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Out Of Rubble: How Art Helps Us Recast 9/11 and Imagine a Peaceful World

On "10 Years And Counting," an all-inclusive, activist artist movement starting in September.

I come from a family of artists and activists and have long made paintings that grappled with abused resources, misplaced priorities, and histories we forget only to repeat. As a painter, I dismantled hierarchies, invented new cartographies, and exposed structures that generate the very conditions they were meant to prevent. After my son was born during the first Gulf War, the intellectual pacifism behind my work got emotional. Pietàs were the only possibility. By the time of the second Gulf War, I struggled with how not to sink into resignation and cynicism, wondering how art can really matter.

 Responding to the ongoing disasters of war and the policies and conditions that lead to them, artists can condone or condemn. The challenge lies in finding a constructive stance. In the midst of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War and years into our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, I tried to find a way to mourn the carnage and reveal the loss while offering a metaphoric restitution. The results were two series: R&R(…&R), that counters art historical and contemporary media representations of war with restorative interventions, and Horsepower Hubris, that questions violence and the valor that we all too frequently assign to it. I wanted to convert military expressions like “rest and recuperation” to words like “regret and restitution.” I wanted to convey the misery of the monumental getting caught up in its own machinery.

Aware of the masters like Goya and Kollwitz whose portrayals of war haunt to this day, I began to seek out contemporary international artists who react to the wake of war—its realities and its representations. I collected some of their invariably somber responses, both tender and unflinching, in a book project, OUT OF RUBBLE. Unfortunately, witnessing and sifting the remains of traumas we inflict on each other, through state-sponsored or individual acts of violence, never seems to end.

Artists wrestle constantly with the failure of images to represent the full complexity of lived reality. In "Psychoanalysis, Culture and Trauma," Cathy Caruth posits the paradox that traumatic experience suggests: “that the most direct seeing of a violent event may occur as an absolute inability to know it.”1 If those who directly experience the traumas of violence are unable to know them, how can artists from afar know or empathize with them? Extending the inquiry from Theodor Adorno to Elaine Scarry, we continue to ask whether horrific realities can even be represented and, if so, how? Still, artists plunge into the paradox. The images they create are, as Susan Sontag describes in Regarding the Pain of Others, “an invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalizations for mass suffering offered by established powers,” asking: “Who caused what the picture shows? Who is responsible? Is it excusable? Was it inevitable?”2

Such crucial questions inform and motivate contemporary artists as war and its ensuing wreckage continues to plague the planet. 
The rubble that each war leaves behind is also carried into the future, whether physically, psychologically, culturally or spiritually. Artists record, remember, reflect, re-purpose and restore that rubble—materially and conceptually, literally and metaphorically. Whether responding personally or collectively, they recognize what has been destroyed and speak to how (or whether) it can be restored or redeemed. Perhaps the best we can do is to strive for empathic unsettlement, which Dominick LaCapra defines as an emotional response that comes with respect for the other and the realization that the experience of the other is not one’s own.”3 The empathic response is, as Geoffrey Hartman posits, indispensable in art, but it must be checked: art’s “truest reason” is in expanding “the sympathetic imagination while teaching us about the limits of sympathy.”

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