Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Art and Disaster.

David Guttenfelder | AP Photo + Nathan Sharratt
I have difficulty processing tragedy. My initial reaction is taciturn acceptance. My rational, cognitive mind understands that the event occurred and there is no undo button to make it not have happened. There is nothing I could possibly say that could turn back the clock or make everything better. All words are at the very best inadequate and at the worst serve to trivialize the event and its consequences by attempting to express the inexpressible. In my mind—at least initially—speaking about it is an attempt to capture the event, to define it, categorize it, make it smaller and more digestible, easily processed. This can't be done. There is no way to effectively represent the enormity, complexity and magnitude of the disaster in Japan, or any number of other equally devastating world events. Running to Facebook or Twitter to let the world know that I think tragedies are tragic just seems so disingenuous. I scream oh how awful, fulfilling my role as a compassionate human being; and then I finish my dinner. It makes me feel better, but does nothing to alleviate the victims' suffering. It becomes a way to claim the power and authenticity of the event as my own, and to focus the lens of empathy on me, where it doesn't belong. So I don't say anything.

This is not to say that those who do post to social media after a tragic event are bad or wrong in any way, not at all. Quite the opposite. Everyone processes grief differently, and any method that works for you is the correct method. Some people internalize, some externalize, some find comfort in between. Some people donate to relief charities. Some people encourage others to donate to relief charities. Some process it by not processing it, giving the event no more thought than is necessary. All of it, any of it, none of it, is all correct. Though we are increasingly more a global society, the only reality we can know for certain exists is our own. I can empathize with the victims and their families by imagining myself in their place as an abstract concept, but I cannot truly understand. How would I feel if my world was destroyed? I don't know. I can't know, until it happens to me. The only way I can come anywhere near relating to those affected by the Japanese earthquake is by narrowing the field of vision to my own experiences. Anything else becomes too immense to deal with. One of those experiences was living in New York during the 9/11 attacks.

Communal Urges.
I found that a curious thing happened after 9/11. When meeting new people while traveling, through casual conversation the question was usually asked, "where are you from?" When I told them I lived in New York City, they would inevitably ask me if I was there on 9/11. When they learned that I was less than two miles away when the towers fell, the person would get very excited to tell me their story about where they were that day and what happened to them. Very rarely did anyone ask for my perspective, or where I was, or if I knew anyone who was killed in the attacks (I knew friends of friends who lost someone, but thankfully no one I knew died or was directly affected by the initial attack), or how I was processing my feelings about having the ash of dead people float down on me. I would usually volunteer an abbreviation of my story whenever they finished talking. At the time, I was merely bemused by the apparent lack of empathy, but now I see it for what it was: their attempt to form a connection with me. At least, that's how I choose to see it.

Kurt Vonnegut called it a "granfalloon" in his novel Cat's Cradle. Defined as, "a group of people who outwardly choose or claim to have a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless." This may be true. Just because we were both alive on a particular date in time does not make us connected. Or does it? I'm not an anthropologist, but it seems fairly certain that we are social animals (I'm not qualified to get into the science of anthropology, so all I can offer are my anecdotal observations). We create bonds where none previously existed. We have a genetic urge to form groups. To procreate. To raise offspring. To protect each other. That requires the evolved ability to care about the welfare of those around you, and so they in turn will care about you and yours. But when disaster affects communities thousands of miles away that only a century ago we would be ignorant of, we have trouble reconciling our need to bond and protect with the feeling of helplessness that overwhelms us because we often cannot.

Language is an excellent example of this genetic need to bond and to share our thoughts. Language is a wholly human construct. There is no language in nature, outside of humans (that I know of). There is communication, however. Vocalization, context and body language go a long way for many animals. A snarling wolf means back off or I'll chomp your head off. Cause and effect has taught us this. But there is no codified system of language. A rock—as an abstract concept, a word, a collection of letters, a vocalization of sounds, a meaning—exists in nature, whether we call it "rock" or call it nothing at all. You are able to understand my thoughts as you read this because we have agreed to a system of language. When humans are gone, our written words may survive, but their meaning will not.

Airplanes Are For Building.
On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I awoke to the sound of sirens in my Fort Greene, Brooklyn apartment. Nothing weird about that. You get used to the din of urban life. It was a work day so I started getting ready for work. I flipped on NY1 (NYC's 24-hours news channel) and learned that some sort of explosion happened in one of the towers at the World Trade Center, that was all the information newscasters had at the time. Again, nothing too alarming, there was an explosion in midtown not too long before that blew up a college chemistry lab. I worked near Times Square, so a localized explosion at a downtown office building shouldn't affect me. I walked to the subway and got on the C train, as usual. After a few stops the train stopped. For a long time. Annoying but yet again, nothing too unusual. The NYC subway system is a hundred years old. It frequently has technical problems that halt or delay trains.

Eventually, the loudspeaker announced that all service to Manhattan was halted indefinitely and passengers will have to exit the train at the next station. Lots of grumbling from passengers. As the train pulled into station and opened its doors, I stepped onto the platform and then heard an MTA worker yelling, "They're gone! They're gone!" What was gone? "The towers, they're gone!" Wait, what? What the hell is going on? Outside I saw it, the plume of smoke and ash blowing straight at me and no towers in sight. Gray snow fell. I was at the Brooklyn Bridge, across the river from where the towers once stood. No one knew what the hell was going on. People huddled around cars with their doors open, listening to radio reports. Confused and numb, I started walking home. Crowds of people were doing the same. I had a camera in my bag. Should I take pictures? Should I be documenting this? I didn't feel anything yet. I needed to feel this. Why wasn't I feeling anything? Taking pictures would disconnect me. No pictures. How should I be feeling? Why wasn't I comatose on the ground, weeping? How the hell do you process something like this? I couldn't.

For a long time it upset me greatly that I didn't feel more during the aftermath of the attacks. How do you make sense of the senseless? How do you express what you're feeling when words don't work? There was discussion about whether artists would tackle the subject in their work. The consensus was that they would leave it alone. Most did. It was sacrosanct.

At the time, I was working in the commercial graphic arts industry. My art was about survival. Paying the rent. Designing layouts for computer magazines to get a paycheck so I could afford to eat. I wasn't thinking about working these issues out through visual art. I had a band. We were doing well. Getting noticed. Filling venues. I got out most of my emotional expression through a guitar and a bunch of distortion pedals to the screams of adoring fans. A year and a half later I made this, my only visual contribution to the disaster's lexicon:
Nathan Sharratt, 2003
Even now, as I search for 9/11 art, all I can seem to find are children's drawings or memorials. What is art's role in a disaster's aftermath? For me, art has always been about expressing that which can't be expressed any other way. It's about making new connections in novel ways. It's about opening dialog. Are we afraid? Is art a safe fantasy world that deals exclusively in abstracts? Is pain expressed through art simply too ineffectual to compete with the documentation of the real thing? Is the photo-journalistic documentation enough for us? Should artists stay quiet, out of reverence for the dead, or is it our job to reconnect us to truths we may have let fall by the wayside?

I really wish I knew the answers.


  1. Well put Nathan, The numbness surrounding events like this I'm sure has been a troublesome thing for past generations to overcome. There are no words, there is no sympathy that can make things better. All we can do is put a hand out and pull some one to their feet and if they can't walk we'll carry them.

    Art is always the most tasteful form of grief.

  2. Hey Nathan,
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. As for answers, the important ones that define who we are usually take awhile, but they always come.
    With much love and admiration,
    Darrel Levingston