Images of the world look different now

Retrospection: Seen through prism of Sept. 11, haunting photographs by Sebastiao Salgado take on new dimension.

Fine Arts

January 01, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Someone once observed that every new great work of art subtly alters our perception of all the art that came before, so that the history of art is constantly being revised, amended and renegotiated into accord with our understanding of the present.

Similarly, great events change the way we see artworks, something we've all become aware of in the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedy. In looking back over the past year, I'm now struck by new aspects of shows I reviewed that seemed of only small interest at the time.

Christopher Wool's painting Terrorist at the Baltimore Museum of Art obviously means something different today than it did before the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Before Sept. 11, Wool's work - a large canvas with the word "terrorist" stenciled in black letters on a white background - was ostensibly "about" the incorporation of language itself into painting. Wool and others of his generation experimented with the purely visual qualities of words and letters, an impulse that sprang partly from 1970s minimalism and partly from postmodern critical theory, with its emphasis on language as the ultimate signifier of reality.

After Sept. 11, Wool's painting suggested that language was also the enemy. Word and deed had become inseparable, and the painting seemed prophetic of an existence completely bound by words - the crushing pressure of life ruled by ideology and fanaticism. Since most people can't tolerate that for long, it's no wonder visitors who previously paid scant attention to the work suddenly saw it in a menacing new light.

Sept. 11 also moved me to reconsider the Jacob Lawrence retrospective at the Phillips Collection in Washington last summer. Then I was preoccupied with Lawrence's great "Migration Series" of the 1940s chronicling the movement of millions of blacks from the rural South to the urban North.

But after completing The Migration of the Negro, Lawrence embarked upon another project, the Builders series, which would occupy him for the rest of his life. In hundreds of prints, watercolors and paintings he paid homage to the creative spirit of the workers who constructed America's towering buildings and public works.

The theme of Builders now seems so much more poignant in light of the destructive fury of Sept. 11. The tragedy has made us more aware of the heroism of the men and women who built the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as well as of the police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel who performed so magnificently and at such great personal risk in the aftermath of the attacks.

The show that most sticks in my mind is the International Center of Photography exhibit in New York this summer of photographer Sebastiao Salgado, whose stunning portraits of the victims of war, famine and natural disaster now seem to sum up everything we have learned since Sept. 11 about how the fates of distant peoples are inextricably tied to our own.

Salgado's subjects are what writer Frantz Fanon called "the wretched of the earth," the hundreds of millions of people in the developing world who derive no benefit whatever from Western-style liberal economic and political institutions and who consequently have little stake in their survival.

Fanon, a black man born on the Caribbean island of Martinique and educated in France, was trained as a physician and later worked in Algeria during its war of independence. There he witnessed firsthand the despair and rage of a dispossessed subject people.

In his best-known book, The Wretched of the Earth, published in 1961, Fanon warned that the oppressed masses eventually would embrace violence as a cleansing force if their desperate plight were not addressed. But in and around the Middle East, as in much of the rest of the world, those grievances were ignored. As a result, the violence Fanon long ago foresaw has now reached America's shores.

We often hear that Americans simply cannot understand why so much of the rest of the world might hate us. But that is because we live largely insulated from the crushing poverty, social upheaval and conflict that is the daily lot of millions of people around the globe. And I suspect the main reason for our neglect isn't selfishness or greed, as our enemies insist, but simply that they are far away and we have more pressing concerns at home.

But we ignore the rest of the world at our peril. The wretched of the earth, who once seemed so distant and powerless to affect our lives, have forcefully imposed their grievance on us and demanded we pay attention. Salgado's photographs remind us how small the world is rather than how vast, how we all share this tiny, fragile planet and how, for good or ill, our destinies are intertwined.

All that was true, of course, before Sept. 11, but now we have learned to see own faces, too, in Salgado's portraits of suffering humanity. And in that recognition, perhaps, may lie our best hope for the future.

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