Art And 9.11.01

In the wake of historic and transforming events, writers, musicians, artists and performers look for meaning and ways to respond.

October 08, 2001|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Like many others in the wake of the cataclysm of Sept. 11, Robert Lawson was overwhelmed by the conviction that his work was irrelevant.

Lawson is a New Hampshire theater director and playwright, pursuits that seemed devoid of meaning after the catastrophes at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. "I was overcome by the feeling that everything I did was trivial and insignificant in the face of something so real and tragic, a feeling that I found was pervasive among artists."

Within a few days, Lawson's initial sense of helplessness dissipated. If there was any way to make comprehensible that which seemed beyond comprehension, he concluded that the arts were the place it would start. "We can't all make a Guernica," Lawson said, referring to Picasso's classic 1937 painting, "but I think artists will be the people who will be able to fill the gap that we all feel now, who will be able to find some kind of logic, understanding and closure."

No one knows how the arts will respond to the horror of Sept. 11, or to the conflict that has inevitably followed. But it is safe to assume that writers, artists, musicians and performers will somehow incorporate such transforming events in their work. Why? Because they always have. Seminal historic times and events inevitably have played themselves out in artistic expression. The savagery of World War I gave rise to paintings that disavowed science and progress. The repressive 1950s spurred the rebellion that was rock 'n' roll music. The complexities of the Vietnam War prompted interpretation and reinterpretation in film for the next 20 years.

So even now, artists are perhaps struggling to represent the events or meanings of Sept. 11. "Most of the writers I know got back to their computers the day after it happened because that is what we do," says Molly Smith, artistic director of Washington's Arena Stage. "As we speak, probably hundreds of new plays are being written with a connection, perhaps metaphorically, to what happened."

With the unbearable images of Sept. 11 still fresh, works of art offer a way to experience the meaning of that day's events beyond the raw and immediate feelings of grief, shock and rage. In the words of Madison Smartt Bell, the Baltimore-based novelist, "The artistic work puts the event into a medium where the psyche can absorb it without being destroyed."

Predicting with any specificity how the arts will react is a fool's errand. For every assertion, there is a contradiction. Many were quick to declare the terrorist attacks the death knell for the irony that has characterized so much contemporary television, film and fiction. How, they say, can one be ironic in the face of so great a tragedy? Others say irony is exactly what we'll need during the fretful days ahead, though perhaps without the accompanying self-satisfaction.

"Our post-modern age has been dubbed the age of irony to the point that it's gone beyond irony to cynicism," said Hamid Naficy, professor of film and media studies at Rice University. "I think cynicism and perhaps irony will be on the wane for a while."

He believes audiences will be less accepting of obvious manipulation in their entertainments. "People won't want manipulation, they'll want realism. People want to know that a thing represented is itself, not a play on itself."

Emory Elliott, a distinguished English professor at the University of California, Riverside, believes writers and filmmakers will veer away from the amused detachment that has been a staple in American popular culture for many years. As an illustration, he points to the movies Pulp Fiction and Fargo in which scenes of grotesque violence are presented with a wink.

"The smart moviegoer is expected to think, `We all know this isn't real, so it can be funny.' Someone can be brutally killed, like the fellow in Fargo who is put in a wood chipper. That's a joke. Yet the image on the screen is horrible," Elliott said. "You've got irony on the screen but also psychological detachment. I think it's going to be hard to keep going in that direction with art and literature.

"The awakening that took place Sept. 11 brings people out of a state of mind where we don't think things are real. That makes it hard for writers or artists to have the kind of playfulness that gives you Being John Malkovich and Pulp Fiction. I think there's going to be a shift toward realism as happened after the Civil War."

Similarly, Elliott believes the detachment and gamesmanship evident in the works of writers such as Edward Albee and Thomas Pynchon will give way to a literature that is more "realistic."

Bell, the Baltimore novelist, dismisses that notion. "All these guys tend to perceive literary trends of that kind, realism vs. whatever, metaphysics or fantastical, as a line rather than a circle. There's a constant oscillation between the poles. I don't think one is better than another. Is Guernica realistic? No, but the Disaster of War etchings [by Goya] are. Either way works."

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