Winter 2002.

Artists, (huh) What Are They Good For?

A Post-9/11/01 examination by Norman Kee

I'm not able to express things as I once was, but then again, I can't experience things the same way, either. If I miss the news in the morning, I'm nervous logging on the New York Times website at noon. Whenever I drive by the Empire State Plaza, the towers look like adolescent runaways to me, taller than they are prepared to be and achingly vulnerable. Worrying about today, or tomorrow, or the actions of your neighbors is no longer is the providence of the "mentally unstable" alone, it is as American as the flag.

Many folks died in the attacks of September 11th. So many thousands more were directly impacted, through loss of loved ones, friends, and treasured confidants. Throw in the cousins, uncles and aunts, and grandparents, and you looking at millions. Consider the people whose jobs are gone, the street vendors, secretaries, tech people on commercial videos. It's huge.

In the past, events have often inspired artists. Typically, artists have communicated through two paradigms: make the personal universal, or make the universal personal. This goes for Laurie Anderson and Lenny Kravitz, Jewel and Ezra Pound, and Grandma Moses and Jean Basquiat. However, both models of creation have been taken out of our hands recently, as far as creating anything around the 11th goes.

The vision of two planes flying into the World Trade Center has been imprinted on so many people that there is nothing about this experience that is not universal. There are dirt farmers in places where there's a dirt draught that saw it happen. Repeatedly. In Vegas, they stopped gambling to watch. It has been and continues to be analyzed, and in turn, the analysts themselves analyzed. There is no one left to surprise by presenting your observation to the universe.

Alas, the personal angle is no longer ours either. So many people were someone, or know someone, or know someone who knows someone, who died. It was the WORLD Trade Center. How many people have walked over the Brooklyn Bridge in the last 30 years, and never needed to think twice about the skyline being intact? A die has six sides, a mailbox is painted blue, Dick Clark "rocks" in New Year's Eve, and the World Trade Center towers mark New York City. In another few years, they would have been part of our DNA.

Even if some individual managed to escape loss within a degree or two of separation, everyone lost something. Part of me is gone, for good, and another part of me continues to wander away when I'm not paying attention. Parts of my mind, soul, and body no longer take orders from central command.

As artists, we're used to being found by that quick secret hand with the right stroke, or the ineffable whispering in our ear. Now, if I get guidance at all it points everywhere at once, like a compass near a magnet. Maybe my muse died, maybe she lingered too long, looking for and perhaps finding the beauty in terror, only to be crushed by it. Perhaps the confusion I'm hearing is from some new muse, perhaps one from the temp agency, as she struggles to get her footing. My muse might be watching too much CNN, becoming less concerned with aesthetics than anthrax, thinking that Cipro is the new manna. Perhaps she's on-line, looking for those pieces of information that will become some sort of connectable dots. Did she talk too much to a few wrong folks, or rent them rooms? Is her wisdom rooted too much in the ancient knowledge of the Middle East? Maybe for her, due process is doo-doo, and she's under John Ashcroft's thumb. All I know is that creativity seems like it's calling me, pulling me, and then shrugging its shoulders once I get there.

At the same time that I'm thinking doom and gloom, I'm seeing the art in everything, finding the leaves, naked trees, and clear night skies more beautiful than ever, the sunrise and set stunning like never before. Still, I'm a frustrated fan, a bystander.

I've heard a lot about how many people have changed their lifestyles to spend more time with their families and kids, and less on the job. Wine collectors are drinking and enjoying their vintage stock, rather than just bragging about it. Mortality's mighty entrance has made some realize that money is no longer the only yardstick by which to measure accomplishments. "Love and hope and sex and dreams" doesn't sound quite so glib anymore, it sounds like a good deal. Success has received some re-definition, some of it much needed in my opinion.

Unfortunately, I think that for me, I have had a hard time swallowing a new meaning for success when it comes to creativity. I wrote and re-wrote this piece enough times to fill a disc with drafts, and I'm still dissatisfied. I know it needs to be better. I'm stifled by the knowledge that nothing I can or will create will affect anything in proportion to recent events. It all seems like chitter-chatter, like nothing that matters, even though there's part of me that knows art means more now than ever. Just not yet, not for me.

NORMAN KEE is a founding member of