Art after 9/11

By Bleiker, Roland | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, January-March 2006 | Go to article overview
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Art after 9/11


Bleiker, Roland, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


This article examines ways in which art can help broaden understandings of contemporary security challenges, especially in view of the limits of conventional forms of strategic and policy analysis. The article focuses especially on responses to 9/11 in literature, the visual arts, architecture, and music, and considers some epistemological questions about the status of art as a way of knowing political events, like those of 9/11, that escape state-based forms of security analysis. KEYWORDS: security, art, emotion, representation, understanding

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The aim of this article is to show how art can shed new and revealing light on contemporary security problems. In doing so, the article addresses a fundamental paradox that became apparent with 9/11--the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon of September 11, 2001. While security threats are becoming increasingly complex and transnational, our means of understanding and responding to them have remained largely unchanged. They are still based primarily on strategic expertise and corresponding militaristic and statecentric ways of articulating defense policy.

Military defense will undoubtedly remain a crucial element of security policy, but the problem of terrorism is far too complex and far too serious not to employ the full register of human intelligence and creativity to understand and deal with it. This is particularly the case because the potential use of weapons of mass destruction amplifies the dangers of terrorist threats. (1) One of the key intellectual and political challenges today thus consists of legitimizing a greater variety of approaches to and insights into the phenomenon of terrorism.

Art has the potential to contribute to this broadening process. It can help us deal with dimensions of security challenges that cannot easily be understood through conventional forms of policy analysis. The article draws attention to this potential by examining some of the artistic reactions to 9/11. The ensuing endeavor lays no claim to comprehensiveness, for surveying the astonishing outpouring of artistic creativity that followed those tragic events would be doomed from the start. The objective, then, is limited to two specific tasks:

1. To draw upon a few selected examples, stemming from literature, visual art, architecture, and music, in order to demonstrate the relevance of art to the process of coming to terms with 9/11

2. To engage some of the more fundamental epistemological puzzles that are entailed in understanding the links between art and politics. Can fiction, for instance, express certain aspects of terrorism better than a straightforward factual account? Can we see things through visual art that we cannot express through textual analyses? Can music make us hear something that we cannot see? If aesthetic engagements are indeed qualitatively different from others, what is the exact political content and significance of this difference? How can the respective insights be translated back into language-based expressions without loosing the essence of what they capture?

The article begins by stressing that 9/11 did not constitute simply a breach of security, as it is generally understood: a violation of national sovereignty, a failure of the state's intelligence apparatus, and a shattering of a deep-seated sense of domestic security in the United States. The terrorist attack also, and perhaps more importantly, precipitated a breach of understanding. Prevalent faculties, including reason, were simply incapable of grasping the event in its totality. Policy analyses in particular were unable to capture and deal with the emotional side of the events--a shortcoming that explains the astonishing outpouring of artistic creativity in the months following the attacks.

Artistic engagements, the article argues, have the potential to capture and communicate a range of crucial but often neglected emotional issues.

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