. . . the more clearly we see terror, the less impact we feel from art.
—Don DeLillo, Mao II
It was late in the evening of September 11 and a network special on the day’s events was coming to a close. A famous news anchor was saying—these were his final words, solemnly delivered—that tomorrow, when New Yorkers awaken, they will awaken to an altered skyline. Not words about the memory of the dead and the imagination of their terrifying destruction. Nothing to the effect that “our hearts go out” to the ruined families and friends of the dead. Instead, words about a rupture in the perceptual field. A “defamiliarization,” as the aesthetic theory of the Russian formalists would have it: that was the deep horror we were left to contemplate by the famous news anchor, who we must not rush to conclude was a shallow, unfeeling man. Let us recall that for most of us—the very greatest majority of us—the thousands slaughtered are abstract. We have no personal connections with them. We never really did, or ever really will, grieve for them, though we may think we do so in the world made by Oprah, where human beings assume God’s role of feeling everybody’s pain.
The famous anchor was in effect predicting that New Yorkers would have an experience of the sort prized by the most advanced imaginative writers and art theorists of the last two centuries. In the perceptual world something new would collapse into view. And tomorrow’s newness—awful, to be sure, in more than one sense—would be signified by an absence of two heretofore boring buildings; a hole in the familiar. Those New Yorkers without connection to the dead, the injured, and the displaced would grieve (and fear) not for the dead, the injured, and the displaced, but for themselves, undergoing now the terror of the new.
And the rest of us, who do not live in New York? We would like to be invited to make a pilgrimage. We would take our children and our disposable cameras. Acquire the tickets. Then wait in line for as long as it takes to enter and to view. It would please us greatly if Mr. Giuliani, America’s mayor, would announce on CNN that we are all welcome to visit Groundzeroland.
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This much do we learn from Anthony Tommasini, a classical music critic for the New York Times, whose provocative report was widely reprinted in American dailies: on September 16, 2001, Karlheinz Stockhausen, the German pioneer of electronic music and a figure of international renown, was asked at a news conference in Hamburg for his reaction to the terrorist strikes in the United States. He responded by calling the attack on the World Trade Center “the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos,” and went on to speak in apparent awe of the terrorists’ achievement of “something in one act” that “we couldn’t even dream of in music,” in which “people practice like crazy for ten years, totally fanatically for a concert, and then die.”
This is our fascination: the transformation of the World Trade Center into a narrative of spectacular images. Terrorism for the camera. The small section of smoking rubble, that pathetic piece of the Pentagon, a squat and ugly building, holds no appeal. But Stockhausen is not interested in the images. It is the event itself that entrances him. The event itself is what he means by “the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos.” His incendiary artistic analogy is seriously intended, and he pursues it: “You have people so concentrated on one performance, and then five thousand people are dispatched into eternity, in a single moment.” In the face of such achievement, might Stockhausen be the lesser artist? A touch of envy—envy of terrorism—appears to creep in. “I couldn’t do that. In comparison with that, we’re nothing as composers.”
Stockhausen had been taking questions before the commencement of a four-day festival of his work in Hamburg. His concerts were abruptly canceled; his daughter, a pianist, informed the press that she would no longer appear under the name Stockhausen; international reaction was swift and predictably harsh. In the midst of controversy, he tried to explain: “Where has he brought me, that Lucifer,” he asked, referring to a major invented character who regularly figures in a series of seven operas that have engaged him in a twenty-five-year project.
Tommasini acknowledges that Stockhausen “has long been fired by the idea that art should transform us ‘out of life itself’ . . . otherwise ‘it’s nothing.’” And Tommasini will allow that “any artwork, from a short Schubert song to a long Dostoevsky novel, can have a transforming effect,” but he thinks that a line was crossed. “Stockhausen has dangerously overblown ambitions for art.” He’s been “losing touch with reality,” is an “egomaniac” and a “raving has-been” who needs to be “confined to a psychiatric clinic.”
The extremity of the avant-garde composer’s remarks drives the music journalist to a place that the music journalist rarely goes: to theoretical pronouncement. “Art may be hard to define, but whatever it is, it’s a step removed from reality.” In one breath, Tommasini, a modest man, says that he can’t define it; doesn’t know what it is; nevertheless will define it; will tell us, in effect, that he knows exactly what it is, when he writes the words “a step removed from reality.” He goes on: “A theatrical depiction of suffering may be art; real suffering is not. . . . Images of the blazing twin towers, however horrifically compelling, are not art.” (Tommasini, too, is apparently compelled by the blazing towers; the poor Pentagon does not qualify.) Stockhausen’s thoughts to the contrary, who was not thinking of the electronic images but of the thing itself, are for Tommasini decisive proof of madness. Art is representation (“depiction”); to claim otherwise is not only to announce one’s insanity, it is to impugn what is presumed to be at the core of art: its so-called humanity.
Or perhaps it is to announce, as aesthetic revolutionaries have frequently announced over the past two centuries, that the war on tradition is a war against what would seem to be the inescapable fact about art—that it is inherently artificial (not life): by definition “once removed.” Aesthetic revolutionaries historically wage polemical war on behalf of the authentic, which they habitually define as an overcoming of precisely traditional art’s “once removed” character. The famous intention of Wordsworth, for example, to write a language “really spoken” by the rural unprivileged, as opposed to the artificial language of poetic writing, or the intention of his inheritor Robert Frost, by avant-garde standards, like Wordsworth a staid conservative, to “drop to an everyday level of diction that even Wordsworth kept above,” and to “entangle,” in Frost’s words, a living voice in the “syntax, idiom and meaning of a sentence”—these artistic desires of Wordsworth and Frost are alike desires to jump the gap between word and thing (writing and voice) and thereby defeat the mediated or representational character of literature as it has been theorized since Aristotle, who two thousand years before his New York Times inheritor argued in the fourth chapter of The Poetics that “objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and”—now an example to the point of September 11—“of dead bodies.”
The pain-giving object would appear to be the definitive case for Aristotle, who in his theory of the transformative power of representation argues in effect that when an object is relocated from the place in the world where it has its pain-giving being to the realm of an artistic medium, where it is “reproduced” as an image, the pain-giving object becomes pleasurable because we are spared direct interaction with the thing itself. We may merely contemplate it. And our delight lies just there (“We delight to contemplate”) in the contemplative act facilitated by representation; an act presumably made highly unlikely, if not impossible, when we face the real thing in its awful presence.
By the powerful traditional standard set by Aristotle, the pain-giving events themselves of September 11 in New York, as Tommasini argues, are not art. For those on the scene, and their kin and acquaintance, the strike on the towers was only horrific. But the images, on Tommasini’s own testimony, are something else. They are “horrifically compelling.” In other words, in our contemplative security from the real, the images trigger pleasure—call it engrossed compulsion, the kind of spiritual pleasure attendant upon loss of self, as we are absorbed by the transfixing object of our attention. And this very contemplative pleasure, governed by imitation, argues Aristotle, is a deep spring of art. On traditional theoretical grounds, images of Ground Zero in lower Manhattan may indeed deserve to be called art. How difficult is it to imagine—all that shocking footage artfully edited to become a truly absorbing short film? Absorbing need not entail pleasant. (“And the award for short subject goes to . . .”)
Does it make any sense to speak, as Stockhausen did, of the aesthetic character and effects of those violently transgressive acts? The events themselves, not their artful representation? To consider the merits of such an idea would require that we put aside the virtually unavoidable sentimentality that asks us to believe that art is always somehow humane and humanizing; that artists, however indecent they might be as human beings, become noble when they make art, which must inevitably ennoble those who experience it.
* * *
After returning home from his Hamburg debacle, Stockhausen issued this statement on his Web site: “In my work, I have defined Lucifer as the cosmic spirit of rebellion, of anarchy. He uses his high degree of intelligence to destroy creation. . . . I used the designation ‘work of art’ to mean the work of destruction personified in Lucifer.” At the press conference, Stockhausen had been asked if he considered Lucifer’s “work of art” to be a criminal act and he answered that it was of course a criminal act because the innocent who were killed had not been given a choice. He added, “But what happened spiritually, this jump out of security, out of the self-evident, out of everyday life [not out of life itself, as Tommasini reports], this sometimes also happens in art . . . or it is worthless.” (Note: also.) Stockhausen, presciently, asked the assembled journalists not to publish his responses because people “might not understand this.”
The Devil, the Arch-Criminal who made Stockhausen speak so scandalously, is not just another character bearing a point of view not necessarily shared by his author, but the very figure of artistic ambition (the Arch-Criminal Artist) with which his author identifies. As the mythic destroyer of creation, Lucifer is the destroyer of Somebody Else’s creation, Somebody Else’s law: oppressive is understood as the implied modifier of creation and law. Lucifer, the spirit of rebellion and anarchy, is the model of the artist, and long has been, not for Stockhausen alone but for the tradition to which he belongs. Romantic, prophetic, apocalyptic, revolutionary—these are the familiar terms used to describe the tradition of the transgressive work of art summed up by Stockhausen as the work of destruction: the destructive power of art that underwrites aesthetic value but is not itself that value. (Stockhausen, like Lucifer, is not a nihilist); enabling destruction, or what the Romantic poet Shelley meant when he said that art “strips the film of familiarity” from the world as we know it—the evil of familiarity; a stripping—like an altering of a skyline?—which is a deep cleansing of perception and prelude to the establishment of new consciousness; in Stockhausen’s words, an act of imagination with spiritual impact on us—a jump out of security, the self-evident, out of everyday life.
Removed from context, Stockhausen’s remarks on aesthetic theory are a banality of avant-garde thought. Had he said that the footage of the World Trade Center disaster was the greatest work of art possible, his remarks would probably have received only modest attention, to the effect that this is just the kind of thing that this kind of artist is likely to say—an especially insensitive example of »pater le bourgeois. But Stockhausen referred to the event of mass slaughter and not its filmic reproduction as the greatest work of art, just five days after September 11. His concession that “of course” this was a criminal act because the innocent had no choice, followed hard by his ruthless conjunction (“but what happened spiritually”), seems a pro forma preface to what most excites him: a satanic act that would, like an aesthetic act, renovate consciousness through and through.
The terrorists achieved what Stockhausen’s kind of artist aspires to. They succeeded in awesome fashion in stripping the film of familiarity from the American view of the world. They seized, they transformed (but for how long?) consciousness. Stockhausen’s ambition for his own music, to “break through the routine of time,” “to get out of the normal human cycles” in order to “train a new kind of human being,” is the cultural ambition of the artist-prophet (a powerful nineteenth-century idea), who viewed himself and his work as a source of truth and justice, and who was to be followed through a cycle of destruction and rebirth; the re-creation of humanity by aesthetic means. In this setting, the terrorist events of September 11 are isomorphic with Stockhausen’s aesthetic theory and it is not difficult to understand why he would be swept away, as an artist, by them.
* * *
1. As any avant-garde artist might, Stockhausen sees the devotion of high artistic seriousness (like Flaubert, like Joyce) in the complete commitment of the terrorists, which he likens to practicing “like crazy for ten years, totally fanatically for a concert.” Like terrorists, serious artists are always fanatics; unlike terrorists, serious artists have not yet achieved the “greatest” level of art. Note: “greatest” is not a claim for uniqueness but a claim for the terrorists’ continuity with what serious artists in Stockhausen’s tradition always try for: great, greater, greatest signify ascending degrees of influencing mass consciousness; at the superlative stage of art, and terror, consciousness is not merely influenced: it is transformed.
2. As for that key word transformation: Stockhausen’s madness, according to Tommasini, who will not mind standing here for the reasonable point of view, lies in his taking of transformative possibilities in art at face value; transformation not, in Aristotelian fashion, of the object, in order to provide a congenial occasion for contemplative reflection and pleasure, an occasion for cognition unimpeded by emotion, but transformation of the attending consciousness itself; an occasion for the emergence of a New Man and a New World. And transformation is not qualifiable. There cannot be, as Tommasini seems to want, a small, safe transformation, with the majority of consciousness (and world) untouched and secure in all the old familiar places. Transformation is either total (and revolutionary) or it is not transformation; failure of transformation is failure of art and terror. In true transformation, we are possessed and catapulted out of the ordinary—taken over by original vision with no wiggle room for rational escape. Such aesthetic experience may be apocalyptically political, or it may be the sort of experience pointed to in Tommasini’s reference to a “short Schubert song”: an experience of ravishment (interior apocalypse), which for its modest duration takes us away and renders us useless for the affairs of everyday life.
3. When Stockhausen slips and says that what happened in New York on September 11 “also” may happen in art, or art is worthless, he tells us that his intentions as an artist are as ambitious as those of the terrorists, that he wants art to have that kind of force. In this way would he be a terrorist of art. The terrorists did the thing that he would do but hasn’t yet done, having not yet reached in his music the plateau of “the greatest.” And he tells us clearly, but perhaps not yet himself, still swept up as he is by the seductive idea of September 11, that the event at the World Trade Center is not art. Stockhausen’s logical slippage, marked by his “also,” is just this: his idea of art is a subset of the category of transgression; the category includes many acts—criminal and punishable by law, as Stockhausen’s music is not—that are not art. Which is to say: transgression and its desired effect, transformation, are not uniquely artistic phenomena. Stockhausen’s transcendental ambition to transgress and transform is only the latest indicator of what ambitious artists have most feared for the last two centuries—their cultural inconsequence, looming now more than ever, in the Age of Television.
No one has yet seriously proposed that Stockhausen, for having composed what he’s composed, should be incarcerated. Tommasini does urge incarceration, but that in a clinic for the insane; incarceration deserved not for what Stockhausen composed but for what he proposed in his theory of great art.
* * *
“Getting shot is for real . . . there’s no element of pretense or make-believe in it,” Chris Burden, the performance artist, speaking of Shoot (1971). A real-time activity (an actual shooting); a body subjected to risk and serious pain (Burden’s); a violent act whose goal, nevertheless, is to trigger “mental stuff,” says Burden, in those who take it in. Illusion is false. Here is total disdain for the mainstream West’s Aristotelian theater of representation. Though of course an audience is desired; that’s the contradiction. This is not antitheater after all. Something is to be done to those who take it in. A wish to communicate not about the real, but to communicate the real itself; thrust it bodily through the space separating performer and viewer. Performance art is ontological-didactic theater.
Or consider the big event—site specific, environmental. An elaborate spectacle requiring advanced technology. A theater of images, set in an unconventional location, requiring a huge cast and crew and, in its audience, competence in visual grammar: a theater on behalf of perception—not text or story. Robert Wilson says, “Listen to images.” Performance art in the 1990s is art more and more with an agenda. A theater of lessons, visually encoded.
In spite of their intentions, which not even Stockhausen called aesthetic, the suicide terrorists who struck New York may be said to have made—with the cooperation of American television—performance art with political designs upon its American audience. The site, the WTC, was unconventional and politically loaded: the symbolic center of American capitalism. Advanced technology was mastered and put into play. The cast was huge; bodies were subjected to serious pain. All of this in real time, with no element of pretense or make-believe in it. Thanks to the cameras, which bin Laden could confidently assume would be there, images of a spectacular sort were generated, framed, and replayed endlessly. Thanks to the presence of the camera, which guaranteed a vast audience, this act of performance means something, achieves the paradoxical fusion of “life” and “art,” “event” and its filmic representation in minute and faithful reproduction.
In more traditional terms: there were authors (bin Laden, Atta, etc.); there was plot—a structure of events with deep narrative inevitability; there were thousands of characters—but with no choice in turning down the role, with no knowledge that they’d been cast to die. And there was an audience with no choice not to experience terrorist narrative once that narrative found its true medium of communication, the media without which terrorist art is ineffective, and which complicitously completes its totalitarian trajectory: to saturate consciousness in the United States with the thought of terror, with no sanctuary left for the blessed banalities of ordinary life. They would make Americans forever insecure; cause us to join the rest of the world, at last, and end, at last, our long holiday from history. They would change us.
And the mainspring of this aesthetic experience is an absence, a rubble pit in lower Manhattan; that rupture in the perceptual field which marks the original art of the suicide pilots.
* * *
When Gottfried Semper designed the Bayreuth Festival Playhouse, which opened in 1876, he placed the audience on one single “classless” level, a feature anticipated by Wagner himself (the director of design) in keeping with his anticommercial, antibourgeois, pro-“folk” theoretical stance. Semper would build community by leveling the tiers of the traditional theater, erasing class difference, and creating a “mystic gulf” between the audience and the stage. On December 30, 2001, Mayor Giuliani opened a viewing platform for the folk over the mystic gulf that is Ground Zero, a stage to which he urged Americans, and everybody, to come and experience “all kinds of feelings of sorrow and the tremendous feelings of patriotism.” Though concerned that some would come for “the wrong reasons,” whatever they might be, he was sure most would go for “the right reasons,” whatever those are. “Tourist sight” or “hallowed ground”? Or “tourist sight” and “hallowed ground”? Heavily supported by the New York tourist and convention bureau, the platform proposal “glided through unusually dense thickets of red tape.” Restaurants and hotel beds have been empty too long.
Herbert Muschamp of the New York Times articulates what sounds like a manifesto of an artistic movement with a political agenda in his description of the design of the platform: “The design does hold meaning. It embodies stoic principles. It treats the need for design as a reduction to essentials. The result has substance. Stop the mystification, the grandiosity, the use of architecture to disconnect our history from ourselves. Give the city back.” Give us back our exceptionalism. Because the long American holiday from history is far from over.
The platform’s purpose is to connect tourists to their history at a site that perfectly conjoins terrorism, patriotism, and tourism. A ticket is available, as yet for no charge, for those cold, sad pilgrims who would like to connect to their history, without mediation and with maximum transparency, without waiting in line: a ticket stamped for a specific time, for a specific fifteen-minute interval. Andy Warhol’s whisper echoes in the time limit on the platform, that magic fifteen minutes, the promise of future fame for everybody: the leveling of class difference. FastPass to Magic Mountain. FastPass to Groundzeroland.
People don’t know what they’re looking at. The platform will tell them. Pictures are snapped; souvenir hats and pretzels are bought; T-shirts are sold; designer sunglasses are hawked. The first fortunate pilgrim gets his name in the paper just as he did when he snagged first place in line for the World Series. Tourists come from Japan to see “this reality,” what one grieving mother described as “my child’s body all over that place.” Collectors or curators “relying on aesthetic judgment,” randomly but not accidentally, select objects to be stored for future exhibition. They call them “artifacts,” artifacts of terror, and by virtue of their selection and acquisition, the city of New York in effect lends credibility to Stockhausen’s perception of the terrorist attack as “the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos.” The madman approaches vindication.
The only problem is how can the traces of her child’s body all over the place be removed from the artifacts without destroying them. In some cultures, the curators would be perceived as vultures engaged in an act of desecration, an act of grave-robbing. The value of an object selected by curators immediately becomes “incalculable,” whereas unselected objects end up in the junkyard, without value, or sold for recycling—lacking the “power to stir the imaginations and the souls of visitors.” One firefighter, outraged at first at a curator taking digital photographs of the gravesite of his brothers, was soon transformed into a curator himself with the understanding of “an archive, a memorial,” destined perhaps for the Smithsonian, so that others will understand.
The tourists think their presence is a gift to the grieving. One man’s grief is another man’s right to reality. Surrounding offices into which determined tourists try to break, enforcing their right to see, are choice skyboxes to the towerless void, this “fake New York.” Seeing the pit on television, seeing the representation, does not provide sufficient meaning. The pilgrimage must be made to the so much bigger, so much more surreal Groundzeroland. They claim their right to look. Democracy gives them the right to look, to take back the view that was stolen from them.
In his novel The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles draws a sharp distinction between tourists, deserving of scorn, who journey for a fixed period of time, and travelers, brave adventurers who might never return. Travelers might find true reality in Evan Fairbanks’s twenty-five-minute video of the attack—history playing at the New York Historical Society—the only mediation that of the documentarian’s soundless camera. Where is the grassy knoll—on TV, in the pit, or in the mind?
If George Bush is right that we should show patriotism by going on vacation and spending money, then visiting Groundzeroland is a patriotic act. The sublime power of American consumer culture to absorb and commodify even such a devastating blow as this transgressive act of destruction and murder is final proof of that culture’s fundamental indestructibility. Walk up the ramp to the platform without filter and, for a golden fifteen minutes, see the erasure—see what isn’t there—and see what cannot be erased: the meeting ground for the producers and consumers of popular culture. Experience the Warholian conflation of violent, tragic, mass media news with the patriotic glory and glamour of death. Pose for a picture: mix disaster and death with stardom and beauty. Feel the scale. Absorb it. Go down in history. Move on. Understand it all. Find closure.
The South Atlantic Quarterly 101:2, Spring 2002.
Copyright © 2002 by Duke University Press.