In a culture oversaturated by violent imagery, can visual artists still make a point?
Luke Willis Thompson, autoportrait (2017). Installation view, Chisenhale Gallery 2017. Commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery and produced in partnership with Create. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Andy Keate.
“What do pictures want?” writer and media theorist W. J. T. Mitchell asked the world a decade ago in his ground-breaking text of the same name. Writing from a post-9/11 perspective, Mitchell clocked a fundamental shift in our visual culture beginning in the early ’90s, where the jarring, violent imagery of the media was becoming the new normal. Fast forward 10 years, and we are deeply entangled within a web of financial crises, domestic and international terrorism, mass displacement, and environmental meltdown; the visual evidence of which is just as likely to appear within the infinite scroll of our Facebook feeds as in the morning news. But unlike news programming and the personalized newsstands of our social media, the art world has no express obligation to address world events as they unfold.
Yet this is starting to change. The wake-up call of Trump’s election, alongside the rapid rise of “alt-right” politics in the West, proves political turmoil is no longer a far-off concern reserved only for developing countries. Coupled with the largest migration of humankind since World War II and the dawn of the Anthropocene—the first geological era caused by human activity alone—this shifting world order has, to some extent, reset the boundaries between art and crisis. Take, for instance, New York’s 9/11 Museum, which last autumn launched its first art exhibition featuring work created in response to the tragedy; meanwhile, the Imperial War Museum in Southeast London is gearing up for “Age of Terror: Art Since 9/11“: the UK’s first exhibition to directly address the nature of contemporary art following the terrorist attack in 2001 and which will feature the work of Mona Hatoum, Ai Weiwei, Gerhard Richter, and Jenny Holzer, as part of its 2017 fall programming.