Reflections on Empire

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Jonathan Maunder looks at contemporary art in the US in the post-9/11 era.

In his poem "Lennox Avenue Mural", the black American poet Langston Hughes captured perfectly the tension in a society where people's hopes and ideals are continually frustrated:

"What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore -
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over -
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?"

I was reminded of this poem by the artwork used to advertise "USA Today" at London's Royal Academy, the latest major exhibition of US art. Josephine Meckseper's Pyromaniac 2 depicts a woman who could be on the front cover of any lifestyle magazine. But the woman is nonchalantly holding a lit match between her lips. It's a great image of how the sleek and shiny exterior of consumer capitalism in fact conceals a trend towards social and environmental catastrophe.

Indeed crisis, tension and confusion are all words that could be used to describe the exhibition. It is art which reflects many of the questions people in the US are asking about their society after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the ongoing nightmares in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There is also a wider sense of a society where consumerism and corporate power have run rampant. The fact that the work on display comes from the collection of Charles Saatchi is testimony to how mainstream the sense of crisis has become. Although the exhibition is now finished, all of the works by the artists can be viewed by going to the exhibition website.

The political themes these artists tackle cover many features of contemporary US society. In Matthew Day Jackson's simultaneously humorous and barbed montage, Dance of Destruction, he labels the Pentagon the "cult of death". Rodney Milton depicts the Supreme Court as melting and collapsing into the ground, while Inka Essenhigh gives us warped and disturbed images of the mundane and everyday features of US life, such as travelling on the subway and shopping in the supermarket. Jules de Balincourt's The People Who Play and the People Who Pay uses a hotel setting, with white middle class figures reclining by the pool and black workers cleaning the rooms, to highlight the continuing intersection of race and class in US society.

As if to demonstrate the importance of these trends in US art, the Serpentine gallery in London was showing a similar collection of work at around the same time under the title "Uncertain States of America". The organisers explained that "in a period where the official political culture of the US is viewed with great scepticism on the other side of the Atlantic, it seems important to remind ourselves of this complexity. The Uncertain States Of America are not only uncertain, they are many."

In the US itself there is a definite sense of unease at the current political conjuncture among the artistic community. At the hard political edge of this are exhibitions such as "The New Normalcy: Artists Examine the Post-9/11 World", held recently in Los Angeles, which was focused on "the post-9/11 reality of endless war, terror, and repression".

More generally there is a sense of disillusion. As Chrissie Iles, the curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, said, "America's declining status in the world, triggered by its foreign policy, and specifically the war in Iraq, has been a pivotal moment for the country and for its artists. This current generation of American artists is very different from that of the 1990s. The 1990s were a moment of self confidence and optimism in America. This new generation is coming of age in the 21st century - which started on 11 September 2001. The confidence of the 1990s has been replaced by a sense of apprehension and self doubt."

Exhibitions such as "USA Today" give us a snapshot of a moment of uncertainty and political anger among the US's artists. There are no clear solutions, but rather a sense that there is something rotten in the US. Most importantly, this is a reflection of feelings in wider society. The questions being asked by these artists are essentially the same (although in a different form) as those being asked by millions of ordinary people in the US who are sick of war, racism and the long hours/low wages culture of US capitalism.