Arts in the aftermath
After Sept. 11, artists reexamine why they work and express themselves in new ways.
SAN PEDRO, CALIF. — Two weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Candice Gawne had an epiphany. Sipping tea with her husband at the local Think Cafe, the artist realized she was ready to get back to work, something she'd had trouble doing.
She was not alone. How to make art in the wake of such destruction was a question that chilled many creative voices across the nation after Sept. 11.
But, says the San Pedro, Calif., artist, just as rescue workers did their jobs, she came to see that her job - her contribution - was in her art. Immediately, sketches began to flow.
Playwright Paul Jordan faced a similar stall out. A comedic writer by nature, he says it was hard to pen anything funny after Sept. 11. But, says the native New Yorker, whose brother is a retired policeman, "I came to feel that [since] I'm from that area, these are the people whose stories I need to tell."
Ms. Gawne and Mr. Jordan are typical of individuals and organizations in
all the arts. Often, the initial reaction was to stop working. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, for example, canceled performances of music from "The Death of Klinghoffer," an opera based on a terrorist attack on a cruise ship. Broadway and Off-Broadway theaters shut down for several days, and reopened to smaller crowds.
But singers have also already recorded songs, such as country music star Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" and patriotic standards are finding new audiences. Lee Greenwood's classic anthem "God Bless the USA" is the top-selling country single in the United States.
Art does not provide blankets or bandages, but in the face of tragedy, food for the mind and solace for the soul are just as important.
"Whether it's cultural trauma, or simply the nature of being alive, living here on the planet, the arts provide multiple perspectives, a sense of knowing and understanding, a sense that there's not one way to deal with complexity and ambiguity," says Los Angeles County Museum curator Robert Sain. "The arts provide a foundation for self-reflection and critical analysis."
Self-examination was the point of departure for Gawne's return to work.
"I started having a dialogue with myself," says the painter, who also works as a light sculptor. "Why had this happened? What would our national response be? As well as, 'Who am I as an artist, and what will my contribution be?' " She found herself working out variations of the American flag on a series of parchment sketch papers.
"I started feeling very fortunate as an artist, as a woman, to have the time to think, and that I have this medium, this [light sculpture], this life glow that I can use to express it," she says.
An abstract flag centered around a single glowing star emerged. She decided this was the image she wanted to explore.
"People come [to the US] from all over to learn who they are, to explore these words, 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,' " says the native Californian, who also teaches art in local schools. "Here I was with all three" in abundance, she adds.
She created a glowing red, white, and blue light sculpture, filled with argon gas, making a limited edition of 250.
Playwright Jordan decided to craft a single play from three one acts, all focused on the impact of the attacks. "September 25th" does not tackle the event itself. That task, the playwright says, was too daunting. He points to the iconic masterwork of Pablo Picasso, "Guernica." It was created within two months of the bombing of a small Basque town during the Spanish civil war. "But even this great artist avoided the event itself," he says. Picasso focused instead on the impact of the bombings.
Like the cataclysms of the mid-20th century, the events of Sept. 11 will "inform us forever, or should," Jordan says. He says he feels a sense of obligation to history. "We as artists almost have a responsibility to capture it so that it does inform us forever."
In the past three months, performers have also found new meaning and power in earlier art.
In the national tour of the 2000 Tony-award-winning play "Copenhagen," Hank Stratton plays the role of physicist Werner Heisenberg, whose research paved the way for the creation of the atomic bomb. The evening of theater re-creates a meeting between Heisenberg and his colleague Neils Bohr in 1941. The two debate the ethics of exploiting the awesome power of the atom.
"The men we portray were literally in charge of the checks and balances of the human race," Mr. Stratton says. "In these uncertain times, it's more important than ever to realize that it's really the frailty of the human condition that's pulling the strings."
The actor points out that art can provide perspective that reveals new insights. By exploring another time, similarities to the present emerge and cast the current situation in a clearer light.
"America has been incredibly naive [about terrorism]," Stratton says. That naivete is one of the themes this show explores, he adds. "The scientists were naive in the sense that they didn't want their work linked to its political implications. But it was naive to think otherwise."
Art that provides historical perspective will always fill a role.
"These dilemmas will never change because the human condition will never change. That's why we do 'Hamlet' and 'Macbeth,' " Stratton says. "They're about human frailty, not science or history."
The "Copenhagen" cast was rehearsing in New York when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred. Sirens howled outside the theater as they worked, says actress Mariette Hartley, who portrays Bohr's wife.
"Doing a show about uncertainty in these uncertain times, I have to find things about my character that are certain," Ms. Hartley says.
One aspect of her character took on new meaning after Sept. 11. Mrs. Bohr "represents the heart of the story," Hartley says. "She is the one who says, 'Can we all look at what we're doing? May we all be spared from little boys with their toys.' "
Today, artists have no choice but to address the new emotional and political climate, says Melanie Merians, director of "September 25th." "It's sort of an [Eugene] Ionesco moment in time," she says, referring to the absurdist playwright whose work "Rhinoceros" dealt with a single inescapable event around which everything rotates.
Art, she says, has a distinct role to play in allowing a community to come to terms with a traumatic event.
"I strongly believe in all tools, such as therapy and counseling," she says. But art "transcends cultural relativism and experience," the director says. "Art plays a remarkable role in creating respect between people and acknowledgement of individual tolerance and cultures."
"Art is almost a language in and of itself," playwright Jordan says. "An intuitive language that can get to ... universal language, to the heart of any matter. It's man's way of understanding things in a way that all people can understand."
Indeed, Jordan says, art can heal the artist as well. The playwright says that before Sept. 11, he was uncomfortable looking for affirmations of life in the midst of bleak circumstances. "Now, I realize that's what I write, and I'm much more comfortable with that," he says.
For many of these artists, their current efforts are just the beginning. Says painter-sculptor Gawne, "I plan to do more work related to [Sept. 11]. It has taken over my mind."