The Art of 9/11
Recall that after Schubert's death, his brother cut some of Schubert's scores into small pieces, and gave each piece, consisting of a few bars, to his favorite pupils. And this act, as a sign of piety, is just as understandable as the different one of keeping the scores untouched, accessible to no one. And if Schubert's brother had burned the scores, that too would be understandable as an act of piety.
Announcements have begun to come in of exhibitions of art dedicated to the memory of 9/11. One of them, to be called "Elegy," had a September 3 opening at the Viridian Gallery in Chelsea, and its card in particular caught my eye. It displays a photograph by someone named N'Cognita, which embodies a mood of elegy with a remarkable specificity. It is a view down an unmistakable but anonymous New York street, taken in sharp perspective, with the buildings, most of their details obliterated, silhouetted darkly against an orange and lavender sky. They are vintage tenements, of the kind we all know, with heavy cornices and water towers, and the melancholy of the image is heightened by the absence of towers at the end of the street.
"We" refers, of course, to New Yorkers, for whom the view of emptiness at the ends of streets and avenues has been the nagging reminder of what we had more or less taken for granted as always there. No one loved the towers as much as everyone missed them--but it was not so much the erasure of the landmarks that tore at the heart as it was the inerasable memory of how they fell. That memory, however, belonged to the whole world, to viewers everywhere, who kept seeing, over and over, as in a nightmare, the planes, the black smoke, the flames, the falling bodies, unforgettable against the brilliant blue Manhattan sky. But it is the rubbed-out skyline, framed by the distinctive New York buildings, that is the constant reminder for those who lived the experience by being in New York when it happened, and whose visual habits keep it vivid through being thwarted. I was recently in Berlin, and I was struck by how my friends there keep seeing the absence of the Wall, drawing my attention to blanknesses that I, as an outsider, would otherwise never see as such. Those blanknesses now define the soul of Berlin, as these define that of New York.
I somewhat resist the idea of the anniversary, but at the same time acknowledge a deep wisdom in the way an anniversary marks a symbolic ending. The art that belonged to the experience of September 11 now constitutes a body of work that differs from the art that will undertake to memorialize it. The difference in part is this: One need not have shared the experience to memorialize it. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was designed by Maya Lin with supreme memorialist intuition, though she had no experience of the Vietnam conflict, having been too young when it tore the nation to bits, nor had she lost anyone who meant something to her in the war. But the art I have in mind could only have come from having experienced the event. Jan Scruggs, the infantryman who made it his mission to bring a Vietnam memorial into being, titled his book To Heal a Nation. That is what memorials should do, hateful as the events memorialized may be. That is the function of elegies as well. They use art as a means of transforming pain into beauty.
That already began, on September 11 itself, with the moving, extemporaneous shrines that appeared spontaneously all over New York, and became inseparable from the experience, so much so that, appropriate as they were at the time, it would be a bad idea to re-create one as a memorial, say in a vitrine. There is nothing about Maya Lin's masterpiece that itself belongs to the event, the way, say, a helicopter would, or a mortar that had actually been used there--though the artist Robert Irwin once told me that sometimes a cannon on a lawn can be exactly the right solution, and I think I understand why. It is the grass that makes it right, which builds an image of peace into the emblem of war: "Green grows the grass on the infantry/at Malplaquet and Waterloo." I thought that artists could have done nothing better than the anonymous shrine-makers, who knew intuitively that the shrines should consist in flags, flowers, candles, scraps of poetry or prayer and photographs. But I have since thought about some of the things artists in fact did at the time, which came from the same impulse as the shrines--and this work has a certain interest through the ways it, like the shrines, caught something of the experience it responded to.