Come September

A year after the attack, and two years after, and three, an anxiety would take hold in New York sometime around late August. The anniversary would approach—the date that shared its name with the event, looming on the calendar—and you would worry about whether it was appropriate to make plans on the day, or your social democratic soul would seize up as you worried about its invocation by war propagandists or the President’s reelection campaign.

Then the anniversary seemed to disappear from view. You stopped thinking twice about flying. Last year and the year before, it attracted little attention. This year has been different.

It had become difficult—even here—to speak of the day on its own terms, to divorce it from what it entailed, yet one welcome aspect of this anniversary was that it began to allow us to look once again at September 11 on a local scale. Despite Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, the Patriot Act and the suspension of habeas corpus, warrantless wiretapping and subcontracted military operations and enormous, carcinogen-spewing airport body scanners, September 11 is still primarily a New York occurrence.

The use it was put to, the speed with which its political meaning hardened (an act of war, a clash of civilizations: these terms were floating around even on that day, as you can see in the Internet Archive’s trove of television footage) made earlier anniversaries into fraught affairs for those in the city who didn’t believe in, say, unilateral preemptive war. At this distance things are easier. We can get back to the living and the dead.

The memorial, whatever its failures, will do its job when it opens to the public today. This past weekend there was Bach in Trinity Church and Mahler at the Philharmonic; the Ground Zero photographs of Joel Meyerowitz are still on view at NYU. If you prefer to stay home you can read Dog Heroes of September 11, featuring an adorable golden retriever, or watch “Beyond: Messages from 9/11,” in which a woman widowed by the disaster reveals communications she’s had with her lost husband.

But the endless revisiting and commemoration do not help us “never forget”; none of us have forgotten.

What is harder to recall is the experience of life “in the shadow of no towers,” as Art Spiegelman put it, during those strange, critical months after September 11, when we really had no idea what was going on. Excavating the autumn and winter after the disaster, reliving those seasons of uncertainty and confusion, is a challenging but necessary project. Those were treacherous days, but extraordinary ones.

History has markers, and spectacular images and red-letter days can absorb entire months of pain and bewilderment. But the bleak days after September 11, the ones now sucked into the awful day itself or else obscured by the crimes committed afterward, carried the germ of something, a startling and obliterated openness that could have helped us re-situate ourselves, if not in a changed world, then at least in the world we lived in.

Then Iraq intruded—and, out of political disgust or sheer exhaustion, we suppressed one of the most unusual and beautiful moments in the recent life of this city.

I’d like to propose that culture can offer us a way back into it. Art and theater and music may not be the only route to return to those months, the century’s strange gambit, but theirs is probably the most easily accessible. In 2011, with New York facing a new crisis of resources and confidence, one that makes the previous decade’s bromides about renewal seem laughably dated, those first few months after September 11 seem almost like a golden age.

The by now standard recounting of cultural life immediately after September 11 focuses almost entirely on television talk shows and comedy. It is also disturbingly foreshortened: it begins when Letterman returned to air on September 17, cried through his monologue, and cracked wan jokes with Regis Philbin, and ends when Rudy Giuliani appeared with a clutch of police officers and firefighters on Saturday Night Live on September 29 to call time on sorrow. The disaster’s instant inscription into the past was jarring, not least because it was New York figures who encouraged it. Far sooner than it should have, the destruction of the World Trade Center seemed to pass into reruns.

But in New York itself, where the pile smoldered until November, you had to take your time. There was too much to reckon with. After the first few days, when everything was cancelled—the Democratic mayoral primary, the Broadway shows, the Lil’ Romeo concert at the Beacon—New York gradually began moving again. The Met opened on Thursday. On Friday there was a classical concert at Alice Tully Hall. The city’s cultural scene restarted, but slowly, and instead of pushing forward it paused and looked around.

In the darkness of those initial days, one of the first artists to perform in New York was Laurie Anderson, who played the Town Hall on 43rd Street for two nights, September 19 and 20. I wasn’t there, but the recordings from those concerts—even the typeface on the album cover, black-on-white Franklin Gothic—have a sobriety and a starkness one doesn’t always associate with Anderson. Her default mode in many of her most famous performances was bemused detachment, holding up American bizarreries to the light of her glowing violin. Her performances those nights had a different tenor; the stories and asides were cut back, the videos were scrapped, and all that was left were songs about exploration, freedom, and New York at night. It was a first, tentative step, a test to see whether old material had any relevance. It did. She revisited her best-known song, “O Superman,” which she hadn’t sung live for nearly two decades. “Here come the planes. They’re American planes,” she sang, though instead of relying on her famous Vocoder-enabled squeak, she barely whispered the lines.

There was, of course, an economic slump. (Though not technically a recession, as we spoke of it then; in 2001 we didn’t know from recessions.) Five Broadway shows closed the weekend of September 21. Off Broadway theaters, many of them below 14th Street and so not easily accessible in those first days, had it even worse. But while tourists stayed away, New Yorkers gradually came back, and to surprisingly non-escapist fare. The hit of the season was 76-year-old Elaine Stritch’s one-woman show at the Public Theater; its central song was “I’m Still Here.” Mary Zimmerman’s cleansing adaptation of the Metamorphoses, which staged sections of Ovid’s poem in a wading pool (Orpheus losing Eurydice, Phaeton scorched by the sun), sold out Second Stage, got extended twice, and eventually transferred to Broadway.

Then there was Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul, a play completed before the attacks and set largely in Afghanistan, which premiered at the New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village on December 19. Ten years later, it still seems unbelievable that such a vital play arrived in New York at that time, a work that asked audiences to spend four hours in a wrecked city far from their own and find themselves in it. The play is set in 1998 and opens with a long monologue by the Homebody from her comfortable London house. She is reading from a long-outdated guidebook for Kabul-bound tourists. “Our story begins at the very dawn of history,” she intones, and for nearly an hour she takes us through the past of Afghanistan and its capital: Alexander the Great, the Mauryas, the Kushans, the Hephthalites, “Islam at last!,” Tamurlaine, the birth of modern Afghanistan in the 18th century, “the Great Game” of the 19th century, the spectacularly hot cold war featuring American-armed mujahideen, and at last a Taliban government.

“Who in the world would wish to travel there?” the Homebody asks. “In Afghanistan today I would be shrouded entirely in a burqa, I should be subject to hejab, I should live in terror of the sharia hudud, or more probably dead, unregenerate chatterer that I am.”

But she goes and does not reappear. The next scene takes place in Kabul, where a Taliban government minister tells the Homebody’s husband and daughter that, while walking through the city without a veil and listening to an “impious” Discman, she drifted into a protest against the US army’s bombing of Khost, where a gang of boys murdered her and dismembered her body. But it seems possible that the Homebody in fact has not died at all; she may have married an Afghan, converted to Islam, and cut ties with her previous family. What’s more, the man she may have married has another wife, Mahala, a former librarian driven to near-madness by the Taliban’s severity. In a mixture of English, French, German, Russian, Dari, and Arabic, she raves about American support for the worst people in Afghanistan: “You love the Taliban so much, bring them to New York! Well, don’t worry, they’re coming to New York!”

By the play’s end, Mahala has made it out of Kabul, past the Kalashnikov-carrying border guards at the Khyber Pass, into Pakistan, and finally all the way to London. In the last scene the Homebody’s daughter asks Mahala about a manuscript she smuggled out of Afghanistan, supposedly an Esperanto poetry collection written by a Tajik prisoner before his execution. It is not poetry at all, Mahala reveals, “not hymns of peace in dream language of universal brotherhood, but military information for the Northern Alliance.” That line, like the one above and a reference to Osama bin Laden, made the audience gasp on the night I saw the play. It was not just that a work written before September 11 spoke about current events; it was that it seemed to contain live information. During rehearsals the Taliban was still in control of parts of Afghanistan. By opening night they had been routed.

Kushner was spoken of as the man who “predicted September 11.” Descriptions of the play all used the same phrase, “eerily prescient.” Even the slash of its title seemed to suggest something. Yet as Kushner wrote in the afterword to the published script, “the information required to foresee, long before September 11, at least the broad outline of serious trouble ahead was so abundant and easy of access that even a playwright could avail himself of it.” Homebody/Kabul certainly didn’t explain September 11, but Kushner did posit that history could help contextualize it. This statement seems straightforward now, but it was risky then, when to attempt to put the attacks in historical perspective was to become a terrorist apologist. In the September 24 New Yorker, the one with the Spiegelman black-on-black cover, Susan Sontag despaired at the “startling, depressing” divide between the reality of the assault and the political and media reaction to it, famously concluding, “Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together.” She was denounced. The New York Post suggested Sontag should be drawn and quartered. The New Republic asked: “What do Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Susan Sontag have in common?”

When Kushner’s play opened, the Wall Street Journal, mouthpiece of the prohibition-against-understanding movement, raged that it “might as well have been created by a Taliban playwright.” Yet enough New Yorkers were eager to spend four hours in a play that insisted on slowness and uncertainty that tickets practically sold out and the run of the play had to be extended twice, into March. In the media and among politicians, Afghanistan was first a place to exact revenge, then a cipher—so quickly forgotten that the Bush Administration left out a line item in its 2003 budget for Afghan security and reconstruction. In Homebody/Kabul, it was a different place: the heart of the world, a tinderbox but also a crucible in which history continued to be forged. “You must be patient,” the Homebody says, having only got to 325 BC after ten minutes of historical exegesis. In the weeks after the disaster, patience was a rare virtue.

The press was anxious to know how artists and writers would “respond” to September 11. Picasso’s Guernica was the constantly cited archetype of enraged mourning. (Never mind that Picasso, in addition to holding political beliefs not exactly in line with those of the US government at the time, painted Guernica a year into a clearly defined war against a clearly defined enemy.) This obsession with an instant aestheticization by some kind of artistic SWAT team professed a civic role for artists but exhibited no understanding of the place of art in civil society. It completely overlooked the experience of art, the strange rendezvous by which form comes to have meaning: art was only illustration with distinction. (By 2003, when the United Nations absurdly cloaked the Guernica tapestry outside the Security Council while Colin Powell made the case for invasion, this chorus had thankfully receded.)

You had to take your time. “It may be good for things to slow down and get quieter,” the painter Elizabeth Murray wrote in the New York Times a few days after the attacks. Murray, who died in 2007, lived and worked in a loft on Duane Street, deep in what briefly was called the restricted zone. She described going out into the streets and bumping into two friends. They discussed an exhibition of photographs in Chelsea depicting “simulated images of people jumping from buildings”—presumably a reference to work by Nancy Davenport made before September. One friend considered the show ill timed, the other opportune. Murray wasn’t sure. But if art had any power in those times, she wrote, it was to help us “understand our real situation in life, which is a condition of not knowing what is coming around the next corner.”

I’ve clung to that sentence because it captures how New York art felt in those months: hazy but newly relevant, critical precisely because it didn’t attempt to make immediate sense of things. You could feel that at one of the first major exhibitions to open after September 11, Richard Serra’s show at Gagosian, his largest since the ’80s. Serra, who lived in the same Duane Street loft building as Murray, watched the first plane hit the North Tower, then people jumping, then the collapse. One of his assistants arrived at his studio covered in ash. Like Murray, he insisted on staying downtown; he did man-on-the-street interviews for CNN and the Times. His exhibition at Gagosian was delayed by a month—the truckers who handle his enormous steel sculptures had volunteered to help clean up Ground Zero. When the show opened on October 18, the gallery expected no one to come. Instead crowds flocked to the torqued ellipses, arcs of swooping weatherproof steel: an unfathomably heavy substance shaped into something that could enfold you.

On the morning of September 11, Gerhard Richter was bound for New York; his flight was diverted to Halifax, Nova Scotia. There’s a story to be told one day about the thousands of New Yorkers who spent the next week in Halifax; as for Richter, he eventually made it back to Cologne and never saw his exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery. It was a good show: mostly large, blurred abstractions but also including two tender paintings of his infant son feeding himself for the first time. One of the portraits was clean and exact, the other much blurrier and unfinished. Messy but new life.

The gallery exhibition was prelude to a much larger Richter retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in the winter of 2002. It was a very large show, 188 works, and at its center was a fifteen-painting series that MoMA had unexpectedly bought a few years before. This was the October 18, 1977 series, which depicts members of the Baader-Meinhof gang, left-wing terrorists who on that date committed suicide in prison (although a few RAF sympathizers still insist they were murdered). These are the most important as well as most contentious paintings of Richter’s career. Working from photographs, he depicts Andreas Baader shot, Gudrun Ensslin hanged, Ulrike Meinhof with her neck slashed, and finally, in the largest painting, their funeral. Richter doesn’t just use his trademark blur; he works in black-and-white, and not a photographic black-and-white but a disturbing, narrow grisaille.

When he painted the series in 1988 Richter called it “impossible to interpret.” This did not stop left-wing critics from claiming that a bourgeois artist had no right to depict martyred revolutionaries nor right-wing critics from deploring that the cycle beatified a group of killers who terrorized a generation. That double disapprobation seemed inevitable in West Germany at the time, given Richter’s longstanding strategies of incompletion, irresolution, incoherence, and yet in New York after September 11, depictions of terrorists as anything other than irredeemable monsters were even more inflammable. In the harsh rhetoric of those days, terrorism was a freestanding ideology, something you could go to war against, that admitted no distinctions. The possibility of a major controversy, not to mention losing funding, hung in the air.

But when Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting finally opened on Valentine’s Day, it turned out to be one of the most popular cultural events since the attack. By March, lines to get into MoMA stretched down 53rd Street, and this at a moment when only one-third of the museum was open to the public. (The Richter retrospective was the last exhibition before the museum closed for renovations, decamping to a temporary space in Queens for three years.) In the wake of the disaster, MoMA estimated it would only see about 2,000 visitors a day. It got more than double that despite a slump in tourism; Glenn Lowry, the museum’s director, confirmed that “local audience has picked up dramatically.”

You could try to attribute New Yorkers’ surge in attendance simply to a desire to assemble in a public space and, even if they did not speak, look at art with some palliative dimension. But if they only wanted a public event, then any exhibition would have sufficed. The continued troubles of other museums that spring—attendance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum was down 20 percent year on year; the concurrent Whitney Biennial was a flop—suggest that something more significant was taking place.

It seems that New Yorkers had decided they needed an art of skepticism and uncertainty, even with regard to history, ideology, and terror. (Though leave it to the Wall Street Journal: “What kind of mind is it that, at this stage of the game, refuses to distinguish between good and evil, between civilization and barbarism?”) It offered a chance both to mourn and to resituate oneself. I realize this sounds like an idealization. But go back to Don DeLillo’s story “Baader-Meinhof,” which appeared in the April 1, 2002 issue of the New Yorker. Illustrated by a painting of Ensslin in a police line-up, the story opens with a woman “seated on a bench in the middle of the gallery with the paintings set around her, a cycle of 15 canvases.” At the time, that first sentence carried a profound you-are-there shock; DeLillo must have written, edited, and published the story within the six weeks of the exhibition opening, and the show would remain open for another month.

“Baader-Meinhof” is a violent story and an unpleasant one. Yet the paintings, paintings of terrorists, express to its main character in some speechless manner that contemplation and seriousness are the tools required to put a wrecked life back together. The last scene, back at MoMA, in front of Funeral, suggests that in a New York cracked open, the Richter exhibition did not only offer a metonymic replacement of one terror with another. It was a site of unsettlement, where
a kind of hope was retained.

But the openness of those first months, the willingness to be unsettled and uncertain, couldn’t last as our focus turned to Baghdad. That summer, a coalition of artists and academics—Kushner, Anderson, Serra, Spiegelman, and four thousand others—put together an antiwar manifesto, “Not In Our Name,” that lodged their opposition to a government set on invasion. There were marches. Openness gave way to dissent, as it had to. The rest you know.

One story seems emblematic of what New York endured in those days, and the space between then and now. September 11, 2001, was supposed to be opening night of the New York City Opera’s new season, the premiere of a new Wagner production. Instead the company wondered if the season would happen at all. But Rudy Giuliani, whose very few virtues one is allowed to acknowledge in a September 11 essay, is a longstanding opera fan. He called the company’s artistic director, Paul Kellogg, and asked him to reopen as soon as possible.

So on September 15, 2001, when news channels still played endless loops of the crumbling towers, when the 2/3 train still wouldn’t take you farther south than 34th Street, the New York City Opera premiered its new production of Der fliegende Holländer to a packed house at the New York State Theater. Before the performance, Kellogg brought the entire company on stage, administrative staff holding hands with singers in full costume, executives alongside stagehands. He gave a speech about “catharsis and consolation,” choking up as he did. The orchestra struck up “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The audience sang along, full-throated; Kellogg’s company fell upon him, all hugging each other and holding back tears. Then nearly two-and-a-half hours of loss and redemption played straight through without a pause.

“The performance was electric,” Mark Delavan, the baritone who sang the Dutchman, told the New York Times. “It was one of those situations where the whole is greater than the individual parts, and that includes the audience. I cannot stress this enough: the audience was with us every second. They knew that we were hurting, too.”

That was a long time ago. Ten years later, the New York City Opera is moribund, debt-ridden, and homeless. An attempt to relocate to the World Trade Center site dissolved into a shambles, and this May the company had to leave Lincoln Center because it couldn’t make the rent. The conductor who led that performance four days after September 11 has been dismissed. More than a dozen staff members have lost their jobs, and management is trying to void the musicians’ contracts and pay them only on a freelance basis.

How much longer it can survive is unclear. In 2001 City Opera pointed the way towards a future for New York; in 2011 you can only fear it is doing so again.

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