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For a shared expression of emotions, we turn to the arts

Sunday, November 11, 2001

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

It is now two months since the September outrage that stunned the civilized world, and as people have attempted to cope with the shock and to establish some normalcy amid continuing hostilities, many have turned to the arts.

The extent to which they have done so, and the way cultural organizations and individuals have expanded their roles to minister to a grieving population, adds a new argument for ongoing arts support.

It's become more evident than ever that culture not only nourishes but heals, and that it is a significant stabilizing force for a society under duress. As maintaining the viability of American steel mills is necessary for defense, keeping our cultural base vital is essential for the country's spirit.

Speaking with National Public Radio's Terry Gross in September, the nation's new poet laureate, Billy Collins, observed that people began to turn to poetry after the attack.

In the days following, museums and galleries, locally and nationally, grappled with whether or not to hold previously scheduled events, with most opting to continue with plans and incorporate a tribute to the thousands lost.

The decisions to stay the course were rewarded with unexpectedly large turnouts, as people sought the solace and community that the arts provide. Some venues, such as the Society for Contemporary Craft, which was hosting the Fiberart International 2001 exhibition, were pleasantly surprised by the unusually high number of families who sought a gentle environment in which to be together and find relief from current events.

In the intervening period, much has been written about this heightened relationship between the public and its cultural institutions, with comfort and connectedness being key concerns.

In a Sept. 17 column, New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman quoted the director of the Metropolitan Museum, Philippe de Montebello, who said, "This is precisely the time we should be providing a comforting experience. People who haven't had the heart yet to go back to work have been coming here for a sense of serenity and the intercession of other people, rubbing shoulders in a kind of womb of culture. Hospitals are open. They're around to fix the body. We're here to fix the soul."

Two weeks ago, the Times' Holland Cotter began a review of an exhibition at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore with, " 'We're all connected' is the big-picture story of art. It always has been."

The theme of the Istanbul Biennial, which opened the week after Sept. 11 and runs through Saturday, is described by curator Yuko Hasegawa as "The three Cs of the 21st century: collective intelligence, collective consciousness and co-existence." Though this focus was serendipitous, the online Economist of Oct. 26 reported that when the show opened, "Everyone from taxi drivers and waiters to street vendors and artists were bursting with a need to share their thoughts and news about that tragic day."

As would be expected, artists are also responding, sometimes in uncharacteristic ways. For others, art is the way to express something too profound for words. However, when opportune, discussion is also being instigated.

Wall to Wall Studios, a Pittsburgh design firm known for its usually upbeat and humorous projects, created "911" for last weekend's Media/Tonic at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. In a room illuminated only by black light were parallel rows of water-filled tumblers -- 4,865 of them, one for each victim -- that glowed like votive candles or an airport landing strip. Audio by Big Science altered a techno track with such sounds as breaking glass and ... a ringing cell phone.

Over on the South Side, employees of Walter Long Manufacturing Co. constructed a miniature of the devastated World Trade Center site out of steel, concrete and ash. It stands proudly atop a red, white and blue painted pole at the corner of South 14th Street and Muriel.

The Andy Warhol Museum, which had already scheduled the harrowing exhibition "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America," broadened forum content to include hate and violence as well as racism. Its opening-day programs on Sept. 22 included remarks from members of the local Muslim community decrying the attacks -- "Terrorists have no religion. They do not represent Islam. They are lost souls. We strongly condemn them." -- and asking the audience to help ensure that American Muslims are not the target of a new wave of lynchings. A community panel at 7 p.m. Friday will probe local response to the exhibition and related issues.

From coast to coast and around the globe, the arts are permeated with hope, good will and the pride of achievement.

Creative people articulate our emotions and memories. They are problem solvers who travel outside the box to find solutions.

The arts communities have been called upon to serve, and they are doing so with fund-raising benefits, in sometimes extraordinary fashion and most steadfastly by being themselves.

As Judith O'Toole, director and CEO of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, said in her remarks that preceded the award presentations at the Sixth Annual Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional Art Exhibition on Sept. 15:

"Many of us feel helpless in the face of this crisis, but there are several things we can do. We can acknowledge that we are artists and that the arts are healing, they lift us up, they give us purpose, they touch our hearts, our minds and our spirits. We are not insignificant to world events and we will be much needed in the weeks and months to come."

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