Art in the aftermath of terror
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., October 28, 2001) – After spending three hours in the local general store watching CNN-broadcast images of airplanes repeatedly crashing into the Twin Towers, Housatonic singer-songwriter Robby Baier went back to his recording studio on the afternoon of September 11th to continue putting the finishing touches on the upcoming recording by his band, Genepool.
One of the first things choreographer Olga Dunn, of Great Barrington, did in the wake of the terrorist attacks was to find appropriate music. She reflexively turned to John Lennon’s utopian ballad, “Imagine,” and the adagio movements – slow, reflective, tranquil – from the classical repertory.
Sculptor Ann Jon began a series of sketches -- four titled “House Holding,” “House Exploding,” “House Imploding” and “House Asunder” – and transformed them into three-dimensional models, while public artist Peggy Diggs began planning a project with high schoolers focused on patriotic imagery.
Rightly or wrongly, we tend to look to artists and creative types as canaries in the coal mine of our cultural unconscious. It’s their jobs, somehow, to be on the cutting-edge when it comes to responding to political and social upheavals.
But an informal survey of Berkshire artists, writers and musicians shows that their responses to the events of September 11th are as different and varied in focus and degree as the art they make.
Some, like Jon, Dunn and Diggs, plunged into ongoing or new projects with newfound meaning and purpose, using their forms to respond directly or indirectly to the terrorist attacks that some say have forever changed our world.
Others, however, found themselves variously stunted by the sheer horror of the attacks, nearly rendered creatively impotent by their paradigm-shifting scale. Still others found themselves utterly unmoved by events that were either too big or too distant to affect the idiosyncratic individualism of a visionary artist.
On the one hand, there was the response felt by novelist Jim Shepard, of Williamstown, and his peers.
“I know that nearly every writer, painter, filmmaker, etcetera -- just about anyone creative that I’ve talked to -- has felt stalled in some way since the Eleventh,” said Shepard, several of whose novels, including “Lights Out in the Reptile House” and “Paper Doll,” deal variously with war and political terror.
“Some of it, of course, may be our bottomless capacity to procrastinate and piss away time. But of course some of it is also how unspeakably petty and self-absorbed you suddenly feel when confronted with something like this.
“The people I’ve talked to since the attack have all agreed that it’s been very hard to think about their own work since. Everything that had been in progress before the Eleventh, at least at this point, feels off the point, or self-indulgent.
“And yet we’re all intelligent people; we all knew stuff like this went on in the world. Some of us, myself included, have even tried to render such stuff in our work.”
On the other hand, visual artist Aida Laleian found herself oddly removed from those, artists or otherwise, who were obsessed by the attacks, and said they had no effect on her approach to her work or the work itself.
“I can’t feel the outrage or the patriotism I hear expressed around me,” said Laleian, who teaches art at Williams College. “Maybe it’ll hit me later or I’m just an insensitive lout.
“While the magnitude of the attack was obscene, the attack itself is the sort of thing people in other countries ... almost all other countries ... live with daily. I think we have been exceptionally lucky or well insulated that these sorts of things haven’t happened before and with greater frequency. I’m frightened, but no more so than before. And like many of my friends, I am as frightened by what my own government will do in response as I am by what was done to us, as a nation.”
Peggy Diggs, on the other hand, said that the very nature of her form – temporary public artwork – is tailor-made to be responsive to public events. “My field may be the easiest of all art fields to respond to this situation,” said Diggs, who is on the faculty at Williams College and Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt.
“I would be very sad right now if I were a traditional, studio-bound artist who did work simply out of one’s own private interests and loves and history. Because that, I think, would be apt to really point out one’s isolation, one’s separateness, one’s distance from others.
“My work is very much about bridging gaps that the media and history often encourage us to think of as unbridgeable.”
For the past few weeks, Diggs has been working with high school students, exploring and deconstructing patriotic imagery and stereotypes. Diggs said her aim would be to help students ascertain how patriotism might look using materials not typically associated with the term.
“It could be done with a series of nuts and bolts and screws and nails, fabric samples, candy, all of which carry various other kinds of signals and baggage with them,” said Diggs. “The point is to break out of the stripes and the flag and the colors red, white and blue. Dickering with those right now would be difficult. By changing the visual representations but sticking with the metaphor people might see that as more of an invitation to see things differently rather than a requirement or judgment.”
Poet Michael Gizzi, of Lenox, also works with high school students, and he finds the events of September 11th creeping into his classroom discussions.
“I take a portion of every class period to discuss the latest news from home and abroad,” said Gizzi, whose newest volume of poetry, “My Terza Rima,” was just published by The Figures in Great Barrington.
“Many kids don’t want to talk about it anymore,” said Gizzi. “I don’t blame them. They are confused, discouraged or blinkered, for the most part. They have been fed a frenzy of celebrity, fast food, gadgets, and a landslide of cultural ephemera, which in most cases is simply meaningless backwash.”
Still, Gizzi is not surrendering to the overwhelmingly negative power of popular culture. “Evil is evil,” he said. “If anything, I’m more determined to get my work done, assist those I can, and to maintain on a daily basis my deep belief in the goodness of the human spirit.”
Composer Larry Chernicoff, of Alford, finds music’s power to heal and unite more relevant than ever.
“If music is truly the world’s one common language, then it’s obvious that the period of human history that we have entered calls for music that reflects the higher aspirations of our hearts,” said Chernicoff.
“And that means returning to beauty, and moving away from the harsh, snarling, angry sounds and lyrics that have been sold to the public by the music industry for the last decade or so. The actual sound of the music is its message, and much of what has been pushed over the radio and TV airwaves in the last few years has carried a very strong message of negativity to the whole world. And most of it emanates from the USA. So I think it’s a time to reflect in our music what may be a rising tide of positive humanity and heartfelt emotion that I sense in the country and around the world.”
Chernicoff also takes comfort and inspiration in the famous quote by Leonard Bernstein, “This will be our response to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
For some artists, their work has always been responsive to what goes on in the greater world, and their particular tools are tailor-made for this response.
Jonathan Epstein, an actor and artistic associate with Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, finds both comfort and release in the work of the Bard.
“The way in which we work and the material with which we work includes the omnipresence of death,” said Epstein. “That is, the playwright we spend the most time with lived in an age when death was an everyday event and in an age when people reminded themselves of it more often.
“Every piece of visual art from the Elizabethan Age has a memento mori in it, something to remember that we all die. So this is something that’s built into our own work. What’s different is the immediacy of it. And the size of a tragedy creates a more immediate need for us to talk more than casually. Shakespeare never rewards those who use language casually, and now especially not.”
Still, Epstein said that the company is not immune to the effects of such a world-shattering event, and already there have been discussions of how the new world order might affect artistic decisions and programming.
“Where I would imagine that we might see the most immediate effect, we’re likely to be much more careful even then we already are in creating art that reinforces divisiveness, art that reinforces the sense of us versus them. Does this mean to plan a season that is all about war? Do we need to plan a season so we can face these matters and consider them? Or a season of nothing but comedy, so people can get relief from what they’re getting in the newspaper? I don’t know what we’ll come up with. It’s a real puzzle.”
On September 11th, Epstein was in Seattle working with student actors. “The one thing we discussed in class, there were several people who said it seemed senseless to work on playing at a time like this,” said Epstein.
“Because we’re working on Shakespeare, I said this is language that has survived untold death, untold amounts of death, and which people have relied on in the most difficult times, of which this is one.
“And so to me it seems like a kind of defiant assertion of life to be insisting that we’re entitled to keep working on this stuff. If I hadn’t the language to rely on that has been so durable, so enduring, I might feel very differently. If I was an improvisational artist I don’t know where I’d go.”
Choreographer Olga Dunn also finds solace in her form and in keeping a larger perspective on events.
“My choreography always comes out of personal life, some response, some angle that comes directly from life,” said Dunn. “And it will evolve. As I see people react there will be something that comes out. It may be obvious it may not.
“This isn’t the first tragedy. Maybe if you’re very young or if you’re naïve it would be easier to be absolutely traumatized in a single way by a single incident. My mother was a displaced person, and I grew up listening to horror stories about prejudice and about difficult times and incidents in World War Two in the aftermath of settling in a country that wasn’t your own.
“A lot of youngsters I talk to say the imagery of the World Trade Center looked like a movie. We’ve been conditioned. How can you separate that when you see so many horrific thriller movies? I would love the directors and writers and producers of movies to take note of that. I understand on TV they didn’t play some of the movies that were scheduled, scripts were changed. I think that’s great, because you can abuse freedom of speech.
“Choreography can subtly find ways to influence people. That’s one of the joys of it, that you have that ability. Also, for people who are saddened or hurt by it or have suffered losses but who are actively dancing, that’s a healing process. That’s a way of expressing emotion. And that’s incredibly valuable. So the actual dancers themselves can have some help.”
Said Jim Shepard, “I feel a little better when I think about that famous story involving Francis of Assisi, the one where someone found him hoeing a row of beans and asked him what he’d do if he discovered the world was going to end in an hour. He supposedly answered that he’d finish hoeing this row.
“But only a little better.”
[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on October 28, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]
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