Hannah Arendt & Contemporary Art

Intellectually, though not socially, America and Europe are in the same situation: the thread of tradition is broken, and we must discover the past for ourselves that is, read its authors as though nobody had ever read them before.

Hannah Arendt, Crisis in Culture

Last spring, I received a call from the director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard asking if I would have lunch with two Swedish artists in town to see the campus and its museum. The artists, part of the YES! Association, a self-declared feminist separatist association for art workers, not only visited the Arendt/Blucher gravesite—a common “attraction” for campus visitors—they sat in on a class at the Hannah Arendt Center, visited Stevenson Library where Arendt’s library and related materials are housed, and began planning ways in which they could interact with the Arendt Center and produce artwork about Hannah Arendt. Åsa Elzén and Malin Arnell, the two representatives from the YES! Association, were not the first visiting artists or curators or other cultural figures who have requested introductions to the Arendt Center and Archives and they certainly won’t be the last. Indeed, there will be a dedication ceremony for the new Hannah Arendt Smoking Porch at the Hannah Arendt Center on October 25th, 2012, a porch that is being designed by YES! Association.

Installation view: Smoking Area (2012) by the YES! Association in “Anti-Establishment”: June 23, 2012 – December 21, 2012. http://www.bard.edu/ccs/exhibitions/anti-establishment/

The art world interest in Hannah Arendt is growing. There are numerous documentary films made and being made about Hannah Arendt and a new bio-picture by Margarethe von Trotta will premier next month at the Toronto Film Festival. Arendt is regularly quoted and invoked at international biennial exhibitions. Hannah Arendt, it seems, is becoming an important figure in contemporary art.

I say “becoming”, because Arendt is not a name historically associated with the practice or scholarship concerning contemporary or even modern art. Although she does write about art in her essay, “Crisis in Culture: Its Social and Political Significance”, from which I excerpted above, and she did consort with figures such as the famous Modernist art critic, Clement Greenberg, it is only recently that artists, curators, and critics have taken an interest in both her and her scholarship.

I am not concerned about why or how this happened (for instance, is it the result of a more general “political turn” in contemporary art, the interest in art’s political dimension over the past decade? Or is it simply the relevance of her scholarship at this particular moment in time?). Rather, I will reflect on how different cultural producers (artists, curators, critics, etc.) are engaging with her work and take my own opportunity to consider the ways in which her scholarship can be useful for understanding contemporary art that does not directly engage with Arendt or her ideas. The question of judgment will also loom over these posts, that is, how do we assess works of art when we have lost our measures, when we are without a banister?


This idea is echoed in the quotation that was at the start of this post, “the thread of tradition is broken.” Arendt insists upon a distinction between “tradition” and the “past.” Tradition, as a thread that runs through the past, connecting specific events in a sequential manner (as Jerome Kohn puts it so eloquently in his introduction to Between Past and Future), is what has been lost or frayed. The past is not lost. It is up to us to look back again, but in a different way. Not coincidentally, the banner on the YES! Association’s website reads, “We are the world’s darkest past, we are giving shape to the future. We will open a new front.” And so it is time to read Hannah Arendt through the lens of contemporary art, and to read Hannah Arendt as a lens onto contemporary art.

I will post regularly about art being produced in and around the Hannah Arendt Center, as well as artwork, exhibitions, and publications relevant to Arendt’s ideas, including a more extensive post on work by the YES! Association.

 -Amy Zion