Show Hide image

Acts of piety

How did artists respond to the attacks of 11 September 2001?
The most powerful works do not repres

I learned two truths from the attacks of 11 September 2001. One was that everyone is capable of heroism and, correlatively, an after-effect of tragedy is a mutual commiseration among survivors. The other was that even the most ordinary people respond to tragedy with art. Among the many unforgettable experiences of the early aftermath of the event was seeing the unprompted appearance of little shrines in front of doors, on windowsills and in public spaces everywhere. By nightfall on 11 September, New York was a complex of vernacular altars.

That terrible day, a reporter phoned me, asking what artists were going to do in response to the attacks. I couldn't imagine that anyone not directly engaged in coping and helping would be able to do anything except sit, transfixed, in front of the television, watching the towers burn. It seemed to me that, had artists tried to do something in response to the attacks, they wouldn't have done better than the anonymous shrine-makers, who had expressed the common mood of those days in ways that everyone instantly understood.

In his Remarks on Frazer's "Golden Bough", Ludwig Wittgenstein writes: "Recall that, after Schubert's death, his brother cut some of Schubert's scores into small pieces and gave each piece, consisting of a few bars, to his favourite pupils. And this act, as a sign of piety, is just as understandable as the different one of keeping the scores untouched, accessible to no one. If Schubert's brother had burned the scores, that, too, would be understandable as an act of piety." I have always been moved by this passage and by Wittgenstein's use of the term "understandable". Schubert's brother acted in a way that was at once novel and immediately grasped.

In any culture, there are rules for conduct in moments of extreme feeling - weeping, rending garments, burning candles. What was so affecting on 11 September 2001 and just afterwards was the directness and intuitiveness of the shrines, though there would have been some degree of emulation. Emulation presupposes understanding; one says to oneself, "I must do that, or something like that." Cultural understanding is like linguistic understanding. We understand the meaning of gestures that we have never seen performed before, as we understand sentences that have never before been uttered. And we expect that kind of creativity from others in everyday life.

By the time the first anniversary of the attacks came round, a number of my artist friends had told me of work they had made that somehow fell under the category of understanda­bility, as described by Wittgenstein. Audrey Flack's initial impulse was to pitch in at Ground Zero but she found that no help was needed there. Then she was seized by the need to go to Montauk and paint the fishing boats there, which she did. That, I thought, was "understandable as an act of piety". It was on another plane from painting for its own sake, though the difference was invisible, as acts of piety often are. Lucio Pozzi, meanwhile, told me how he had sat down and copied one of his earlier watercolours - a landscape - and then, immediately afterwards, did another copy.

I began to ask some of the other artists I knew whether they, too, had made any work that belonged to 9/11. I had already written about Leslie King-Hammond's marvellous shrine, which I encountered in October 2001 when I visited the Maryland Institute College of Art, where she had put it in the faculty show. It had been a time of personal turmoil for her and, at first, she thought she had nothing to show. The shrine was natural to her background in the West Indies, however, and that is what she made. Mary Miss told me that she had co-designed a zone, entitled Moving Perimeter: a Wreath for Ground Zero, where people could go to express their feelings of desolation and loss in the company of others on the same mission.

Robert Zakanitch, one of the founders of the pattern and decoration movement in the late 1970s, whose work celebrates the impulse and meaning of fabrics and ornaments in domes­tic interiors, had decided to paint lace. And, know­ing something of the place of ritual in the texture of daily life in the northern European background of Ursula von Rydingsvard, I felt certain that the events of 11 September figured in the provenance of some of the pieces that she included in a show at Purchase College in upstate New York.

Cindy Sherman said she was working on something that responded to the event: "I am fine, though it is hard to think of what to make at this point, other than decorative, escapist or abstract [work]. I suppose I'll explore one or all of these things." I could not imagine her making anything escapist or decorative, let alone abstract. When I saw her photograph of a woman in a kerchief, looking defiant, as if in a propaganda poster, I was not surprised that this was among her responses - this and her magnificent series of clowns.

Later, I thought what an interesting, philoso­phical exhibition all this might make, and proposed the idea to Steven Rand at the apexart exhibition space in New York. I wanted the show to coincide with the fourth anniversary of the event in 2005. There must have been any number of artists who could have been included, but I wanted the show to be made up of those who were part of my life. Jeffrey Lohn, at one time my student, had photographed a number of the images of missing persons, desperately sought, that went up at various sites around the city. He then rephotographed them as the days passed and rain and dirt disfigured their faces until, finally, in a second death, there was nothing left. My wife, Barbara Westman, had been deeply affected by the blue memorial lights - the only appropriate memorial to have emerged - which she and I observed from the roof of apexart.

I am not a curator; nonetheless, I felt that such a show would be understood not as an ordinary art exhibition, but as what Wittgenstein called an act of piety. I also thought that it would focus attention on the question of what art is for and how, as Hegel once said, it serves together with religion and philosophy as an element of the "absolute spirit".

Since my choice of artists was based on Witt­genstein's example of piety, I included nothing that struck me as documentary. For example, Carolee Schneemann had taken photographs of people leaping to their deaths from high floors in one of the towers, which she enlarged and placed across her loft. I immensely admire Schneemann's work, which bravely deals with the sexed human body, but it would not have fitted the concept.

We expect artists to do more than send a condolence card, though society needs such cards to help ordinary people express sympathy or grief. Mary Miss explicitly made grief the theme of her piece, feeling that people needed a designated place to grieve in. Grief explains the moral sublimity and the heroism that was New Yorkers' response to the tragedy.

By the time the exhibition took place in 2005, the discourse on the destroyed towers had settled on issues of downtown real estate. I sat with the painter and sculptor Ellsworth Kelly at someone's opening. He was recommending that the site of the towers be turned into a plain hill, covered with grass, visible from the boats entering New York Harbour. That was in the Wittgenstein spirit, but there was too much money involved in lost rentable space to replace it with an artwork.

If this was the case four years after the event, it is difficult to believe that grief will play a very great part in the ceremonies for the tenth anni­versary. It will be felt by the survivors and by those who lost someone in the wreckage, but it certainly seemed to be absent when George W Bush, then president, visited Ground Zero, put his arm around the shoulders of a slightly embarrassed firefighter and called for revenge. His approval rating rose to 90 per cent, which says a lot about the American attitude. Before long, we were in Iraq, sniffing around for weap­ons of mass destruction. The spirit of 9/11 had largely evaporated.

Arthur C Danto is Johnsonian Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University

This article first appeared in the 05 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, 9/11