September 11, 2002

Effects of Sept. 11 Seen in Forum

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The legacy of “Guernica” weighed heavily on panelists at yesterday’s “Forum on Artistic and Aesthetic Responses to 9/11,” held at the Call Auditorium. The legendary work by Picasso was conceived in the aftermath of horrific tragedy: the 1937 bombing of Northern Spain by the German Luftwaffe.

Has Sept. 11 provoked its own “Guernica,” artfully chronicling the terror that befell the nation last fall? According to the panelists, the answer thus far is no.

Moderated by Porus Olpadwala, dean of the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, the panel included commentary by Franklin W. Robinson, the Richard J. Schwartz director of the Johnson Museum, Prof. Amy Villajero, theater, film and dance, Prof. Steven F. Pond, music and Prof. Salah Hassan, chair of the department of history of art.

Robinson set the tone for the discussion, which took place in front of about 50 people, by stressing that the artistic response to the tragedy is in its formative stages.

“Sometimes it takes a while for the great work of art to occur” after a tragedy, Robinson said.

In lamenting the overall lack of “critical engagement” thus far evinced by U.S. artists in reaction to the attacks, Hassan said what much of the panel reiterated throughout.

He placed much of the art created in the aftermath of Sept.11 into two categories: straightforward memorials to the terror victims and overstated exhibitions of “jingoism.”

Highlighting the latter category, Hassan displayed photographs of patriotic-themed urban graffiti, star spangled magazine advertisements and other “expressions of crude nationalism” gathered from the post-attack period.

“It is too soon for artists to distance themselves emotionally from 9/11,” Hassan said. “When you are too close to the event, it is hard to separate emotions from critical responses.”

Similar themes emerged during Pond’s examination of the post-terror musical climate, which he characterized as “confusing and contradictory.”

Although the fast-moving realm of popular music has produced a glut of Sept. 11 themed concerts, albums and songs, few artists have addressed the political dimension of the attacks in substantive terms, according to Pond.

“The critical engagement has been present, but it has been under the radar in popular music,” he said. “Paul McCartney and U2 have done things on the memorialization aspect without the type of saber-rattling you might expect.”

Bruce Springsteen’s “Into the Fire,” an account of firefighters scaling the burning towers, stressed the personal rather than the political. Wu-Tang Clan’s “Rules,” while making explicit reference to current political events, quickly devolved into a string of expletives leveled at bin Laden.

“The political dimension of the attack has been put on the backburner,” Pond said. “We are still trying to process the loss that we share and often the political response is slow to come.”

Pond emphasized the ongoing process by which artists are assimilating the terror attacks, finding ways to process and make sense of the unfathomable.

“It will take another year or two or five to piece together a thematic understanding of the tragedy and music can be a great vehicle to work through these things,” he said.

Villajero took a slightly different approach to her presentation, which focused predominantly on film. Rather than emphasizing the passing of time, as Robinson, Hassan and Pond did, she praised the “speed and spontaneity” of filmmakers, singling out the film “9.11,” which was completed 15 days after the attacks, on Sept. 26.

Produced by Big Noise Films, a non-profit media collective, “9.11” is a web-based film depicting the shift from public grief to mobilization in post-attack New York.

Villajero commended the piece for its availability to heterogeneous audiences over the Internet, its openness to revision and its progressive use of digital compilation.

Terry Plater, associate dean for academic affairs in the graduate school, said her own interest in painting spurred her decision to attend.

“I was curious to see how other artists responded,” she said. “I believe in the power of art to do things that the intellect cannot do.”

Archived article by Jason Leff