[predictions… observations… big wishes]
Should Art Always Have to Make Nice?
by L.E. McCullough © L.E. McCullough 2002
If you believe Art with a Capital A has lost its relevancy to our culture, that the ability of the so-called “fine arts” to strike a deep, common societal nerve has diminished with the decline in attendance and formal dress at symphonies and the ballet, consider the current furor over a statue, a window display and a poem addressing the horrors of 9/11.
Eric Fischl’s ‘Tumbling Woman’ sculpture was part of a 9/11 exhibit at Rockefeller Center this past month until curators bowed to expressions of public discomfort and removed it. The Center profusely apologized to anyone who might have been “upset or offended” by the statue.
A like-themed visual work, ‘Falling’ by Sharon Paz, was also briefly on display at Jamaica Center for Arts in New York until it, too, was hidden away from public view so it could no longer incite unsettling thoughts or discussion about a very public and murderous act of war that killed nearly 3,000 innocent civilians.
Of course, everyone knows that context is crucial in appreciating visual arts. At a Manhattan restaurant last week, I noticed a lampstand with a female figure in almost the exact same shape and position as ‘Tumbling Woman’. As a functional decor item in a trendy eatery, the figure was clever, eye-catching, a little risqué, possibly kitsch. In the context of a somber 9/11 tribute, the same pose provokes thoughts of gut-wrenching fear and despair.
“The sculpture was not meant to hurt anybody,” Fischl has said of ‘Tumbling Woman’. “It was a sincere expression of deepest sympathy for the vulnerability of the human condition. Both specifically towards the victims of Sept. 11 and towards humanity in general.”
And that’s the problem. The Art of Fischl and Paz brings our past, present and future vulnerability to the fore, sticks it right in our faces, forces us to confront it. Apparently, that’s not something we want our Art to do right now, no matter how sincere or sympathetic its intent. We do not want 9/11 Art that inspires anger and frustration. We want 9/11 Art that offers distraction from and closure to a real-life political drama that, in reality, requires continual vigilance and is far from finished. We want 9/11 Art that celebrates the dead as heroes, not victims.
An even greater outcry has been sparked by the poem ‘Somebody Blew Up America’ by Amiri Baraka, recently-appointed Poet Laureate of New Jersey. Baraka’s 261-line poem is a vivid depiction of the anxiety that has sizzled like a bare wire through the American body politic since 9/11, using as its central conceit the vast realm of political conspiracy folklore that circulates among all classes of people in every society across the globe.
The anonymous narrator pours forth a litany of historic evils, ranging from American slavery and the Nazi Holocaust to apartheid and Christ’s crucifixion. In essence, the poem asks: “What is happening here? Who is responsible for 9/11 and these other horrors? Where is the next attack coming from? Are we, as well-meaning individuals going about our daily lives, forever doomed to be at the mercy of forces we cannnot control or even fully know?”
Any American who claims not to have entertained similar questions would be less than truthful. ‘Somebody Blew Up America’ is the nervous voice of a nation laboring to regain normality under the strain of ongoing color-chart alerts and daily revelations about more terrorist sleeper cells thriving undetected in our midst. ‘Somebody Blew Up America’ is a plea to dig deeper, to see beyond our fears and seek the truth, even if — especially if — it cuts to the core of trust in myths about patriotism and political allegiance. Our very existence as a free people, posits the poem, is at stake if we remain paralyzed by self-doubt and inaction.
‘Somebody Blew Up America’ isn’t meant to help us sleep easy at night. It’s intended to keep us awake with a sharp eye peeled for the boogymen hiding in the closet.
Not everybody is grateful. Several New Jersey politicians and leaders of Jewish organizations have attacked the poem as anti-Semitic and called for Baraka’s resignation from the Poet Laureate post. Why? Six lines in the poem refer to the conspiracy myth that Israelis were warned to stay away from the World Trade Center on 9/11. Despite at least a half dozen references in the poem citing Jews as undeserved scapegoats and victims of prejudice, inclusion of this particular myth about Israelis has created a sideshow election-year issue for legislators who, one might assume ought to be discussing how they plan to address New Jersey’s staggering unemployment figures, rising crime rate, crises in healthcare, education, environmental pollution and the disastrous effect a looming foreign war with a projected price tag of $200 billion might have on a debt-riddled state treasury.
Clearly, the politicians would have preferred Baraka put forth his ideas in a more elegiac style, like that popularized by World War I poet and Garden State native Joyce Kilmer (“There is on earth no worthier grave/To hold the bodies of the brave”), whose literary immortality has been assured by having a rest stop named after him on the New Jersey Turnpike.
But should we demand our Artists make only Art we find pleasant and non-upsetting? They already do, and that Art permeates sitcoms, advertising, romance novels, pop music, escapist Hollywood films. If Artists gave us only pleasant Art, they’d be lying to us, like the neglectful parent who doesn’t warn a child to be careful of traffic rushing by on a busy street because the child might get upset. Fischl, Paz and Baraka are telling us to look both ways when we cross; don’t be distracted or numbed by that seductive blur of noise and speed and color. Knowing about dangerous things can be upsetting; it can also save your life.
The real value of Art forged from social and political turmoil is to point us toward solutions by reminding us — as graphically as possible — of the problems at hand. Yes, there should be 9/11 Art that soothes, ennobles and inspires feelings of peace and harmony. There should also be 9/11 Art that pricks, prods and probes, makes us uncomfortable and reminds us that Bad People don’t go away just because we make Nice Art. In real life, the Good Guys do ultimately win; unlike the movies, they have to keep on fighting long after the screen has gone dark and the audience has left for home.
We have a surfeit of Art that helps us forget there are lunatics whose sole reason for living is to cause suffering and death to as many people as possible. Art that anesthetizes us, lulls us into a hypnotic state of ignorance and false security. Maybe we need more Art that helps us remember, helps us stay alert and aware in a dangerous time.
Commemorative Art shouldn’t have to always make nice. Sometimes it should wake us up with a smart slap across the cheek and keep us focused on the task at hand — in this case, preservation of our democracy and the human race.
Of course, Wake-up Art won’t sell a lot of sneakers, fast food or new cars. Which is precisely why “non-profit” folks like the Rockefeller Foundation, who can afford to present Wake-up Art without fear of losing network share or tanking on the stock exchange, should quit apologizing and get busy enlisting the aid of more Artists like Fischl, Paz and Baraka to help us grapple with a new world order that is thoroughly upsetting and offensive.
We expect that honesty and commitment from those who define our public policy. Why not from those who define our public Art?
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