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When artists hesitate

Before responding to Sept. 11, many pull back from their canvases and wrestle with the proper role of art in tragedy

By Samar FarahStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 7, 2002

Almost immediately after Sept. 11, the towers of the World Trade Center were reconstructed - with brush strokes, with celluloid, with chalk. The towers sprouted on the Internet, on sidewalks, on T-shirts. Along with the American flag, they infused spontaneous art.

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But now, six months later, many artists are hesitating to churn out likenesses of the towers: If they render them in any obvious way, they may be at best sentimental, at worst exploitative. Being metaphorical and ironic isn't necessarily the answer, either: An artist who contorts the towers till they're as abstract as a Picasso nose risks public scorn.

It's the kind of no-win situation artists are used to. American culture, after all, tends to marginalize an artist's voice - unless he's a young Hollywood director with a trim goatee and plastic-frame glasses. But in the midst of a tragedy, when most Americans are eager for someone to "package" what's happened, many artists are choosing to pull back before marking their canvas.

In doing so, they often find themselves torn between a desire to help a wounded nation and an inner belief that any great work of art should do more than that. Underneath their misgivings are deeper questions about the role of art in America, a country that expects healing to be - like anything else - fast and easy.

To be sure, not all artists feel a calling to capture Sept. 11 with their craft. Last August, for example, Madeleine Segall-Marx completed "The American War," a triptych about the surge of anger abroad over US foreign policy. Many might call the work prophetic. But on an Internet discussion forum hosted by the National Coalition Against Censorship, Ms. Segall-Marx, president of the National Association of Women Artists, mentioned the piece only to say that she would never have painted it after the terrorist attacks.

To do so, she later explained in an interview, would have placed her among artists "jumping on the bandwagon of portraying an event because there is so much current interest in that event." That's not to say Segall-Marx, who lives in New York, is willing to pass judgment on the new crop of Sept. 11 photo exhibits, or even some entrepreneur in Soho hawking, as she puts it, "sappy 9/11 T-shirts."

But when demand for artistic expression in the nation is so high, and the material is so powerful, the temptation is great, Segall-Marx and other artists agree, to capitalize on the event.

Those artists who do respond often identify another temptation: to simply regurgitate the powerful images that had millions glued to their televisions for so many days. A German composer recently drew gasps of horror when he called the terrorist attacks a "work of art." Yet, in a moment of candor, many artists will admit a level of truth to the observation. "There was this creepy beauty to it," explains Jeff McMahon, a performance artist and writer with the Institute for Studies in the Arts at Arizona State University. But Mr. McMahon, who is co-organizing a forum called "911: Calling the Creative Community," says his instinct is to interpret rather than document.