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Few tragedies have inspired such an outpouring of commentary and art as 9/11. It was, after all, the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, taking place square in the heart of the nation’s biggest city. Consequently, the events of that day and the site of the former World Trade Center have taken on an unmatched weight in American iconography. With the tenth anniversary arriving and the austere memorial at Ground Zero finally about to make its debut, the floodgates have opened again with countless exhibitions and tributes planned.
Yet, as befits an event with a truly traumatic status, 9/11 has proved difficult to approach in an uncontroversial way. No work of “9/11 Art,” in fact, seems complete without some commentary on how it fails or does disservice to the true nature of the tragedy — though, of course, this true nature varies depending on who is doing the commentary. Below, ARTINFO summarizes some of the most notable episodes in art’s relation to the tragedy, and how these controversies have entered the public debate about the meaning of September 11, 2001.
John Updike, who died on Tuesday at 76, was our Trollope and our Proust both. Though a brilliant man, he was not a novelist of ideas. His best character, Rabbit Angstrom, had trouble making sense of his own life, let alone the lives of those around him. Nor did Mr. Updike have a reformer’s zeal or a dreamer’s vision. His gifts were his eye and his sensibility, which enabled him to describe, with an exactitude bordering on love, how the world looked and what it felt like to make your way in it.
He was the great chronicler of middle-class America, and hundreds of years from now, if people still read, they will read the Rabbit books to learn what that perplexing age, the 20th century, was really like.
Mr. Updike was also America’s last true man of letters, an all-purpose writer and a custodian of literary culture. He wrote more, and in more different genres — stories, novels, poems, essays, reviews, occasional journalism — than anyone since Henry James, and it’s hard to imagine how he can be replaced. Who has the energy, or the eyeballs, for that much reading?
In many ways, though, Mr. Updike was an unlikely man of letters. He lived a quiet, burgherly life in a seaside Boston suburb and seldom went to literary parties. He dropped by New York now and then to visit museums and see relatives, but he never stayed long. He didn’t teach; he almost never gave blurbs; he belonged to no literary school or faction. His idea of a reward after a morning’s work was not lunch ordrinks with other writers but a round of golf with his buddies.
Mr. Updike kept in touch with the literary world mostly by mail. He was a regular at the post office and eagerly awaited the arrival every day of the FedEx truck. He was old-fashioned in promptly and politely answering letters, and his correspondence was like the man himself: stylish, charming, gently self-deprecatory. Starting when he was in his late 50’s, it sometimes amused him to pretend to be a fogey and a valetudinarian. His submissions to The New Yorker, where I used to edit him sometimes, were often accompanied by a little note declaring that the enclosed was not very good and would probably be his last, because the well was going dry, the tank was empty, the field was fallow. In fact, until the very end of his life Mr. Updike was remarkably youthful, and he filed his last piece with the magazine just weeks before he died.
New York Times
Classical music may not match the popularity of best-selling pop singers or star-studded movies, but our public moments of expression have tended to turn to it to add emotion and pomp to civic circumstance.
But long-dead composers typically are chosen, from Bach to Barber, and this has only heightened the stereotype that classical music composition is defunct — something thousands of living composers disprove daily.
For instance, when the Berlin Wall was dismantled, Leonard Bernstein chose Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, “Choral.” While his substituting of the word “freedom” for “joy”was clever, it was telling that he would choose a work older than the wall itself to mark the occasion.
When the New York Philharmonic performed Brahms’ “A German Requiem” for consolation in the days following Sept. 11, 2001, it seemed it would be business as usual. But, like much in American culture, the attacks also changed the music landscape. Contemporary composers poured out hundreds of works inspired by 9/11, and out of them a masterful new piece rose to speak about the events: composer John Adams’ “On the Transmigration of Souls,” commissioned by the Philharmonic and Lincoln Center.
Saturday, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra will give the Pittsburgh premiere of the work for chorus, orchestra and tape as part of two special concerts conducted by Mr. Adams, whom many consider to be the preeminent American composer.
“America, quite possibly the world’s most fertile and creative musical culture during the 20th century, did not have a single orchestral work that could satisfy the need for collective emotional experience that a seriously traumatized public maintained in those jarring days after the attacks,” Mr. Adams wrote in his memoirs, “Hallelujah Junction.”
“Shorter, more intimate works we had — Ives’ ‘Unanswered Question,’Copland’s ‘Quiet City,’ the Barber ‘Adagio.’But we could not contribute anything on the level of a grand public statement of communally shared hope and idealism such as Beethoven or Mahler would satisfy.”
“Adams was disappointed with it,” said John Rockwell, a culture critic who formerly wrote about music and dance for The New York Times. “He had a mission to create something that was contemporary.”
Not as easy as it sounded. After decades of experimental music, many listeners had been turned off, and few looked to living classical composers for consolation. On the contrary, in popular media, it wasn’t a matter of if, but when artists would respond.
Bruce Springsteen’s 2002 album “The Rising” was joined in recalling the day by films such as “United 93” and “World Trade Center,” and novels such as Don DeLillo’s “Falling Man” and Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” and Anne Nelson’s play “The Guys.” Whether any of these will be seen as definite statements on the tragedy of loss through conflict in the way Picasso’s “Guernica,” Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, or even Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” have, has yet to be determined.
But Mr. Adams’ “Transmigration” is already showing itself to be a potentially lasting monument to the victims and a general space of reflection and solace for any tragedy.
“The piece is such a wonderful response,” said Frank J. Oteri, composer advocate at the American Music Center in New York.
Others agree. In 2003, “Transmigration” won the Pulitzer Prize in music. Since its premiere in 2002 it has had about 30 performances around the world, an astonishing number when most works rarely get heard beyond their first performances. While the success of “Transmigration” can surely somewhat be tied to Mr. Adams’ position as a leading American composer, it’s clear that it has legs all its own. Acclaimed composers such as Joseph Schwantner, Richard Danielpour and Michael Gordon have written substantive opuses on 9/11, but none that have had the popularity of Mr. Adams’ composition.
“It is not forced,”said Mr. Oteri of “Transmigration.” “You are not being pandered to.” That was crucial to its success. “There was squeamishness about immediately capitalizing on [9/11],”said Mr. Rockwell. As late as 2006, trailers for “United 93” garnered cries of “too soon!” and Mr. Adams himself first thought that “you couldn’t do this unless it was in the worst possible taste.”
But he composed a tactful, quiet piece — detached rather than the in-your-face nature of some other responses.
This detachment allows others to add their emotion, said Mr. Oteri. “He calls it a memory space, a place you can be alone with your emotions.” A chorus and children’s choir sing snippets of text, from missing-person notices found on the impromptu memorials near the World Trade Center to phrases culled from news stories. But the progression is non-narrative, not a statement of morality like Schiller’s pantheistic “Ode to Joy” of Beethoven’s Ninth.
Musically, Mr. Adams accomplishes the mood not only by simply writing pianissimo (very quiet). He also introduces a series of digital audio tracks that surrounds the audience while the orchestra plays and the choruses sing. Some capture a typical New York cityscape, others read off names of victims of the attack, while still others are more ambiguous — a siren in the distance and running footsteps.
“We all know what is being said, we all know what it is about,”said Mr. Adams. “I don’t need to amplify it. If anything, I went in the other direction.”
But the quiet audio tracks made a lot of noise in traditional classical circles. Though the technology has been available for years, the popularity of “Transmigration” raised its awareness and furthered its acceptance in the notoriously conservative orchestral world. He also has a portion of the orchestra play in quarter tones.
Curiously, these newer techniques may explain why “Transmigration” has become popular. Mr. Adams didn’t look to compete with the masterpieces of the past but to say something in media (such as sampling and surround sound audio) we are more used to today.
“The emotional kick is the juxtaposition of the orchestra and the sound collage,”said Mr. Rockwell. “You couldn’t have done that 50 years ago and had it considered classical music. His acoustic, amplified acoustic and electronic blend adds a contemporary element to him.”
The future will surely bear many more responses to 9/11 in classical music and beyond. “Major works take years to gestate,” said Mr. Rockwell. “The Napoleonic era’s greatest artistic statement was Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ and that didn’t come out until 50 years later.”
But now, new music is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with all of arts and entertainment — and its own past — in creating a significant new memorial for those who perished in the attacks.
David Foster Wallace used his prodigious gifts as a writer — his manic, exuberant prose, his ferocious powers of observation, his ability to fuse avant-garde techniques with old-fashioned moral seriousness — to create a series of strobe-lit portraits of a millennial America overdosing on the drugs of entertainment and self-gratification, and to capture, in the words of the musician Robert Plant, the myriad “deep and meaningless” facets of contemporary life.
A prose magician, Mr. Wallace was capable of writing — in his fiction and nonfiction — about subjects from tennis to politics to lobsters, from the horrors of drug withdrawal to the small terrors of life aboard a luxury cruise ship, with humor and fervor and verve. At his best he could write funny, write sad, write sardonic and write serious. He could map the infinite and infinitesimal, the mythic and mundane. He could conjure up an absurd future — an America in which herds of feral hamsters roam the land — while conveying the inroads the absurd has already made in a country where old television shows are a national touchstone and asinine advertisements wallpaper our lives. He could make the reader see state-fair pigs that are so fat they resemble small Volkswagens; communicate the weirdness of growing up in Tornado Alley, in the mathematically flat Midwest; capture the mood of Senator John McCain’s old ”straight talk” campaign of 2000.
Mr. Wallace, who died Friday night at his home in Claremont, Calif., at 46, an apparent suicide, belonged to a generation of writers who grew up on the work of Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and Robert Coover, a generation that came of age in the ’60s and ’70s and took discontinuity for granted. But while his own fiction often showcased his mastery of postmodern pyrotechnics — a cold but glittering arsenal of irony, self-consciousness and clever narrative high jinks — he was also capable of creating profoundly human flesh-and-blood characters with three-dimensional emotional lives. In a kind of aesthetic manifesto, he once wrote that irony and ridicule had become “agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture” and mourned the loss of engagement with deep moral issues that animated the work of the great 19th-century novelists.
For that matter, much of Mr. Wallace’s work, from his gargantuan 1996 novel “Infinite Jest” to his excursions into journalism, felt like outtakes from a continuing debate inside his head about the state of the world and the role of the writer in it, and the chasm between idealism and cynicism, aspirations and reality. The reader could not help but feel that Mr. Wallace had inhaled the muchness of contemporary America — a place besieged by too much data, too many video images, too many high-decibel sales pitches and disingenuous political ads — and had so many contradictory thoughts about it that he could only expel them in fat, prolix narratives filled with Möbius strip-like digressions, copious footnotes and looping philosophical asides. If this led to self-indulgent books badly in need of editing — “Infinite Jest” clocked in at an unnecessarily long 1,079 pages — it also resulted in some wonderfully powerful writing.
He could riff ingeniously about jailhouse tattoos, videophonic stress and men’s movement meetings. A review of a memoir by the tennis player Tracy Austin became a meditation on art and athletics and the mastery of one’s craft. A review of a John Updike novel became an essay on how the “brave new individualism and sexual freedom” of the 1960s had devolved into “the joyless and anomic self-indulgence of the Me Generation.”
Although his books can be uproariously, laugh-out-loud funny, a dark threnody of sadness and despair also runs through Mr. Wallace’s work. He said in one interview that he set out with “Infinite Jest” “to do something sad,” and that novel not only paints a blackly comic portrait of an America run amok, but also features a tormented hero, who is reeling from his discovery of his father’s bloody suicide — his head found splattered inside a microwave oven. Other books too depict characters grappling with depression, free-floating anxiety and plain old unhappiness. One of the stories in “Oblivion” revolved around a cable TV startup called “the Suffering Channel,” which presented “still and moving images of the most intense available moments of human anguish.”
Like Mr. DeLillo and Salman Rushdie, and like Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith and other younger authors, Mr. Wallace transcended Philip Rahv’s famous division of writers into “palefaces” (like Henry James and T. S. Eliot, who specialized in heady, cultivated works rich in symbolism and allegory) and “redskins” (like Whitman and Dreiser, who embraced an earthier, more emotional naturalism). He also transcended Cyril Connolly’s division of writers into “mandarins” (like Proust, who favored ornate, even byzantine prose) and “vernacular” stylists (like Hemingway, who leaned toward more conversational tropes). An ardent magpie, Mr. Wallace tossed together the literary and the colloquial with hyperventilated glee, using an encyclopedia of styles and techniques to try to capture the cacophony of contemporary America. As a result his writing could be both brainy and visceral, fecund with ideas and rich with zeitgeisty buzz.
Over the years he threw off the heavy influence of Mr. Pynchon that was all too apparent in “The Broom of the System” (1987) — which, like “The Crying of Lot 49,” used Joycean word games and literary parody to recount the story of a woman’s quest for knowledge and identity — to find a more elastic voice of his own in “Infinite Jest.” That novel used three story lines — involving a tortured tennis prodigy, a former Demerol addict and Canadian terrorists who want to get their hands on a movie reputed to be so entertaining it causes anyone who sees it to die of pleasure — to depict a depressing, toxic and completely commercialized America. Although that novel suffered from a lack of discipline and a willful repudiation of closure, it showcased Mr. Wallace’s virtuosity and announced his arrival as one of his generation’s pre-eminent talents.
Two later collections of stories — “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men” (1999) and “Oblivion” (2004), which both featured whiny, narcissistic characters — suggested a falling off of ambition and a claustrophobic solipsism of the sort Mr. Wallace himself once decried. But his ventures into nonfiction, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (1997) and “Consider the Lobster” (2005), grounded his proclivity for meandering, stream-of-consciousness musings in sharp magazine assignments and reportorial subjects, and they evinced the same sort of weird telling details and philosophical depth of field as his most powerful fiction. They reminded the reader of Mr. Wallace’s copious gifts as a writer and his keen sense of the metastasizing absurdities of life in America at a precarious hinge moment in time.
New York Times
He had a thing for blue. Also clay pipes and Victorian postcards, ticket stubs, bits of tulle, starfish and old clock parts. He was drawn to automats and secondhand-book stalls, corresponded with ballerinas, filmed pigeons, liked pie.
These are among the oft-repeated facts about Joseph Cornell. Notice, in even so brief a litany, the transition from art to life and back again. Perhaps more than any other artist’s work, Cornell’s is best appreciated in the context of imagining the life of the man. Put another way: what Cornell lovers love most may be not the objects themselves — the evocative boxes, collages, dossiers and short films — but the story of their making, which is the story of an awkward dreamer walking the city, finding treasure in flotsam, spying magic all around.
Since his death, Joseph Cornell (1903-72) has been the subject of more than 20 books, from scholarly explorations of his art and life to poetry and fiction inspired by him. Yet for all the scrutiny and the mulling, he remains elusive, almost chimerical: a figure embraced by the art world even as he rejected the label “artist,” a voyager who never strayed far from home, an idolater of innocence whose work could be eerily erotic. In photographs he is gaunt and unsmiling, almost invariably looking away from the lens. His face appears drawn and deeply lined, as if scored by loneliness, and his lean frame has a tentative look, as though he has yet to make up his mind whether he is meant for this epoch, this planet.
Perhaps a desire to understand this enigmatic man in terms that would count him as one of us explains the seemingly endless flow of literary responses to his work. Best known for his glass-covered box creations, many of them made in tribute to people he idealized, Cornell has elicited just as many tributes himself. John Ashbery, Octavio Paz, Stanley Kunitz and Robert Pinsky all wrote poems for him. He’s been immortalized in music and plays. And many of the books about him — from Dore Ashton’s “Joseph Cornell Album” to Charles Simic’s improbably beautiful “Dime-Store Alchemy” to Jonathan Safran Foer’s anthology “A Convergence of Birds” — could themselves be described in Cornellian terms: collage-like, experimental, quixotic. Even those that take the form of conventionally linear narratives (like Deborah Solomon’s definitive biography, “Utopia Parkway”) tend to carry echoes of the magical qualities associated with Cornell.
The latest addition, Lynda Roscoe Hartigan’s mammoth catalog “Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination,” accompanies the first retrospective of the artist’s work in 26 years, a deliciously bountiful exhibition curated by Hartigan and recently on view in Washington, San Francisco and Salem, Mass. If you missed it, this book really is the next best thing: thorough, lavish, disturbing, beguiling…
This book stands out, too, for being utterly unfey, devoid of the poetic eruptions Cornell induces…those who linger may be rewarded, for it turns out Hartigan has done something lovely. She, too, has modeled a response to Cornell’s work on his own methods, assembling and inventorying a pastiche of the ideas, innovations, people, philosophies and experiences that most likely influenced the artist. She doesn’t navigate his imagination so much as map the explicit tributaries that fed it. And is her map ever detailed…
Hartigan’s esoteric, even idiosyncratic approach — heavily sprinkled with illustrations of places, people and objects Cornell encountered — provides a vicarious experience of the man who was himself an idiosyncratic “browser,” drawn to “nonlinear exploration.” The slow accretion of varied and seemingly disparate influences, which Cornell wove together in such singular, suggestive fashion, also lends weight to Hartigan’s intriguing speculation that he might have suffered from synesthesia, the neurological phenomenon that causes some people to “smell” colors or “taste” letters of the alphabet…The crowning stroke to this mapping of Cornell’s mind is the inclusion, in the bibliography, of some 150 books that are not about Cornell but that were important to him, that nurtured and informed his perceptions. Taken together, the words and images offer the sense that we are apprehending the world from the artist’s perspective, rather than witnessing yet another admirer’s artful display. There’s no fault in such a display. Hartigan tells us Cornell thought of art as “a spiritual gift to humanity.” But what she has fashioned is a gift, too, which feels, in its faithfulness, like a special kind of homage.
Cornell gives us hope. The notion of a curious, wistful man walking the city and turning up treasure in debris, seeing the transcendent in the forgotten, the discarded, the mundane — such a notion is intrinsically hopeful. By inviting us to fathom how he did it, Hartigan brings us one step closer to the promise of our own longings.
Leah Hager Cohen
New York Times
Elizabeth Hardwick, the critic, essayist, fiction writer and co-founder of The New York Review of Books, who went from being a studious Southern Belle to a glittering member of the New York City intellectual elite, died Sunday night in Manhattan. She was 91…Known mainly as a critic, and credited for expanding the possibilities of the literary essay through her intimate tone and her dramatic deployment of forceful logic, Ms. Hardwick nevertheless resisted easy classification… “Articulate, witty, very clever, freewheeling, she became a master of the slashing critical style of the politicized literary intellectuals,” wrote William Phillips, Rahv’s co-editor, in his memoirs. “She was one of our more cutting minds, and she made us aware of our faults as well as our virtues.”
As her powers and audience grew, she reviewed all literary forms from novels to nonfiction to plays, and explored an expanding sweep of subjects.
Disdaining theory, her criticism was “predicated on a working psychology,” as the critic Denis Donoghue put it in a review. “The difference between Hedda Gabler and someone Miss Hardwick might have known in ordinary life” was “of no interest to her,” he wrote…
She wrote on every subject from Bloomsbury to Marina Oswald to Mick Jagger at Altamont, from her dislike of Boston in the buttoned-up 1950s to Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin’s daughter, to the murderous Menendez brothers, to what she deplored as the decline of book reviewing.
Her skepticism reached a zenith when she helped to do something about that decline — when from the intellectual loftiness of her book-laden West 67th Street duplex apartment, she helped found The New York Review of Books…
In a 1984 interview in The Paris Review, the writer Darryl Pinckney asked her about her feelings about getting older. “You can always ask,” Ms. Hardwick responded. “Its only value is that it spares you the opposite, not growing older. People do cling to consciousness, and under the most dreadful circumstances. It shows you that it is all we have, doesn’t it? Waking up, the first and the last privilege, waking up once more.”
When Mr. Pinckney asked her, “Do you think it is more painful for women than for men?” she replied: “More about women and men? About something so burdensome it doesn’t seem valuable to make distinctions. Oh, the dear grave. I like what Gottfried Benn wrote, something like, ‘May I die in the spring when the ground is soft and easy to plough.’ ”
New York Times
A Hardwick Sampler:
On Gertrude Stein: “It is curious to learn condensation from Stein, who stripped, reduced, and simplified only to add up without mercy, making her prose an intimidating heap of bare bones, among other things.”
On oral biography, as exemplified by “Working,” by Studs Turkel, “Mailer: His Life and Times,” by Peter Manso, and “The Executioner’s Song,” by Norman Mailer: “It is often the task of the historian and the imaginative writer to discover the silences behind speech. . . . Instead, what we have here is a sort of decomposed creativity, a recycling similar to that of the obsolete ragman who turned old clothes into paper. . . . The drastic distance between gossip, the libertine loquacity of the dinner table, and print dissolves, as we would expect since the enterprise is committed to print only as a vessel of the waters of orality.”
On Eugene O’Neill: “A certain humility is necessary about the lowly, badly hammered nails if the poor house, completed, moves you to tears. If the dialogue is so cumbersome how can the drama, projected through the dialogue, make its way into our senses? . . . Sometimes literature is not made with words.”