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Turning Tragedy Into Art

Within minutes of the attacks on the World Trade Center, one artist-photographer, whose show of arctic landscapes sold out last year, rushed into the smoking ruins to take pictures of the hellish scene. His photographs will presumably find their way, for sale, onto gallery walls. A New York painter with an exhibition already on view worked through the night to produce a huge American-eagle banner to hang, patriotically, from his downtown building. And just two days later another artist--an abstract painter with a studio-window view of the horrific events--sent me a letter asking me to come see her "evolving" new series of paintings "expressing my response to this catastrophe."

In these three instances--and perhaps countless more to come--you have the motivational range of the contemporary artists' response to carnage and tragedy: plying one's trade, making a public statement, jockeying for a higher place in the critical hierarchy and, of course, simply expressing oneself. Self-expression is, of course, the appointed task of contemporary artists. Now many of them will choose to deal with an enormous tragedy caused by great evil. Whether they succeed artistically may depend as much on what their forebears can teach them as on their own talents.

Contemporary artists are the inheritors of a modernist tradition of dealing passionately with calamity that goes back to the romantic Spanish painter Francisco Goya. In 1808 Goya traveled from Madrid to Saragossa to witness the awful consequences of the French siege. The result was his unequaled suite of etchings, "The Disasters of War," in which we see three nude men strung up on a dead tree. Goya also painted the second most famous outcry against the consequences of merciless war, the 13-foot-wide "The Third of May, 1808," which depicts, in slashing brushstrokes and dramatic color, the massacre of defenseless civilians by a ruthless military. By comparison, Eugene Delacroix's reputation-making "The Massacre at Chios" (1824), an even bigger painting about the slaughter of 30,000 Greeks in a revolt against the Turks, is almost stately. Delacroix knew of the war only through newspaper accounts, which may be why the suffering figures in the foreground look dreamy and the sky gorgeous.

The most memorable works about the first world war were done by shell-shocked, grieving ex-soldiers such as the German painter Otto Dix. Dix--who fought in the hideous Battle of the Somme, was wounded in the neck and was awarded an Iron Cross--produced wildly, even dementedly expressionistic paintings of agonized soldiers in the muck. The most famous painterly protest against atrocity is, however, Picasso's "Guernica" (1937), a hurriedly painted, mural-size canvas in stark monochrome. It protests the terror-bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by Nazi airplanes under Franco's command during the Spanish Civil War, in which more than one fifth of the town's 7,000 inhabitants were killed. No one who has seen the painting--which now hangs in Madrid's Reina Sofia museum--can forget the wailing mother and her dead, rag-doll infant, or that most powerful symbol of death, the impaled, screaming horse.

The American sculptor H. C. Westermann (1922-1981) didn't reveal his shock and horror at war until 20 years after he endured kamikaze attacks as a shipboard Marine toward the end of World War II. A deceptively folk-artsy craftsman, Westermann protested quietly, but powerfully, in small pieces depicting a toylike airplane piercing a rudimentary ship. He wrote in a letter, "To [such artworks] I'd like to add the horrible SMELL of DEATH but that's impossible dammit! Of 2300 men."

Westermann is gone, but if anyone can produce a new "Guernica," many are guessing it might be Leon Golub, another artist who cannot get the 20th century's--and now this one's--predilection for carnage out of his mind. Working on huge, unstretched canvases, Golub, now nearing 80, applies paint like a man fighting for his life, even with a meat cleaver, to construct big menacing mercenaries, naked vulnerable victims and scenes of coldblooded brutality in Vietnam, South Africa and the American South.

Some critics (including this one) don't think that Golub paints all that well. But I also wonder whether the question is beside the point. After all, what does beauty have to do with being effective as propaganda aimed at eliminating atrocities from the world? Indeed, who should care whether a telling blow against mass violence is considered by anybody--especially a high-end gallery or a museum curator--to be a bona fide work of art? And finally--and this applies to any artist attempting to respond through art to the recent attacks on America--does the catharsis of self-expression matter at all?

There was a time when an artistic response to death and destruction was less personal expression than civic duty. The sixth-century B.C. Greek craftsman who incisively rendered scenes of mortal combat on the graceful curves of an Attic vase wasn't "expressing himself" in the sense that we moderns mean it. Nor were the folks who made what we might call a piece of "installation art" in Paris during the Black Plague in the 14th century by piling up the bones of the dead as, one art historian puts it, "a lesson in the frailty of earthly glory and a suggestion that even death brought no repose."

When we get to the Renaissance, individual professional pride rears its head. Around 1450, Florentine dukes hired Paolo Uccello to turn a glorified gang fight called "The Battle of San Romano" into a heroic struggle, and Uccello not only gave them a great painting (now in London's National Gallery) but made it a veritable demonstration of the new pictorial device of perspective. Half a century later, Leonardo trumped him with "The Battle of Anghiari." The losers, Leonardo wrote proudly, "must be represented in the agonies of death, grinding their teeth, rolling their eyes, with their fists clenched against their bodies and their legs contorted." More than a century later, Peter Paul Rubens gladly put his personal quibbles about war ("pestilence and hunger, those inseparable partners of... war, which devastates and destroys everything") into a commission from a Medici called "Horrors of War." It's an allegory, however, and even Rubens's enraged, storming Mars holding a bloody sword and a corporeally desperate Venus look rather decorative. If Rubens is expressing himself, he's really saying, "Hey, look at what the best painter around can do!"

In 1839, the invention of photography changed everything. The individual temperament, sensibility and manual dexterity of an artist could henceforth be put in the background, while the absolute physical "truth" of tragedy could take center stage. When Mathew Brady's photographs of the residue of American Civil War battles were published in 1862, The New York Times editorialized, "We would scarcely choose to be in the gallery, when one of the women bending over them should recognize a husband, son, or a brother in the still, lifeless lines of bodies, that lie ready for the gaping trenches." In other words, they were too real.

But while we've grown more and more used to the searing photojournalism of Robert Capa, Lee Miller, W. Eugene Smith, Sebastio Salgado and others, technology has given us--or emotionally burdened us with--so much more. That god-awful, endlessly replayed video clip of the second hijacked airliner exploding into one of the towers possesses an undeniable and terrible beauty, like that of the newspaper photograph of the Hindenburg dirigible detonating in 1937. It would have pleased the fanatical futurist Filippo Marinetti, a not-so-great visual artist and ardent admirer of Mussolini, who said, "War is beautiful because it creates new architecture like that of... the smoke spirals from burning villages." Although we struggle to keep that video footage at bay, it has become disgustingly iconic. No future work of art about the calamity of Sept. 11 will likely be able to replace it in our minds. That, I suppose, is the challenge facing the artist who just might defeat that unfortunate likelihood. Although the last thing a critic should ever do is offer an artist advice, the words of the British poet Wilfred Owen, written at the front in the first world war, are almost mandatory: "All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true poets must be truthful." But even that hard-won wisdom may not be enough for an artist trying with all his heart to create a work profound enough to do justice to the horrors of this September.