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The Artistic Response To 9/11

The "Tribute in Light" beams at Ground Zero in New York, which were used to great effect in Spike Lee's "25th Hour."
The "Tribute in Light" beams at Ground Zero in New York, which were used to great effect in Spike Lee's "25th Hour."
Of all the things that were said in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, few have generated as much controversy as German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s claim that the cataclysmic events of that day were “the greatest work of art that exists for the whole Cosmos.”

Although Stockhausen insisted up to his death that his words had been taken out of context, most right-thinking people would stop short of calling such a shocking spectacle “art” under any circumstances.

In the years that have passed since Stockhausen made his comment, however, the events of 9/11 have been gradually reclaimed to a certain extent by many genuine artists who have used their creative imaginations to describe, explain and, above all, commemorate a day that has been indelibly etched on the collective consciousness.

Here is a personal list of some memorable, if not always successful, efforts made by filmmakers, musicians, writers and visual artists to analyze and elucidate what happened on September 11, 2001.

As I’ve probably left out plenty of work that is worthy of mention, we’d encourage you to add any glaring omissions in the comments section below.

9/11 And Film

September 11 has probably made its presence felt most frequently in the realm of film. In many cases, it is actually the event’s absence that has been most apparent.

The Twin Towers were deleted from scenes in several films released shortly after 9/11, including “People I Know,” “Zoolander” and “Serendipity.”

Perhaps most notoriously, this specially shot teaser for the first Spiderman movie was also never shown in theaters. (Incidentally, the emblematic scene of Spider-Man hanging on to a flagpole with the American flag at the end of the movie was apparently added in direct response to September 11. )

In other films, the events of 9/11 resonate strongly in the background even though they are not directly part of the plot. This is perhaps seen to greatest effect in Spike Lee’s “25th Hour,” a somber paean to New York and its inhabitants whose opening credits make poignant use of the commemorative floodlights marking where the Twin Towers once stood.

There have, of course, been plenty of films that tackled the subject of 9/11 head-on, such as Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center,” which went for a straightforward heroic narrative that followed the plight of New York rescue workers trapped in the rubble of one of the collapsed towers.

Unfortunately, the film’s laudable intentions are undermined to a certain extent by the director’s typically heavy-handed approach.

One of the more ambitious films on the subject was “11’9”01—September 11,” which is composed of 11 films by 11 directors from different countries, offering their own take on the fateful day.

Given the scale of the project, it’s hardly surprising that the end result is quite patchy in places, but there are some memorable vignettes, particularly Sean Penn’s thoughtful portrayal of a lonely old man (played by Ernest Borgnine) living alone in an apartment near the Twin Towers.

For many, however, the best film on 9/11 was the gripping docudrama “United 93,” which depicted the daring stand passengers took against their terrorist hijackers on one of the ill-fated flights.

Perhaps one of the reasons this movie struck a chord with audiences is that it showed people “fighting back” and directly tackling the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, thereby serving as a welcome counterpoint to the sense of helpless disbelief that many felt as they watched the horrible events unfold.

In some strange visceral way, it is reassuring to know that the passengers on the United Airlines flight were the first people who had an opportunity to respond to what was happening and they didn’t hesitate to take action.

9/11 And Music

The events on United 93 were also the inspiration behind songwriter Neil Young’s "Let’s Roll," a stirring response to 9/11 which celebrated their efforts to “face evil down.”

Although Young’s uplifting track undeniably packs an emotional punch, it was another veteran songwriter, Bruce Springsteen, who perhaps produced the most considered musical reaction to the 9/11 tragedy.

The story goes that the singer was inspired to make "The Rising" album a few days after the attacks when a stranger pulled up in a car beside him, rolled down his window and said, "We need you now."

The collection of 15 songs he subsequently produced was an instant critical and commercial success upon its release in July 2002. "Slate" even went so far as to hail Springsteen as "the poet laureate of 9/11:

"If any American artist could summon up an adequate, inclusive response to the events of that day, it would have to be Springsteen. This is not only because he has roots in the same Northeastern Catholic working-class soil from which so many of the local heroes of 9/11 sprouted, but because his songwriting idiom is almost uncannily attuned to the tangle of feelings—horror, grief, and rage, but also resolve, resilience, and solidarity—that that day left in its wake and is perhaps uniquely capable of clarifying them."
By common consent, the title track is the stand-out song on "The Rising," and this tale of a New York firefighter narrating his own death and resurrection at Ground Zero has been figuring highly on lists of the best music inspired by 9/11. It also featured at President Barack Obama's inauguration concert in 2009

Besides popular music there have also been plenty of classical music projects dedicated to 9/11.

One of the most interesting of these is Steve Reich's "WTC 9/11" for the Kronos Quartet, which eerily features voice recordings relating to the attack, including material from the New York City Fire Department.

Another piece of classical music that was not inspired by 9/11 but which has come to be closely associated with the tragedy is Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," primarily because of the BBC's decision to add it to the Last Night program of its Proms concerts just days after the attacks.

9/11 And Literature

Although countless non-fiction tomes have been published about 9/11, few novels have grappled directly with the subject.

Nonetheless, there are some notable exceptions.

These include French writer Frederic Beigbeder's "Windows on the World," which recounts in harrowing minute-by-minute detail the last moments of a man trapped with his two sons in the restaurant at the top of the North Tower from when it is hit at 8:46 a.m. until its eventual collapse 42 minutes later.

This is juxtaposed with the thoughts of the writer himself as he sits having breakfast atop of a Paris skyscraper on the other side of the world.

It’s not surprising that such narrative artifice was widely lambasted as being inappropriate and self-indulgent, but the author’s ruminations on 9/11 do linger in the mind even if the book is not really a satisfying read. As one reviewer on put it: "The author is an asshole [but]...swallow his egotism. It is worth it by the time you get to 10:28 [a.m.]."

New York resident Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is a lot more accessible, possibly because it explores the aftermath of 9/11 instead of looking directly at the horrific events that occurred.

It’s safe to say that many readers would have identified with the childish bewilderment of Foer’s precocious nine-year-old protagonist Oskar Schell as he wanders the streets of New York city looking to learn more about his father, who was suddenly taken from him when he perished at the World Trade Center.

Not surprisingly for those familiar with his other work, Don De Lillo's "Falling Man" defies easy description.

However, one of the most haunting aspects of this account of a traumatized WTC survivor is a strange performance-artist character, who pops up in various places in New York city in a business suit and suspends himself upside down in the pose of the falling man from the famous AP photograph by Richard Drew, thereby forcing onlookers to relive the horror they experienced on 9/11.

It’s a disquieting image and, as "Commentary" magazine put it in a review of 9/11 novelists, one of the questions it raises is whether it is possible "to create art out of horror without being exploitative and tasteless."

9/11 And The Visual Arts

In a sense, Richard Drew’s photograph and the many other striking images that were produced on September 11, 2001 have undermined the artistic response to that day, particularly when it comes to the visual arts.

A detail from American painter Graydon Parrish’s "Cycle of Terror and Tragedy." (Reproduced by kind permission of the artist)

Although the likes of Lokesh Mandot and Graydon Parrish (see above) have produced some thought-provoking visual representations of 9/11, their attempts to imaginatively interpret and encapsulate the event currently don't have the same impact as the real-life records produced by press photographers like Drew and Thomas Hoepker.

It seems that even though plenty of laudable attempts have been made by artists in various fields to depict and process what happened on September 11 ten years ago, no one has yet produced anything in the vein of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica which managed to crystallize that particular event in the popular imagination.

Perhaps 9/11 was so monumental in scale it still defies artistic representation. Or perhaps -- as Tom Sutcliffe recently suggested in the “London Independent” -- a mere decade has not been enough time for us to fully take stock of what happened:

"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."

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