How Can You Think About Making Art at a Time Like This?

Artists respond to the World Trade Center tragedy. Artists respond to the World Trade Center tragedy.

How can you think about making art at a time like this?” That is the question that contemporary artists face in the aftermath of the tragedy at the World Trade Center. “Before” and “after” are new words that have entered their vocabulary, with September 11 as the line of demarcation. But even as many have experienced loss, either of a loved one or of a secure sense of purpose, others are already looking to the future.

Documentary photographer Martha Cooper captured many of the spontaneous shrines and images that went up around the city, among them this one on the Brooklyn Promenade. It will be in a show at the Municipal Art Society in midtown through the 30th of this month.
Courtesy Martha Cooper

“At first, I felt that I lost my way,” says painter Ida Applebroog, who returned to her studio shaken but resolved to continue. “Everything at this point feels frivolous and irrelevant, yet the term ‘frivolous’ feels inappropriate.” Applebroog shares the quandary faced by many artists—what to create after such an inconceivable atrocity has been realized? How to stay silent at a moment when outlets for expression are so needed? Applebroog, who has never flinched from confronting violence and political injustice in her expressive canvases, knows that it will take time to absorb and integrate the impact of this event. “All I know is that I have gone back to the studio, but what kind of content will I deal with?” she asks, adding, “even grand themes—violence versus beauty, good versus evil—all seem mundane now.”

The mundane and banal, ironic and frivolous have never been obstacles to contemporary art—far from it—but that was “before.” Now, as in “after,” artists feel impelled to defend their vocation, even as they struggle to find applications for most of their strategies. Postmodernism, some commentators argue, has been swept aside by this event, where reality has clearly superseded metaphor. Others go so far as to urge American culture to clean house, to banish shock tactics and prurience from gallery walls, just as movie distributors have yanked adventure flicks and disaster films from theaters. But, far from backing off, many artists are responding to the tragedy with urgency.

Photojournalists such as Gilles Peress and Susan Meiselas provided some of the first pictures of ground zero, taken only moments after the initial impact. Julian LaVerdiere and Paul Myoda almost immediately proposed a memorial created with beacons of light where the towers stood.

Even though artists were unsure of how they would respond, the political situation was at the forefront of their minds. On the eve of her show “OH,” opening at Chelsea’s Cheim & Read this fall, Jenny Holzer struggles with her acute awareness that art may be a secondary issue at this moment. “I have been thinking more about the effect of this tragedy on the flesh, rather than on art,” she explains. “Art is a means of knowing and warning, and I fear that this slow, profound art process and much else that is good will be pushed aside for cheap, dishonest vengeance, which will only yield more killing.” Sculptor Richard Serra, speaking from his loft just a few blocks north of ground zero, simply says, “I’d much rather know what our government is going to do next than speculate on the changing art scene.”

Until now, in the contemporary art world, when the term “war” came up, it was most often preceded by “culture.” Those artists on the front lines of the culture wars were shaken by the impact at ground zero but also concerned by the possibility of censorship and the curtailment of civil liberties in the aftermath of the strike. “Historically, the role of the artist has been as a mirror and commentator on contemporary society,” states sculptor Gregory Green, who has often trod close to the limits of personal expression with his ultrareal explorations of missiles and explosives. “To eliminate images of violence as a reaction to September 11 would be a total crisis and the exact opposite of what we should do.” Those artists who have come to New York as a by-product of the globalization of the art world, especially those from the Middle East, were deeply affected. “I ask myself as a woman, as an Iranian, as an American and an artist, how an experience of such dimensions could translate into an expression that could convey the depth of the emotions I have lived with since the event,” says Shirin Neshat. “Whatever form that expression takes, it must connect the perpetual duality and dilemma we live in, the human dimension of suffering together with the political reality that is immensely complex, uncompromising, and violent.”

Instead of abandoning irony, many postmodern artists have asserted that it is needed now more than ever—not flippant humor and pedantic puns but the serious critique of the role of images in our society, especially at a time when the American public has been immobilized in front of their television sets. “The relationship between the catastrophic toppling of the World Trade Center and the vast imagery that surrounds it is complex and troubling,” states photographer Gregory Crewdson, known for his “staged” realities depicting suburban nightmares. Acknowledging that the first picture he saw of the plane colliding with the north tower, the ultrared flame against a bright blue sky, went beyond even an artist’s conception of “spectacular,” he found himself becoming more detached and further removed as he watched the image repeatedly played on television.

“It is impossible not to be affected by this, but there is a danger of being trivial if you address this event directly,” warns Crewdson. “The enormity of the tragedy remains unrepresentable.”

For the thousands of artists who live and work in Lower Manhattan, the toppling of the twin towers was not merely a media event but a life-threatening firsthand experience. Video artist Tony Oursler fled his loft, accompanied by his girlfriend, artist Jacqueline Humphries, trekking north, just ahead of the cloud of debris. “It didn’t occur to me until 12 hours later that I could have died, and now I find myself feeling luckier, more exhilarated, than people who watched the whole thing on television,” he explains. “There is a lot of talk about posttraumatic stress, but, perhaps because I have studied so much about multiple personalities and hysteria, I think it is important for people to think about the reverse phenomenon: that you are so happy to be alive that simple things are that much more appreciated.”

The range of reactions to the World Trade Center tragedy is as varied and diverse as contemporary art itself. Since the attack, hundreds of artists have been gathering and considering ways to create a more organized response, affirming art’s role not only to console and distract but also to provide a zone for critique and reflection amid the fear and chaos. Will art change? Become less narcissistic, less trivial?

“Everyone now says that they want to prevent their work from seeming trivial, to be as strong as it can be,” states Oursler, “but that is how artists have always felt. Culture comes from the little guy—not Time Warner or Hollywood—and we need that now more than ever.”

Barbara Pollack is a contributing editor of ARTnews and an artist. Her exhibition at Esso Gallery was scheduled to open the day after the attacks on the World Trade Center.

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