From State of the Arts - From yBa to Al Qaeda: A Spectrum of Postmodern Spectacular

By: Rachel Davis

On the eve of September 11th's first anniversary, Damien Hirst, the acclaimed and highly successful golden boy of the art establishment's yBa (young British artists) "high art lite" collective, made the following remark: "The thing about 9/11 is that it's kind of an artwork in its own right. It was wicked, but it was devised in this way for this kind of impact. It was devised visually. You've got to hand it to them on some level because they've achieved something which nobody would have ever thought possible, especially to a country as big as America. So on one level they kind of need congratulating, which a lot of people shy away from, which is a very dangerous thing."1

Though this statement was found to be in poor taste by the international community at the time, and was retracted by the artist a few days later, it still provokes the question: How could Damien Hirst, an artist whose work is reviewed by the world's most prominent art critics and whose pieces are purchased by the world's wealthiest individuals, applaud such a depraved act, even in those careful terms? As an artist, how could he call it art? Who are the sickos here, the terrorists, Hirst... or both? And if Hirst is a moral degenerate, what does that say about all those members of society who applaud him?

Two answers stand out. First, is the East/West polarization: Al Qaeda stands for completely foreign, depraved, and purely evil values, whereas Hirst, depraved as he might appear, is no more than a hapless and relatively benign product of the bizarre art world, Western wealth, decadence, and over-education. The contrast between his sophistication and the ignorant, fanatical, and primitive mindset of the 9/11 terrorists could not be more stark.

The more cynical answer: Al Qaeda represents the vanguard of global resentment of American hegemony, as does Hirst; Hirst just represents a milder, meeker version. Instead of launching an outright assault on globalized, Western capitalism, Hirst manipulates the market to his own ends, while at once sharing and mocking the snobbery of the ultra-rich. In this view, both Hirst and bin Laden are akin to the legendary American gangsters Bonnie and Clyde: two outlaws taking potshots at a complacent, domineering society.

There is a third possibility. Begin by considering that Damien Hirst and the creators of al Qaeda are distinctly different in their historical origins. At the same time, they are similarly influenced by post-colonialism, late-capitalism, and globalization. For modern Islamist thinkers like Sayyid Qutb, who directly influenced bin Laden, simultaneous resentment and indebtedness toward modernity fed nostalgia for a glorious, imaginary past. Hirst deals with the reality of a globalized yet fragmented world through visual expressions of alienation. At a glance, Damien Hirst may seem a world removed from Osama bin Laden, but their use of violent aesthetics is strikingly similar. YBa and al Qaeda are two sides of the same post-modern coin, a revelation that sheds new light on Hirst's post-9/11 comments, and possibly offers insights into terrorists' motivations— and our own.

The terrifying nature of the choreographed 9/11 attacks should have been eerily familiar to any Westerner. If conspiracy films predominated in 1970s American culture, disaster films defined the 90s: Deep Impact, Armageddon, Independence Day, Mars Attacks, and Volcano come to mind. This blurred divide between the real and the imagined was demonstrated by President George W. Bush when, shortly after 9/11, he invited Spike Jonze (director of the cult film Being John Malkovich) and Steven De Souza (screenwriter of the first two Die Hard movies), both members of the Institute for Creative Technologies, to a conference held jointly by the U.S. Army and the University of Southern California. The aim of the meeting, according to art critic Terry Smith, was to "brainstorm about terrorist targets and schemes in America and offer solutions to those threats."2 He noted, "The handcuff between the virtual and the real that is so typical of the times was confirmed by this aspect of 9.11.01: newspaper reports frequently cited viewers, seeing television images of the planes hitting the towers for the first time, claiming that they assumed that some kind of action movie was playing... . For many, perhaps all of us, 9.11.01 remains, in varying degrees, phantasmic."3

Al Qaeda's fluency with media is no accident. As Marshall McLuhan once wrote, "We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us."4 Al Qaeda's name for itself, translated as "the base, foundation, or database,"5 is modeled on the ultimate symbol of contemporary society, the World Wide Web. As a medium, the Web, even more than television, enables a highly visual, mass-oriented, and anti-authoritative atmosphere. Coupled with an ideology that despises Western, and especially American, values, its inherently fluid, deliberately anarchic structure can be put to deadly use.

Call September 11th telematic communication and it perfectly fits critic Roy Ascott's description of telematic art: "To engage in telematic communication is to be at once everywhere and nowhere. In this it is subversive… . It replaces the bricks and mortar of institutions of culture and learning with an invisible college and a floating museum the reach of which is always expanding to include the possibilities of mind and new intimations of reality."6 Lest we grant al Qaeda too much credit, the group was using the same two powerful platforms for global societal subversion—the computer/web and television—that the art world had begun to explore long before. Ideas that first germinated in high art had already suffused pop culture. Just think The Matrix.

Nam Jun Paik, often described as the world's first video artist, wrote in 1984, "I see video not as a dictatorial medium, but as a liberating one. That's what this [video art] show is about, to be a symbol for how satellite television can cross international borders and bridge enormous cultural gaps."7 Paik's revolutionary, anti-establishment perspective, in contrast to that of yBa, favored an ephemeral, collective voice channeled through the incantations of a self-effacing, as opposed to self-proclaiming, individual. Ironically, al Qaeda saw the same potential in the Internet medium that Paik did. It wielded its power in the way that Paik suggested, and justified its actions with similar words. As one observer noted: Before satellite TV, phones and the internet, bin Laden might have been nothing more than a Messianic mahdi for a thousand tribesmen. But modern communications technology has allowed exiled radicals to broadcast their views to target populations free from state interference or retribution. Bin Laden's gripping and powerful pre-recorded video clip, delivered before the US air raids on Afghanistan and shown by al-Jazeera within hours of their inception, epitomized the inadequacy of the response the most powerful state in the world could muster in the face of basic modern telecommunications used well.8 Americans were subjected to watching their own icons warped before their eyes, in an invasion that penetrated not only the skies of New York City, but the privacy of the American living room—and the effect felt like an invasion of the American soul.

When President Bush called the actions the United States engaged in after 9/11 a "War on Terrorism," he essentially launched us on a fight against a tactic. Can war be waged on a tactic? Is that any easier, or more worthwhile, than waging war on an idea? Are the two really all that different? People have been debating the answers to these questions for the past ten years. We agree, meanwhile, that ideas are shaped by the packages they come in, wouldn't it also make sense to look at the technology medium that has been used to promote the tactic of terrorism, and the studied selection of targets that, like the media and subjects of art, strike at our emotions?

This brings us back to "high art." When astoundingly successful artists like Damien Hirst talk about what they consider "sublime," here's why we might want to pay more attention. Not only has Hirst's own work treated death both digitally and in 3D, but he and other artists of his generation remain obsessed with spectacle and upheaval in Western culture. It is as if, instinctively, artists of Hirst's generation have homed in on the Achilles' heel of the Western world. How ironic that the subversion they want to embrace is wrought in the real world by real terrorists whose acts the artists' adoring audiences abhor. If we can grasp how the work of artists like Damien Hirst gains such prominence in our society, we may be able to fathom how the al Qaeda terrorists conceived their act and so effectively shattered our self-image on September 11, 2001.


1. Rebecca Allison, "9/11 Wicked but a Work of Art Says Damien Hirst," The Guardian, September 10, 2002 (accessed October 1, 2011): uk/2002/sep/11/arts.september11.

2. Terry Smith, The Architecture of Aftermath (London: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 111.

3. Ibid., 112.

4. Margot Lovejoy, Digital Currents (New York: Routledge, 2004), 221.

5. "Al-Qaeda's Origins and Links," BBC News, updated July 20, 2004:

6. Lovejoy, Digital Currents, 220.

7. Roy Ascott, Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness (London: University of California Press, 2003), 80.

8. Jason Burke, Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam (New York: I.B Taurus, 2003), 39.

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