Poetic reflections on the healing power of art: Art is a mirrored device we use to gaze upon ourselves. It’s natural then to turn to art after a shocking event, when we wonder what’s become of us.

After Sept. 11, 2001, artists joined, in an indirect but no less important way, those who were performing more tangible duties, such as the laborers who cleared rubble at the World Trade Center or the lawmakers who set out to make life safer in the United States.

Missoula may be a long way from Manhattan, in more measures than simple geography, but the utility of art remains the same. We too need to employ art to gauge the magnitude of last year’s events, to understand why it happened, and learn from it.

One very simple effect in our town has been a renewed interest in making art. For example, this year 50 percent more students registered for the 11-week Summer Intensive workshop at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography than in 2001, the largest single increase in the school’s 14-year history.

Owner Jeanne Chaput attributes that increase to the personal benefits art holds for the artist. The idea is that taking a life-long hobby seriously can be more rewarding than another trip to Disneyland, a triumph of the individual creative spirit over mass culture and consumerism.

“We all recognize life is short and that people need to do what they love,” Chaput says. “And people recognize the tremendous power of photography.”

The power of art also serves a very important public function. The artistic response to an event such as last year’s tragedy can range from escapism to laying blame, according to University of Montana Professor Bobby Tilton. But fundamentally what is special about art is its honesty, and we depend on that honesty to connect Missoula to such faraway places as Manhattan and Afghanistan.

In times of crises, art becomes “the way we communicate our feelings for the world, not our thinking about the world,” Tilton says. “Art is a space where people can slow down [and] pay attention differently.”

Thus art cuts through politics. In a time when the popular concept of a war on terrorism has been co-opted to include a quagmire of alternatives, including restricted civil liberties and the potential invasion of Iraq, we can lean against the stability offered by the personal and public touchstone of art.

“Try to praise the mutilated world,” declared poet Adam Zagajewski in the pages of The New Yorker a week after the hijackings. Born in Poland in 1945 and currently a resident of Paris, Zagajewski writes about the reality of a world with a metaphorical accuracy that transcends the fact that airplanes were flown into buildings and which urges us to respond in more sophisticated modes than war:

“You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees headed nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.”

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