Why 9/11 had “an impoverishing effect on the formal imagination of artists”

Michael J. Lewis, Professor of Art and Architecture at Williams College, remembers 9/11 by examining its cultural legacy in sculpture (Eric Fischl’s Tumbling Woman), architecture (Daniel Libeskind’s Freedom Tower and Michael Arad’s September 11 Memorial), film (Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah, Redacted, Rendition, The Hurt Locker, World Trade Center, A Mighty Heart), and a comic book (Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers). He concludes “a sizable branch of the cultural establishment has failed to draw the appropriate lessons” from the current event:

Photograph by Rob Howard

. . . the attacks of September 11 put cameras and audience together at the very vortex of events. Because of the site of the Twin Towers at the southern prow of Manhattan, their death throes could be transmitted live, almost from the first moment, and as they happened—so that one was not buffered by the filter of a detached commentator, who in this instance was every bit as shocked and speechless as the viewer.

Violent acts such as bombings or shootings tend to be swift events, and it is usually only the grisly aftermath that finds its way to television. But the prolonged destruction of the World Trade Center, from the televised airplane impact to the final shuddering collapses, offered prolonged images of unusual graphic clarity. Historical events, even those of the most momentous significance, can rarely be summed up with the visual concision of a billboard or logo, but in their way the death spasms of these buildings were obscenely telegenic.

In one other respect was the experience without precedent: the destruction was witnessed by an audience with an acute and immediate sense of personal danger, a fact that is not sufficiently appreciated. To watch the suffering of others from a safe distance is one thing; it is quite another if you feel you might well be next. Well into that day, newscasts continued to repeat rumors of another hijacked jet still airborne, and so long as they did, one could not be sure that the attacks were finished and that worse was not in store. Until it became clear later that evening that the bolt had been shot and that no more were forthcoming, everyone was in effect imperiled and, at least from a psychological standpoint, stood on the front line.

Those who later tried to describe the pathos of the scene often descended to bathos. The most revolting analysis came in a radio interview with Karlheinz Stockhausen, the German modernist composer, with the Norddeutscher Rundfunk. Among his ramblings was this widely quoted gem:

What happened there is—and now you all have to adjust your minds—the greatest work of art that has ever been. That minds could accomplish in one act, what we in music could never imagine—that people could practice like crazy for ten years, totally fanatically, and then die—this is the greatest work of art that has ever existed in the entire universe.

Although morally contemptible (and quickly withdrawn), Stockhausen’s remark had a certain logic. The 9/11 experience inadvertently had many of the properties of a performance—its compression on a television screen, its bold graphic character, and even its symmetrical formal structure—two fireballs and two collapses. Of course, these are pseudo-artistic qualities, and fortuitous ones at that, which have nothing to do with art. But after a half century during which the most progressive artists had sought to abolish any meaningful boundary between art and life, Stockhausen could offer no coherent argument why the attacks were not a sublime performance piece. Ever since Robert Rauschenberg famously erased a de Kooning drawing in 1953, and proposed that the methodical elimination of a work of art might itself constitute an artistic performance, even a heroic negation might be considered as art. Since then, such ambitious negations have increasingly been the substance of fashionable art. The late Philip Rieff termed such creations deathworks, his coinage for works of art that represented “an all-out assault upon something vital to the established culture.”

If it is outrageous to speak of the September 11 attacks as art, their indelible graphic images could not help but affect the art that followed, or—to put it more precisely—to interfere with the creation of that art. Great art has the capacity to distill complex and abstract themes into an image of graphic clarity, so that the imagination might grasp them, in the way that Michelangelo’s turbulent Last Judgment focuses the mind on the final issues of death, judgment, and eternity. But the destruction of the World Trade Center took place in a moment of absolute graphic clarity beyond which no further distillation was possible. In itself it was a Last Judgment. And so the graphic afterimage of the attacks, indelible to anyone who saw it, precludes the open-ended search for form that is the task of visual art.

* * *

Change, of course, does not progress at a uniform or constant rate. My old college drama teacher liked to say that amateur playwrights tend to make their characters change too easily. Real change occurs seldom, and there are only four motivations for plausibly changing a character: love, prolonged pain or suffering, getting what you want, and finding out that nothing is as you had believed. On September 11, America found that much of what it believed was not true: the end of the Cold War did not bring about what was once touchingly described as “The End of History”; the process of globalization, in which so much hope was invested, did not necessarily lead to increased good will or security; and the fact that we as a nation wished no nation ill by no means ensured that no nation wished us ill.

Those revelations, administered in the most brutal manner conceivable, have reshaped the collective consciousness of the nation. But they have done so with very little help from art, which through the ages has been the most effective instrument for focusing the cultural consciousness, for framing its questions and concerns in the lucid terms without which no national conversation is possible. If art has largely failed to do this, it is partly because the specific nature of the event—the destruction of a physical icon in a way that created an entirely different kind of visual icon—had an impoverishing effect on the formal imagination of artists.

But it is also because of a taboo, imposed gradually and imperceptibly over the past few decades, about expressing strong emotions in national terms—other than that of grief. This offers more concern, for a culture that cannot express, and make sense out of, the longings and passions of the people that sustains that culture cannot remain vital. Solzhenitsyn once said that exile is cruelest to the writer, who, unlike the painter or composer, must be in constant contact with the spoken sound of his own language. If September 11 has shown anything, it is that a similar sort of internal exile has occurred in some portion of the American cultural world. But vanguards that become successful have a tendency to stand still, by which means they sooner or later become the rear-guard.

– “America Resumed: 9/11 Remembered” (The New Criterion)

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