Derman explains that both creative expression and sharing status updates on social media can help with feelings of isolation following a trauma.
While social media redefines the relationship between artist, artwork, and viewer, responses to global tragedies allow works of art to gain mimetic momentum. Thus, the viewer reshapes and redistributes content and, in doing so, assumes the position of the artist, to negotiate the complexities of shared experience. No matter what you think about the quality of the content, networks like Instagram make art more accessible, and connecting art to global events lends agency to individual works.
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