The art of 9/11

Since the drama of that day overtook even the wildest of fictions, writers and artists have struggled to interpret its aftermath

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Immediately after the collapse of the World Trade Centre towers some survivors reported an unexpected effect. So dense was the dust that it not only blocked out the light but most sound too.

Suddenly everything went strangely quiet as the debris muffled the screams and the sirens. And if you were looking for an image of the impact of 9/11 on the arts, that surreal lull would do as well as anything.

The story of the arts and 9/ll has largely been a story told in negatives – of inhibitions and empty spaces. As the novelist Frédéric Beigbeder wrote: "Since September 11 2001, reality has not only outstripped fiction, it's destroying it. It's impossible to write about this subject, and yet impossible to write about anything else." He had a go anyway with the novel Windows on the World, which won i's sister paper The Independent's Foreign Fiction Prize in 2005. But in imagining his way into the interior of one of those falling buildings he had the field pretty much to himself. The really notable thing about the art of 9/11 is how little there is of it, even ten years on.

It's not easy to say whether this should count as a failure of nerve or a triumph of decorum, but there's probably a bit of both in the mix. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks there was a widespread feeling that it was a time for sober documentation and not invention. Imagination wasn't accredited to pass behind the emergency tape. Far more urgent business was taking place, of commemoration and consolation. And while it was easy to make bad art in the days immediately following the attacks – art that waved a flag or restated comforting truisms – it remained hard to do anything of greater subtlety for a very long time. Creative works could plaster the wound but not probe it. That forensic task was largely left to non-fiction, which has flourished since 9/11.

One of the problems for artists was that art – or at least artfulness – had itself become suspect. The photographer Francesc Torres (whose photographs of 9/11 debris are currently on show at the Imperial War Museum) writes of his obsession, at the start of his project, with maintaining the balance between documentation and composition.

The recent history of visual art meant that twisted metal and distressed surfaces had already been incorporated into the language of art; Torres felt he had to strive to prevent mere beauty from overwhelming his images. And while aesthetics narrowed the possibilities on one side, the fear of exploitation blocked off other approaches, too. As a critic wrote of the 2010 film Remember Me (one of the very few mainstream films so far to enlist 9/11 as a plot device), "borrowing from the enormous merely to entertain" was never going to go down well. Even those films that dedicated themselves to a respectful recreation of real events – such as Oliver Stone's World Trade Center and, much more successfully, Paul Greengrass's United 93 – had difficulty finding an audience. On television, meanwhile, you had only symptoms of trauma, the ugliest of them being 24, an apologia for torture which may well have helped to encourage the real thing.

Other forms took more liberties. One of the cultural first responders was playwright Neil LaBute. His play The Mercy Seat was first performed on 18 December 2001, and took the risk of bringing ignoble motives into proximity with that sanctified catastrophe – with the story of a man who should have

been in the towers but was spending the morning with a mistress instead. A New York writer called Leslie Bramm was even more audacious, writing a short play called Lovers Leapt, which imagined the final fall of the couple who jumped hand in hand from one of the buildings. But again they were almost alone in tackling the matter directly.

Novels have proved a little more daring about the event. Don DeLillo's Falling Man actually begins in that suspended moment immediately after the destruction: "It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night." And other NYC novelists (Jonathan Safran Foer in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Jay McInerney in The Good Life) also seemed to feel licensed by their proximity to the disaster to address it square on – though they mostly concerned themselves with the aftermath. In that limited sense there has been a rich harvest of 9/11 books – as novelists and writers responded to the American response – in novels about extremist Islam and war, and a new kind of neurosis about public safety. Ian McEwan's Saturday, Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Joseph O' Neill's Netherland and John Updike's The Terrorist are not 9/11 novels in any straightforward way – but, like other books, they're marked by the pressure wave of those explosions.

It's almost certainly too early for masterpieces though. Perhaps Amy Waldman's The Submission, about what follows when a Muslim wins the competition to design a Ground Zero memorial, will be the first really successful 9/11 book, as some early reviewers have already claimed. But if so, it will have to take liberties with the raw material that so far have been inhibited by respect and piety. Indeed, you could make an argument that the only truly successful works of art to date have been tangential or completely accidental, short-circuiting the anxieties of their creators.

Think of the undercurrent of sadness and mortality that ran through James Marsh's documentary film Man on Wire, about the French funambulist who walked between the two towers in 1974 ("What a beautiful death", its subject says at one point, "to die in the exercise of your passion," a line Marsh daringly cut against an image of an airliner over a city). Or think of the eerie amateur footage of migrating birds caught in the twin beams of The Tribute in Light, the Municipal Art Society's commemorative installation at Ground Zero – whirling like bits of paper (or lost souls) high over the streets of Manhattan. Contemporary artists haven't even come close to that unpredicted collaboration between nature and tasteful civic piety.

Patience is all we need though. Tolstoy wrote War and Peace 60 years after the cataclysmic events it depicted and, while we won't necessarily have to wait as long for the 9/11's masterworks, we've only just acquired sufficient distance from the event to be able to take risks with the subject and reshape it into different forms. The dust is at last beginning to settle – and the normal noise of a culture will return to fill that space.