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Several weeks ago, I was interviewing the American artist Elaine Reichek, who was visiting Toronto to prepare her work for an exhibition here. In those early days after Sept. 11, we were talking about the sense of profanity one felt in working, and the sickening sense one had in the pit of one's stomach about picking up and carrying on with the business of life after others have endured so much suffering.

More particularly, though, Reichek wanted to talk about the predicament of the artist at such a moment. "These are the hardest kinds of days to be an artist," she said -- a calling that is by definition ruminative, and at a remove from action and a direct sense of service. How does one cope, as a conscientious person, with the inevitable sense that one is simply fiddling among the flames?

She is not the only artist to voice such feelings. At a symposium at the Art Gallery of Ontario last week, a woman artist asked the panel of artists to respond to the same conundrum. "Being an artist," she said, "seems like such a tremendous act of privilege." How, at such a time, could she continue making art? The American artist Elizabeth Murray, writing the following day in The New York Times, echoed these sentiments precisely when she wrote, "how futile my artmaking seemed right now," adding, "How could balancing shapes with line and colour have any meaning, or be of any use to anyone?"

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This dilemma, one presumes, is as old as art itself, but it was most memorably given voice by the German philosopher Theodor Adorno when he asserted that "it is barbarous to write a poem after Auschwitz." But thinking about the role of art in such a historical moment as ours in fact drives one to the opposite conclusion. The mere insistence on the subjective imagination is, in its way, a triumph over dehumanization and horror. Barbarism lies in the death of poetry -- and literature and theatre and dance and the visual arts.

Experiencing the unfolding world events of the past few weeks, I have found myself keeping imaginary counsel with a number of works of contemporary art. In my mind's eye, they have served me not as diversion from the anxieties of the present moment, but as models for deeper understanding. They have challenged me in various ways. They have led me to question the nature of my relationship to media. They have interrogated my guilt as a lucky survivor, and my impotent voyeurism. And they have provoked me to think about the limitations of understanding that are inherent in being human. For all of these reasons, they are deeply civilizing agents.

In Canadian contemporary art, one artist in particular, Max Dean of Toronto, has made an art of conscience, and to brilliant effect. His kinetic sculpture As Yet Untitled demonstrates the perils of passivity, setting up a confrontation with the audience that is deeply thought-provoking.

In 1992, Dean began working on his technologically complex alter ego. (He finished it in 1995). An uncannily deft robotic creation, it was capable of picking up a single snapshot from a stack of discarded family photos scavenged by the artist, transporting it to a shredder and returning for another -- a function it repeated again and again with an eerie grace. But in this work, the audience played a critical role in salvation. If one placed one's hands on a pair of hand-shaped sensors, the robot would halt on its way to the shredder, and store the photograph in a save bin, to be archived by the artist. If not, the snapshot was consigned to its fate, and a unique and intimate record of a moment of existence was destroyed. The impact of this was surprisingly disturbing and, in its way, profoundly sad.

Dean says that watching the interplay between this work of art and its public has been an object lesson in human nature, with the audience tending to divide into those who want to save the images and those who consent to their destruction. In some instances, a debate has developed between viewers about the relative merits of the photographs. Who should be spared? Some, Dean says, even want to prevent others from doing the saving.

Even among those who want to save the photographs, there is the difficult dilemma of when to disengage. They ask themselves, Dean says, "At what point do I give up this particular role that I have adopted?" There is sorrow and also guilt in turning away and resuming one's life, a sorrow not unlike what we all started to experience last week in our "return to normalcy." How we wish we could have held our hands to the television screen on that Tuesday morning and prevented the avalanche of steel and dust and human souls.

Who is the human being capable of wreaking such destruction in pursuit of ideology? The boyish Osama bin Laden on his youth tour in Sweden, who we saw beaming at us from the front page of this newspaper last Wednesday morning? The terrorist is a figure of deep mystery, in whose image we come to see incarnate all the evil of the world. If only evil could be so localized. How can we reconcile ourselves to the uncomfortable fact of his humanity?

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This is the question that seems to underscore the suite of paintings made in 1988 by painter Gerhard Richter depicting members of the Baader-Meinhof Group, a German collective of anti-Vietnam agitators-turned-terrorists infamous for their high-profile kidnappings and bombings.

Titled October 18, 1977, the paintings also present scenes of incarceration and public ceremony surrounding the terrorists and their deaths in jail. Richter, who exhibited the series in Montreal in 1990, was criticized by many for these works. But as reviled as these pictures were by some, they were admired and respected by others.

Richter's paintings (he made three) of the dead Ulrike Meinhof, who hanged herself in her prison cell, were based on a widely circulated newspaper photo of the day. (In fact, members of the German left maintained that Meinhof and several of her cohorts were killed in prison.) In Richter's hands the image of her upturned face blurs and darkens, moving away from the trophy shot to hint at a deeper enigma. Through his sombre and elegiac tone, Richter insists that we acknowledge, however uncomfortable it may be to do so, the humanity of the terrorist. As he shades in the faint dark trace around her neck (a rope? a bruise?), he opens up the possibility for us to consider her solitary and twisted fate. Beneath the fine-boned features of this corpse resided the consciousness of a woman who passionately believed herself, even if misguidedly, to be on the side of right.

Asked to defend the images, Richter stated; "I'm not so sure whether the pictures ask anything; they provoke contradictions through their hopelessness and desolation, though their lack of partisanship. Ever since I have been able to think," he continues, "I have known that every rule and opinion -- insofar as either is ideologically motivated -- is false, a hindrance, a menace, or a crime."

We are told that America is at war with evil and, as long as President George Bush and his entourage remain tightly focused on their pursuit of terrorists, we can believe that to be true. But we are also told on the evening news that American foreign policy is in part to blame for the brushfire of hatred that ignited the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Are we complicit? What the politician must render clear and unequivocal, the artist must render in all its complexity, applying the brakes to the thrust of received ideas.

In the end, the role of the artist may simply be to bear witness as Richter does, to hold our fractured and traumatized attention on the things we feel compelled to avoid. Such is the strategy of Japanese artist Hiromi Tsuchida, who for seven years photographed the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing. His suite of photographs, Hiroshima Collection (shown two years ago in a Vancouver exhibition titled War Zones), presents a selected inventory of objects left over after the dropping of the bomb on that city at 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945. He discovered them in the holdings of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, a collection that is still growing as people hand over their treasured fragments of the past. Later, Tsuchida added to each the brief stories of the owners.

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These objects are mute relics of another moment when unimaginable horror rained down from the sky, obliterating civilian life. While much has rightly been made of the distinction between the two events, from the point of view of the Japanese mother left with only her daughter's sandals to hold in her hands, or the son with his father's stopwatch arrested forever at the moment of the blast, it's probably not a distinction worth much. Tsuchida's work seen today negotiates us into confrontation with that fact, and with the brutal human costs of our passion to believe.

The great Irish poet W. B. Yeats often worried at the dichotomy between the man of action and the man of reflection, torn in his admiration for both. While these two poles of human nature are probably irreconcilable, they still must stay in dialogue. Art's presence in the world preserves the ambivalence and philosophical doubt that civilization requires.

Defending artists and their role in times of crisis, Richter was unequivocal. "You can't say that art is no good because it didn't prevent the concentration camps," he said, "any more than you can say that no more poems are possible after Auschwitz. All I know is that without Mozart and the rest we wouldn't survive."

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