Art & the Towering Sadness

Art & the Towering Sadness


Not long after the attack on the World Trade Center, when my wife and I sat dazed and weeping by the television screen, a call came through from a journalist wanting to know what the art world’s response to all this was to be. We were amazed that any call could get through, since the phone lines were pretty much down. I had not been able to call any of our artist friends, but the last question I would have raised with them was how they were going to deal with the tragedy in their art! My sense was that every artist I knew was in the same state of grief and disbelief as we. Indeed, as I discovered in the days afterward, everyone I talked to wanted to express the same thoughts and feelings I needed to. Asked by a colleague how I felt, I said: like everyone else. And my colleague responded, We all feel like everyone else. And it would have been inconsistent with that feeling to think much about art at all.

Still, it says something about the power of art that someone should have looked to the art world to do something. I remembered a somewhat corny lecture from an undergraduate art history course, in which the people of Paris cried out, Take up thy brush, David! when Marat–l’ami du peuple–was stabbed to death in his bathtub. However corny, it was not all that far from the truth, as I recently read in T.J. Clark’s marvelous study Farewell to an Idea. Like most political events, the French Revolution was enacted through images–think of how important to radical Islam those posters of Osama bin Laden have all at once become. Marat was a cult figure for extreme Jacobinism, and it is entirely credible that someone actually stood up on the floor of the Convention and shouted to David, Give us back Marat whole! This is what David might really have believed himself to have done in his tremendous painting of the slain Marat, shown as if descended from the cross. Pictures, in the people’s eyes, are miracles, Clark writes, where what everyone thought was lost, or maybe just subject to time and fevers, comes back forever into the world. To whatever degree this not uncommon view of the power of images coincided with David’s own, no one could look to art to give us back the World Trade Center whole. If someone did try to turn the event into art, it would in any case not be by means of painting a picture of the twin towers as they stood. A painting of the sky over ground zero is hardly needed, since the reality of their goneness inflects the glamour of everything that remains of the Manhattan skyline. But in any case, contemporary art has pretty much abjured pictorial representation as its main vehicle. Whom would the people summon to artistic action today?

On a recent visit to the Maryland Institute College of Art, I saw an especially moving installation in a faculty show by its graduate dean, Leslie King-Hammond. It was moving because it was of a piece with the hundreds of shrines that appeared spontaneously all over New York–in front of firehouses, along the edges of apartment building stairwells, surrounding monuments in parks and public places. In her installation, King-Hammond had placed votive candles, photographs, flowers, flags and other ephemera. One of the things contemporary art has made available to artists is the freedom to appropriate to their own artistic ends the very things with which ordinary, artistically untrained persons express themselves, so they can now bring the powers of life into art. So, much of contemporary art consists in selecting and arranging the things that define ordinary life. The avant-gardes of the 1960s were eager to overcome the gap between art and life, or to abolish the distinction between high and popular art. An agonized correspondent asked in an e-mail what Beuys would do if he were alive today. My sense is that he would do exactly what King-Hammond has done. He would assemble candles, photographs, flags and flowers. I was told that when her piece was installed, people stood in front of it and wept. How often does that happen in faculty shows, or in any show at all? It was as if the difference between what was in the art world and what was not had entirely dissolved. The art world could do nothing better than what the world itself did. In truth, I think, it could do nothing other than the world itself did. There was no room for anything else as art.

As it happens, I was to have traveled up to the Davis Museum at Wellesley College on September 11, for the opening of a remarkable installation by Joseph Bartscherer, which, by an uncanny suitability, was titled Obituary. The work is in the form of a kind of cemetery, in which copies of the New York Times are arrayed, like gravestones, in orderly rows. Only those copies of the newspaper are displayed that carry obituarial photographs on the front page. Bartscherer, a photographer himself, has been collecting and preserving these newspapers since January 1, 1990. The first he displays is from January 26, 1990, which incidentally showed a photograph of Ava Gardner, dead at 67. Bartscherer was interested, among other questions, in whose picture gets to appear on the front page when they die, and where on the front page it is placed, and how it relates to the other photographs printed there. The Times attempts to pre-shape history through the placement and size of stories and pictures, and Bartscherer was in particular concerned to exhibit the way significant deaths are presented to readers of the paper. The shape of newspapers is an important part of visual culture, but Bartscherer was attempting to bring to consciousness the way we think of death as a part of public life. I had written an essay for the catalogue, and the artist and I were to have held a public conversation on this topic and others, which, of course, never took place. Death was written all over the front page on September 12, but there were no obituarial photographs. There have in fact been five since September 11; the most recent picture is of Mike Mansfield.

Wellesley College is not an art school, and it took great courage on the part of the curator of Obituary, Lucy Flint-Gohlke, to have exhibited a work that was certain to raise the questions of why it was there, how it was art. Those would have been important questions for college students to have faced before September 11. Instead of the opening, there was on that day a kind of vigil. Officials of the college spoke, and of course there were tears. For the moment, Obituary was transformed into a shrine, not for the celebrities whose pictures occasioned the work but for the ordinary people whose deaths defined what everyone felt that day and since. The work became one with the vernacular surfaces of New York City, initially appropriated to display pictures of the missing, together with descriptions of their identifying marks, in case anyone should know their whereabouts. As days passed, these became obituarial photographs, and the focus of meditation and sorrow. For a few weeks, the tiled columns at the Times Square subway stop were transformed into a cenotaph, with photographs taped one above the other, on all four sides. Someone placed candles at the bases, along with flags and flowers. New Yorkers paused in their transit to and from the shuttle, to read the descriptions of people they did not know, but whose loss emblematized their own, even if none of their friends or family members were among the actual victims. The victim was collective, and it was us. The Times transformed itself into a hometown newspaper, publishing, day after day, obituaries of the ordinary people–the guy across the street, the girl in the building next door–who were killed. I thought of Colonel Rainborough’s great speech in the debates in Cromwell’s army council: “The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he.”

Of the many commentators I have read on the attacks, only the historian of science Lorraine Daston, in the London Review of Books, observed their highly symbolic quality. We might have seen this for ourselves, had we recalled the aborted hijacking of an Air France plane a few years ago, which it was the intention of the terrorists to explode in the air above Paris, or crash into the Eiffel Tower. Air de Paris was one of Marcel Duchamp’s more poetic ready-mades. The Eiffel Tower has a meaning the Tour Montparnasse lacks. To destroy the Eiffel Tower would be to wound the soul of France, detested by the Algerian pirates for its colonialist policies. Bin Laden taunted America for its inability to protect its largest buildings. He did not boast about our inability to protect the lives of so many of its ordinary citizens. My own sense is that the hijackers thought of the buildings themselves as primary targets, then of the people. Had they attacked instead our nuclear facilities, as Daston notes, the damage would have been of an altogether other order. Al Qaeda is still thinking symbolically, warning Muslims to avoid high buildings and airplanes, and threatening heads of state responsible for Muslim deaths.

It is a perversion of Islamic ethics to write off the deaths of innocent civilians as mere “collateral damage,” to use the idiom of our homemade terrorist, Timothy McVeigh, who borrowed it from the military lexicon. But had the target been nuclear facilities, human deaths would not be collateral but primary. As it was, for New Yorkers, the material destruction was collateral. The perceived target was life–our life, in both senses of the term: the fact that we live and the way we live. So when the avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen declared the attack a work of art, he was thinking as a terrorist, and his comment was rightly received with moral disgust. What terrorists saw as symbolic, New Yorkers saw as a war against a form of life. The tragedy of these crossed incongruent perceptions is that we are responding with conventional war–à la guerre comme à la guerre–when the true response is to continue to live the life the perpetrators loathe, and to find effective ways to engage with terrorists without squandering the sympathy our losses earned us even in the Muslim world.

Since it is our form of life that has been the symbolic target, it is precisely appropriate that any artistic response should be the spontaneous mode of symbolic mourning that everyone understands–the vernacular display of candles, flags, flowers and the images that, in their own poignant way, express the same aching hope and sorrow that David’s painting of Marat did. I don’t think the proposed memorial lightshow in lower Manhattan–to restore the vanished skyline with columns of light–is the right kind of response. It is wrong because it memorializes the structures without restoring the form of life they facilitated. When, one by one, the artists I know returned to their studios, what they returned to was the art they were engaged with before. In that sense, that is what, so far, the art world is doing about the attacks. People have been killed, but forms of life–that through which their lives had meaning–survive. There have been newspaper pieces about what happens to cities when they undergo disasters. They live through it, and beyond. The lights go back on, the theaters and restaurants fill up, everything works again. As the architect Christopher Wren had inscribed on his tomb in St. Paul’s in London: If you seek a monument, look around you.

In the art world, and perhaps elsewhere, the expression “September 10” has taken on an epithetic connotation. In a seminar with graduate art students at the Maryland Institute, one of them spoke of the work of a celebrated contemporary artist as “so September 10.” That made me wonder whether September 11 marks the beginning of a new period in the history of contemporary art, and even more, whether it marks a change in American conduct. A good bit of what is universally regarded as the typical behavior of New Yorkers might seem September 10, by sharp contrast with what we saw in those extraordinary amateur videos, made by plain men and women who happened to be downtown with camcorders on the morning of the disaster. People were everywhere shown acting with dignity, generosity, bravery, goodness and, spectacularly, with heroism. It was to me a demonstration of something deep in the culture, which was there on September 10 and will be there as part of the American spirit for a very long time. September 11 was a demonstration of a moral reality, in much the same way that everyone feeling like everyone else was. But that did not prevent the huge endorsement of a war against terrorism that, to my perception, is war sans phrase–as if the life of the poorest he in Afghanistan were of no greater consequence than that of ordinary American lives in the symbolic calculus of the terrorists themselves.

In his chapter on David, T.J. Clark cites a passage from George Kubler on the abrupt change of content and expression that the history of art sometimes exhibits. The sudden transformation of Occidental art and architecture about 1910 is an example of a change that was as if instantaneous. I don’t know whether art itself can have undergone an abrupt change of this order on September 11, since I am far from certain that, though we are told nothing will be the same again, the moral quality of life in the West was changed by the horrors we have lived through. The point is that we have lived through them, evidently the same as we were, despite the demonstration of moral sublimity on September 11 and through the days that followed. Everyone still feels like everyone else. What the instantaneity of the impromptu shrines has taught us is that art, at some level, is an abiding integral component of the human spirit. I have always taken this on faith, but I am not grateful to the terrorism for having provided us with a modicum of empirical confirmation. Given the circumstances, I would be glad never to have known how true it proved to be.

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