American culture still grappling with 9/11

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 29, 2011 

Props from the television program "Rescue Me," a show about New York City firefighters struggling with life after 9/11, appear in the Smithsonian's Sept. 11 collection.

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WASHINGTON — To many artists, as the years passed, the lack of a 9/11 memorial at the World Trade Center site felt nearly as big an absence as the gaping maw left at Ground Zero.

"There was so much trauma, and there was just nothing there except this big old hole," said Kay Turner, a folklorist at the Brooklyn Arts Council. "It was disturbing, and I think that artists also felt that."

The council filled that void, organizing an annual arts memorial that every year has focused on a different medium: photography, film, songs, poetry. Like the wider artistic output since 9/11, the work was burdened with the question Bruce Springsteen asked in "The Rising," his 2002 rock album that served as the soundtrack for how Americans grappled with the attacks: "How do you live brokenhearted?"

It's a question that's been asked repeatedly in the arts and popular culture over the past decade, often without satisfactory answers.

Television shows like "24" reflected the daily fear that permeated ordinary life, even if they didn't outright mention 9/11. Even films that weren't specifically about the terrorist attacks were suffused with a sense of loss, including Spike Lee's "25th Hour," released 15 months after the terrorist attacks and widely considered the first — and so far, best — film with 9/11 in its soul.

The film opens with a shot of the Manhattan skyline at night, bracketed by the Empire State building and the Statue of Liberty. Two beams of blue-white light — from the annual "Tribute in Light" memorial — shoot from lower Manhattan, underscoring what's missing.

As the decade moved on, the collective artistic reaction to the shocking events of a single day became less about memorials and more about weaving the everyday reality of a post-9/11 world into the fabric of American arts and popular culture.

Now we are turning a corner. With the death of Osama bin Laden this spring, and the opening of a permanent memorial on the site of the former World Trade Center this year on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, it also may be that enough time has passed for artists, filmmakers, television writers and novelists to create work that makes better sense of what the past decade means.

But 10 years away from the event, the work that's emerging has a new theme: reflection.

Peter O'Neill, whose 2008 novel "Netherland" got a boost when President Barack Obama said it was the first he read during his presidency, said that it took him awhile to write it — and not only because he was "agonizing over the sentences" in a book that looks at a slice of immigrant, cricket-playing, post-9/11 New York.

"It took place in this particular time of American life when things kept happening on the ground, the war in Iraq ... and I just felt my characters would have inevitably been embroiled in that," O'Neill told PBS's "NewsHour" in 2009. "And so it took awhile for things to pan out in real life and the literary consequences to be felt."

In 2004, Peter Tolan and actor Denis Leary created "Rescue Me," a television show about New York City firefighters struggling with life after 9/11. They had no idea that the show would become such an iconic representation that seven years later they'd be asked to donate props to the Smithsonian's 9/11 collection.

"The thing that I wanted to portray more than anything was what brave men are like, especially ... after a catastrophe," Leary said. "We looked at it through that sort of hallway, without thinking about the broader things. That would be too much. But we knew it was the shadow of 9/11."

Their show, which Leary called a "smudged version of reality," crossed several boundaries. It was the first about 9/11, specifically the people left behind. It also dared to be funny at a time when the wounds of 9/11 were still raw.

"If we thought it was going to be groundbreaking, boy, it would have sucked," Tolan said. "Nothing kills entertainment like saying, 'Hey, this is important.' Then you're going to do something preachy, and certainly without humor."

Humor would have been unthinkable early in the decade after 9/11. Novelist Rebecca Johns was in graduate school at the University of Iowa at the time of the attacks and recalls discussions among fellow aspiring writers about whether they were witnessing the death of irony in literature.

At the time "it seemed impossible we would ever be able to talk about the attacks with anything less than complete earnestness," Johns said. "Would anyone be able to write about the attacks as a human event rather than a terrorist one? Would we ever regain our national sense of humor?"

"Of course it turns out we have, not so much about the attacks themselves but in our national reaction to them, and in our reaction to everything that came after," she said.

Her choice of subject matter in her first novel, "Icebergs," was "directly influenced by the attacks," Johns said, as was the decision to write a multigenerational book that spans World War II and the Vietnam War.

"I doubt I would have chosen the pattern of repeating wars in 'Icebergs' if it weren't for the things that were on my mind in those days: destruction, survival," she said. "It helped me, too, to remember that those other wars, and those other terribly uncertain days, also eventually came to an end."

It was much the same for artist Andrea Arroyo, who in early 2002 struggled to find inspiration for a show that sought reaction pieces from artists. Arroyo, a Mexican artist who lives in the United States, drew something much more textual and graphic than her usual figurative style.

Her silkscreen image of the Twin Towers was represented in rows of type forming the word "UNREAL." Clouds of black, red and yellow at the top of the text evoke the points of impact and the fires.

When the piece was featured in the New York Times, families of victims contacted her for copies. It also became part of the National Museum of American History's "Bearing Witness to History" exhibit on the first anniversary of 9/11.

Arroyo hasn't created anything directly inspired by the attacks since then, but she believes the exercise of creating her 9/11 piece may have indirectly influenced some of her subsequent work. That includes a series of portraits of women who've been killed in the drug violence of Mexico's Ciudad Juarez.

"My work is always celebratory, but I went deeper into the feminism, the gender, the social justice and the gender justice," she said. "It definitely influenced my work and my point of view."

She's currently curating a 9/11-themed show for New York's Grady Alexis Gallery. Arroyo expects their work, too, has moved on from the raw reactions first seen after the attacks.

"I know that many artists are going to be, even if not thinking about it, it's going to be in the general consciousness of New York," she said.

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