September 26, 2011

Art Through Tragedy: Coping and Reinterpreting

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Controversial album art has a long and rich history in rock-and-roll and other popular music genres, one filled with sexually explicit, copyright infringing and religiously blasphemous imagery. But more recently, a musical artist has come under fire for imagery fitting none of those categories. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning classical composer no less, not exactly who you’d expect to offend en masse.

So what did Minimalist composer Steve Reich do to deserve such rage? What could possibly merit fellow composer Phil Kline blasting Reich for “the first truly despicable classical album cover?”

Set to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, Reich’s album WTC 9/11 originally featured Masatomo Kuriya’s  photo taken just before the hijacked plane hit the second tower. Although the photo was considerably darkened and tinted, it’s much the same as the iconic original: a small airplane looms over New York’s skyline and towards the towers, silhouetted against an orange-tinged sky and billowing smoke.

A New Yorker himself, Reich and his family were deeply affected by the tragedy. His latest composition, a three-part work blending three string quartets with recorded sounds from the historic day, was meant to memorialize the attacks. While the use of recorded sounds has attracted much media attention, they really only occur during the first third of the piece, writes Slate’s Seth Colter Walls. According to Walls, the fifteen-minute composition is primarily about “dealing with the tragedy after the fact.” And yet, rather than memorialize the attacks,  the piece has reignited the debate over 9/11 iconography and faced criticism for capitalizing on tragedy.

Reich isn’t the first to to be criticized for addressing 9/11 in his work. Since the tragic attacks just over ten years ago, artists have struggled in their responses. Although their work has prompted objections on varied fronts, one of the recurring criticisms is that these works downplay tragedy and those who lost their lives. Even “Tribute in Light,” a largely successful public artwork repeated each year, was initially criticized for its original name, “Towers of Light,” which many felt emphasized the lost towers rather than the victims.  Others, like Eric Fischl’s sculpture “Tumbling Woman,” were simply too graphic. And of course, there are those who accuse all of these artists of capitalizing on tragedy.

With all the controversy surrounding works that appropriate 9/11 imagery, it’s no wonder many artists have avoided the subject altogether. Nevertheless, many of these works bear the effects of 9/11. As John Timpane of The Philadelphia Inquirer pointed out, post-9/11 art has followed two dominant yet opposing trends. On one end of the spectrum, we see works turning towards realism. The horrors of 9/11, as Timpane points out, made many people want to know more about about their place in the world, their history. Think reality TV, documentary films and artwork made from 9/11 debris. At the same time, Timpane says, others have wanted to deny the tragedy altogether, prompting a resurgence in magical realism, escapism and fantasy genres. Think Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, not to mention the increasing popularity of vampires and apocalyptic fiction. Creative nonfiction, revisionist biography and memoirs have also become increasingly popular post-9/11 literary forms.

While these works are perhaps less controversial, they still bear the imprint of 9/11. It’s something we can’t keep dancing around forever, this question of 9/11 iconography. Now, ten years after the tragic events, we are nowhere closer to answering any questions about this tragic iconography. When is it acceptable to appropriate 9/11 iconography, or any iconography from a tragic event? What is the role of art in depicting tragedy? What does it owe its current and future audiences respectively? Why do we need art about tragedy? Is there a way to respond to tragedy without capitalizing on it? And if so, just when will this happen?

Perhaps it’s still too soon. Steven Spielberg has said it could be years before the first 9/11 film. “Often, I think these great events have to rot down,” author Salman Rushdie acknowledged, pointing out that Tolstoy’s War and Peace, was written 60 years after the Napoleonic invasion of Russia, “Maybe another generation has to look at it.”

Maybe Spielberg and Rushdie are right. Maybe we’re not far enough removed yet. However, we shouldn’t blanketly criticize art that appropriates 9/11 imagery. After all, it’s this freedom to appropriate imagery and make artistic statements — more generally, our free speech — that differentiates the U.S. from its attackers. If done responsibly, I think such imagery can make a strong artistic statement about the attacks for our generation and the next. But more than mere documentation, we need an art about tragedy as a way to work through the events. We need to take back this iconography, to make it our own. And, as works dealing with other tragic historical events prove, there is a way to do this without capitalizing on tragedy. We just haven’t seen it yet for September 11th.

Original Author: Emily Greenberg