How do artists respond to momentous acts of violence? Some are
stunned into silence, others rush forward to express their feelings
with a poem or a painting. But many allow for a time of reflection
until they can begin to grasp the meaning and approach it within
a creative context.
In the mix of responses, though, there appear to be marked similarities
of theme and emotion that transcend time, cultures and particular
disasters. These past works of art and literature point toward the
likely shape of cultural offerings inspired by the terrorism of
Sept. 11, say several experts who have studied what one of them
calls "the art of aftermath."
"There are specific forms of reaction that are unique to each
culture," said Clifford Chanin, the founder and president of the
Legacy Project, a nonprofit research organization that studies the
creative and intellectual response to cataclysms like Hiroshima,
the Holocaust and the Armenian and Cambodian genocides. But, he
added, "what is amazing are the similarities, how much the works
explore the same kind of questions, although from very different
At the root of the reaction is the subject of memory, "the conflict
between the fading of memory and the need to remember," he said,
and asked, "When living memory is no longer present, what will remembrance
In the short term the artistic response to horrific events is
not a deep one, said Detlef Hoffmann, a German art historian. "You
can have documentary pictures from Auschwitz," he said. "But they
really don't reach the second level, to feel what has been destroyed.
Art relates to what the French call la longue durČe, a long moment."
"The artist always needs more distance," he said. "That is when
the art becomes stronger - distance in time, geography and maybe
For Athol Fugard, the South African playwright whose work chronicled
the personal effects of the apartheid era, the Trade Center attacks
were too awesome and immediate to evoke an artistic response. "Time
has to pass before artists can apply their own brand of healing,"
For him as a writer it is important to identify the individual
stories within the mass carnage. He read of thousands buried in
the rubble, he said, "but as an artist, only when there is a face
and a name can you begin to deal with a trauma on that scale."
Paradoxically, he said, it was Stalin who appreciated the point.
Mr. Fugard quoted him: "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths
is a statistic."
The statement, he said, "would have been trite if it came from
Solzhenitsyn, but it was pure gold coming from Stalin."
Dickran Kouymjian, professor of Armenian studies at California
State University in Fresno, said that the search for the specific
"Certain events, by their magnitude, even their incomprehensibility,
sometimes block artistic imagination," he said. "Both the Armenian
genocide and the Holocaust are such events that initially left the
artists among surviving nations incapable of circumscribing the
Literary and artistic works created by Armenians were delayed
from 1915 until the 1950's and 60's, he said. Arshile Gorky might
be an exception "because through indirection his work is full of
the memory of life before the genocide and its destruction and transformation
by it," he said.
Mr. Kouymjian added that it would also take time for artists to
come to terms with the attack on the World Trade Center, and he
offered a few suggestions: "The enormous amount of art destroyed
in those buildings might be a natural subject for the artists, perhaps
treated with irony. Photography will be immediately implicated in
the creative process."
Mr. Chanin pointed to the frequent use of photography and artifacts
of daily life in post-disaster art installations. "Artists seek
an imaginative restoration, a way in which they can put people back
into the picture," he said. "It's a challenge to capture the presence
of people who are missing."
He pointed to Christian Boltanski, "who uses votive candles and
personal effects in his installation pieces in relation to the Holocaust,"
and to Naomi Tereza Salmon, who has photographs of broken eyeglasses,
false teeth and shaving brushes left behind by victims in Nazi camps.
The time it takes for a response to take shape usually depends
on the size of the tragedy: the larger it is, the longer the period
to confront it, he said. Often a three-step process is involved.
The first artistic response is "often documentary in character,"
about an event that originally happened to the artist or someone
he knows about, he explained. The art that was made in Nazi camps
was "a specific depiction of what happened on that night in that
place," he continued.
Then as a new generation rises, he said, "the concerns are with
memory," how to preserve the memory of remaining survivors. Finally,
as years pass, later generations may try to recreate the event.
"You see that with Armenian artists," Mr. Chanin said. "They were
told about genocide by their parents and grandparents," then tried
to come to terms with it. In the visual arts, he said, the result
may be abstractions, as with time and distance artists move into
metaphor and away from documentation.
Speaking about the delays in the artistic response, Mr. Hoffmann,
the German art historian, described a painting he had seen recently
in Copenhagen, "Stalingrad" by the Danish artist Asger Jorn. He
did not begin the painting until decades after that World War II
battle, Mr. Hoffmann said, and it took him 10 years to finish it.
It was a work of gradual accretion, and up close one can see the
various levels and layers. This pentimento approach is, he said,
more traumatic for the artist than an instant response.
"One of the striking things about the immediate reaction to the
World Trade Center has been the way that people are searching for
both consolation and community," Mr. Chanin said. "This need to
connect has followed so many traumas of world history," especially
in the visual arts.
Looking to the future, he said, "I would expect that there would
be a large outpouring of works that touch not necessarily on the
twin towers but on this assault on our common symbols and our common
understanding of the world." While artists "will explore the deepest
questions of human identity, memory and imagination," he suggested
that great novels would not be written about the event per se; they
would be written much later "about the transformation of life because
of such events."
Initially the Legacy Project is dealing with the visual arts,
literature and film. Mr. Chanin said he hoped that eventually the
organization would also be concerned with other artistic areas like
music, dance and theater. Its new Web site (www.legacy-project.org)
offers comparative material, like a reproduction of Picasso's "Guernica"
followed by works it inspired by Basque, Taiwanese and Sudanese
artists. Other paintings include Shigeo Ishii's oil "State of the
Martial Law III," part of his "Violence Series," and Fernando Botero's
watercolor "Crying Woman." The site, Mr. Chanin said, is not about
history but "the aftermath of history, the art of afterwards."
Last year the project helped organize a gallery show of contemporary
art that Mr. Chanin described as "one of the first public cultural
occasions for Cambodia to look at this art as a collective retrospective
of loss." He and Mr. Hoffmann have been talking now about creating
an art exhibition, "The Legacy of Absence," perhaps to be staged
in a former Nazi camp, that would deal with traces of traumatic
events in art. The idea would be not to focus on individual events
but "to create a dialogue across artistic reflections and to show
the commonality of the experience."
Mr. Chanin used the Chinese artist Pan Tianshou (1897-1971) as
an example of what he was talking about: "He was known as a master
of pen and ink drawing, but he fell afoul during the cultural revolution
in 1966 and was forced to give up painting." Years later he painted
a work called "Prunus in Moonlight." As Mr. Chanin described it,
it was "a traditional rendering of nature, but much darker."
But on an apparently barren tree there were small hidden buds