Diana Wichtel: Brains rearranged in name of art

But is it art? That's not a question I gave much thought to that morning last year as we numbly followed the media loop of endless planes slicing into endless skyscrapers.

A year later, thanks to the fathomless variety of human responses to big events, the aesthetics of September 11 are up for discussion. Raved Paul Holmes last weekend: "I remember the beauty if it, the terrible brilliant beauty of it all. The towers standing against the faultless sky, smouldering, suspended. Whoever designed this invented something of exact perfection."

In my book, beauty should please the mind as well as the senses. But there's no denying the compelling nature of those images. Their astonishing surreality only increases.

At the time writers vied like rival art critics to render the visual shock of the news. Martin Amis, writing in the Guardian a week after the attacks, betrays a horrified, slightly overwrought, aesthetic thrill.

"I have never seen a generically familiar object so transformed by effect. That second plane looked eagerly alive, and galvanised with malice, and wholly alien.

"Even the flames and smoke were opulently evil, with their vampiric reds and blacks."

Any toddler knows the seductive power of destruction. It has found expression in art movements such as Dadaism and still causes rock stars to destroy equipment as part of the show. Newscasts often closed with a "Hey, Martha!" moment of an old building being blown up, just for the hell of it. Though you don't see that so much any more.

It's probably inevitable that September 11, truly a "Holy shit, Martha!" moment in human history, caused a rush of blood to some artistic brains. Soon after the event, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen declared the attacks "the greatest work of art ever". Oh dear.

"They all have to rearrange their brains now," he insisted. "That characters can bring about in one act what we in music cannot dream of, that people practise madly for 10 years, completely, fanatically, for a concert and then die. That is the greatest work of art for the whole cosmos."

He tried to take it back but it was too late. People failed to rearrange their brains and were appalled.

Closer to home, artist Gail Haffern is also trying to rearrange our brains. She's collecting flak, not so much for her September 11 sculptural installation of pairs of towers plus a resin cube and some aluminium blocks containing words like "Pentagone" and "Chequemate". It's more what she's said.

She's been quoted as saying that the events and images of that day were "wonderful because it was a new idea". And that she had problems with all the blame-laying that went on immediately after.

"Everybody had something bad to say about somebody else, whether it was Bush or Osama bin Laden, someone was in the wrong and I found that position quite hard to handle".

It got in the way of appreciating the aesthetics, apparently. Oh dear. When nearly 3000 people are murdered, someone tends to be in the wrong. At least here on planet Earth.

I haven't seen the exhibition. I might have to. But I gave Haffern a ring. How exactly does she define the word "wonderful"? The words she used, she says, were "wonder" and "awe".

But Haffern does maintain that her doctoral studies taught her "there is not right or wrong, no evil, no good". She tends to quote Nietzsche. Yes, she was affected emotionally by the tragedy - "I was shaking all day" - but she just couldn't stop seeing the beauty.

"Look, I'm an artist. It's very difficult for me not to." But surely to abandon all moral judgment leads to anarchy? "Oh," she says, "I suppose it does." She's not pro-anarchy. "Some things are not right," she acknowledges. But then she also thinks that "the aesthetics of the Third Reich are incredible!"

Film-maker Leni Riefenstahl, notorious for making the Reich-friendly Triumph of the Will in 1934, is still in trouble more than half a century later for thinking that sort of thing.

Still, I'll defend Haffern's right to say it. The Holocaust art exhibition, Mirroring Evil, got into similar trouble for exhibiting such problematic new art as a death camp made of Lego. Yet why not? In a world drenched in violence, art is not always going to be comfortable.

And making art out of September 11 takes courage. After an interview in her local paper, a letter came in suggesting she and all her family should have been under one of the real towers.

To some, even trying to grasp a tragedy on this scale sufficiently to make art of it is to trivialise it.

Which might be one reason so little real art has yet come out of September 11. There's plenty of commemorative art; the internet is full of it, from conventional to digital to comics, but not much of it is any good.

There's a more important reason. Those inconceivably actual images, that accident of the steel girder cross that landed upright in the earth of Ground Zero, the makeshift memorials, are in themselves so potent and replete with meaning that they have rendered art superfluous to the occasion. For now.

As for those who want to see September 11 itself as aesthetically pleasing performance art, I think they're mistaking art for something with which it is sometimes confused.

A critic once said of Triumph of the Will: "The film leaves one finally with an impression of insanity." So, no matter how many times I see them, do those awesome images of planes and towers. That's not beauty. It's not even particularly brilliant. Like the Third Reich, it's just sheer bloody madness.

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