ArtWatch, Post 9-11-01

To pretend that after the World Trade Center destruction – with its heavy physical and psychological damage and its vast collateral, economic, emotional and cultural losses – we can achieve anything like “business as usual” is an perilous illusion. The world, our world, has changed for New Yorkers, for Americans, and, arguably, for most people everywhere. One and all in the USA who belong to my generation remember where they were on 7 December 1941, on the day John F. Kennedy was shot, and the day Martin Luther King was killed. The Twin Towers devastation promises to be no exception. Inevitably, we are already calculating: before WTC [=BWTC] and after WTC [=AWTC], an historical event which closely coincides with the beginning of the Third Millennium, A.D.

That late summer day two short months ago ironically was a marvel, defined by tepid temperature, a bright sun and a deep blue, high cloudless sky over Manhattan island. I was having coffee with a friend at the self-service Asian “pizzeria and sandwich shop” on Upper Broadway, which is my usual locale for morning caffeine and where I read the papers. Mine consists of an inexplicable not to say impossible combination of Milan’s confident Il Corriere della Sera and the sensationalist and sports-oriented New York Post. We were chatting about irrelevancies, university stuff, local politics, and were in the process of leaving the unpretentious and, in all honesty, rather ugly place when a shabbily dressed, elderly man, which means someone my own age or older, his hair as disorderly as Einstein’s, stopped us on the way out. He turned, whispering in a grave voice, “isn’t it terrible, they have run a plane into one of the towers.” I recall the time, about 8:45, and my friend and I glared at one another as our interloper spoke, then turning to him, mutually having concluded without a word exchanged that the chap was totally mad. “Yes, that indeed was a very bad thing,” I condescendingly conceded.

Parting, we agreed that the poor fellow, who appeared to pertain to a ragged army that inhabits the sidewalks of the city, probably would be better off in an institution for the insane. Only moments later I learned that the fool was right. They often are.

In the days and weeks that followed I have wondered about my profession, as a teacher and as an art historian, and I have wondered about the organization we founded ten years ago. The next day, I raised issues in the classroom, filled with deeply anxious young people, some of whom had been in New York only a matter of days, already overwhelmed by the city, and now totally disoriented. Even for the veterans of the city, those who had spent a couple of years on Upper Broadway, the anxiety and the puzzlement was overarching. Not that I had many answers, but I sensed that the students expected guidance from their professors, wisdom, and glimmers of optimism. As I pondered, I began to think about all the excesses of the past two or three decades, the period which I like to call the Junk Bond Era, one dominated by what is perceived, and not with what is, about young people getting $100,000 jobs a year or two out of college, and more, for those from Law or Business School. I asked the class what was wrong with teaching school? True there wasn’t much money in it, but in the longer view, it has been a dignified profession. What I was really suggesting is that we may be reevaluating many of the closely held operating principles which have propelled society in these years. It seems to me, and without sounding too much like Laura Bush, that it is certainly something to be hoped for. New priorities, a stress on learning and teaching, on thought and meditation.

More closely related to the mission and activities of ArtWatch, my first reaction was to wonder whether our very existence should not be reconsidered. After all sometimes, and as you have seen by the issues before us right now, we are agitated by a millimeter or two of lost varnish, or a most fragile application of paint, either being removed or added. In the challenges of war, of bombs, famine and death, can anyone really bother about a minuscule film of paint, or a thin green patina on a bronze statue? Can we in good conscience continue to be deeply involved in committing our time, energy, thoughts, and money, battling for our goal which is basically the dignity of art?

I must confess that my first thoughts were to throw my hands out and beat my chest like Giotto’s Despair from the Scrovegni Chapel – one of his brilliant inventions among the series of Virtues and Vices – ready to put aside issues of the preservation of art as irrelevant to the other “bigger ” threats. But I thought of those calm giants, the Buddahs of Afghanistan which were brutalized just a few months ago, or the Meso-American figures and images which had been brutalized four centuries ago, and the very images of Giotto which in their own way are being brutalized.

And I realized that our, meaning mankind’s, finest efforts need protection, and they need our protection. The battle is at the essence of civilization and our little organization is practically the only organized effort to call attention to the destruction from neglect, misguided practice, and from over-eager operatives and authorities who are seeking fame and fortune at the expense of art. Hence our efforts are valuable, actually more essential than ever in the new climate. And once again we can turn to Giotto, to his Hope, to give us strength to confront the future.