Published  18/09/2001

September Eleventh: European thoughts

September Eleventh: European Thoughts

The New York atrocity bears many aspects: barbaric evil of the most primitive kind accompanied by the most sophisticated high technology is one. As John Bloom, who saw it from below, reported in the Sunday Telegraph, it was the skilled, gentle 20 degree banking of the second plane, split seconds before the final penetration, that did it. The very scale of the murder was another – over 6,000 individual lives taken, leaving 10,000 and more immediate bereavements from many nations of the world. The mass murder hit at an anthill of financial industry, rather than a hedonistic paradise. It was the lives they wanted to take, not just the buildings, which could easily have been targeted after-hours on the same day, saving the majority of deaths.

Another aspect is the nature of this death-blow, a strike at the very concept of 21st century civilisation as grown in America. Firstly, the ironic background shot of the Statue of Liberty, so close to the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. The Statue was the first sight for millions who entered the New World from this Old one in the past century. The Statue remained untouched, a captive witness to the atrocity zone so close by. Did the plane dip its wings there too, as it levelled down for the ‘landing’ in sick irony before burying its head in the second tower? According to John Bloom, the local radio commentary was still burbling on about ‘navigational guidance systems’ in disbelief. The impact was a direct attack upon the entire idea of a society based upon the freedom of the individual as enshrined in the Constitution; an attack on success by the agents of oppression.

Now 11 September 2001 stands as one of those historic milestones known so well in Europe, such as the assassination of the Emperor Franz-Josef that started World War I, or Hitler's invasion of Poland, or for America, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. But none of these dates will now carry the same force for culture change as this date. Arguably, the First and Second World Wars were each the climacteric postscript to a pattern of regional, even hemispheric, conflict that had characterised both European and Asian societies for most of the last millennium. This was the ebb and flow, the waxing and waning of great territorial ambitions, spiced or veiled by religious agendas. But, such historic milestones given above had been fully anticipated in the art and literature of those periods. The Edwardian summer of a conflated imperial epoch in Europe was halcyon because war seemed inevitable. The Modernist springtime of the Twenties and Thirties, that all-pervasive emancipation of art, music, and literature between America and Europe, had its summer and fall, post-war. There was no great disillusion in l945, only hope, and a new social and economic perspective infused by the American Dream, itself shared out across the world.

The context of September 2001 is not the same. The impact of barbaric fundamentalism which ignores the sanctity of individual human life is lethal (but not catastrophic) when it strikes out within a globalised society, itself based upon the idea of social liberty. Societies that believe martyrdom conveys eternity have that advantage over societies dedicated to the elimination of physical pain and poverty by economic progress. Unfortunately, cyberspace and high technology can, and do, serve both groups. 11 September demonstrated just that. This conflict has been sparked and imploded against a global culture change which has few bearings upon 20th century developments, and the transition from classical to modernist art, architecture and literature. We cannot, a fortnight later, anticipate political and military developments, let alone real and pronounced agenda for change for the next, say five years, with any accuracy. However, what we do know is that this cannot be viewed as a scenario sedated by the theme 'more of the same'. Whether we like it or not, we inhabit a new world of a different kind, one not yet mapped or plotted. We will have to jettison much of our cultural apparatus of memory. But much will remain, to both confuse and inhibit us as well as to stimulate and inspire. In the minds of the world, New York can now be Berlin, or Dresden, or Hiroshima. This is a different, pinpointed atrocity, but an atrocity against humanity all the same.

And of the city this September?

‘The special quality of this city for the man who arrives there on a September evening, when the days are growing shorter and the multi-coloured lamps are lighted all at once at the door of the food stalls and from a terrace a woman's voice cries ooh! Is that he feels envy towards those who now believe they have once before lived an evening identical to this, and who think they were happy, that time.’ Italo Calvino, in Invisible Cities, was not talking specially of New York. But here we are confronted by the permanent nature of memory, or the tendency of memory to be selective. There is in history and in architecture a specifically Anglo-Saxon concept that history as it was, is different from history as it ought to be, and should be assumed to be so.

The memory that our great societies must sustain in the cybernetic age has to abandon dogma, and embrace the application of creativity and invention. As Erica Jong commented in the Sunday Telegraph from New York, the third and fourth day after, ‘the feeling you get in New York is that American altruism and innocence have grown, not diminished… We react to emergencies by becoming more ourselves, not less. Perhaps that will be our downfall’. Surely this cannot be so! This will have been the crucible from which a new cultural richness will emerge. It is not necessary to rebuild the twin towers exactly as they were, let alone prudent, however worthy the developers' stated intent. We already inhabit a different age.

But we must be wary, too. As Karl Kraus wrote as late as nine months after the accession of Hitler to power in Germany:

'Do not ask me what I have been doing all this time
I am silent;
And do not say, why.
And it is still, since the earth collapsed.
No word, that could be found:
One speaks only in one's sleep.
And dreams of a sun which used to laugh.
It passes away:
Afterwords it was all the same.
The Word fell asleep, as that world awoke.

The important thing in the third millennium is to recognise the new structures which will enfold such memories, to realise the increased pace of cultural change on a global scale. For artists, whether in new media or old, this is a critical and challenging time. It is necessary to be selective in terms of memory. This is now the century of a new realism so suddenly sprung, where a complete transformation of imagery is possible, perhaps vital. Painters, you may never have been so needed as today. Sculptors, abandon nostalgia and do not be seduced by a hunger for monuments. Cyberspace is fresh and cool. And for the moment, we can, like Kraus, stay silent.




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