Art And Artists After September 11
"In the wake of tragedies, especially those that are as
difficult to absorb as the events of September 11, we have a
strong need to understand what has taken place and what has
been taken from us," Pace University President David Caputo
said. "We look to artists to guide us towards that understanding
Caputo was speaking as part of the Tribeca Film Festival, introducing
a panel discussion among New York artists and entertainers entitled
"Confusion in a Time of Uncertainty: Life after September
11," which was held at Pace on Friday, May 10. What
follows is edited excerpts from the transcript.
The moderator was the comedian and talk show host Jon Stewart,
and the panelists were: Karin Batten, painter Spalding
Gray, writer/actor/performer Susan Sarandon, actress
Wendy Wasserstein, playwright. They were asked to attempt
to answer the question as to whether artists have a special
responsibility to respond to crisis.
The film festival included two films explicitly about the events
of September 11. "Telling Nicholas" spends the first
ten days after September 11 with the Staten Island family of
Michele Lanza, who was killed in the World Trade Center, as
it grapples in particular with the question of when and how
to tell her seven-year-old son. "From the Ashes: 10 Artists,"
captures the impact of the attacks on ten downtown Manhattan
artists. The director of that film, Deborah Shaffer, introduced
both the panelists and the theme of the discussion.
Deborah Shaffer, filmmaker: On September 12th I went out
of my loft to go and buy some food. Incredibly, Gourmet Garage
was open despite all the other businesses in the neighborhood
being shut down. And I ran into a painter friend who said she
was on her way to her studio. I was stunned. She paints lovely
floral things and I couldnt imagine how or why she was going
to continue to do that. But as I thought about it during the day
I slowly changed my mind. And I realized that everyone had to
seek solace in their own way. Several months later, a journalist
turned the tables on me at the Sundance Film Festival when he
asked me if I didnt feel that I had jumped on doing a film
about September 11 rather too soon. Of course I was incredibly
insulted. I stayed calm and said, although its true that
we had made our film very quickly, that if we had waited we could
have never captured the feelings and the events of those early
So while the film is in no way a definitive statement, I hope
it has a role to play in reminding us of those first days and
weeks, but even more importantly, in raising questions about who
we are as artists
It is a terrific honor for me to introduce a very distinguished
panel today that is going to be discussing these questions with
each other and all of you. So it is now my great pleasure to introduce
the panelists: Wendy Wasserstein, Susan Sarandon, Spalding Gray,
Karin Batten and Jon Stewart.
Jon Stewart, comedian and talk show host: Thank you, you
are correct in applauding us
I think we are going to have
a fascinating discussion about art, and clearly I am unqualified
to lead it so I will turn it over to a more distinguished panel
Between the five of us we should be able to work out something
relatively bizarre. So I will ask Karin since you are clearly
sitting the nearest to me, who are we now as people? Are you excited
to be here? What do you think? Tell me, in your painting, have
Karin Batten, painter: Well, I am glad I am here. I am
glad I am alive. It has been very hard to get back to my work.
I lost my studio on the 91st floor of the World Trade Center.
I have lost all my work that I had done up there, and it was hard.
I was in shock for about two months. I couldnt move, I couldnt
do anything, I didnt know who I was. I didnt know
where I was. Was I back in Europe after the war, the last war
in Europe or was I here? Just like bombs falling on New York City,
and here I thought it was a great place to be, very safe to come
and immigrate to.
Jon Stewart: Which place are you from?
Karin Batten: Hamburg, Germany.
Jon Stewart: You were at the epicenter, Ground Zero.
Karin Batten: Right, but anyhow it was hard, and it still
is, but what really saved me was my work, because after about
two months, I decided that the only thing I could do is to paint,
start painting again. And the only thing I could do is to paint
the view from the World Trade Center the way I saw it when I was
up there. I started painting North, towards the East, the river,
from the photographs that I have saved. It helped, but you know
I would paint and tears would just be running down my face. I
had nightmares about me being up there, painting, and all of the
sudden the towers would start crumbling. And those were my nightmares
for quite a while. And I had to leave the city a lot, because
I felt like I didnt know if I wanted to be here. But I love
New York City.
Jon Stewart: Spalding, are you responding the same way?
Spalding Gray, actor and monologuist: No, I wish I were.
I suppose I was affected by being absent from it and my absence
has been an enormous survivors guilt, because I wasnt
there to be a witness, and I feel my work is healing through narrative,
to try to get stories of the people that worked
So I have
been knocked out by it, I havent been able to work
my town was being taken away from me
I feel like a New Yorker,
but also as absentee. I havent been able to do work since
Jon Stewart: It is sort of an interesting luxury, because
in many respects getting back to work isnt an option for
most people. What do you guys think of that the luxury?
Susan, you are the next in line. Are you sick of this topic, are
you sick of us talking about ourselves?
Susan Sarandon, actress: Yes
I have little kids so
that I have to deal with that. But I am kind of at a point now,
where I am interested in following through with the families,
the firefighters families in a very specific sense, because
I visited a lot of houses. I think it was much easier to be here,
because you could get right up to the elbows of what was going
on here. And now I feel that its important to keep that
outreach going. Once everybody leaves Ground Zero its going
to be very traumatic for these families. They are all dreading
it in a major, major way. [Sarandon appeared in a play called
"The Guys" about a journalist helping a fire captain
write eulogies for eight of his men who died in September 11]
To be able to do that became the most interesting, because of
the audience, and the actions that the audience would have, examining
and finding a way to mourn as a group. People who are having serious,
serious post-traumatic stress ramifications could remember that
they werent alone. Sitting in a dark place where there is
a film or a theatre becomes some kind of communal potential for
healing or exploration. In fact,is there any way to turn the lights
the lights on in here so we can see each other?
Jon Stewart: Uh, I think the audience is exploring right
now so they cant have the lights on.
Susan Sarandon: Theyre exploring each other?
Jon Stewart: This is the first seminar that is actually
going to turn into a full blown make-out session.
Susan Sarandon: It looks like a group that would be great
Jon Stewart: Wendy, do you think that you will deal directly
with this issue or pass it on?
Wendy Wasserstein: I dont think directly, [but]
how it changes character. I have a daughter whos two and
a half and born on September 12. We obviously cancelled her birthday
party. One of the fathers of one of her little friends died,
and I thought how does this shape her life? How does this shape
the life of that generation? And thats something that takes
a long time to think about. The other thing I thought about: I
remember when the New Yorker had that issue with the black cover
about the World Trade Center. There was no comedy in it, there
was no comic writing. And I kept thinking to myself, I would be
very, very interested in what someone like Paul Rudnick had to
write about this. I dont know how you deal with this comedically
because theres some things in life that just arent
funny. But yet, in the long run
I think that even sitting
here, were laughing, and youre making out. I dont
know what the place of comedy is in this. I dont think its
direct; I think its a release.
Jon Stewart: Well I clearly dont know the place
of comedy. If youve seen ["The Early Show], I
think you understand what Im talking about. I think, honestly,
the biggest problem that Ive had is the idea of defining
the place of comedy. I honestly think its an exercise in
self indulgence. I mean no disrespect, I just think that the idea
of even something like this [panel discussion] is anathema to
how I operate. The idea that we will be able to digest and define
some sort of message from what happened is bizarre to me and it
takes years and years to digest.
Susan Sarandon: Maybe we need comedy more than ever now,
not in terms of explaining anything, but just in terms of helping
Jon Stewart: I think comedy [can heal] probably more than
antibiotics. But I [think] that its embarrassing to have
to decide how important we are to the process of healing. People
say to me, whats funny now? I dont know and I never
did. And thats what you cant define. I am sure in
the Holocaust people cracked great Jew jokes, in the camps. They
just did. But I am sure they didnt sit around going, "Seriously
Moisha, do you think thats appropriate? Perhaps a seminar
over by barracks 12."
Susan Sarandon: Well maybe we can just be here to find
out whats going on with them [pointing to audience].
Jon Stewart: Lets open it up here because I think
that would be a much more appropriate and fun and interesting
way to do this
Does anyone have a question? Yes sir, please
state your name and the film youre trying to sell.
Audience Member: Well
Im not trying to sell
My question has to do with my personal feelings and
Id like to ask each of you how you have dealt with coping.
I find myself getting angry quick, sometimes overreacting to simple
things, freaking out. It has gotten worse rather than better as
time has gone on. Ive done certain things about that but
I just wondered, in general
I was one of those people that
the first two months everything was fine. I was like crisis control
central and then it all fell apart. Im wondering if anyone
else had that kind of experience.
Karin Batten: Ive had a lot of fear. I dont
know what next is going to happen. For the first two months I
was numb and then all of a sudden the anger started. I hated everything.
I hated smelling the air that was coming, I live downtown so I
was smelling the air all the time. I have a son whos twelve
years old who saw everything. Thats his school down here
at the World Trade Center, near the World Trade Center. He loves
New York, but he was even saying: "Mom, I think we need to
move. This is not good. It still smells." That was like in
January. And so I have dealt with a lot of anger and I think the
way I get it out is I work out all the time. I swim, I bicycle,
I do a lot of physical stuff. I think that helps me a lot.
Jon Stewart: Have you changed your routine since that
day? Have you been doing more of that?
Karin Batten: Yeah, I have been doing a lot more.
Jon Stewart: On the spiritual side, I can recommend fundamentalist
Islam. Im kidding
Spalding Gray: I was at a party last night, and there
was a rock and roll band playing and for the first time
I realized I couldnt release through dancing. I think any
kind of you know, Dionysian release or physical exercise is totally
important, but I feel as if its, you know..
Susan Sarandon: Its sex youre talking about
Spalding Gray: Well, that too. If its possible because
it was such a castrating act, the towers falling down
of the largest erections of mankind in the contemporary world.
So if that in itself is
you go to the pit now and its
Jon Stewart: Dont. We know where youre going
with this one so lay off. Yes, sir (to audience member).
Audience member: Youre speaking right now about
the results of 9/11. How do you feel you should respond [as artists]
to 9/11 as the result of something?
Jon Stewart: But isnt everything the result of something?
Audience member: 9/11 is a result of something. So what
do you feel is the responsibility of artists to address that?
Jon Stewart: Susan, thats an interesting question,
I think, for you as a what do they call that a pinko.
Im assuming you mean to point out the steps leading up to
September 11, whatever your interpretation of those steps may
Audience member: Well, something is definitely wrong.
What do you do as artists to address those forces?
Susan Sarandon: One of the first things I told my kids,
when it happened, was you have now joined the rest of the world.
I mean, its important to understand that one of reasons
it was so debilitating was
.there was this idea that we
were beyond violence of any kind. But the fact of the matter is
even in the United States, depending on what neighborhood you
live in, there are kids that are living with violence all time,
and at a magnitude which we cant even fathom
. I think
were privy to information as media connected people. We
have a responsibility to get that information out
not too far from Union Square and [in the beginning] it was just
America at its finest that started happening there. The dialogue
starting with a bunch of homeless kids and eventually got bigger
and bigger. You had people chanting, you had people singing, you
had everything. And then somewhere along the third week, John
Wayne showed up -- an actual cut-out of John Wayne. And a
jingoist kind of thing started taking over and then nobody could
ask questions anymore. It was like a little microcosm of what
happened around the country
Were not supposed to talk
about how there might have been something leading up to this,
that it could have been prevented, or that our actions have ramifications
were living in a lock-down in terms of information and a
certain point of view. And if you challenge that point of view,
We just have to be a little
flashlight that shines on that area that corporate America is
not putting forward
You may not read about it in the Times,
but people are still asking, so thats a good sign
Karin Batten: My feeling is that its a lapse of
education. In a way this country is very isolated. Its very
large. I grew up in Europe, [where] you get a much better overall
worldly education. And I think my son, who has been through elementary
school and now almost middle school, has had nothing of that.
The only reason he knows is because he travels with me to Europe
and he understands a little bit more, has a more worldly outlook.
I think thats something that we need to change
very specified and very much focused on one subject, its
not an overall education that you get here.
Jon Stewart: If I can present just a slight variation
on what they were saying. I dont necessarily agree that
we are uneducated or a country that squashes dissent. As a matter
of fact, I think I probably say the opposite.
Gore Vidal have both put out books terribly critical of the United
Susan Sarandon: Except they wouldnt print Gores
book up until just recently. It sold 40,000 and when he tried
to get it released in the United States, it took months.
Jon Stewart: But within the marketing mainstream corporate
whatever that is, they have no responsibility to print whatever,
theyre basically there to sell coke.
Susan Sarandon: No, the Nation and Vanity Fair that he
has a standing thing with would not print his article.
Jon Stewart: Right, but its out there. And hes
not in prison and the majority of countries
tolerate this. You know, in this country
art is not a brave
pursuit. Its just not. Its a pursuit we are afforded
to do and its a luxury. In countries of real repression,
art is a brave pursuit, but thats not us. .. As far as education
is concerned, in terms of Europe, I do wish maybe theyd
study their own history because its not exactly pristine.
So, I would suggest, its very easy to criticize and say
what we did caused this. Certainly the actions that we take within
the world have blow-back effect. But to look at that through myopic
eyes is no better.
Audience member: I live down here in a dorm, NYU, and
we were told we couldnt come back down here on the 11th
so I was hanging out in the park. What I was really, really sickened
by that day was the mass of people running into drugstores buying
disposable cameras to get shots of what was happening, smoke from
And I was wondering if you could comment a
little about the fine line between artistic documentation for
historical or artistic endeavors and exploitation. Sidney Lumet,
yesterday in a panel here, said something to the effect that all
of it would be exploitative. And I was wondering if you agree
or disagree on that.
Wendy Wasserstein: Its a hard line. I remember when
on the 11th I started watching television compulsively and then
after three or four days of it, I couldnt look at it at
all because I thought there is some sort of exploitation going
on here. I couldnt get out the line really between wanting
to hear what was happening and then suddenly thinking that this
was about real lives going on here
I understand [why people
wanted to photograph it] because it is a document of your time
and its happening and you want to see it, you want to have
it. There is a part of me that does find all of that [almost]
Its almost a way of distancing it from your
heart.For me, as an artist, things take time, they take time to
settle... I really couldnt sit on a panel and tell you heres
what happened, heres who Im angry at, this is why
it happened, were a nation of isolationists, this is what
I think of fundamentalists Islam and us and Israel. I think its
something that is obviously leading somewhere, and I think its
all of our jobs to know our history and understand the politics
of the time we live in and be responsible for the time we live
in. But I also think you dont take the picture, put it on
CNN and then think "I know [now], lets move on."
Jon Stewart: Have you seen any works that incorporate
these images or incorporate whats going on that you thought
was appropriate or healing, tastefully done or exploitative for
that matter? Is there anything in your experience?
Spalding Gray: I dont own a television so I didnt
get hooked into that. And because I missed that, I found the two
downtown exhibitions of photos taken by local people to be extraordinary.
The one on Worcester Street and the one over on Prince Street..
That absolutely saved the day for me. It made the event
it showed it to me visually. They were just really
great documentation. And primitive and sincere because they werent
all shot by professionals.
Jon Stewart: Right. I find that I tend to draw the line
at commerce. And the media, CNN in particular, MSNBC and Fox have
begun to use the World Trade Center images as bumpers in an ad
or commercial. And I find at that point thats just an utter
loss of editorial control. And one that I find unbelievably mind
boggling. And whatever story they bring up about September 11
now is followed by images of people running from the disaster.
Theyll say "New Yorkers are losing sleep. Well
have someone on to find out why," and as theyre saying
that, theyre literally showing the towers coming down and
people running out into the street. And I imagine if youre
sitting at home and watching it, youre going "I cant
because CNN wont stop running this."
Audience member: I never thought that I would find myself
running for my life two times on September 11 along with being
forced to be evacuated. But Im not here to talk about that.
Im here to encourage community involvement as a healing
process. What we did, my husband and myself, was we went and we
built a web site for engine 6, one of the first responders, and
Im proud to say that because of our efforts, with a lot
of other people in downtown New York, we have been able to put
a down payment on a new ambulance. Community involvement, I think,
is a wonderful healing process. As I always say, were still
on day one. Until we decide to fight, take action, we will not
move to day two. And day two is when we start to heal. Thank you.
Jon Stewart: Youre welcome. Karin?
Karin Batten: I was sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Culture
Council, which is very active in downtown and Tribeca. Its
a wonderful organization. And I also belong to an art group and
we have received about 300 pieces of work concerning the World
Trade Center attack. And they have come from all over the world
and they will be exhibited. None the artists that I know
knew what to do after that happened. And then the only thing we
could do was sort of deal with what we saw and what we have experienced
Some people knitted pieces, some did collages, paintings,
everything. And it has been really helpful because weve
been putting this together and have gotten many, many pieces from
all over the world
None of the artists that I know has really
gone back to [the work they were doing before]. Everybody is changing
and thinking "what do we need to do now?" We talk about
it in meetings. Its really helpful to talk about it to other
That is part of the healing process for me too.
Jon Stewart: Does anyone else have an organization or
something that they have been involved in that they would like
to talk about?
Susan Sarandon: Yeah, theres a group, the emphasis
on refugee camps, its a great group called FilmAid that
started in Kosovo and just recently has been working in Afghanistan
that takes a big truck with a screen on the side of it that plays
music, whether its in a bombed out building or a field
Afghanistan the kids just saw the "Wizard of Oz." They
show it to somebody first to make sure that culturally its
OK. The only objection they had were the -- what do they call
those little people -- the munchkins in tutus, that was a no-no.
But other than that
Rhe kids had never seen anybody sing
they dont, in that culture, allow singing. And so when they
saw Judy Garland singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow,"
we have film of them watching it, they were just
Jon Stewart: If I may make a suggestion
send them the Police Academy series. Because -- I cant stress
this enough -- these people have been through a terrible tragedy;
I dont think they should also have to face Guttenberg.
Audience member: Two blockbuster movies in the past few
years were of recent tragedies in history, "Titanic"
and Pearl Harbor. They kind of romanticize tragedies in past history,
and I was wondering if you thought that it would be appropriate
[to make a] blockbuster film [of the events of 9/11]
Jon Stewart: I think you just bummed out the panel, dude.
Susan Sarandon: Im sure somebody will do it.
Jon Stewart: Everybodys working on a script up here
Susan Sarandon: Somebodys bound to do it, you know,
and theres no way of knowing
Audience Member: Do you think it would be appropriate
Jon Stewart: Jerry Lewis made a film about being a clown
in a concentration camp. I mean, you cant avoid it. Whatever
your internal barometer is, is your internal barometer. And if
you try and set it towards other peoples phazers, youre
always going to go wrong. And all you can do is what you feel
is right. But trust me, no matter what you do, someones
going to think youre a d***. I have that by the way embroidered
on pillows. Its a lovely saying.
Audience member: The Daily Show is a very popular show
Jon Stewart: Its not that popular.
Audience member: Well, I mean, its watched by millions
of viewers all over the country and I personally think that its
been respectful in regard to the comedy of September 11. Where
do you think that the line should be drawn in regards to a comedic
interpretation of the events of September 11? What crosses the
line and stops being humorous and becomes offensive?
Jon Stewart: Wheres the line?
Audience member: Wheres the line?
Jon Stewart: I wish I knew, honestly. You know, I think
the line is those Carrot Top AT&T commercials. Those are offensive
to me, but only purely because they suck. ..I live downtown so
I imagine my barometer is set relatively sensitively towards those
events in terms of comedy, but I cant honestly tell you
that I havent made mistakes
But its the same
line that existed before September 11. I guess thats one
thing Id like to say. September 11 is an arbitrary line,
just like the line between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Its
just been drawn there, obviously not by the British, September
11. But I mean its an arbitrary line and you know, the day
Jesus was born wasnt the day they decided to go, "OK,
now its AD." You know what I mean? It takes a long
time to digest it and all you can do, again, is use the same intuition
you used before. And maybe with a greater sensitivity and awareness
just because you went through those events. I think the closer
you live to it, probably the more sensitive you are to it. ..It
makes me want to apologize to the people of Oklahoma City. Because
I certainly watched that thing go down and went out and got myself
a cheeseburger and that was probably due to geographic distance.
But does that answer your question at all?
Audience member: Well, I just had one more thing. Saturday
Night Live does skits involving Osama bin Laden, things that have
happened. Do you feel that type of comedy, in regards to whats
going on in Afghanistan brings a light-hearted view to what happened?
Does it make people feel better? Or is it just a distraction,
something that shouldnt be done?
Jon Stewart: The thing about television is theyll
tell you when its no longer appropriate because theyre
no longer able to sell products off of what youre doing.
The issue with TV comedy isnt whether or not its appropriate
for an audience or whether its offensive. The issue is whether
or not people will watch it, to allow you to keep producing it
Unfortunately, thats really the game.
Any of us who think any differently are lying to themselves
bet theres people who watch it and go: this is incredibly
offensive. And people watch it and think: thank God someone has
attacked this sacred Cow. C.F. Lewis said: mock the Devil because
he hates to be mocked. And there are a lot of people out there
who say: dont mock the devil, he loves that
such an individual response.
Susan Sarandon: They just had a thing in New York where
the Library Asssociation was trying to get everybody to get to
read the same book together in the city. They had to cancel the
whole thing because the 15 people on the committee could not come
up with one book. They got it down to two, and half of them found
one book offensive and the other ones thought the other book was
stupid. So I thought, thank God, I mean why would they think they
could get all of New York to read one book. Were in New
York, you know.
Wendy Wasserstein: I think it depends, I think if you
in 1944 put on a musical that featured "Springtime for Hitler,"
I dont think that would have gone over. You know, and [now]
you have the biggest hit on Broadway. ["Springtime for Hitler"
is a musical number in the Broadway hit "The Producers"]
So I think it also depends on how its done and time.
Jon Stewart: But Chaplins film about Hitler was
during that time
Audience member: But he was deported.
Jon Stewart: He was deported for ***** children. He wasnt
deported for making a film about Hitler.
much talk about globalization and typically it comes in the form
protests in front of a Starbucks. Which by the way, they
do, not because theyre protesting Starbucks because its
awfully hard not to protest in front of a Starbucks; theres
so many thousands of them. You can just be protesting and "oh,
wow, its a Starbucks." [But there is a positive aspect
of globalization, where people have] great empathy and a great
feeling and experience for what we went through. Is that is a
positive aspect, Karin?
Karin Batten: Yeah, I think it really is because I noticed
it very much so after the event. Most of my family called me immediately.
Everybody emailed me from Europe and from other parts of the country
and said how much they were feeling for us. How much they were
part of it. And how it really became just one large New York City.
Everybody was trying so hard to get through, but the lines were
blocked. Everything was falling apart in New York, but they were
I went back in March to visit my family and they
still felt that way
. They all watched it on television.
And there was no ocean. Everything had shrunk to one land.