Art After The Crime
09/21/2001
Staff Writer
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In the aftermath of last week’s deadly terror attack, all eyes focused on the fervent rescue effort in Lower Manhattan. With thousands of people buried under mountains of steel and concrete, cultural enterprise suddenly seemed frivolous and art openings, lectures, parties and awards ceremonies nationwide were canceled or postponed.

Yet museums and Broadway theaters, dark and shuttered Tuesday and Wednesday, reopened Thursday. Along 44th Street that morning, the familiar sight of dozens of hopeful out-of-towners queuing for coveted standing room in “The Producers” indicated that the balance between art and life in New York City was slowly regaining its equilibrium.

Two days after the attack on the World Trade Center, The Jewish Week spoke with a half dozen Jewish writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers about how their anger, shock and mourning may affect their creativity. A few of them live or work in downtown studios, close enough to witness the Twin Towers burn and crumble. This tragedy, once only thought possible on a Hollywood soundstage, is local and personal and also of international proportions, and will remain etched in their memories. Artists are the ones who are supposed to make sense out of the incoherence of reality, but last week, they were grasping for understanding.

“It’s so shocking, I don’t even think about music right now,” says Israeli violinist Miri Ben-Ari. “We’re all human beings trying to survive this catastrophe.” For Ben-Ari, who served in the Israeli army and now lives outside the city, the frantic phone calls and interminable waiting for news of friends’ safety was “like going over again what we know in Israel, except in America everything is bigger.”

Ben-Ari laments not a loss of innocence, but her continued connection to tragic events. “It’s a weird coincidence,” says the violinist, who has crossed over first into jazz and now urban and hip-hop. “I was supposed to play the rally on the 23rd,” the UJC’s now-canceled pro-Israel demonstration in Manhattan. “Unfortunately, I have to perform when it has to do with disaster.”

Explaining that her instrument “has this voice of crying,” Ben-Ari has played at memorials for Yitzchak Rabin and is to perform at an upcoming tribute for Aaliyah, the popular R&B singer who was killed last month in a plane crash. “First of all, as a citizen of New York, I would like to be a part of whatever ceremony takes place,” she says.

“This is going to touch every block in the city, obliterating demographics, from Wall Street millionaires to janitors and stockboys,” says writer Melvin Jules Bukiet. “We’re just as stupid as everybody else,” he says in regard to how writers respond to the trauma.

Upon hearing of the catastrophe at the World Trade Center, Bukiet first thought of the safety of his daughters, both students at nearby Stuyvesant High School. Learning his older daughter safely walked to 23rd Street, Bukiet drove downtown “like a madman through police barricades” to bring her home to the Upper West Side.

Sitting on a bench on a Broadway median two days later, Bukiet says he understood the new relevance of his current writing project and began editing a short excerpt for publication. “A statement of the strength and love” in New York City, Bukiet’s experimental novel-in-progress is narrated by the island of Manhattan, an intense identification with his beloved hometown. The terrorist attack is “transformative in all ways,” Bukiet says. “I think that everyone is behaving incredibly selflessly,” witnessing shopkeepers giving water and shoes to the needy.

Painter Vivienne Koorland is not sure when she will resume her work-in-progress, a large somber text painting of the 23rd Psalm, modified with the substitution of “you” for “Lord.” Koorland fears, however, that President Bush’s recitation of a passage from the Psalm in his first national address following the disaster will add unexpected, and unwanted, associations.

Rushing to the roof of her studio on Mercer Street in Soho after hearing about the first airplane, Koorland soon saw the second explosion and the two towers later collapse. Because the greatest act of terrorism on American soil happened before the eyes of a large percentage of the city’s artists, many of them bearing cameras and videorecorders, the burning towers will impact future films and artworks, she surmises.

“I’m surprised at my own anger,” the South African-born artist says. “I believe it could have been averted. We’re in the hands of incompetents,” she said of the federal government. “I know I’m not the only person who feels this way.”

Speaking from her studio, Koorland complained of the smoky air and acrid taste in her mouth. “We’re really in a lot of trouble over here. I used to think South Africa was in trouble.” The barricaded streets of Soho, she says, remind her of scenes from Jules Feiffer’s play “Little Murders,” where random shootings terrorize the New York of the 1960s.

Speaking from his office in Los Angeles, the more even-toned Arthur Hiller says that his first emotional response to the news was to wish for “retaliation.” The film and television director was to receive the first annual Jewish Image lifetime achievement award at a Los Angeles luncheon on Wednesday, but the event was postponed. The National Foundation for Jewish Culture, which organized the awards, “was right to cancel the event. The day after is not a time for celebration of any kind.”

Hiller says that now filmmakers need to “work even stronger for opening doors, moral values, passion and love.” Looking for examples of such a movie, Hiller recalled his personal favorite, “The Americanization of Emily,” which he directed in 1964 from a screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky. The black comedy about a hapless American GI recruited for the D-Day invasion is about the “anti-glorification of war. I didn’t want to make war seem so wonderful or so heroic.”

Painter Leon Golub is known for even more strident anti-militaristic views. Like Koorland, he expressed disbelief that a nation as rich and powerful as the United States could be so woefully unprepared. “How the hell could the airspace of the Pentagon be penetrated?” he asks from his downtown studio.

Since the 1950s, Golub has been an unsparing critic of American foreign interventions, from Hiroshima to Central America, and most famously in Vietnam. “It’s easy to say our actions have come home to roost,” he says. “In Afghanistan, we trained the holy warriors to fight the Russians. We thought we had them under control, but if anybody was using anyone, they were using us.”

Tuesday evening, Golub was to have given a talk at the Cooper Union School of Art, where his paintings were on view through last Friday. The cancellation “was no big thing,” Golub said before noting the irony that his exhibition was titled “While the Crime Is Blazing.”

Golub suspects that the terror may influence his current paintings, which deal with the treatment of dissidents. He fears the curtailing of individual freedoms that most Americans take for granted. “We’ll see what they do under the guise of national security,” Golub warns.

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