Atlanta as a Site for Critical Inquiry for Contemporary Art Students

Below is the abstract for what I’ll be presenting at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning’s Annual Conference on Scholarly Teaching in May.

I’ve written about these matters previously, for Burnaway/ArtsATL and for Art Papers. These ideas are also a significant part of my essay published in Dawn Keetley’s edited volume, “We’re All Infected” Essays on AMC’s The Walking Dead and the Fate of the Human.

I love talking about these issues (I’ve talked about these things at the Zombethics Symposium, for example) and would love to come talk with you and your folks, please contact me and let’s book a visit. You can see my upcoming events here.

Andy Warhol 129 Die in Jet (1962) acrylic and pencil on canvas
Museum Ludwig, Cologne © 2011 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln

In this presentation I will discuss how I incorporate Atlanta Studies into my ART 3910 Critical Thinking Through Writing course, “Issues in Contemporary Art” curriculum. June 3, 2017, will mark the fifty-fifth anniversary of the doomed Air France Flight 007 in which 106 of Atlanta’s leading arts patrons died at Orly Airport outside of Paris. Only two people out of 132 would walk away from that crash. It was the worst air disaster in history to that point. The impact of this tragedy on Atlanta was enormous. The accident left thirty-one children orphaned, and the broader metro area continues to grapple with this tragedy today. The most obvious result of the Orly explosion is the creation of the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center, renamed the Woodruff Arts Center in 1982. Robert W. Woodruff, the Coca-Cola magnate and future namesake of the enormous cultural center on Peachtree Street, was initially guided by the head of his foundation and former president of Oglethorpe University, Dr. Philip Weltner, to build an arts complex in Piedmont Park. This would have been a natural choice at the time because Piedmont Park had become the site of the annual Arts Festival. The plan to finance the building of this cultural center, however, failed to pass a public referendum in August of 1962, in no small part due to the charged racial atmosphere. There were two reasons for this failed referendum. First, the strongest link between the Atlanta Arts Alliance and the city’s Cultural Needs Committee, Del Paige, had died in the wreckage at Orly. Second, Woodruff insisted on donating the initial $4 million anonymously. The white power structure of the time allowed a whisper campaign suggesting that the mysterious donor was actually the family of millionaire Alonzo Herndon, a “negro” family.

Not only does Atlanta enjoy the privilege of hosting the largest collecting art institution in the region as a result of this tragedy, but the Orly disaster has also had a significant impact on the development of contemporary art across the globe. Andy Warhol found an image of the Orly disaster on the front page of the New York Mirror. This image was the basis for Warhol’s 129 Die in Jet (Plane Crash), and it was the cataclysmic loss of Atlanta’s most active arts patrons that launched Warhol’s Death and Disaster paintings (in 2007, his Green Car Crash III would fetch $71.7 million at a Christie’s auction). Contemporary Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn stated in the pages of ARTFORUM that it was viewing Warhol’s 129 Die in Jet in 1978 that made him aware that he needed to be an artist. “It was the first time in my life that art had an impact on me, the first time I was directly in dialogue with it,” he said, “129 Die in Jet changed my life.” It is my aspiration that learning about and critically engaging with the events surrounding this terrible disaster will also change the lives of my students.