The Art History Newsletter

The Art of Disaster

by | 27 October 2010 | Books, Museums

Much recent contemporary art focuses on disaster. Journalist Paul Reyes recently wrote (and was interviewed) about “foreclosure photography.” Since 2001, a group of ten photographers and writers named Collectif Argos has documented “climate refugees.” Richard Misrach has depicted the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Edward Burtynsky the BP oil spill. A recent interdisciplinary conference at UC Santa Cruz titled “Representing New Orleans: Challenges and Responsibilities” featured papers such as “ ‘We’re Here to Help’: The Politics of Good Intentions and Representation in Post-Katrina New Orleans.” A recent article by Cinque Hicks asks where we draw the line between “meaningful art and disaster porn”: “Our appetite for the iconography of disaster proved bottomless … The most successful works disturb our view of catastrophe so that we understand it has a ripple effect — that a community’s devastation has worldwide cultural and political ramifications.”

Historians are also showing an interest in disasters gone by. To take just a couple examples: Last year Eugene Dwyer published Pompeii’s Living Statues: Ancient Roman Lives Stolen from Death, on “contemporary views regarding the casts of victims from Mt. Vesuvius’ eruption.” And 2009′s Dark Water: Art, Disaster, and Redemption in Florence examined the 1966 flood that ravaged Florence and its antiquities.