When artists hesitate

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

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.

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.

On the other hand, like the rest of Americans, McMahon is still trying to digest what's happened. As a result, he and others find themselves rethinking the line that separates genuine and honest art from exploitation.

A few months ago, Chris French, a sculptor, photographer, and installation artist in Seattle, would have been the first to lament art that uses the drama of a burning and collapsing skyscraper as a "crutch." But since then, his own work has led him to prepare an installation that is meant to evoke the twin towers.

Mr. French was working with large shipping crates, stacking them and turning them on their side to create different effects, well before Sept. 11. He describes his work as more concerned with spirituality than with the specifics of life in the US. But since the terrorist attacks, he's had a strong pull to return to New York, where he once lived, and to respond in some way.

When the idea of using the crates to represent the towers first came to him, he resisted it: "I found myself thinking a lot about that reference. It seems ... unsubtle, opportunistic for what I [normally] like to do."

But he was eventually won over to the concept, and he currently waits to hear from the Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, N.Y., for a green light to proceed with the project.

What changed his mind? French, who says he usually tries to avoid thinking about his potential audience, decided that, given the crisis, any art for New York would have to consider New Yorkers. Once he was willing to work for an audience, evoking the towers felt right - not too cavalier and not too obvious.

While French has found a way to speak to the public's needs on his own terms, some artists prefer to wait - in some cases years - to pick up a brush or pen.

Poet Joseph Langland is a veteran of art that deals with tragedy - and a veteran of World War II. Mr. Langland, whose brother died fighting in World War II, has penned poems about the war, at least three of which have been translated into many languages. For Langland, these poems were able to achieve wide resonance because he wrote them at least 10 years after the Allies' victory.

Not that he didn't try sooner, even during the war, to turn his pain into poetry. "But none of those poems are good," he says. "They were so much more personal, as if I was writing them for my mothers, brothers, for my family."

Langland and others admit that silence is not an easy option for artists in the US, where the pressure to move on quickly is high. Langland points out that publishers and editors lose no time after a tragedy, trying to commission responses from novelists or poets.

Ultimately, many artists agree, very little successful art about Sept. 11 will come out of the current offerings. "If history is any indicator," says Bill Ivey, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, "some small percentage of [what we see now] will have lasting meaning."

Segall-Marx agrees, with a twist: "Who knows, the most poignant thing may come from an artist in Cairo in five years."

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