Ruth Padel: Art in a time of terror

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The Independent Online

"Art should not console," said Iris Murdoch austerely. But sometimes it's the only thing that can.

"Art should not console," said Iris Murdoch austerely. But sometimes it's the only thing that can. One thing 11 September broke was a pattern in the ways we see ourselves in the world. And when such perceptions are challenged is when we most need pattern-making in the form of art. We need existing great art, and to urgently find new meaning in structures already familiar to us; we also need the structure of art made after the trauma to confront it, to explain it for us.

Some arts can confront it directly. "We are not healers or protectors, merely artists," said Tom Hanks at the "Tribute to Heroes" telethon concert. But Bruce Springsteen sang a new song, "My City of Ruins", for "our fallen brothers and sisters", ending it with "Rise up, rise up". It sounds corny, but it worked. "I wanted to hug the guy," says Rick de Yampert, a journalist. For art does heal. The art of presenting audiences with knowledge that is terrible to accept, of making us able to survive horror by structuring it in a particular way, is the art of tragedy. And Aristotle's metaphor for tragedy's method was catharsis.

Patsy Rodenburg, voice trainer at the National Theatre, has just taught a Shakespeare-speaking course in New York. "There's a yearning there now for profound work. You can go to the great plays and not feel so lonely. I did Richard III and Julius Caesar; plays full of envy, grief, murder on an unbelievable scale, about what they were facing themselves. They got the power of it: Richard the murderer, 'hell's black intelligencer'. It's comforting that it's happened before, that Shakespeare structured the words for us."

After 11 September, the United States also embraced WH Auden's poem on the declaration of war, "September 1, 1939". It was read on national radio. "Auden muses on Manhattan skyscrapers as symbols of modern power, and the isolation of America's consumer culture," says poet Dana Gioia, who recited it at a reading on 12 September. "'The unmentionable odour of death/ Offends the September night...' – they gasped as I read."

"There's a profound thirst for poetry now," says Alice Quinn, The New Yorker's poetry editor. "Anthologies of poems that speak to the time are coming out; the Poetry Society of America organised a reading at Cooper Union, where Lincoln gave his most stirring speeches; 1,200 people came."

Chip McGrath, the books editor of The New York Times, sees a different cultural shift. "Books on warfare, Islam, Afghanistan, are jumping off the shelves. Otherwise, it's cookery. Hardly any fiction, to my surprise." In Britain, the bestseller lists have been reconquered by Harry Potter and the celebrity chefs. In the US, however, another kind of book has recently been appearing on the best-seller lists: books with titles like New York September 11 (Magnum Photographers), September 11: A Testimony (Reuters), September 11th 2001: New York Attacked (New York Magazine) – dozens upon dozens of coffee-table books, of which the book-buying public cannot get enough. "Images are crucial to our understanding," said Thomas Hoepker, vice-president of Magnum in New York. "People want to have something they can keep. TV images are powerful, but fleeting."

"Mmm," said a friend of mine. "Isn't there a thin line between consoling and cashing in?" Obviously, there will be some cashing in. No doubt the books and films have already started – Woody Allen said the events would be "fair game" for directors. Some will be exploitative; others will be necessary art – in the sense that Gerard Manley Hopkins found it necessary in 1875 to write a poem on the death of five nuns in a blazing ship. "The Wreck of the Deutschland" became his masterpiece, but that's not the point: he had to write it. The Art Museum in Yad Vashem, Jerusalem's memorial-museum for the Holocaust, contains sketches of gas chimneys, barbed wire and scalped hair, made in death camps by people for whom art was a necessity: "driven to it by what they saw," say the museum's curators.

Bruno Bettelheim, a death-camp survivor, said you shouldn't try to understand horror, just stop it happening again. The critic Theodor Adorno said there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. But there had to be. To go on, we have to find a pattern in our responses to trauma. Audiences need the questioning clarity of art; artists need to create new structures from pain. "Cashing in" will depend on the artist's integrity. On 11 September, 11 members of the photographic agency Magnum were in Manhattan: all took photographs. What would 11 top photographers have done in New York but take photos? And now the book has come out. "If something upsets me," the photographer Helmut Newton told me once, "I get my camera out. I believe that if a photographer has a camera between him and horror, he can face anything."

"In a peculiar way, for artists, this is the best as well as the worst of times," the theatre director Deborah Warner said recently. "We have a terrible thing to draw on. There'll be new energy. My feeling after 11 September was to return to the theatre. It's a very safe place." That's the response to Tom Hanks. Art does protect and heal. Sometimes it's the only place where you feel safe.

On 11 September, however, art was made unsafe, too. Art, under attack along with everything else, was abused; even stolen. When video-artist John Maybury saw the second tower hit, he recognised an aspect of his art: "What I was seeing was artfully done. The first plane got our attention, so we'd look at the second." The planes were a video-installation, with the world as audience.

The music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, the 73-year-old experimental composer, has long incorporated elements of theatre and spectacle. He has followed Duchampian aesthetics, searching for metaphorically violent ways of thrusting image and sound together. His 1994 "Helicopter Quartet", based on a dream he had of "towers of television screens", thousands of outdoor spectators and musicians in flying helicopters, was creepily prescient of 11 September as a live spectacle. Inevitably, he responded to the attack in those terms, as "the greatest work of art there's ever been. That people rehearse like crazy for 10 years, totally fanatically for one concert, and then die! Compared to this, we are nothing as composers."

Faced with fury and outrage, Stockhausen later said he was referring to the "Luciferian aspect of art", but his comments also show that late Modernist ideas of art, privileging spectacle and "happening", are stale; that they must change.

Different arts will change differently as they move beyond 11 September. They will change because that day was destruction, the antithesis of creativity. And making something new, good, bearable out of destruction is what creativity is for.

The fall of Troy, of the "towers of Ilium", is tragedy's first metaphor of human fragility – and changes in design are obvious. "More emphasis on safety," says Frank Gehry, architect of Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum. "More technical discussion of how to get people out of tall buildings fast," says Cecil Balmond, the designer-engineer of iconic buildings throughout the world.

Others may take longer. Art offers safety because it takes risks. Nicola Lane, a London artist whose work is currently touring in the Arts Council exhibition Adorn, Equip, says she felt guilty about taking a magnifying glass to photos of people jumping from the towers, "but I had to know the shape of their bodies in the air". That's her job. Art has to risk knowing appalling things, to draw constructive conclusions from them.

But risks can backfire. The earliest Greek tragedy we know of was written when Persia was the global super-power. In 499BC, Athens helped the Eastern Greeks rebel against Persia: in revenge, Persia burnt the Eastern Greek city of Miletus, massacring men and enslaving women. In 493 BC, the Athenian dramatist Phrynichus wrote a play, The Sack of Miletus, and was fined 1,000 drachmas for "reminding the Athenians of their own misfortunes".

After 11 September, the riskiest art may be fiction. Novelists can't ignore 11 September. If they describe it poorly, they kill their novel; do it well, and they unbalance it and risk accusations of cashing in on the tragedy. "Such a huge thing bulldozes through any narrative," says Deborah Moggach, author of Tulip Fever. "You'd have to acknowledge it. Awareness of it affects everything, but if you mention it explicitly readers may feel it's dragged in for effect." Many novelists have been unable to work recently. "Shock, grief, aftershock: one's reactions were extreme and changed every day," says Moggach. "It was difficult to concentrate."

"Novelists respond in oblique ways, mediated by imagination," says Michele Roberts, author of The Looking Glass. "That takes time." She was in the middle of a city novel about suffering, death, and compassion, set in August 2001. "Now there'll be more death, and more compassion, " she says.

"September 11 is affecting novelists who draw inspiration from the world outside, rather than the world within," says Amanda Craig, author of In a Dark Wood. "It brought home to us how our cultures are bound up with each other, and made the American psyche more permeable by the rest of the world. My American characters have become more complex, anguished, conscious of being hostages of fortune."

The novel is the art of the story, and stories outlast everything. What are Troy and Persia now? A handful of ruins – and stories. The story of 11 September will be told when photographs are dust, as long as there are people to tell it. But though we live in a story-shaped world, we don't know what shape it will take next. Osama bin Laden knew America's story – our modern Athens, our talismanic culture – inside-out. It's in that narrative of invincibility that the biggest break has been made. No one knows how permanent this deliberate break will be.

For Americans to take control of their story again, they have to understand it from other people's point of view. There are always two sides to the story in a divorce, just as there was in the Crusades – that episode of international piracy remembered in the West in Turkish operetta char- acters, in pubs called The Saracen's Head and in Bush's unfortunate rhetoric. Bin Laden must have smiled when he heard Bush utter that word which, for millions of people living in conditions other than ours, is so capable of arousing memories of outrage. With 19 plastic Stanley knives, bin Laden became Saladin, energising the story of the Crusades as seen through non-Western eyes.

Looking at one's own story from a different side is a prime characteristic of Western art, distinguishing Homer from, say, contemporary Assyria. Homer shows the pity of war from both the Greek and Trojan points of view. The earliest surviving tragedy, by Aeschylus, showed Athens's final victory over Persia as a tragedy for Persia.

John Buchan, a master of narrative, knew the stories in other nations' heads. "We have laughed at the jihad," says Walter Bullivant in Greenmantle, published in 1916. "But there is a jihad preparing. The question is, how?" – words the CIA might have attended to in 1996.

The day after the bombing of Hiroshima, a New York Times editorial declared, "Civilization and humanity can now survive only if there is a revolution in mankind's political thinking." What happened to that revolution? Is technology the only way we've advanced since 499BC? What about culture? Different ethnic groups live all over US cities, but no one programmes sympathetic knowledge of other peoples' stories into our education. In Yad Vashem, Jewish schoolchildren are shown the Holocaust story: why aren't Palestinian children, too? And where's the museum of Palestinian suffering, where Jewish kids can be taken to learn the stories of people they'll grow up beside? Why is the history of Islam – and the treasures it gave the West when we were still medieval thugs and warlords – not on the national curriculum for all children in countries with Muslim populations?

The art that helps us understand our own tragedies has to be big enough, like that of Homer, to sympathise with the suffering of people who cause them. We won't get rid of terrorism – or the support for it now preparing in the hearts and memories of thousands of mutilated, bereaved, dispossessed people – without understanding our story and theirs, from their point of view.

For – as Gandalf says in The Lord of the Rings – "Stories do not end, we are all still part of the same story." Troy and Greece, Athens and Persia, Saladin and the Lionheart, New York and Tora Bora; we are part of the same pattern still. Can't we ever break it for good?