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

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.”

Faced with the obliteration of human lives and habitats, the sympathetic imagination is a pendulum swinging wildly from rage and sorrow to compassion and confidence in our capacity to mend. Artists use images, actions, materials and processes that speak to decimation and disintegration and our struggle to resist or overcome it. In OUT OF RUBBLE, they represent the aftermath of war in specific places (Beirut, Berlin, Gaza, Hiroshima, Kabul, Karachi, Nagasaki, Najaf, Sarajevo, Tehran, Tokyo and more) as well as in invented or unidentifiable sites. The chaos of war does not discriminate or differentiate one place from another, nor soldier from civilian. Its rubble bequeaths anonymity, eradicating the defining features of cultures and peoples. Some artists depict such erasure while others counter it by re-injecting or animating the human traces that distinguish time and place.

Reflecting on war from a country with a long history of conflict, the Polish poet WisÅ‚awa Szymborska wrote: “Reality demands that we mention this: Life goes on.” Artists face this demand through gestures both tentative (given the scope of loss) and blatant (given the severity of impact). They mourn the havoc we wreak and atone the atrocities we commit. They create narratives bound up in the crises of truth, striving toward the impossible task of comprehending the incomprehensible, or exposing the lies that lead us to folly. Before and long after the rubble is cleared, they review, anticipate and sometimes lay ground for what needs to be rebuilt.

Laying this ground is a project beyond the scope of one book or even one hundred artists. It requires seeds from all sources and constant cultivation. One collective project that embraces this reality is Ten Years + Counting (10YAC) that grew out of a Blue Mountain Center focus residency on the Costs of War. Launched from the shore of Eagle Lake, its ripples yearn to become a tsunami. 10YAC is an online resource open to all who want to commemorate a decade of senseless war, promote a shift in our national priorities, divert resources from the machinery of death and destruction, redirect them toward social welfare and justice, and imagine a world with economic parity and peace. 10YAC encourages all of us to recognize that these goals are not impossibly utopian, but possible and realistic, and to act on their feasibility and necessity.

Visitors to the 10YAC site can view the work of artists committed to exposing the futility and folly of war and what it costs us in so many dimensions. They can read poems, learn lyrics, and find films. They can analyze economic statistics and count their own costs of war. There would be no debt ceiling to raise if we stopped funding war. Browse the site to discover tools and ideas for organizing events and spurring others to do the same. Register and share them with all. This online pooling of creative initiative is meant to spill offline with a momentum that floods every institution and moves every heart, hand and mind toward making anything but war.

Parts of this article were adapted from the introduction to OUT OF RUBBLE, published in 2011 by Charta Art Books, Milan and available now in Europe and in the USA in late October. 

OUT OF RUBBLE artists appearing as 10YAC featured artists include: Wafaa Bilal, Enrique Castrejon, Monica Haller, Andrew Ellis Johnson, Curtis Mann, Samina Mansuri, Simon Norfolk, elin o’Hara slavick, Susanne Slavick, and Elaine Spatz-Rabinowitz. Click here to see their work and more.

For more information on Ten Years + Counting: http://www.10yearsandcounting.org/

1. Cathy Caruth, “Traumatic Awakenings” in Violence, Identity, and Self-Determination, ed. Hent de Vries and Samuel Weber (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 208.

2. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 101-102.

3. Jill Bennett, Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma and Contemporary Art (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 8.


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