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The artist's response

What has helped us make sense of the senseless? Directly and subtly, in ways enormous and small, the events of Sept. 11 affected artists and the work they created

By Louise Kennedy, Globe Staff, 9/8/2002


Following the attacks on September 11, many people have looked to art, in all its forms, for consolation.
Did any piece of art help comfort you following the attacks?


Jean Holabird of Cambridge painted "10-3 - Murrary and Greenwich, 3 p.m.," a watercolor scene from Ground Zero. Many artists responded visually to the September 11 attacks. See artwork


Read the song lyrics and poetry that helped many cope with the grief they felt after September 11:
'Across the Universe', Lennon/McCartney
'America the Beautiful', Katherine Lee Bates
'American Tune', Paul Simon
'Change the Day', Alex MacDougall
'Colors of the Wind', Vanessa Williams
'Leap', Brian Doyle
'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother', The Hollies
'Jesus, etc.', Wilco
'Love and Mercy', Brian Wilson
'Lucky', Radiohead
'Memorial for A City', W. H. Auden
'Musee Des Beaux Arts', W. H. Auden
'One', Cheryl Sawyer
Chorus from 'The Other Side', Joie Scott and Richard Wold
'The Other Side', Don Conoscenti
'Overcome', Live
'The Peace of Wild Things', Wendell Berry
'Rhymes and Reasons', John Denver
'Rockin' in the Free World', Neil Young
'September 1, 1939', W.H. Auden
'Show the Way', David Wilcox
'Song in a Year of Catastrophe', Wendell Berry
'The Summer Day', Mary Oliver
'Superman', Five for Fighting
'There You'll Be', Diane Warren
'Through Your Hands', John Hiatt
'Trouble of the World', Mahalia Jackson
'Try to Praise the Mutilated World', Adam Zagajewski
'Victory in Defeat', Edwin Markham

In the serene, vaulted church annex that houses Newton's Chapel Gallery, about a dozen people are sitting around a long table, doing origami. Two by two, hands pick up a sheet of translucent white paper, fold it, fold it, fold it again, then twist the folds around on themselves until the flat paper pops up into a three-dimensional form. It's a boat. Another boat, and then another. By the time all the hands are done folding (not just here but in schools and homes nearby), there will be a thousand boats.

Meanwhile, Laura Baring-Gould stands on a scaffold, directing the suspension of the delicate little skiffs all along the room's rafters. Once the boats are hung, they'll be loaded with ash - ashes from campfires, from divorce papers, from love letters, from family hearths. The work opens to the public this afternoon, but even in mid-installation, it speaks with silent eloquence of transformation and loss. And it does so in visual terms that strongly evoke the deep drifts of paper and ash that surrounded the fallen towers of the World Trade Center.

Asked if she set out deliberately to make a response to Sept. 11, Baring-Gould responds emphatically: ''Never, never.'' In fact, she says, ''I myself am really shocked that something has come up for me that's been so parallel.'' Still, she says, that's what surfaced when she started thinking last winter about her next project. She was fascinated by the contradictory delicacy and permanence of documents on paper, and she couldn't stop thinking about all the paper falling on the streets of New York.

It's not just the finished work, though, that seems relevant to the post-9/11 world. The communal process of making the boats with others, Baring-Gould says, feels more valuable than ever in the wake of events that tear people apart. ''I will always be working with people, together, making things,'' she says. ''I think it's just particularly precious now.''

For artists, as for everyone else, Sept. 10 is Before, and everything since is After. In particular, because art grows so intimately and intricately out of lived experience, it is hard to imagine an artist's work not being affected, directly or subtly, by the events of Sept. 11. And because, in a secular age, people seek an almost religious consolation from art, it's hard not to look for signs of spiritual change in the way American culture has responded to the attacks. But it's always hard to know right away which cultural changes are permanent, which merely blips; all we can say for sure, one year out, is that some early guesses have already been proved wrong.

In the immediate aftermath, for example, pundits everywhere declared irony dead. The New Seriousness lasted until about New Year's Eve. And then people did, in fact, go back to action movies; they turned with delight to ''The Osbournes'' and ''American Idol'' and Anna Nicole; they rediscovered an appetite for gossip. In popular culture, at least, today looks more like last Sept. 8 than anyone would have guessed on Sept. 12.

''The predictions on 9/11 were dire, and that it was going to be a radical shift,'' says writer and producer Bryce Zabel, who chairs the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. ''The reality is different. Even if the culture is moving in another direction, it's moving slower than we might have thought.''

Still, there are some impulses, some artifacts, some clues that artists find themselves standing on new ground and are looking around to see what they make of it. Country music's Alan Jackson wrote a Sept. 11 tribute, as did Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young. More controversial have been Toby Keith's aggressive ''Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)'' and Steve Earle's empathetic portrayal of John Walker Lindh. There's been a spate of documentary films and photographs from ground zero; the books are starting to pile up. TV shows, particularly dramas set in New York, make at least passing references to Sept. 11.

And, beyond these bits of evidence, there's a larger sense of a memorial urge at work in the arts, a feeling that artists should try to respond to and commemorate last year's events - that art cannot ignore Sept. 11 any more than its audience can. Every artist seems to find a different way to respond, but everyone, it seems, does feel a need to respond somehow.

Some artists, at first, stopped dead in their tracks, wondering what relevance their work could possibly have to the new world; others threw themselves into making protests against or commentaries on that world. Still others set out immediately to document what they could. And some just tried to keep doing what they do, but found new realities inevitably seeping in and coloring both their work and the reaction to it.

''I think what we're going to find is that there was a shift in our age. ... We're going to be able to look back and see a pattern in the way it permeated people's work,'' says Ellen Kushner, who hosts a public radio show tonight at 6 on WGBH-FM (89.7), ''Surviving Survival,'' that bears relevance to Sept. 11. ''But the mill of art grinds kind of slow. If you're writing a symphony about it, it's probably not done yet.''

Brought to a pause

John Adams is, in fact, writing a choral and orchestral work for the New York Philharmonic, premiering Sept. 19, that uses fragments of text from missing-person posters, cellphone messages, and lists of the dead. Adams says he didn't hesitate when the Philharmonic called. ''I knew immediately that I very much wanted to do this piece - in fact I needed to do it,'' he writes on his Web site, earbox.com. Writing it, he thought, ''would help answer questions and uncertainties with my own feelings about the event.''

But for other artists, at least initially, the only response they could come up with was - silence.

''More than anything, it's brought them to a pause,'' James Young says. Young chairs the Judaic and Near Eastern studies department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has written extensively about artists and the Holocaust. ''The most interesting response might be this kind of holding back. And in my mind that's healthy and preferable. Give it time to sink in.''

Nancy Friese was one of nine landscape painters who, last fall, were in the middle of a four-month painting residency on the 91st floor of the World Trade Center's north tower. She was teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design on Sept. 11, but she lost 20 paintings of the view from the tower when it fell - along with, for a while, her ability to work.

''I'd say on the whole most of us had a hard time getting back,'' she says of her fellow WTC painters, all of whom escaped harm. ''I just can't seem to get things to be cohesive. ... It's too conflicted.''

Slowly, though, she has gone back to work. But she also finds herself thinking about the lost view. ''It was so spectacular. You can't get that view ever again. And at the same time, it represents just the dailiness of what those people working there, what they saw.''

That's another reason to keep painting. ''All of us who were there,'' Friese says, ''feel like we are their eyes.''

For photographer Eugene Richards, too, work feels like a way to honor the dead. He and his wife, Janine Altongy, have just published ''Stepping Through the Ashes'' (Aperture), a collection of text and photographs from their early visits to ground zero. But it took him a while.

Richards was in Europe on Sept. 11 and couldn't get home to New York for four days. Even when he did, he says, ''I didn't go down there for nine days. You're supposed to go out and do your job, and I couldn't.''

Finally, though, Altongy persuaded him, and he started making quiet images of the ash-coated streets, the dazed onlookers, the increasingly tattered posters of the lost. ''It started out as a little therapy project,'' says Richards, who will talk about the work on Thursday at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. ''What else are you going to do?''

An assignment to heal

Israel Horovitz had the same question. The playwright and his family live in Gloucester and Manhattan; when the planes hit, his son Oliver was in school near the towers. Though his son was unscathed, Horovitz's psyche was not. To quiet the nightmares, he started writing. ''It really was just something I started writing in my notebook to keep from falling apart,'' he says.

To his surprise, however, when he e-mailed the result to several colleagues, many of them responded that they'd like to stage it. ''3 Weeks After Paradise'' has now been put on in the United Kingdom, in China, on a ship off Portugal. It's even become a film, featuring Horovitz, which Bravo will premiere on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, he had also found time to write a play set in post-9/11 New York, ''Speaking Well of the Dead,'' but it's ''3 Weeks After Paradise'' that seems to have caught hold of the public imagination. That rapid response surprised Horovitz, but it also makes sense to him. ''It's not a government speaking,'' he says. ''It's really just a father speaking, asking: `What kind of world are we leaving for our children?'''

For other artists who found themselves responding quickly, the impulse came not so much from a desire for self-healing as a desire - or, in some cases, an assignment - to offer healing for others. Singer/songwriter Suzzy Roche was asked to sing at a memorial concert for some of the firefighters. At first she was daunted, ''but I had been running around trying to volunteer and of course nobody needed any of my services, and I thought, `This is the one thing I should be able to do.''' So she wrote a song called ''New York City'' - ''a very simple song,'' she says. But people request it so much that she put it on her latest CD with her sister Maggie, ''Zero Church'' (named for the Cambridge address where they developed the album).

Art Spiegelman had to design a cover for The New Yorker. What he did - a cover that looked like a solid black sheet until the light hit it, revealing the shadow of the towers in a slightly different ink - remains one of the most striking Sept. 11 images yet. But Spiegelman hardly wants to take the credit.

''I really didn't make it. In some way, it really felt channeled,'' he says. ''With very large, blanked-out Orphan Annie eyeballs I was looking at the world and trying to figure out what to make, and something got made.''

Kevin Bubriski didn't have an assignment, but he felt compelled to photograph more than the destruction at ground zero. His portraits of stunned onlookers just after the attacks will appear in a DeCordova Museum show that opens Friday. ''The mainstream media wasn't showing us the kind of images I was making,'' he says. ''I'm interested in telling small, individual stories through specific images, and I think the media has to find the iconic image.''

The small stories, Robert Pinsky thinks, are just what people needed in the face of huge tragedy. ''I was really surprised at how much people wanted poetry'' right after the event, says the former poet laureate, ''and when I asked myself why, I think it does have to do with questions of scale. ... People were wanting some kind of human response, and a poem is meant for one person to say.''

Getting political

For many artists, the events of Sept. 11 have forced a reexamination of their work. ''I've found that many artists actually found themselves in a bit of a crisis, that all response seemed a little bit inadequate,'' says UMass's Young. Sept. 11, he says, ''made some artists question the preoccupation they had with form, material, and design only, and made them think more about content. I think it's also had an effect on the art critics - many have reached the end of their patience with art that is endlessly about itself and not about the world.''

For artists who have always sought political engagement, however, this may be their moment. ''People are more serious, and I think they're willing to be challenged a bit more than they were before,'' says the comic Jimmy Tingle. Right after the attacks, he says, political humor was impossible - ''People looked at the administration and the president as victims of a crime'' - and satire or criticism were seen as ''treason.'' But Tingle, who performs a post-9/11 show at Truro's Payomet Performing Arts Center every weekend this month, thinks that started changing around the new year.

In mass culture, too, political topics have taken on a new urgency. Michael Chernuchin, executive producer of NBC's ''Law & Order,'' says the drama will focus this season on ''how we've become more of a law-and-order society'' since the attacks. ''In times of trouble, the country does shift a little to the right,'' Chernuchin says, and he expects this season's shows to reflect that shift - in part by replacing Dianne Wiest's character with a tough, conservative district attorney played by retiring US Senator Fred Thompson.

For some artists, work they did before Sept. 11 has taken on new resonances since. Heide Fasnacht had long been making exquisite pencil drawings and sculptures of blown-up buildings - ''not political,'' she emphasizes, but because she was exploring themes of destruction. ''After 9/11, of course I felt very self-conscious about the work I had made. I wasn't sure how to feel about it,'' she says, and people kept asking her. ''I finally realized that the honest answer was that I don't know.''

Now, Fasnacht says, ''a lot of people won't show'' any of those works. She thinks that will change eventually, but she understands it. Meanwhile, she had already moved on to making drawings of rain - some of which, she notes, seem to evoke the terror and obscured vision of post-9/11 politics in unexpected ways.

Gerry Bergstein's paintings are similarly focused on themes of destruction and regeneration. After Sept. 11, he found his work starting to reflect the disaster in some ways, but at first, he says, ''I actually kind of denied that to myself and others. I didn't want to have to talk about it. I didn't want to put it into words.''

Like Fasnacht, he thinks the passage of time will bring different perspectives. ''After thousands of years, ruins become beautiful,'' Bergstein says. ''But the first year afterward, to make that kind of statement would be horrible.''

Beyond the immediate response

Letting time bring perspective seems commonsensical, and yet, many social critics point out, it's just what modern American culture has trouble doing. ''Part of this is mass-media driven,'' says Young of UMass. ''There is that need by the media for [immediate] response, and people have come now to expect that. They demand that of themselves: that they have a response and be able to articulate it.''

Witness the flood of anniversary programming that the networks and cable channels are preparing for this week - not to mention the movies, the books, the CDs, the memorial Web sites and country anthems and WTC keychains and, yes, newspaper articles. But trying to make an authentic response so quickly is ''very difficult,'' Young says. ''The most profound responses are going to take a long time. The first responses need almost to be memorialized and ritualized.''

Indeed, says Jeffrey Keough, director of exhibitions at the Massachusetts College of Art, the wound is still so raw that artists need to exercise great restraint. ''The first people we let in have to have elegance, grace, and maybe a little subtlety,'' he says. ''When art works, it has an elliptical connection to loss. I think that work that comes out of this will have connections that make us think of Pompeii. ... It will connect in subtle ways to the bigger issues of human loss.''

Historian Edward Linenthal has spent his career studying the memorial response to tragedy, most recently in his 2001 book ''The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City and American Memory.'' And what he sees lately, he says, is ''a tremendous compression of time between an event and its memorialization.'' Most Civil War monuments, he points out, went up about 40 years after Appomattox; Pearl Harbor didn't get the USS Arizona Memorial until the 1960s; even the Vietnam Memorial came a decade after the war's end. But now, less than a year later, the moving ''Tribute in Light,'' an appropriately fleeting visual echo of the towers, has come and gone, and people are already looking for a permanent 9/11 monument.

''Now,'' Linenthal says, ''memorial language, memorial expression, is not remembering something in the past. Now, it's one of the ways we are seeking to understand.''

And because memorials are now part of the immediate processing of raw emotion, rather than a marker of emotions that have already started to fade, the public reaction to them is more widespread and more intense. Linenthal notes that it's now standard for ordinary people to seek to make memorials their own - by taping poems to the fence in Oklahoma City, say, or by putting flowers and candles on the sidewalks of New York.

Over the last two decades, ''there's been a real strong memorial urge in this country,'' agrees DeCordova Museum curator Nick Capasso, who has studied memorial art and who also cites the ''immediate, complex, heartfelt'' street shrines and posters of New York as a symptom of this modern impulse. ''It's become a socially acceptable way of working out grief and working out one's personal response to an event.''

Why the change? ''Maybe it's because the culture is more secular,'' Capasso speculates. ''After Pearl Harbor, everybody went to church.''

People also went to church last fall, of course, but it seems as if many now expect art to provide some of the spiritual solace they once looked for in religion. It's a lot to ask of a song or a painting, and visual artists, in particular, seem daunted by the task of making work in the face of the horrific images the whole world saw last year.

''Those images were so ubiquitous and so powerful,'' says Young, ''that any images that artists might make are going to seem very pale in the eyes of just all of us who saw these things live on TV. And I think artists are chastened by that realization: that nothing is going to hit us as powerfully as the event itself.''

It's in part because we feel overwhelmed, Linenthal argues, that we rush to put up a monument. ''September 11 is so subversive of the way we think about who we are,'' he says. ''Memorializing it very quickly is a kind of illusory psychic consolation that `It's over.' We don't have to think about it, because the memorial is there to do our thinking for us.''

Maybe what art can do, in the face of our longing to forget, is to help us bear our remembering.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

This story ran on page N1 of the Boston Globe on 9/8/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

© Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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